Friday, December 18, 2015

One good book, at least, in the literature of the year 1865!

So declares - that is an actual quotation - the greatest critic of his age, Matthew Arnold; the one book is a translation of the letters of the 19th century French Catholic mystic Eugénie de Guérin.  See Arnold’s essay “Eugénie de Guérin” in Essays in Criticism, another good book in the literature of the year 1865, so there are at least two.

Ah, Arnold’s nuts; 1865 was a terrific year for literature.  1815 had so few surviving books, or I was so ignorant about them, that I had to think of something to write.  In 1865 I can just list books.

First, there’s this:

Charles Dickens completed Our Mutual Friend.  Anthony Trollope completed Can You Forgive Her? and can it be true that two more Trollope novels date from 1865, Miss Mackenzie and The Belton Estate?  He must have been writing some of them simultaneously, too.

Algernon Swinburne’s debut, the dense, allusive faux Greek play Atalanta in Calydon, made his reputation.

In Russia, Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crocodile.”

In Germany, Wilhelm Busch’s Max and Moritz, more or less inventing the comic strip, and the first volume of Adalbert Stifter’s long historical novel Witiko, rumored to be the dullest novel ever written.

In Italy, Giosuè Carducci’s “A Satana,” a toast to progress and rationalism.

In Brazil, José de Alencar’s Iracema, considered the beginning of Brazilian fiction.  I’ve read it; it’s second-rate but interesting.

In India, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini, considered the beginning of Bengali fiction.  I have not read it; I’ll bet it’s interesting.

Two novels in French that jump out are From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and Germinie Lacerteux by the Goncourt brothers.  I haven’t read either of these, either.

The United States presents some interesting cases.  Walt Whitman published Drum-Taps, his Civil War poems, to some success, but they would be eclipsed by the elegies for Abraham Lincoln he published in 1866.  Mark Twain published the first version of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” giving Twain his first taste of fame.  I find it quite hard to imagine Twain as an unknown writer.

Then there is Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland by Mary Mapes Dodge, likely the most popular book of the year.  I am pretty sure that I have read it, but I would have been no older than ten, so I do not remember a thing about it, beyond the iconically obvious.  You cannot say that this book has not survived pretty well.  It has more readers than Swinburne or Arnold.

I could keep going (John Ruskin, Henry David Thoreau, Francis Parkman).  For me, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Our Mutual Friend make 1865 a landmark year, enriched especially by Leskov’s unique novella.  But even within the limits of my ignorance, what a year for literature.  “One good book, at least”!

“Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.


  1. It would be a great year for literature if only for Trollope! Can You Forgive Her? is really good. Love the Alice quotes and illustrations!

  2. When the very first Nobel Prize for literature was about to be awarded, the Academy decided to ignore writers like Ibsen, Tolstoi, Henry James, etc. They knew full well who the greatest poet in the world was: Sully Prudhomme, and one of his most famous poems was published on his 1865 collection, Stances et Poemes: The Eyes/Les Jeux.

    Blue or black, all beloved, all fair,
    open to some immense dawn,
    on the other side of the grave
    the eyes that we close still see.

    (Full translation can be found here:

    Bleus ou noirs, tous aimés, tous beaux,

    Des yeux sans nombre ont vu l’aurore ;

    Ils dorment au fond des tombeaux,

    Et le soleil se lève encore.

    Les nuits, plus douces que les jours,

    Ont enchanté des yeux sans nombre ;
Les étoiles brillent toujours,

    Et les yeux se sont remplis d’ombre.

    Oh ! qu’ils aient perdu le regard,

    Non, non, cela n’est pas possible !

    Ils se sont tournés quelque part

    Vers ce qu’on nomme l’invisible ;

    Et comme les astres penchants

    Nous quittent, mais au ciel demeurent,

    Les prunelles ont leurs couchants,

    Mais il n’est pas vrai qu’elles meurent.

    Bleus ou noirs, tous aimés, tous beaux,

    Ouverts à quelque immense aurore,
De l’autre côté des tombeaux

    Les yeux qu’on ferme voient encore.

    1. But the Nobel Prize isn't awarded to "the greatest poet in the world" or the greatest writer of any kind but to "den som inom litteraturen har producerat det mest framstående verket i en idealisk riktning", which Mr Google translates as "that which in literature has produced the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". It's perfectly possible Sully Prudhomme fulfilled those requirements, though I can't see how Kipling qualified a few years later.

    2. I took "greatest poet" as tongue in cheek. But I could be wrong.

    3. Cleanthess's alternative candidates - Ibsen, Tolstoi, Henry James - aren't noteworthy poets, I'd agree, but Nobel's requirements mean that the prize should have nothing to do with the quality of their writings as writings. In fact, if we take what he said literally, it was William James, not Henry, who should have won the prize.

    4. Prudhomme's "lofty idealism" was in fact noted in his Nobel citation.

      I think something similar every fall, as people speculate on the prize as if it were a recognition of the "greatest living writer," when it clearly is not, even if once in a while it is by coincidence.

  3. All right, that Prudhomme poem is very pretty in French. I'd never read him.

    I rarely find Trollope to be in the first rank artistically, as much as I enjoy him, but I am happy to grant the point. A big year.

  4. I just yesterday picked out a nice edition of Alice for my twelve year old goddaughter. Naturally, the present comes with a free subscription to Wuthering Expectations.

  5. Every child should have a nice edition of Alice.

  6. And a subscription to Wuthering Expectations, too!

  7. It always brings me up a bit short to find both Alice and Dickens appear so early in the 19th century. The Alice books, like the works of Dickens, really stand alone. There's nothing quite like them, though many have tried.

  8. Another biggie: in 1865, Tolstoy began publishing War and Peace, under the title "1805" (Part 1 was published in the Jan.-Feb. issue of Russkii vestnik).

  9. Nothing quite like them - I sure agree with that. They really are quite old books now.

    Oh right, serialized War and Peace. Yes, that's another big one.

  10. As for Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay - Chattapadhyay is an alternative form of Chatterjee (you can see why we chose Chatterjee: even that is hard to spell out over the phone!) but, as far as I know, he is no relation.

    As a novelist, he was heavily influenced, as were many European authors, by Scott, and mostly wrote historical romances. Far more interesting (for me, at any rate) are his satires, which display a very eccentric, almost Gogolian kind of humour.

  11. Thanks for the recommendation - let's see if I remember to get something by Chattapadhyay on my next university library run.