Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vacation in Morocco

Wuthering Expectations is on vacation in Morocco, returning January 15 or so.  Thanks for all of the help with book recommendations.

I've turned the security setting up a notch, just temporarily.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Should a reading challenge be challenging?

I want to plug a reading challenge that I have joined, the admirable Our Mutual Read.  Four (or more) books published during (or on the subject of ) 1837  to 1901.  So Victorian, chronologically, although non-English (non-Victorian) books are fair game.

Now, if there's any sort of reading I would like to encourage right now, it's books published between 1837 and 1901.  Good books, at least.  I plan to read 80 to 100 of them next year.  There is no "challenge" to this Challenge.  Nothing but overlap.  I signed up, really, just to be able to keep an eye on what other people are reading.  And to be a friendly book blogger, and to encourage people to read Robert Louis Stevenson or some other Scottish writer.

I love the idea of the Reading Challenges.  Serious readers know how to organize their reading.  The best Challenges help people learn to organize.  But I already know how to do that.  When I get back from Morocco, I will spend a week on the Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Challenge, during which I will probably go on and on and on about Reading Challenges and why I like them and why I don't.  Or I'll be wise enough to suppress all of that.

In the meantime, however you do it, read some good books.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa plus possum - Wuthering Expectations is on Christmas vacation

Wuthering Expectations is on Christmas vacation.  Merry Christmas!

The fellow on the left can be seen in person at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Frankly, he looks a bit creepier seen from the right.  And yes, that is, or may be, a possum in his pocket.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A little spare the night I loved, \ And hold it solemn to the past. - Christmas and context

I have committed a venial literary sin and am duly chastened.

I read Robert Browning's long poem Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850) in part just because I wanted to filch Christmasy bits for the blog.  I found nothing, absolutely nothing, and instead read a long, dull poem in the Victorian Faith and Doubt genre.

A traveller, escaping from a Christmas Eve storm, enters a little chapel.  He may or may not be a religious skeptic, but he is contemptuous of the small-town church and sermon.  He falls asleep, or has a mystical experience, in which he is transported by Christ to Rome, and then to Germany, and learns to not be so rude in other people's churchs.  Or something like that.  Here's a good description, of a woman entering the chapel:

Well, from the road, the lanes or the common,
In came the flock: the fat weary woman,
Panting and bewildered, down-clapping
  Her umbrella with a mighty report,
Grounded it by me, wry and flapping,
  A wreck of whalebones (47-52)

Pretty good, but not really very Christmasy, is it?  And most of the poem is not descriptive but argumentative.

I was surprised to find so much about Christmas in Tennyson's In Memoram (also 1850).  Three Christmas scenes provide one of the few concrete structural devices in a mostly abstractly structured poem.  From the third Christmas:

The time draws near the birth of Christ;
  The moon is hid, the night is still;
  A single church below the hill
Is pealing, folded in the mist (Stanza 104).

Which is nice enough, I guess, but treating a chunk of this poem about grief and loss as Christmas decoration seems misguided.  This particular Christmas is the third since the loss of Tennyson's best friend, so the theme is acceptance:

Let cares that petty shadows cast,
  By which our lives are chiefly proved,
  A little spare the night I loved,
And hold it solemn to the past. (105)

Not exactly cheery, but suitably serious.  Even useful to this reader, but useless out of context.

As a result, readers of Wuthering Expectations will have to make due, tomorrow, with a sculpture of Santa with a possum in his pocket.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Wuthering Expectations Best of 2009

Three extra-large Humiliations were crossed off my list: Walden, The Scarlet Letter, and The Flowers of Evil, all highly rewarding.  Let's set those aside, though. 

Some fleeting highlights:

1. Thoreau recommends the "rich sweet cider" of the frozen-thawed apple.  "Your jaws are the cider-press."  ("Wild Apples").

2.  Charles Baudelaire smashes an itinerant glass saleman's backback of samples with a flower pot, just to hear the smash ("as of lightning striking a crystal palace"), to introduce some beauty into this ugly world of ours. "Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!"  (Paris Spleen, "The Bad Glazier").

3. We spend eighteen hours or so sitting next to Judge Pyncheon.  Hawthorne tells us about the Judge's big day.  They're going to nominate him for Governor!  Why won't Judge Pyncheon move?  "Rise up, Judge Pyncheon!" (Chapter 18 of Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables).

4. A Kazakh railroad worker battles his prize bull camel.  We gaze upon a sturgeon; the sturgeon gazes upon us.  (Chingiz Aitmatov, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years).

5.  All that Yiddish literature, so much, so good.  The futile attempt of I. L. Peretz's poor student to come up with a story that's not about the blood libel. ("Stories").  Hodl's farewell to her father, Tevye the Dairyman.  "Let's talk about something more cheerful.  Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?" (Sholem Aleichem, "Hodl," Tevye the Dairyman).

6.  Arthur Hugh Clough can't get milk for his coffee.   ("Amours de Voyage").

7.  Cranford, Silas Marner, Villette.  Three perfect novels, allowing for some variety in one's standards of perfection.  The methods varied, too: Eliot compressed, Gaskell tied up loose ends, and Brontë pushed, hard.  If I end up marvelling more at Villette, it's because it is so complex, and because after just a bit of looking at secondary souces I have developed the crackpot notion that I possess an original idea about the novel.  Forthcoming in 2010, if I can bring myself to do the work, which I mightn't.

8.  The moment in Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" when they put the stuffed parrot - no, you'll have to go see for yourself.  Is this story the best thing Flaubert ever wrote?  Talk about perfection.

I just want to keep going.  The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan.  Edouard Mörike's  Mozart's Journey to Prague.  Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie.  "The benediction of the air."  John Galt!

I should skip this last part.  No, it's eating at me, since I just read it.  Worst of the year:  the second half of A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first Sherlock Holmes novel.  The Holmes-free Utah section is so, so bad, an undramatic jangle of clichés.  It's not only terribly written on its own, but once we return to Holmes, its dreadfulness has somehow even soaked into Watson's journal, tainting the rest of the novel.  The first half was all right!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Best Books of the Year - 2009

Now I have moved to a subject about which I know nothing, just what I have gleaned from other readers.  I read more contemporary books than I perhaps let on - this year about one in five were from the last ten years.  But a fair number of those are mysteries, none of which belong with the Best Books of 200X, and much of the rest is non-fiction.  Native American history, criticism of Yiddish literature, and popularized science, for example.

So I can't make a 2009 list (an actual 2009 list - see below), but that shouldn't stop other people.  Best of lists are an essential part of the transmission of books.  Imagine the poor book that finds itself on no lists at all!  Most books fall into that category, pretty quickly, listed only on the list of the unlisted, which is imaginary.  Bye bye, books.

I sometimes wonder how the really dedicated readers of the new go about their business.  I mean critics, professionals.  Here we see Tom Hull, a jazz critic I like a lot, discuss his method in obsessive detail.  He has heard 699 of the jazz records released in 2009, plus another 300 or so non-jazz albums.  This is considerable.  He is a music processor, continually evaluating, triaging, culling.  His Top 10 list has some weight behind it, although when Hull reviews the lists of other critics, he is always amazed by the number of albums he has never heard.  For practicing music critics, I think his statistics are typical.  A mere fan, I hear about 100 records a year, plus who knows how many stray songs.  My Top 10 list is filled with great records, absolutely, but the base is pretty limited.

So how do book reviewers do their work?  When they make their Best of the Year list, what is the denominator?  Eva at A Striped Armchair reads about 500400 books athis year.  Are the pros all like her?  I'll bet not.  They miss a lot, and I question how well they read a lot of what they read (I question how well I read, too).  A really great book is complex, right?  Ah, they're all doing what they can.  Le's have some lists:

Tales from the Reading Room's Best of 2009.  I have read one of these, the Georg Büchner.

The Little Professor.  Congratulations on cracking 7,000 books in the personal library!

The Incurable Logophile.  The only one I've read is Vanity Fair.  Pathetic.

A highly focused year-end from Dan Green.

A best of the decade, category: English language fiction, from D. G. Myers.

My list is coming tomorrow.  If I missed your list, please link in the comments.  One might notice that no one here, except possibly Prof. Myers, has any interest in coverage, like the professional critics.  These lists are personal, idiosyncratic, and no less valuable for that.  Emily of Evening All Afternoon, in a comment here, said that these are the lists she finds truly valuable.  I think the critics' lists are essential, too, a mechanism that keeps books alive.  But if I want to read a recent book, I'm looking at one of those lists I linked, or at your list.

Update: Jenny at Shelf Love. Lots of goodies. Her posts earlier in the year about The Story in the Stone are very much worth a look.

mel u at The Reading Life with a Best of, Part I. I've actually read 7 of the 10 novels. And the Japanese, etc. best of is still to come.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Best Books of the Year - 1909

Every year at Wuthering Expectations at this time, I look back 200 years and mourn the heroic deaths of all of the good books that have been culled by the fine-toothed winnowing machine that is time.

Or I am mocking people who make Best of 2009 lists.  Whatever.  That's not my point.

Perhaps I am cheating by going back so far.  Perhaps the first decade of the 19th century was unusually bad for literature.  That might be true.  But in my judgment, there is more to it.  The winnowing process, however it works, has pretty much run its course after 200 years.  Older books can still receive more or less attention - the process never entirely ends - but much of what will be, is.  Look back one hundred years, and the process is more visible.

Warning: from, here on out, I don't know what I'm talking about.  Nevertheless, my guess about the current status of the literature of 1909 gives me the following list of fiction:

Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten
Gertrude Stein, Three Lives
Jack London, Martin Eden
H. G. Wells, Ann Veronica and Tono-Bungay.

I have read none of those.  I have read Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars, and Lamed Shapiro's single best story is from 1909. 

I don't know how to judge the children's books that came out this year:  Gene Stratton-Porter's The Girl of the Limberlost, or Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea, or Frank Baum's The Road to Oz (altough I have read that one).   Kids' books follow a different path. These are all still read, certainly, probably more than those Wells or London novels.

William Carlos Williams's first book of poetry was self-published in 1909.  Ezra Pound released two little collections.  My Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, Third Edition, politely ignores both books, as does the Library of America Selected Poems of WCW.  The first book of the modern Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos seems to be genuinely important, but now I have moved from ignorance to total ignorance.  How about Thomas Hardy's Time's Laughingstock, and Other Verses?  Or George Meredith's Last Poems?

I want to read all of these, at least the one's that are for adults.  But I doubt many will be read by non-scholars one hundred years from now.  Meaning, I predict that Tevye the Dairyman will still be read, and that there will be Sholem Aleichem scholars, and that some of them will read dusty old copies of Wandering Stars.  Same goes for some of the others, maybe all of them.

Have I cheated again, by picking a year that I knew in advance was thin?  Yes.

The 1909 painting is Both Members of This Club, by George Bellows.  Visitors to Washington, DC can see it in the National Gallery.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Best Books of the Year - 1809

The year-end lists are upon us.  I love year-end lists.  I do think more humility would be helpful (although Enumerations does sound like a genuinely great book).  It's the rhetoric that's off.  Most of the books on the lists, good books, valuable books, are our books, which is far from nothing.  But.   

The Napoleonic Wars were a bad time for Western literature.  Understandably.  Still, 1809 was especially thin.  One book has survived, really survived: Elective Affinities, by the sixty year old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  It was Goethe's third novel, and umpteenth book.  Note that the Best Book of 1808 was Faust, Part I.  Note that among the Best Books of 1819 was Goethe's East West Divan (I give the 1819 laurel to Byron - Don Juan, Cantos I and II).  Goethe was a giant.

Elective Affinities is a mysterious book, not quite a novel in the English sense, intellectualized and formal in some ways, but warm and lovely in others. I recommend litlove's post for more details.  I see traces of it many later writers - in Thoreau, in Stifter and Storm, in Charlotte Brontë.

The literary event of the year in England was Lord Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a topical literary satire, readable, but basically dead.  The Penguin Book of English Verse skips the year completely. 

The United States began to inch into literature with Washington Iriving's A History of New York from the Beginning etc.  The title just wore me out.  More satire, swell.  Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon is one of the Best Books of 1819.  I haven't read A History of New York.  Maybe it's better than it sounds.

If you like Laurence Sterne, which you do, Jean-Paul Richter's novella Army Chaplain Schmelzle's Jouney to Flatz is worth a look.  It's what it sounds like, and still fairly funny.  Schmelzle!  Flatz!

Now this is unusual - one of the few classics of 19th century Chinese literature dates from 1809, Shen Fu's Six Records of a Floating Life, a memoir of a love affair, I think. I should read it.

Anyone want to make the case for Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming?  I mean, for the book, not the title.  What's François-René de Chateaubriand's The Martyrs like?  What I'm trying to say is, I could be wrong.  Let me know.

The other thing I'm trying to say is, yes, in Western literature, exactly one book of permanent value dates from 1809.  I'm not saying I think the same is true of 2009.  There's reason to think otherwise.  And in an important sense, which of our books are read in 200 years is not a problem of much consequence.  But.

The painting, my Favorite of 1809, is Caspar David Friedrich's The Monk by the Sea.  One might guess that the monk has something on his mind besides the dearth of immortal books.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Save room for one Scottish book in the new year, please - a preview of the Scottish Literature Challenge

Everyone is announcing their 2010 challenges now.  It's too early!  I'm not prepared!  I have not made buttons and whatnot.

So please, Challengists, Challengers, Challenginos, reserve one spot on your reading list for a book written by a Scottish author and published before 1914.  Just one!  I have come up with a device, or gimmick, that addresses my main complaint about challenges.  My idea will either solve the problem, or ruin my life.

Look at the possibilities:

Tobias Smollett
James Boswell
Robert Burns
Mungo Park
Alexander Mackenzie

Walter Scott
James Hogg
John Galt
Thomas Carlyle, God help us all

George MacDonald
Robert Louis Stevenson
Bysshe Vanolis
J. M. Barrie
Arthur Conan Doyle
Kenneth Grahame
George Douglas Brown
Andrew Lang
John Muir

There's something for everyone.  History, adventure, travel, comedy, devils and fairies and pirates and detectives, a bizarre concentration of children's books, and a bizarre concentration of eccentric ranting (see Carlyle, Works of).  I don't have any particular stake in Scottishness as such, but once I made the list, the idea seemed reasonably exciting.  C'mon, one book!

If anyone wants to add to the list, that would be helpful. When I get back from Morocco, in mid-January, I will go into more detail, clothe Wuthering Expectations in tartan plaid, and begin using Scottish dialect words.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Good for that and good for nothing else - Emerson's advice for the writer.

"You must reform your life," Henry David Thoreau urges, and I take notice, having recently reformed my life, or some portion thereof.  Granted, another reasonable response is "Sez you, Hank.  Go hoe your beans."  But he has my attention.  As he did with Robert Louis Stevenson, Thoreau makes me nervous.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though, is absolutely terrifying, at least the Emerson presented in Robert D. Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (2009), an 85 page distillation of Emerson's advice to writers.  Or, really, to one writer, himself.  Is he ever hard on himself.  I know the feeling.

The single best bit of practical advice about writing Emerson ever gave - best because it is a cry from the heart, because it focuses on attitude not aptitude, and because it is as stirring as a rebel yell - is this: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent." (Richardson, 24)

Emerson goes Longfellow and Nannecoda one better.  The arrow that fell to earth he knew not where was not good enough.  Good writing requires complete commitment by the writer; complete commitment is impossible; therefore, well:

Can you distill rum by minding it at odd times?  Or analyse soils?  Or carry on the Suffolk Bank? [many more examples, some similarly dubious]  Or accomplish anything good or anything powerful in this manner?  Nothing whatever...  A writer must live and die by his writing.  Good for that and good for nothing else...  American writing can be written at odd minutes, - Unitarian writing, Congress speeches, railroad novels. (Richardson, 48, quoting Emerson in his journals)

That's all from Emerson's own journals.  That last sentence needs something to emphasize Emerson's contempt - maybe italicize "American" or "can."  Remember that Emerson is here arguing only with himself. 

Why should any of this worry me?  I'm not a writer.  See the little "About Me" on the right - says so right there.  Then, if I may ask, what's been going on at Wuthering Expectations?  What - nothing - American writing, written at odd minutes.

The real Emerson also knew that it required courage for anyone - but especially for a young person - to stand up and say publicly, "I will be a writer." He was well aware, perhaps increasingly aware as he grew older, that such a commitment had a steep cost. (Richardson, 84)

Hmm.  How young, exactly?  How steep?

Robert Richardson, also the author of an impressive biography of Thoreau that I'm reading now, is espoused to Annie Dillard, and I can't help but imagine the conversation at home.  "An advice book, huh? On writing, huh?  Think ya know something about writing, huh?"  "Oh no, dear, it's Emerson on writing, not me.  Everything I know I learned from you, dear.  Please let go of my ear."  Some of my assumptions about the character of Annie Dillard may be a little off.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

We may ask ourselves, almost with dismay, whether such works exist at all - Robert Louis Stevenson on Thoreau

I have been reading ahead in preparation for the forthcoming Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Challenge*, in particular for a planned assault on the books of Robert Louis Stevenson.  Stevenson's first published book, An Inland Voyage (1878) is a clever little travelogue of Stevenson's canoe trip in northeast France with a pal.  It's a curious coincidence that Henry David Thoreau's first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), is about a canoe trip with his brother.

I noticed that Stevenson had published a number of earlier essays, often about nature or walking, such as "Roads" (1873) and "Walking Tours" (1876), which were presumably unrelated to Thoreau's magnificent essay "Walking" (1862), or "A Winter Walk," or "A Walk to Wachusett."

At some point, though, reading An Inland Voyage, I begin to pick up a number of strange hints of Thoreau (although Whitman, not Thoreau, is specifically mentioned).  Now I wish I had written some of them down.  I'm thinking of passages praising the simple life, or working class labor, or a number of nicely done descriptions of the rivers.  Shallow, compared to Thoreau, but the whole book is one the shallow side. 

And then consider that both men died at the age of 44, from lung ailments or complications thereof.  This could no longer be dismissed as mere coincidence.  The order of my argumentation may be off here.

And what's this, an 1880 Cornhill Magazine essay entitled "Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions."  It's a fascinating mix of respect and mockery, sympathy and repulsion.  Fundamentally, Stevenson was much more of a sensualist than Thoreau, as is almost everyone, and he refused to give Thoreau any credit for his asceticism.  A subtext of the essay, one of many, is Stevenson's aversion to Thoreau's celibacy - see Part IV (p. 134+).  The essay was published while Stevenson was on his honeymoon in Napa Valley, so I would be inclined to forgive his criticism even if I disagreed, which I don't.  I thought the "Higher Laws" section of Walden, in which Thoreau resorts to Hindu scripture to justify his asceticism, seemed weakly argued, or I badly misunderstood the argument, which is likely in that tricky book.

Thoreau made Stevenson nervous about writing, too.  Taken literally, which I'm not convinced is the right way to go, Thoreau's precepts in Walden's "Reading" chapter are unforgiving - he does not admit that too many books are worth reading.  Stevenson had not yet published a novel, but he was writing stories, and beginning to understand his talent.  After quoting Thoreau's description of great prose ("the prose writer has conquered like a Roman and settled colonies") Stevenson acidly comments: "We may ask ourselves, almost with dismay, whether such works exist at all but in the imagination of the student."  (127)  He understood that his own works, current and planned, would not qualify.

But Stevenson next turns to a demolition (accurate, as we now know) of the idea that Thoreau just sat down "nonchalantly" and naturally wrote flawless first drafts.  Stevenson is insightful about Thoreau the writer.  The digression drags in Shakespeare and Scott, and is unnecessarily long, but it's kind of cute, one writer defending another. 

That's one point of sympathy between the two men, the two writers.  Another is that Stevenson does understand Walden's basic project, or part of it:

A certain amount, varying with the number and empire of our desires, is a true necessary to each one of us in the present order of society; but beyond that amount, money is a commodity to be bought or not to be bought, a luxury in which we may either indulge or stint ourselves, like any other.  And there are so many luxuries that we may legitimately prefer to it, such as a grateful conscience, a country life, or the woman of our inclination. (123)

See what I mean about the subtext?  That woman is definitely not in Walden.

Quotations from Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), volume 8 of the 1914 Biographical Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner's Sons.

* Which you should not do. You should wait until mid-January. Anything you read now doesn't count. No, does not count.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I was determined to know beans – and maples, and apples, and squirrels

Robert D. Richardson is describing Thoreau’s Apollonian spirituality:

Where the Christian yearns to be redeemed, and the Dionysian to be possessed, the Apollonian yearns to know, to see clearly, to perceive. (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, 194)

Thoreau is in some ways hard for me to approach, but here I find a sympathetic connection.  Although I would hardly attach much spiritual meaning to it, my own approach to the world is Apollonian.  In a famous joke in “The Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, Thoreau says that he “was determined to know beans.”  He is joking, and he is speaking metaphorically, yes, but he also means exactly what he says.  Among the aspects of the world he wanted to know about were beans.  He planted beans beside Walden Pond less to sell or eat them as to understand them.

Here’s one way Thoreau really impresses me.  He knew things.  About literature, about languages (he studied six languages at Harvard), and about nature, especially, nature.  Animals, weather, birds, and, overwhelmingly, plants.

Reading Thoreau tempts me (Anecdotal Kurp also tempts me) to plow through the two million words of Thoreau’s journals.  I have been leafing through a 1984 paperback reprint (Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.) of the 1906 edition, complete in fourteen volumes, averaging 460 pages each.  Most remarkable is the slighter fifteenth volume, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: Botanical Index. What could that be?

Buckthorn (Common) = Rhamnus cathartica (COMMON BUCKTHORN)
Buckwheat = Fagopyrum sagittatum (BUCKWHEAT)
BUGLEWEED = Lycopus spp.
Bulbostylis capillaries (HAIR-LIKE BULBOSTYLIS) – see Fimbristylis capillaries, Scirpus capillaris
Bulrush = Cyperus papyrus (PAPYRUS)

I’ve omitted the page references, the point of the index.  Capital letters signify the modern common name, lower-case Thoreau’s name.  The index includes 135 pages like this. References to maples alone take up a page and a half.

By the twenty-fifth of September, the Red Maples generally are beginning to be ripe.  Some large ones have been conspicuously changing for a week, and some single trees are now very brilliant.  I notice a small one, half a mile off across a meadow, against the green wood-side there, a far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer, and more conspicuous.  I have observed this tree for several autumns invariably changing earlier than its fellows, just as one tree ripens its fruit earlier than another.  It might serve to mark the season, perhaps. (“Autumnal Tints”)

Thoreau here reveals one of his tricks, the source of his uncanny ability to predict a few days in advance the flowering of trees in the spring.  He paid profound attention to the actual world around him.  Thus the precise ordering of the fall colors, by species, in “Autumnal Tints,” or the discussion of to distinguish the flavors of wild apples by season or his genuine excitement when, on a trip through Michigan, he finally sees the legendary crab-apple tree (“Wild Apples”), or his (to us banal) lecture “The Succession of Trees,” in which he observes that squirrels and jays transport the seeds of trees long distances.

I suppose it is not just the knowing of things that I appreciate in Thoreau, but the way he demonstrates the worth of knowing these particular things.  That’s Thoreau the writer at work, not the naturalist.  I know a lot about famous writers, and which books they wrote when, and what relation those books might have with each other.  Other good writers have apparently convinced me that this knowledge is valuable.  I should read one of them again. Thoreau is causing doubts.  Which is, of course, his job.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The crank within - the crank after all - Henry David Thoreau and the usefulness of cranks

Yesterday I called Henry David Thoreau a crackpot, which is unfair.  He's not a crackpot.  He's a crank.

But there is a certain divine energy in every man, but sparingly employed as yet, which may be called the crank within, - the crank after all, - the prime mover in all machinery, - quite indispensable to all work.

That's from "Paradise (To Be) Regained" (1843), a review of a book by a genuine crackpot.  It summarizes Walden pretty well: one man's search for the indispensable crank within.  I may be taking the quotation out of context.  A bit.

We need cranks to keep us honest.  When Thoreau claims that he lived in a little house by Walden Pond rather than, say, a cave, because "[i]n such a neighborhood as this, boards and shingles, limes and bricks, are cheaper and more easily obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient qualities" ("Economy"), he does not really mean much of it.  He's goading the reader, perhaps goading himself.  He might have instead built a capacious tub in downtown Concord, if Diogenes had not already pinched the idea.

There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once - for the root is faith - I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails.  If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say.  For my part, I am glad to bear of experiments of this kind being tried; as that a young man tried for a fortnight to live on hard, raw corn on the ear, using his teeth for all mortar.  The squirrel tribe tried the same and succeeded. ("Economy")

If squirrels could do it, why can't you, huh?  No, Thoreau knows that we're not squirrels.  I hope that last line, at least, reveals the laughter in Thoreau's eyes, or pen.  Whatever Thoreau might or might not have done in reality, Walden is writing, metaphor, and play.  He has a taste for the paradox, and a taste for the parable, like other well-known useful cranks.

I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity, but I should be proud if no more fatal fault were found with my pages on this score than was found with the Walden ice.  Southern customers objected to its blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds.  The purity men love is like the mists which envelop the earth, and not like the azure ether beyond.

Part of my title is borrowed from a recent Jackson Lears review essay in The New Republic.  The part about John Muir is pretty good.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I have never yet met a man who was quite awake - in which I try to awaken, and confess to the existence of my PhD

Last summer (right here, actually), I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house -

No, not exactly. But I did leave a fine job for something riskier. No more "free" trips to Tokyo for me. 

Henry David Thoreau knew what I was experiencing:

Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? (Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For")

I am a pretty good calculator - that is, in fact, my profession - but I was overcome with drowsiness.  I am far from sure that I am awake now, and have grave doubts about the existence of that "poetic or divine life."

Henry David Thoreau claimed "that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living," but of course he recommended that we live in railroad crates (be sure to punch out an air hole) and eat unsalted corn meal cakes, along with the occasional woodchuck or fried rat.  I may have to work for more than six weeks, although that's just what Thoreau knew I was going to say: "One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means" ("Economy").  Fortunately, I don't have the means, either, although I am working on the problem.

One thing I have become, this fall, and will remain through May, is that exploited drudge, the adjunct professor.  I am professing a social science, in which I have a PhD, which I don't think I have ever mentioned before, as irrelevant to literary matters.  Wuthering Expectations remains constant - it is, as before, bad for my career, something I should not be doing.  Teaching has been so much more meaningful than my previous job that it is like a joke.  So I hope to hoe this particular row of beans for a while.

Walden - much of Thoreau's writing - is a challenge.  You are not, he says, doing it right.  Living, eating, reading - you're not doing it right.  Fortunately, Thoreau is a crackpot, so I can easily dismiss him.  I could not eat the fried rat with good relish (see "Higher Laws"), assuming he means "with enthusiasm" and not "with spicy Indian pickles," in which case, fire up the deep fat frier. 

He's right, I'm not doing it right, and neither is he, nor will we ever.  I guess I did not actually need Walden to know all this - I have just read it for the first time - but I can use the challenge to keep trying.  "We need to be provoked - goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot."  I don't mind Thoreau's poke in the ribs.  It helps me stay awake.

Friday, December 4, 2009

With us the name of the savage is a byword of reproach - Francis Parkman's insensitivities, such as they are

When Francis Parkman traveled up the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1846, he had already decided, at age 22, to write a massive, multi-volume history of the "American forest," as he described the subject.  He meant the exploration and settlement of French America, and the conflicts with the English.   At the center of the work, always, were a dizzying variety of Native Americans.  Parkman thought he needed to get to know them.  Thus, his trip west, his sojourn with a band of Lakota Sioux, and his first book, The Oregon Trail

Parkman was violating my Guideline #1, letting the culture of one group (one subgroup of one group) stand in for the whole.  Thus his all-too-common generalizations about the "mind" or "character" of the Indian.  In fairness, though, Parkman's descriptions seem more observed than received.  But today's historians have to be more careful.

Another problem for - I was about to say "the modern reader," but I mean "me" - is Parkman's incessant use of the word "savage."  Here, he's using a word that is essentially forbidden now.  Too many malignant connotations are attached to it.  Yet Parkman does say, in The Conspiracy of Pontiac, just what he means:

With us the name of the savage is a byword of reproach.  The Indian would look with equal scorn on those who, buried in useless lore, are blind and deaf to the great world of nature. (end of Ch. 5)

Or later, describing a soldier's murder of a group of Shawnee, including his own wife and children, for the price of the scalps, Parkman writes:

His desertion was pardoned; he was employed as an interpreter, and ordered to accompany the troops on the intended expedition.  His example is one of many in which the worst acts of Indian ferocity have been thrown into shade by the enormities of white barbarians. (Ch. 27)

It's here in The Conspiracy of Pontiac, actually, that Parkman presented the proof (which he discovered) that English officers considered using smallpox-infested blankets as a weapon against the Indians (see Chapter 19).  Parkman was appalled; professional, but appalled.  He never violated Guideline #3: to Parkman, Native Americans were people.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Style in History

I'm stealing the title of a Peter Gay book (1974) that I have looked at but not read, a study of the styles of a number of European historians (Gibbon, Burckhardt, etc).  I want to write a bit about the style of some American historians.

This week I have presented a few samples of Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire, enough to demonstrate that he's a good, concise professional writer.  The difficulty of the book comes not from its style, but from the huge mass of material and the difficulty of organizing it: two centuries, three borderlands, multiple European nations, a multitude of Indian nations.  Hämäläinen himself succumbs to the problem a time or two.  See the beginning of Chapter 5, where he resorts twice in two pages to the "In this chapter" formulation.  I recognize the symptom, and can diagnose the problem - that section must have been a beast to write.  At some point, he gave up - "Good enough, it works." 

It is good enough, and it does work.  Like I said at the beginning of the week, the book is a triumph.  A generation or more of American history students are going to have to work their way through it.  If I were one of them, the first thing I would do upon re-reading is to make a giant timeline, which would have been a nice addendum to the book.

As I have been writing about The Comanche Empire, I have been reading a different book about a different episode of Native American history, Francis Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851).  Parkman's book about the 1763 uprising of the Great Lakes Indians immediately following the French and Indian War was a similarly path-breaking history in its time.  That hardly explains why the book is still in print, as part of the Library of America, along with the rest of Parkman's massive France and England in North America, all seven fat volumes, and God willing I'll read them all.  The Conspiracy of Pontiac was excellent.

Parkman's books are still read for their style.  He is one more author writing under the shadow of Walter Scott, and the somewhat more transparent shade of James Fennimore Cooper.  It for some reason had never occurred to me that Scott's historical novels might influence not only novelists but also historians.  If a novel can include history, why can't history read like a novel?

Well, there are lots of good reasons why it can't, but Parkman really worked on the problem.  Some of the best scenes  in The Conspiracy of Pontiac are at least as exciting as Scott's battle scenes (the siege of Detroit, for example).  Other sections are more traditional - dense but necessary summaries of the political or military background of an event.

Some atmospheric but overwritten, even ridiculous, Parkman:

The wildcat glared from the thicket; the raccoon thrust his furry countenance from the hollow tree, and the opossum swung, head downwards, from the overhanging bough. (Ch. 28)

And some of Parkman at his best, the very last paragraph, on the fate of the murdered Chief Pontiac:

Neither mound nor tablet marked the burial-place of Pontiac.  For a mausoleum, a city [St. Louis] has risen above the forest hero; and the race whom he hated with such burning rancor trample with unceasing footsteps over his forgotten grave. (Ch. 31)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Guidelines for the historical study of Native Americans - it's so complex!

Exam question: Describe the material conditions of 13th century Plains Indians.

Answer: It's a trick question.  There were no Plains Indians in the 13th century:

The dry period that had begun in the thirteenth century had plunged the plains' vast bison herds into a sharp decline, discouraging the Shoshones from entering.  In fact, the decrease in animal populations was so drastic that most plains people had sought refuge from the bordering regions, using th grasslands only for seasonal hunts. (The Comanche Empire, 21-2)

This startling fact is not Pekka Hämäläinen's own, but is borrowed from the work of archeologists and anthropologists and such.  See David A. Baerreis and Reid A. Bryson, "Historical Climatology of the Southern Plains: A Preliminary Survey," Oklahoma Anthropological Bulletin, March 1963.  Note carefully, 1963!  Note also that this coincides with the Medieval Warm Period.  Note also (also) that it lines up with the collapse of Cahokia, which was not on the Great Plains at all. 

I'm developing some personal guidelines for the study of Native Americans.  Please add more, or tell me I don't know what I'm talking about (since I don't).  Maybe they're all obvious.

1. Categories are necessary, but any statement beginning "Native Americans were" or "Native Americans did (not)" is likely to be wrong. Be specific.

2. Expect nothing to stay the same, large or small.  Civilizations rise and fall.  Climate changes.  Cultures intermingle and split.  Fish and fowl were taboo foods for the Comanches, until the catastrophic drought of the 1850s, when the starving Comanches "routinely ate both" (302). 

3. Native Americans were human (I just violated Guideline #1).  Some were innovative and adaptive, others were stubborn and hidebound.  They made use of their physical environment to increase their material comfort.  The Comanches deliberately turned western Texas into an enormous grazing land for their horse herds, driving out the buffalo, on which they traditionally subsisted.  Timothy Pauketat, who wrote the short book on Cahokia that I recently read, is withering in this subject.  An older generation of researchers told him that Cahokia could not have been a city, because Native Americans did not build cities.  It could not have been ruled by a imperial religious elite, whose power was partly based on mass human sacrifices. 

At the peak of Comanche power, during the 1830s, about one-sixth (very roughly) of the population of Comanche territory were slaves (see pp. 250-1). About one-sixth of the population of the United States at that time were slaves. Comanches were human.

These guidelines of course applies to the study of anything.   I always know something is going to be wrong when a sentence begins "In Europe during the Middle Ages..."  Whatever follows may very well be true for England or parts of France, but rarely has much applicability to medieval Poland or Greece or Iceland.

Scholars continually divide and recombine. The historical study of Native Americans seems to be in an aggressively divisive stage.  It's intensely interesting.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to miss (and see) evidence - the obese Comanche chiefs

Chief A Big Fat Fall by Tripping, it is told, owned fifteen hundred horses, but he was so fat that he could not ride any of them and had to be moved around on a travois. (The Comanche Empire, 259)

I want to discuss an example of how we (I) misunderstand evidence that is directly in front of us (me!), and how professional historians do their job.

The Comanches may have been the greatest horsemen in American history.  They culture was fundamentally mounted, as was much of their economy, which was based on a mix of seasonal buffalo hunting and raiding for horses, cattle, and humans.  Wealth was often measured in horses.  Yet they were also a trading nation. Meat, hides, horses, and slaves were traded for carbohydrates (squash and corn) and metal goods.

George Catlin, in Letter 42 of Letters and Notes of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1841), describes his meeting with "a huge mass of flesh," the Comanche chief Ta-wah-que-nah (The Mountain of Rocks - see left for Catlin's portrait).  The chief "would undoubtedly weigh three hundred pounds or more," and was a "perfect personification of Jack Falstaff."  Catlin is baffled by the man, since "[c]orpulency is a thing exceedingly rare to be found in any of the tribes, amongst the men."

Catlin paints Ta-wah-que-nah and moves on to the next portrait subject.  Reading Catlin (a great book, by the way), I did the same thing. 

I should have known better.  Pekka Hämäläinen knew better.  In fairness, he was aware of multiple examples of overweight Comanches, all from roughly the same time period, the peak of Comanche power.  They are evidence, not anecdote.  Hämäläinen calls these chiefs "the new elite men who led the Comanche society in the early nineteenth century."  They became leaders because they were extraordinarily successful traders, not warriors.  They were so rich that they could abandon core aspects of their culture yet maintain their status.  These men were organizers, entrepreneurs, managing enormous households of slaves, wives, and affiliated herders and raiders, producing goods for the American market. 

Their corpulence was a sign, just as it was in other contemporary societies, of their wealth - high calorie input, low energy output.  These men are evidence of a profound change in Comanche society.  Historians depend on witnesses like Catlin, who rarely penetrated past the edge of the Comanche Empire, and only saw disconnected fragments.  With the help of anthropologists and demographers and ecologists, historians like Hämäläinen can reassemble the pieces.

Hämäläinen saw what was going on.  Catlin and I missed it.