Monday, December 19, 2011

The Best Books of the Year - 1811 - I shall not cease from Mental Fight

I love Best of the Year lists, and believe that they are valuable, even if they do not quite do what they think they are doing.  For example: let us look back 200 years and catalog the Best Books of 1811.

As usual for the first couple of decades of the 19th century, the bulk of the Top 10 action is in German literature, where three major, long-lasting books were produced:

1.  The second volume of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories, which included his longest piece of fiction, the novella Michael Kohlhaas.  Kleist ended the year by shooting himself in the chest.

2.  The novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.  Aside from the difficulty of the author’s preposterous name, I do not know why this story, among the greatest fantasies of the century, is so little known in English.  Fantasy stories are still popular, I believe.  This one, about a water spirit who falls in love and becomes more or less human for a while, is light and fluid and not burdened with allegories of Kant or Masonic flimflam like some fairy stories I could mention.  George MacDonald called it the ideal fairy tale, which it is.

3.  The first volume of Goethe’s autobiography, Poetry and Truth.  I do not remember how far he gets in the first part.  The childhood section is a marvel, even delightful.  Much of the recent movie Young Goethe in Love is presumably drawn from this memoir.  Goethe was 62 or so when this book was published.

German “Top 10 of 1811” lists, if there had been such things, would have regularly included these three books.  Kleist would be more common on the lists of young firebrands, who might well omit Goethe to declare their independence from orthodoxy.  The omission of Undine by the avant or rear-garde would simply have been a failure of judgment.

What else was going on in 1811?  Napoleonic France was for some reason bad for literature, so I do not know of anything there.  American literature, by which I mean lasting literature, had not quite been born yet, although I am sure a number of highly praised poems about Niagara Falls were published.

I wonder what the English Top 10 lists would have looked like?  Novels were not quite respectable yet, and crackpot visionary poets much less so, so the two greatest works of the year would have been omitted.

The image atop the post is the title page of William Blake’s Milton: a Poem.  One might note the 1804 in the lower left and wonder why I place the poem here.  My understanding is that Blake had been working on the poem since 1804, and that complete versions of these extraordinary handmade objects did not exist until 1810 or 1811.  And then I am arbitrarily picking the latter.  This is as good a place as any to remind myself that although I do double-check dates and so on, these year-end wrap-ups likely include some pretty grim errors.

Milton: A Poem is among the less complex of Blake’s mythological poems, which does not mean that I remember it well , or that the summaries I have used to jog my memory have been much help.  The spirit of Milton enters Blake’s foot and is united with his Female Principle?  ???*  Even if the entire poem is rarely read, the preface is the source of a genuinely famous poem, “Jerusalem” (see left):

I shall not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

As famous now, more famous, is the only English novel of the year whose title or author mean a thing to me.  Sense and Sensibility, by “A Lady,” was published in 1811, and I amuse myself thinking of how baffled all but a few readers of the time would be at the book’s life, that it is not only read 200 years later, which is rare enough, but hugely popular, both beloved and esteemed, while so many books that got so much more attention have been forgotten.

Which 2011 Top 10 list includes our contemporary Sense and Sensibility?

The Blake images are borrowed from the Milton page of the William Blake Archive.

*  ?????


  1. So the more top ten lists that include genre mix works, like A Visit from The Goon Squad or (a few years back) The Gone-Away World, the closer we may be to finding what will be read 200 years from now? And crackpot visionary poets--it's hard to even take a stab at that, there are so many. My favorite of this year is Dorianne Laux, but I think I am very much a reader of my time, as far as poetry is concerned.

  2. Oh, yes, actually predicting the future like this is hopeless, and doing it with contemporary poets is worse.

    Even the novels - I think you've got the right idea, but to really match the Austen model you would have to pick the promising debut of the writer whose really beloved & important novel is a couple of years in the future, which is not critical prescience but luck, just luck.

    An assumption of all of this looking backwards then forwards, by the way, is that we should be readers of our time, as if we had any choice. The game I am playing here is rigged.

  3. I could have seen ending Michael Kohlhaas alone by shooting myself in the chest. In a good way, I mean.

    I feel a bit bewildered that that came out the same year as Sense and Sensibility (which I have not read). Austen and Kleist do not seem like they could have inhabited the same universe.

  4. I forgot these retrospective best-ofs were on their way! Truly a highlight of the year-end wrap-up blogging world, I have to say.

    Having read only a single book actually published in 2011, I am radically underqualified to spot the Sense & Sensibility of the modern age. It's good to be reminded that I wouldn't be able to spot it even if I had read them all.

  5. 1811 is a bit before my preferred time - now if we fast-forwarded fifty years or so...

  6. All right, Tony, what's your count for 1861? Mine is coming tomorrow.

    A single book, Emily? I think I read 12, including books newly translated this year. So that would make a heck of a useful Top 10. That book about ants was good.

    nicole, that is half of my fun with these posts, that disjunction, which leads readers a few years later - e.g., Poe and Carlyle to read Goethe and Kleist and Undine and try to haul their special qualities over into English, where they are transformed into something else.

    I'm glad some people enjoy my annual indulgence in literary history and canon-noodling.

  7. I love this entry, it's a great idea. Will you write one for 1911?

    The only writers I could think of for French literature at the time are Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael. No idea if they published anything in 1811.
    All the great French writers are before the Revolution or after 1815, when a new generation came. Troubled times weren't good for French literature,apparently.

    But 1811 is the year Théophile Gautier was born, so this year brought something to French literature anyway.

    PS: I don't think I've read a book published in 2011 this year.

  8. I am tempted by 1911, but I know the books so poorly. I have read so few and am unsure of their reputation. I have not spent enough imaginative time in 1911. The results would just be a repeat of my Best of 1909 piece.

    Chateaubriand, Mme de Staël, and Benjamin Constant - I think that about covers Napoleonic-era French literature, or what is still read. Chateaubriand seems to have published a travel book in 1811: Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem.

    That next generation is amazing, isn't it? Hugo and Balzac (and Stendhal, although he is quite a bit older). Lamartine and the two Alfreds. Gautier and Merimée and Sand.

    Something similar happens during the American Civil War. For a few years, American literature dries up. Post-Civil War, it roars back to life.

  9. Yes, the next generation is amazing.
    But what I like in the English literature of that period is that there are more women.

  10. Yes, the number and quality of the English novels written by women is a major historic event, and one of the reasons I think of the 19th century English novel as one of the great achievements of civilization.

  11. I do like these wrap-up posts from decades past, even if I've not read most of the books you list. (Sense and Sensibility, predictably, the exception.) I'd not heard of Undine, but now I believe I shall have to read it--the George MacDonald description tempts me.

  12. A good place to find Undine, and some other nice things, is in a Penguin Classics book titled Romantic Fairy Tales.

  13. Great, thanks, I'll look for it!