Sunday, January 31, 2016

Swinburne via Beerbohm and Sebald - he cooingly and flutingly sang

Max Beerbohm wrote a pleasing account of his visits to Algernon Swinburne.  “No. 2, the Pines,” is the essay, and Swinburne’s suburban address; it can be found in the 1920 And Even Now collection, or the recent The Prince of Minor Writers (2015, NYRB Classics).

Beerbohm was at this point the hot, or I guess cool, new thing in essay writing.  In the amusing “Diminuendo” (1895), Beerbohm discusses his declining influence and eclipse by the next cohort of writers.  He wonders if he should gracefully pack it in.  He is twenty-three years old.

So young Beerbohm frequently dines with the famous poet at the invitation of Swinburne’s friend, roommate, and caretaker Theodore Watts-Dunton.  Swinburne is quite deaf and his nervous complaint had worsened.  “His hands were tiny, even for his size, and they fluttered helplessly, touchingly, unceasingly” (35, page numbers from the NYRB book).  He did not speak – Watts-Dunton did not invite him to speak – until he had eaten a sufficient quantity of his “huge… joint of roast mutton,” and then:

So soon as the mutton had been replaced by the apple pie, Watts-Dunton leaned forward and “Well, Algernon,” he roared, “how was it on the Heath to-day?”  Swinburne, who had meekly inclined his ear to the question, now threw back his head, uttering a sound that was like the cooing of a dove, and forthwith, rapidly, ever so musically, he spoke to us of his walk; spoke not in the strain of a man who had been taking his daily exercise on Putney Heath, but rather in that of a Peri who had at long last been suffered to pass through Paradise,  And rather than that he spoke would I say that he cooingly and flutingly sang of his experience.  (36-7)

There we have a good dose of Swinburne and Beerbohm both.

In one strange passage, Swinburne tells a story of his aunt telling him a story about coming across the burial of a suicide at the crossroads, “a Hogarthian night scene,” but more vivid to Beerbohm is the scene of the story-telling:

a great panelled room, a grim old woman in a high-backed chair, and, restless on a stool at her feet an extraordinary little nephew with masses of auburn hair and with tiny hands clasped in supplication – “Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, tell me more!”  (40)

Part of the strangeness of the passage is that I had read it before, but where?  At the end of Chapter VI of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), when the description of the sunken city of Dunwich turns to the last years of its greatest fan, Swinburne, and a great story of Swinburne’s vision of Coleridge’s Xanadu – “every last detail of the fabled palace.”  Someday I should track down which biography Sebald pilfered for this story, or perhaps convince myself that he made it up.

The chapter ends with a visit to Watts-Dunton and Swinburne, Beerbohm’s account mixed with someone else’s, or an invention – the visitor who thinks of Swinburne as an “ashy grey silkworm” (165, tr. Michael Hulse) is not Beerbohm.  Also, Sebald substitutes beef for Beerbohm’s mutton for some reason.  But he ends the chapter with this:

After the ball they drove many miles homeward on a crisp, cold, snow-bright winter night, when suddenly the carriage stopped by a group of dark figures who, it transpired, were burying a suicide at a crossroads.  In writing down this memory that goes back a century and a half into the past, noted the visitor, himself long since deceased [Max!], he beheld perfectly clearly the dreadful Hogarthian nocturne as Swinburne painted it, and the little boy too, with his big head and fiery hair standing on end, wringing his hands and beseeching: Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.  (165-6)

So, one more source for the “Demystifying Sebald” file.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Hundred Best Books as per Swinburne, Ruskin, and others - "jumping shrimps on a sandy shore express great satisfaction in their life"

In the fourth volume of Algernon Swinburne’s letters the alcoholic poet’s friends and family staged an intervention, saving his life at the cost of making his letters more dull.  I assumed that the final two volumes, with Swinburne living in the suburbs under the care of his friend Theodore Watts, writing more criticism than poetry, growing increasingly deaf and obsessing over babies – he really enjoys meeting babies – would lose the narrative thrust that made the earlier volumes often read like a good novel.  That is certainly the case with Volume 5.

Not that it is not good fun to see Swinburne tear into filthy Zola or execrable Byron (“I really know of nothing so execrable in literature as Byron’s plays,” letter 1308, Jan. 6, 1885, to William Rossetti, p. 93), or to watch him badger his publisher for “some few of Trollope’s numberless  novels” and the latest Gilbert and Sullivan play (“without the music,” 1426, June 21, 1887, p. 195).

Even better, I was led to an amusing document.  The Pall Mall Gazette published a list of the hundred best books by Sir John Lubbock and then asked writers, clergymen, librarians, and lunatics to comment on it.  The results were published as The Best Hundred Books By the Best Judges (1886).  “There is no more delightful pastime than to lecture other people on the choice of books” – no, no, not true.

The original list is too ordinary to be of much interest.  Swinburne’s is also surprisingly standard, to the point that I have read all but ten of his choices and all but one of his top fifty.  Shakespeare, Aeschylus, “Selections from the Bible,” Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and on like that.  No Euripides.  No Horace, since his childhood Latin instruction poisoned him against Horace.

Look, there’s Byron, but just “’Don Juan,’ cantos I-VII, XI-XVI, inclusive, and ‘Vision of Judgment.’”  I wonder what Swinburne has against Canto VIII.

Swinburne is a genuine expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, so his list is packed with the plays and poetry of the period, but he is fair enough to novelists: Rabelais, Voltaire, Diderot, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas; Defoe, Swift, Goldsmith, Fielding, Sterne, Scott, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskell, Eliot, E. and C. Brontë; Wilhelm Meinhold – that one stumped me.  Childhood favorite, I’ll bet.

Conventional.  Perhaps Swinburne takes the exercise too seriously.  Or not seriously enough, as I see in the great find of the supplement, the annotated list of John Ruskin.  He does not submit his own list but rather mangles the original, and the Pall Mall just publishes it (larger, legible image here):

Ruskin is “[p]utting my pen lightly through the needless – and blottesquely through the rubbish and poison.”  The “Moralists,” theology, and Eastern epics are lightly excluded, while the historians and philosophers are hilariously blotted, as is Darwin – The Voyage of the ‘Beagle’! – and the journals of Captain Cook.  Why, why?  He murders every novelist except for Dickens and Scott,  A letter explains some but not all of his choices – “Gibbon’s is the worst English that was ever written by an educated Englishman” – and concludes with a call for someone to write an “intelligible” book about “the biography of a shrimp,” since he “was under the impression of having seen jumping shrimps on a sandy shore express great satisfaction in their life.”

Ruskin is the greatest.

I am sure there are other treasures in this pamphlet.  Wilkie Collins, William Morris, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, contribute lists.  Surely nothing as good as Ruskin, though.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Not a vestige of propriety, or any beastly rules to be kept! - angry, cruel Trollope

Three more examples of Trollope’s use of the sympathy device.  The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s angriest novel (disclaimer: that I have read).

First, the inversion and eventual removal of sympathy, Trollope playing against the natural tendency to fall in line with the interests of whichever character happens to be in front of me.  Some of the funniest scenes star a group of degenerate proto-Wodehouse characters, dissolute noblemen squandering their money, status, and livers.  Bertie without Jeeves and with a gambling problem.

One of them describes their club:

“Not a vestige of propriety, or any beastly rules to be kept!  That’s what I liked,” said Nidderdale.  (Ch. 96)

I know Trollope well enough to know that in the ethos of his novels, these are the words of a monster.  And Nidderdale is hardly the worst of them.

A different one, worse but also not the worst, Felix Carbury, gets the most attention, the closest interior inspection.  Trollope gives him a chance to reform.  The key moment is when he discovers that a friend cheats at cards and is bothered.  Perhaps cheating at cards is wrong.  And if that is wrong, a number of ideas follow.  Trollope brings the character, and my sympathy, up to a precipice.  Do we dare jump?

The villain of the novel, Melmotte the financier, is a blank for most of the novel, but Trollope eventually takes him up, too.  In ordinary terms, the possibilities for sympathy are limited here.  Trollope even waits until he has committed a plain crime to spend time alone with him.  A character in Orley Farm (1862) commits a similar crime, yet receives the full sympathetic attention of the narrator.  Melmotte is allowed to induce pity while also indicting himself.  And even the narrator will not quite follow him to the end of his story.  No, reader, I will not put you in danger by suggesting you pity that.  A bit like what George Eliot does in Adam Bede, but with an easier case.

The complex case in The Way We Live Now is that of Georgiana Longestaffe, an aging (you know, 28) aristocrat who has priced herself too high in the marriage market and is ready to start cutting deals.  Georgiana is awful – sarcastic, peevish, petty, shallow.  Hilarious as a background character, but what a surprise when I found that she got her own subplot.  What a character to spend time with.  I knew that The Way We Live Now had an anti-Jewish component; it is pretty much entirely contained in this subplot.  One way to create sympathy around a bad person is to make everyone around her worse.  The narrator, usually plenty chatty, keeps his mouth shut during these scenes.

By the end, I had plenty of sympathy for horrible Georgiana, who was making the best of a bad hand.  Well done, Trollope.

Georgiana’s subplot was cruel, in the fictional sense.  The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s cruelest novel (disclaimer as above).  It is most exquisitely cruel in this line, near the end:

How Mr. Flatfleece went to law, and tried to sell the furniture, and threatened everybody, and at last singled out poor Dolly Longestaffe as his special victim; and how Dolly Longestaffe, by the aid of Mr. Squercum, utterly confounded Mr. Flatfleece, and brought that ingenious but unfortunate man, with his wife and small family, to absolute ruin, the reader will hardly expect to have told to him in detail in this chronicle.  (Ch. 96)

Dolly Longestaffe is Georgiana’s appalling brother.  Mr. Flatfleece is nobody, just a name and a function, turned into a character, barely, with one phrase just before his ruin, along with a “wife and small family” who are introduced only to be instantaneously crushed by the narrator, who blames the unfeeling, impatient reader, me.

The question for me now is: did Trollope become angrier and crueler in spite of his gentleness towards his earlier characters, or because of it?  Does sympathy destroy sympathy?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Good enough for sympathy - the usual thing in The Way We Live Now

Narrative contains within it a powerful tendency towards sympathy.  Anthony Trollope is more aware of this than most writers, or at least he openly writes about the effect in his novels.  My favorite example is when in The Eustace Diamonds he titles a chapter “Too Bad for Sympathy.”  Lizzie Eustace is a bad, bad person; please, reader, show some dignity and stop sympathizing with her, no matter how much fun she is or how much worse the people around her are.

In the Barchester novels, no one is too bad for sympathy, not even Mrs. Proudie.  Bad people begin to appear in the Palliser novels, just one in Can You Forgive Her?, a little circle of them around Lizzie Eustace, a couple of villains in the Phineas Finn novels.

The Way We Live Now inverts the ratio.  Maybe seven characters in the large cast are ordinarily decent human beings.  The rest are bad, some bad enough to be evil, by which I mean they do harm to others.  Trollope spends plenty of time in the heads of some of the worst of the characters.

Several of the plots rely on the usual novelistic sympathy.  A decent person makes a foolish decision and I am led to sympathize with the attempts to deal with the consequences, and perhaps even the mistake itself.  Like I would have behaved any better, right?

Thus the two love triangles that fill much of the novel – I guess one is more of a love trapezoid, but I will ignore that.  Will Paul Montague be able to marry Hetta Carbury or will he succumb to his American fiancée Mrs. Hurtle, who once killed a man?   For almost half of the novel, the point of view is restricted to Montague, so when he breaks with and parts from Mrs. Hurtle in Chapter 47, it was a surprise when Trollope followed not Paul but Mrs. Hurtle to her room to reflect on what it all means.  The narrator restores sympathy.  That shooting was in self-defense.

My favorite example, because it is so minor, is the paragraph where sympathy is extended to the Emperor of China, who is enduring an English dinner party:

… that awful Emperor, solid, solemn, and silent, must, if the spirit of an Eastern Emperor be at all like that of a Western man, have had a weary time of it. He sat there for more than two hours, awful, solid, solemn, and silent, not eating very much, – for this was not his manner of eating; nor drinking very much, – for this was not his manner of drinking; but wondering, no doubt, within his own awful bosom, at the changes which were coming when an Emperor of China was forced, by outward circumstances, to sit and hear this buzz of voices and this clatter of knives and forks.  “And this,” he must have said to himself, “is what they call royalty in the West!”

The Way We Live Now is as much about status as money.  “[T]he changes which were coming,” yes.

Tomorrow, then, the other mode, the inverted sympathy, the refusal of sympathy.  Ambiguous sympathy.  The variety of modes are part of the complexity of the novel, part of what makes it so interesting.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L - The Way We Live Now

When I read on vacation I do not take notes, and with a long, complex book I cannot write much without notes.  I read The Way We Live Now (1874-5) while on vacation, therefore etc. which is a shame since I have come to think it’s the best Anthony Trollope novel of the dozen I have read.

With most novelists, once I have read twelve of his books I would not be so wishy-washy about which is best.  With Trollope, who knows, there might be a dozen more that are better.  I doubt it, but I don’t know.

The Way We Live Now is Trollope’s longest novel, which turns out to be one reason I thought it his best.  On the one hand, it is just more Trollope stuff, the kinds of characters and situations he had been inventing and rearranging for thirty years, but in this case more means not just more characters than usual, more social range, and a greater intricacy of plot.  I felt that Trollope had pushed himself to his limit, like this was the most complex artistic object he could create.

The center of the novel is short-fingered vulgarian Augustus Melmotte, a big money con artist, a one-man financial bubble.  His schemes entangle a range of other characters, whose schemes in turn entangle others, and on like that indefinitely, I mean logically, the only limit being the cognitive and artistic capacity of Trollope.  The cast of characters is genuinely huge, ranging socially from a farmer’s daughter to the Emperor of China, swear to God.

Why not keep going?  Why can’t the cast be the entire population of England, or Earth, and the story be everything that happens to everyone everywhere?  The first two hundred pages or so of the book suggested a theoretical novel which consists of nothing but the introduction of new characters.  The Way We Live Now was serialized, and I at times felt I was doing it an injustice by reading an episodic chunk every day for twenty days rather than every week or month.  Perhaps time should pass for me as it does for the characters, and as it did for the original readers.

Trollope begins the novel with a cruel trick – the other thing that makes this his best book is its conceptual trickery.  The phoney baloney con game that starts the novel, long before Melmotte’s worthless Mexican railroad shares, is publishing, or literature, or books.  The first con we see is the act of writing a book.

She spoke of herself in these days as a woman devoted to Literature, always spelling the word with a big L.  (Ch. 1)

But her book is an inaccurate pop history worth about as much as those railroad shares and would be literally worthless if it not puffed up by corrupt magazine editors and reviewers (“It must be confessed that literary scruple had long departed from his mind”).

The chapter is quite funny, but the subject is too trivial to sustain an 800 page serial novel, and if Trollope had attempted it he probably would have died in an enraged apoplexy before he finished it.  Best that he displaced his anger onto the financial sector.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

all presented to the Eye or Ear / Oppressed the Soul! - notes on George Crabbe

Edwin Arlington Robinson sent me back to George Crabbe, and not just because one of Robinson’s poems is titled “George Crabbe.”  Crabbe is Robinson’s ancestor, the author of a large body of narrative poetry about small town life, going back at least to “The Village” in 1783, the poem that made his reputation, but more to Robinson’s purpose in The Borough (1810), Tales (1812), and other books.

A selection of Crabbe is easily worth reading; The Borough and Tales are worth reading as a whole.  The latter is complete in the Penguin Selected Poems, the former included in excerpts.  It’s most famous parts are the four stories of “The Poor of the Borough,” especially “Peter Grimes.”  Oh yeah, “Peter Grimes.”

The Parish-clerk mere suffers shame and ostracism after he is caught stealing from the collection plate.  Ellen Orford merely suffers the trials of Job (“A Trial came, I will believe, a last; / I lost my Sight, and my Employment gone,” etc., etc. etc., ll. 329-30).  Abel Keene embraces petty vices.  But Peter Grimes is a bad, bad man.

He is a fisherman who hires orphan boys as assistants, knowing that no one cares how badly he treats them.  He treats them so badly that they die, one after the other.  The town authorities forbid Grimes from taking on a new boy.  Something like guilt, not just about the dead boys but also his treatment of his long dead father,  drives Grimes insane.

Crabbe is not as compressed as Robinson.  He needed 375 lines for all this, not a sonnet.

The three men all find themselves, once their crimes or sins are exposed, wandering around by the sea, on the beach or the tidal flat.  The “Peter Grimes” passage is especially intense:

When Tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall-bounding Mud-banks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm Flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from Man to hide,
There hang his Head, and view the lazy Tide
In its hot slimy Channel slowly glide…   (ll. 181-7)

It continues with eels, crabs, and a variety of birds, nature writing that takes a Gothic turn.  Crabbe was in his fifties when he wrote The Borough, much older than his Romantic contemporaries, and the satire and moralism of much of his poetry, not to mention the rhyming couplets and triplets, mark him as a poet of the 18th century, but these great boggy examples of the Intentional Fallacy are brilliant Romanticism.

He nursed the Feelings these dull Scenes produce,
And loved to stop beside the opening Sluice;
Where the small Stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, saddening sound;
Where all presented to the Eye or Ear
Oppressed the Soul! with Misery, Grief, and Fear.  (ll. 199-204)

Those last lines are practically a definition of the Pathetic Fallacy.  As in so much great Romantic poetry, the effects of nature of the emotions are psychologically true.  Romanticism is realism.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

the flicker, not the flame - E. A. Robinson's favorite poets

Edwin Arlington Robinson made a useful move in The Children of the Night (1897), which I remind myself is his first (and also second) book – he included a series of poems paying tribute to his influences.  Perhaps “tribute” is not the right word.  They are mostly sonnets, scattered through the book, just like the Tilbury Town poems.  They are character sketches, except the drunk is not an inhabitant of a little Maine town but is Paul Verlaine, dead in 1896:

Why do you dig like long-clawed scavengers
To touch the covered corpse of him that fled
The uplands for the fens, and rioted
Like a sick satyr with doom’s worshippers?  (from “Verlaine”)

It’s an attack on gossip about artists, really – “let the worms be its biographers.”

The other poems about writers: “Zola,” “Walt Whitman”, “For Some Poems by Matthew Arnold,” “For a Book by Thomas Hardy,” “Thomas Hood,” and most importantly “George Crabbe.”

Hardy is a kindred pessimistic spirit, although I would not guess that from the poem, which is almost cheery:

Then, through a magic twilight from below,
I heard its grand sad song as in a dream:
Life’s wild infinity of mirth and woe
It sang me…

But of course it cheers the pessimist to meet someone who feels the same way.  Earlier he says that Hardy helps him escape pursuit by “hordes of eyeless phantoms,” whatever that means.  I wish I knew which book Robinson meant, but the answer is likely any of them, all of them.  That line about “mirth and woe” is a fine tribute.

George Crabbe is Robinson’s great precursor , at least of the Tilbury Town poems.  Crabbe’s books The Borough (1810) and Tales (1812), among others, describe small town life in England.  Crabbe’s stories are not universally grim, but the best ones like “Peter Grimes” sure are.  He usually needs three to four hundred lines to tell a story, a contrast with Robinson’s sonnets.  He is highly readable.

The most depressing thing about Robinson’s “George Crabbe” is his sense, likely true, that Crabbe is unread:

Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,
Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will, -

My volumes of Crabbe are on the most prominent shelf in the house, between William Cowper and Rubén Darío, but set that aside:

Whether or not we read him, we can feel
From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.

I have been revisiting Crabbe to remind myself of what he is like, and I think Robinson is overegging the pudding a little there, but I suppose he is also thinking about himself, unknown and self-published.

The poems about poets are not as vivid as the Tilbury poems but they sure are useful.  Editions of Robinson’s selected poems neglect these poems, including just a few of them, or none.  They are not the best reason to read Robinson, but are a good reason to read The Children of the Night as such.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Edwin Arlington Robinson and the doom we cannot fly from - the dark will end the dark, if anything

Edwin Arlington Robinson is a good example of why I wanted to turn to American writers for a while.  I last read him 25 years ago and came away with one tag, that his best poems are mostly narrative poems.  I have at hand a little book titled Tilbury Town: Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1953) that collects only these poems, little stories or character sketches set in a little town in Maine.  He wrote them over his entire career, from his first book in 1896 to the 1930s.  “Minniver Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” etc.

A better reader might have remembered something about the poems themselves.

I have revisited Robinson with his second book (an expansion of his first), The Children of the Night (1897).  I do not believe that the title refers to the finest passage in Dracula, which was published in the same year.  I don’t see how it could. I wish it did.

Robinson is a classicist and formalist (so I have some new tags for him).  He is also, in this book, at least, a poet of unrelenting grimness and pessimism:

The frost that skips the willow-leaf will again be back to blight it,
And the doom we cannot fly from is the doom we do not see.  (from “The Wilderness”)

His little narratives are full of suicide and quiet despair.

But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half a paradise.  (from “Luke Havergal”)

In that poem, the ghost or dream of a woman is urging the title character to despair and suicide.  Is he guilty of something?  Did he abandon her, or murder her?  No clue.  I really just wanted that one line, “[t]he dark will end the dark,” which perfectly describes the book.

Most of the narrative poems in The Children of the Night are sonnets.  Robinson does not need much room to conjure up a person.  This one, Robinson’s idea of happiness, is worthy in Housman's spirit:

Cliff Klingenhagen

Cliff Klingenhagen had me in to dine
With him one day ; and after soup and meat,
And all the other things there were to eat,
Cliff took two glasses and filled one with wine
And one with wormwood. Then, without a sign
For me to choose at all, he took the draught
Of bitterness himself, and lightly quaffed
It off, and said the other one was mine.

And when I asked him what the deuce he meant
By doing that, he only looked at me
And grinned, and said it was a way of his.
And though I know the fellow, I have spent
Long time a-wondering when I shall be
As happy as Cliff Klingenhagen is.

The narrative poems even connect at one point, when John Evereldown, who is tormented by cheap booze and cheap women:

So the clouds may come and the rain may fall,
The shadows may creep and the dead men crawl,-
But I follow the women wherever they call,
    And that’s why I’m going to Tilbury Town.”  (from “John Evereldown”)

Anyway, thirty pages later in “The Tavern” this “skirt-crazed reprobate” seems to have murdered the tavern keeper, who is now a ghost “[w]ith his dead eyes turned on me all aglaze,” says the poet.

I wish I knew why I didn’t remember any of these poems.  They are the memorable kind of poem.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

very rare, possibly a "unique" - Twain's travel hodgepodges

A note on Mark Twain’s loose sense of structure in his early books.  They are such hodgepodges.  A bit of travel writing, a tall tale, some reasonably authentic memoir, a joke, an old newspaper piece, more travel writing, ordered as the materials are removed from Twain’s desk.  The voice pulls it all together, the sensibility.

Life on the Mississippi (1883) begins with a geography lesson, and then a history capsule stolen almost entirely from Francis Parkman followed by a genuine excerpt from “a chapter from a book which I have been working at, by fits and starts, during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course of five or six more” (Ch. 3).  A chunk of Huckleberry Finn, in other words, “some passages in the life of an ignorant village boy,” actually completed in only two more years.

The excerpt has very little Finn in it – he is eavesdropping on some keelmen.    It now occurs to me what a difficult leap Twain made when he set his own voice aside and wrote Huckleberry Finn in the first person.

The early books are designed to be broken in pieces, even the novels.  The Gilded Age (1873) is mostly a compendium of the novelistic clichés of its day, but specific passages are outstanding, including a piece of pure travel writing about Washington, D.C. and a long joke about – let’s call its fashions in health care for dependents – that is among the funniest Twain writings I have ever encountered.  The book is worth reading once just to discover the parts that are worth reading again.

I find myself becoming impatient with the more straightforward travel writing in Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi.  Get to the funny stuff, Sam.  And he always does, soon enough.  The value of one more 19th century description of Italy is in passages like the long gag where Twain and his doctor friend decide to never be enthusiastic, no matter what the guide shows them.  Well, really they pretend to be idiots:

He brought us before the beautiful bust – for it was beautiful – and sprang back and struck an attitude:

“See, genteelmen! – Mummy!  Mummy!”

The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.

“Ah, – Ferguson [Twain and the doctor have call their guide Ferguson]– what did I understand you to say the gentleman's name was?”

“Name? – he got no name! – Mummy! – 'Gyptian mummy!”

“Yes, yes.  Born here?”

“No!  'Gyptian mummy!”

“Ah, just so.  Frenchman, I presume?”

“No! – not Frenchman, not Roman! – born in Egypta!”

“Born in Egypta.  Never heard of Egypta before.  Foreign locality, likely.  Mummy – mummy.  How calm he is – how self-possessed.  Is, ah—is he dead?”  (Innocents Abroad, Ch. 27)

I suppose it is barely possible that Twain has, in a callous disregard for truth, invented all of this for the petty and corrupting amusement of his readers.

I have not read The Tramp Abroad (1880), about Twain’s walking tour of Germany and its neighbors, but I see that by the second chapter he has been led to a story that should have been in Roughing It, about a man who thinks he can talk to birds; a comic story about a frustrated California blue jay fills Chapter 3.  Why Twain had to go to Germany to find a place to put this story I do not know.  Hey, A Tramp Abroad is also the source of “The Awful German Language” (Appendix D).  I may have read more of this book than I realized:

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German.  I spoke entirely in that language.  He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.

These books must be unreadably bizarre to the reader who does not find Twain funny.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote - Twain versus Scott in Life on the Mississsippi

First they read Walter Scott.  It was like the shock of a new world revealed.  (Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Ch. 6, tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building [of Louisiana]; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.  The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books.  (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883, Ch. 40)

Twain’s great screed against Walter Scott is in Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 46.  I have long wondered to what extent he meant it.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.  (Ch. 46)

In the next line he does call this a “wild proposition.”  His argument is that for some unspecified reason, Southern culture was especially susceptible to Scott’s “Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.”

Twain returns to the idea enough that I think he did mean it.  Tom Sawyer is Twain’s Scott-damaged representative, harmless enough in his own book but dangerous in the notorious last episode of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  That much-hated ending has almost convinced me that Twain was right, although he puts too much emphasis on the medieval Scott, when his Scottish novels are more important (and also better novels).

The Southern gentility, much of it descended from the people depicted in Scott’s novels, embraced the ethos of honor and glory they read about in the novels as their own, along with an ugly modernization of the clannishness.  Losing the war only added to the identification with Scott’s doomed loyalists and fanatics, sacrificing everything for the Young Pretender or radical Calvinism, depending on which novel seemed most appealing.  That Scott and his protagonists are generally on the other side is beside the point.

Much of the decline of Scott comes from the massive shifts in our idea of honor – true no matter who I mean by “our,” I think – and the replacement of glory with celebrity.  Twain, one of his time’s greatest celebrities, writes as an opponent of the old honor.

[Scott] did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.

So, that first line aside, I just about half believe Twain, maybe about as much as he believed himself.

Life on the Mississippi is, setting the Scott chapter aside, great fun from beginning to end – “The Mississippi is well worth reading about” (Ch. 1).  It is about one-third the memoir of Twain’s time as a cub pilot in the 1850s, and two-thirds a travel book with Twain revisiting the river.  I had thought the proportions were reversed.  At times I wished the proportions were reversed.  I mean, the glory days of the steamboats, what a time.  A visit to St. Paul – Twain is thorough – is not as interesting, even in Twain’s hands.  The proportion of nonsense and digression is satisfyingly similar to other Twain “non-fiction.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Crane and Twain put some comedy in their recital - The Private History of a Campaign that Failed

Crane writes about courage in its different forms in the stories in The Little Regiment, just as he does in The Red Badge of Courage.  I thought I should write “courage and cowardice,” but in the stories, unlike the novel, there is little in the way of cowardice.  The courageous characters are not just soldiers but also civilians, young women caught among invading troops, or the inhabitants of an Indiana town worried that a “rebel” is stealing their chickens – well, there is plenty of cowardice in that one (“The Indiana Campaign,” but it is played for laughs), or even the protagonist of Red Badge, brought back as an old man, courageous enough in his own interest at least.  The novel is condensed into a couple of paragraphs.  “Evidently he appreciated some comedy in this recital.”

Bierce’s war stories were generally sources of comedy, too, not just in his fiction but as much or more so in his memoirs, in Bits of Autobiography (1909), where his tone is permanently amused.  But Bierce finds death as a concept to be amusing, which is not Crane’s position, however their sense of irony might overlap; nor is it the position of Mark Twain in “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” (1885), his memoir of his wartime “service” as a Missouri irregular on the side of the Confederacy.

Among the ironies of the title is the fact that Twain succeeded in getting out of the war without doing too much, or possibly any, harm.

There was more Bull Run material scattered through the early camps of this country than exhibited itself at Bull Run.  And yet it learned its trade presently, and helped to fight the great battles later.  I could have become a soldier myself, if I had waited.  I had got part of it learned; I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating.

The story of a bunch of Tom Sawyers playing soldier in the woods and retreating whenever a rumor passes by is well built for amusement:

Then we formed in line of battle and marched four miles to a shady and pleasant piece of woods on the border of the far-reaching expanses of a flowery prairie.  It was an enchanting region for war – our kind of war.

No one follows orders; no one knows how to ride a horse; no one knows much of anything.  The captain is named Dunlap, but since he “was young, ignorant, good-natured, well-meaning, trivial, full of romance, and given to reading chivalric novels and singing forlorn love-ditties” he Frenchifies his name to d’un Lap.  The great skill of this Missouri Quixote is giving names to the soldiers’ camps.

I am taking “The Private History” as a memoir, but it is likely full of lies.  The lies are at least consistent with other lies Twain tells in other works.  The episode I doubt the most is the one where Twain and his comrades fire on a man and kill him.

My campaign was spoiled.  It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business; that war was intended for men, and I for a child’s nurse.  I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could save some remnant of my self-respect.

And like Huck Finn will later, or earlier, Twain lights out for the Territory.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Stephen Crane's Civil War stories - the stupid water derided him

I could use a book on Stephen Crane’s reading, too.  Or I could look at a Stephen Crane biography, I guess.  The research could be fruitless, though.  His first novel, Maggie (1893), has some superficial resemblance to Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877), and I sure saw a French touch in Crane’s prose.  Had Crane read that novel, or any Zola at all?  It turns out that no one has any idea.  Maybe.

Crane’s Civil War fiction is turning out to be the puzzler.  Mostly, Crane wrote fiction like the journalist he was – he went to the Bowery and wrote stories about the Bowery; trips to the American West and Cuba led to stories about the West and Cuba.  He spent days struggling to get ashore in an open boat, and the result was “The Open Boat.”  But The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and the stories in The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the Civil War (1896) came out of nowhere.  From Crane’s reading, from his imagination.

Ambrose Bierce, a veteran who fought on many battlefields, published Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891.  An ignoramus, if I had no knowledge of the authors I doubt I would be able to guess which one was the authentic soldier.  If anything, I would likely guess wrong, since Bierce’s stories so often center on bizarre phenomena and unlikely occurrences.  Crane is more grounded, although some of his subjects are also unusual, like the soldier in “A Mystery of Heroism” who risks death for a drink of water because of some badly understood peer effect:

The canteen filled with a maddening slowness in the manner of all bottles.  Presently he recovered his strength and addressed a screaming oath to it…  The stupid water derided him.

But when I say Bierce is bizarre, I mean a story ends with a soldier launched into the air by a tree-catapult, something really odd.  The act of genuine but pointless heroism in the Crane story is an ordinary phenomenon of war.

That passage does show the true oddness of Crane, his style.  Oddest of all is “The Little Regiment,” about the conflicts of two brothers in the same infantry unit.  The opening is terrific:

The fog made the clothes of the column of men in the roadway seem of a luminous quality.  It imparted to the heavy infantry overcoats a new color, a kind of blue which was so pale that a regiment might have been merely a long, low shadow in the mist.  However, a muttering, one part grumble, three parts joke, hovered in the air above the thick ranks, and blended in an undertoned roar, which was the voice of the column.

More of this for a couple of pages, the regiment stationed behind the battle, just artillery at this point, a scene of great strangeness but made stranger by Crane’s metaphors and sensory details:

The fog was as cold as wet clothes…  The machinery of orders had rooted these soldiers deeply into the mud precisely as almighty nature roots mullein stalks.

A little bit French, right?  Maybe also what we now call “over-written.”  Written, at least, definitely written.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

John Keats overwhelms himself in poetry

A little book about John Keats’s library; I would like to read that.  His first book, Poems (1817), is mostly about his vocation as poet and his reading.

I am not surprised that a 21 year-old poet, no matter his talent, does not have much of a subject outside of what he has read.  The 22 and 23 year-old poet, though, had plenty to say, but that’s the Keats story, right, this rapid development in poetic power and conception until illness drops him.

O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
that my own soul has to itself decreed.

So Keats declares in “Sleep and Poetry,” the long poem that ends the 1817 book.  What sad lines.  Given what happened – what is in this very book – those lines are believable.  Boy, six or seven more years of a healthy Keats.

At this point, though, Keats is doing what he says, overwhelming himself in poetry, imitating Spenser and so on.  Trained by earlier Romantics, he writes about nature, or Nature, but look at why he is writing about nature:

Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there
    Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
    The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare.
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
    Or of the dead leaves rustling drearily,
    Or of those silver lamps that burn on high,
Or of the distance from home’s pleasant lair:
For I am brimfull of the friendliness
    That in a little cottage I have found;
Of fair-hair’d Milton’s eloquent distress,
    And all his love for gentle Lycid drown’d;
Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
    And faithful Petrarch gloriously crown’d.

He wants to get out of nature, out of the wind, so he can read!  So he can read Milton and Petrarch.

The most famous poem in the book, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” is like something from a book blog – a blog written by a great poet – so not really – but it is about the translation neurosis.  The “loud and bold” seventeenth century Chapman triumphing over the mannered, fussy Pope .  Not that Keats is wrong.  One of the all-time great poems about reading.

More poems are about writing poetry rather than reading it; I don’t want to exaggerate.  In the verse letter “To George Felton Matthew,” Keats seeks out “ [s]ome flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic” hoping that his muse will meet him there so they can “soft humanity put on, / And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton.”

The “Imitation of Spenser” puzzled me by being such a pure natural description – the sky, the lake, nine lines about a diving kingfisher – but the key is the third stanza where the poet, who has just spent two stanzas describing the landscape, wishes that he could describe it, meaning better, presumably.  He wants to describe the “wonders” so well that he cheers up grief-stricken Dido and “rob[s] from aged Lear his bitter teen [misery].”  Keats imagines a poetry so exquisite that it heals the greatest sorrows not in real life, not in his life, but in literature.  What a vision.  Poetry as Grail quest.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Anka Muhlstein's book on Proust's reading - a secret society that allows immediate and otherwise unaccountable complicity

Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library (2012) is deceptively titled.  There is never a hint of a library, except for the one in Proust’s head.  The book is about Proust’s reading, particularly as it formed or was poured into In Search of Lost Time.  What role do Ruskin, Racine, Balzac, the Goncourt’s journal, etc. play in Proust’s fiction.

That’s another deception, actually.  The little book is actually a piece of close reading, tracing Racine or whoever through the Search.  It’s just literary criticism.

I loved it.  I wish there were similar short, punchy books  filling me in on the reading of every other writer.  Or maybe a searchable website with this sort of thing:

In fact, he [Proust] learned entire volumes of Ruskin by heart, and was able to recite from memory all of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens.  (31)

I assume that Monsieur Proust’s Library would be gibberish to anyone who has not read Proust – and I mean read to the end.  For the younger Proust reader, meaning me in the past, the book would be an outstanding source for a reading project, a focused tour of French literature.  Madame de Sévigné, Racine, Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Baudelaire, and then the big detour into Ruskin.  The older me could profitably return to these books, too.  I have only read some of the relevant Balzac, for example.  I suppose that will always be true.  Still: remember, The Deserted Woman and Lily in the Valley, alongside Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, and The Girl with the Golden Eyes.

Proust was my introduction to almost all of these writers.  What did I know about Racine or Ruskin when I first read Proust?  Madame de Sévigné and the Duc de Saint-Simon might as well have been fictional characters.  My second time through the Search, I had twenty years of good reading salted away, I can at least say that.

One of Muhlstein’s chapters is “Good readers and bad readers,” which describes the hierarchy of readers in Search.  “Readers are ranked according to their attitudes toward books, and he catalogues with delight those he finds wanting” (48).  The catalogue of bad readers includes the ignorant, the willfully ignorant, the pedant, the fop whose “feelings for books are artificial,” merely fashionable, the vulgar avant-gardist, the escapist (“Why should I pay three hundred francs for a bunch of asparagus?” 58), and worst of all, the reader who “judges authors who were her contemporaries by the figure they cut in society” (58).

Meanwhile the good readers belong to “a secret society that allows immediate and otherwise unaccountable complicity,” with “a species of telegraphic communications among readers” (59).  Muhlstein’s book is flattering.  Maybe I should be more suspicious of it.  Instead, I came away thinking that I would like to write a book like it, except about some writer no one wants to read about.  John Galt’s Library, something like that.  Ronald Firbank’s Library.

The book begins with a cast of characters from In Search of Lost Time that ought to be published with the novels.

Monday, January 11, 2016

G. K. Chesterton walks where they fought the unknown fight - The Ballad of the White Horse - all their wars are merry / And all their songs are sad

Reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse was like watching an early modern tabletop automaton in action (warning: noise), except that this one was built in 1911 – I did not know that people were still creating such things.  It is an epic poem in verse on the subject of King Alfred’s defeat of the Danes in the year 878.  It is also a Catholic allegory, and a source for Tolkien.  It’s excellent, but not really of its time.

In the same year, Chesterton published The Innocence of Father Brown, detective stories, more analogous to, I don’t know, an airplane, something still very much of our time.  Whether the airplane or the clockwork wine-pouring salt cellar was considered more of a folly or diversion by the mechanic who built them I do not know.

It is just odd to see the same writer simultaneously write significant works at the end and beginning of major literary traditions, is what I am trying to say.

The allegory I do not understand, but otherwise the poem works like a battlefield epic should.  The battle scenes are tense and exciting and Alfred’s other famous scenes – as when, in disguise, he burns a cake:

Screaming, the woman caught a cake
   Yet burning from the bar,
And struck him suddenly on the face,
   Leaving a scarlet scar. (Bk. IV)

King Alfred first thoughts are of “torture” and “evil things” but after reflecting on pride (this allegory I understand)

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
    Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
  For the laughter of a King.

Love those dreaming squirrels.

Chesterton takes occasional breaks from the narrative for quieter moments, as when he interrupts the battle to watch a child build, and topple, piles of stones.

Through the long infant hours like days
    He built one tower in vain –
Piled up small stones to make a town,
And evermore the stones fell down,
   And he piled them up again.  (Bk. VII)

All right, this symbolism is not so hard, either.  Or Chesterton watches the animals flee the approaching army:

And long ere the noise of armour,
    An hour ere the break of light,
The woods awoke with crash and cry,
And the birds sprang clamouring harsh and high,
And the rabbits ran like an elves’ army
    Ere Alfred came in sight.  (Bk. V)

Or he thanks his wife for visiting battlefields on their vacation:

Do you remember when we went
    Under a dragon moon,
And ‘mid volcanic tints of night
Walked where they fought the unknown fight
And saw black trees on the battle-height,
    Black thorn on Ethandune?  (Dedication)

All the sort of thing that makes the poem richer and more readable, more enjoyable, than I had first guessed.  I had feared a slog.  But no, this was fun, even if I could not read it quite in the spirit in which it was written.

A bonus: some great Chesterton lines on the Irish:

For the great Gaels of Ireland
    Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
    And all their songs are sad.  (Bk. II)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

the substantial realities of Flatland itself - Edwin Abbott's Flatland

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965), among my favorite books, sent me to revisit one of its Victorian precursors, Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884), which is not so much science fiction as mathematics fiction, or even more narrowly geometry fiction, which cannot be too big of a genre.  A square, a resident of the two-dimensional Flatland, describes a revelatory visit by a sphere, and his own journeys to the one-dimensional Lineland and the three-dimensional Spaceland, where I live.

I remembered – everyone remembers – the clever shifts in perspective and diagrams that help youngsters visualize the differences between the dimensions, even, for readers with mathematically imaginative gifts beyond mine, into the fourth dimension.

The short visit to the Pointland, “the Abyss of No dimensions” (Ch. 20), seemed especially brilliant to me, especially strange:  “It is; and there is none else beside It,” a Buddhist existence.  Calvino had primed me for this vision in his magnificent but rather different “All at One Point,” when all of existence, in the moment or eternity before the Big Bang, is contained in a single point yet is somehow also an Italian apartment building:

There was also a cleaning woman – “maintenance staff” she was called – only one, for the whole universe,  since there was so little room.  To tell the truth, she had nothing to do all day long, not even dusting – inside one point not even a grain of dust can enter – so she spent all her time gossiping and complaining.  (p. 44)

I had effectively forgotten the first half of Flatland, the description of the laws and institutions of the two-dimensional world, which is in a more heavily populated genre, the Lucianic satire, a cousin of Utopia and In Praise of Folly.  Flatland is, for example, a deeply sexist and class-bound society, where the women are lines, the soldiers triangles, and the priests and rulers circles (or approximate circles).  Is Abbott reinforcing Victorian sexism or satirizing it?  Who knows!  Someone might know, but not from the text itself.

I had also forgotten the surprising beauty of the end of Flatland.  The square has become a martyr of science, imprisoned and disbelieved for his visions, and has even begun to doubt his own ideas, which only return to him in dreams.

It is part of the martyrdom which I endure for the cause of Truth that there are seasons of mental weakness, when Cubes and Spheres flit away into the background of scarce-possible existences; when the Land of Three Dimensions seems almost as visionary as the Land of One or None; nay, when even this hard wall that bars me from my freedom, these very tablets on which I am writing, and all the substantial realities of Flatland itself, appear no better than the offspring of a diseased imagination, or the baseless fabric of a dream.  (Ch. 22, last lines)

But I had forgotten- I had forgotten so much – that Edwin Abbott was a Shakespearean scholar.  See The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1.

Does anyone have a strong opinion about Charles Howard Hinton’s Scientific Romances (1884-6)?  A mild opinion?  Or other mathematical fictions?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Prince and the Pauper - Mark Twain in the Kingdom of Dreams and Shadows

Last fall, reading too many challenging books in a row – Walter Pater, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Valéry, Yves Bonnefoy – I vowed to switch to a diet of nothing but adventure novels for boys.  I have lapsed from that vow, but I did read Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881).

In memory, The Prince and the Pauper has been a fantasy novel for me, a fairy tale, which it is, sure.  The title prince was a fairy tale prince living in a fairy tale palace, expelled into a fairy tale world.

But he is also the future Edward VI, his father the king is Henry VIII, and the city, explored in some detail, in 16th century London.  The novel is a clever blend of standard fairy tale plots with the historical fiction of Walter Scott.  It is a genuine historical novel in the enormous Tudor genre, with the unlikely events of the plot cleverly turned into the causes of all sorts of actual events, events that Twain modifies as little as possible.

Twain’s great cultural and sociological attack on Scott is in Life on the Missisippi was published two years later.  Twain’s formal innovation in The Prince and the Pauper is to drop long passages by historians directly into the text, while Scott exiled such things to his endless appendices (Twain has those, too – “It was not till the end of this reign (Henry VIII.) that any salads, carrots, turnips, or other edible roots were produced in England” (!!!) writes David Hume in his History of England, quoted in Twain’s note to Ch. 7).  And why not.

When I last read The Prince and the Pauper, a long time ago, I suppose I had no idea who Henry VIII was, no idea that much of anything in the book was real.  He might as well have been the fairy tale king of Portugal* for all I knew.  And then the rest of the historical specificity of the novel seeped away.  It was a treat to revisit the novel knowing what the heck Twain was writing about.

In a nod to Don Quixote, a soldier, confronted with a boy in rags who insists he is a prince, let’s Twain acknowledge the fantasy novel that I remembered:

After a little, he went on, "And so I am become a knight of the Kingdom of Dreams and Shadows!  A most odd and strange position, truly, for one so matter-of-fact as I.  I will not laugh – no, God forbid, for this thing which is so substanceless to me is real to him.” (Ch. 12)

The inversion of Don Quixote is a clever touch.  Scott supplies the model for the historical novel, the solid earth; Cervantes the dreams and shadows, the magic; Twain the energy, anger, and jokes.

*  In Italy, Portugal is a fairy tale kingdom.  See Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Ah, I think there were braver deeds - Stephen Crane's Black Riders

Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) is a strange little book, but maybe not as strange as I first thought.  Although commonly classified as poetry, I note that Crane is careful to make a vaguer (or more specific?) claim in his title.

Poetry anthologists pick out the most striking, weirdest bits of the book, making it seem stranger than it is.  But also less strange.  The original text looks like this:

Please imagine the rest of the blank page.  I am diluting the effect just be eliminating the white space.  This bizarrerie floats atop the page.  This poem still jolts me, one jolt after another – the heart, the narrator’s strange question, the creature’s stranger answer.

Taken one after another, though, I find in the 68 pieces a lot of conventional sentiments and flat statements among the surprises:



Is that readable?  I think I know why anthologists turn off the all-caps.  The failure of the speaker to find a noun is interesting, but otherwise Crane is giving a conventional idea an unusual typographic package.  If they were recast, would they have the same effect, or any effect at all?


A man feared that he might find an assassin; another that he might find a victim.  One was more wise than the other.

versus (plus lots of white space):

Still, in a dozen or so poems, in a line or image, I just marvel.  Where did Crane get this stuff:


Black riders came from the sea.
There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
and clash and clash of hoof and heel,
wild shouts and the wave of hair
in the rush upon the wind:
thus the ride of sin.

Crane had been writing about battles, for example in The Red Badge of Courage, published in the same year, but here he moves back to something like a ballad, like he is translating from the Old English.  I find it hard not to think of Tolkien, although he reverses the scene, doesn’t he, with the water going after the black riders.

Many of the other poems hover around Crane’s novel.  References to bravery and cowardice are frequent.  “’Tell brave deeds of war,’” poem XV begins, which is just what Crane had been doing, what he was still doing in the 1896 collection The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the Civil War, but at the end the poet is skeptical – “Ah, I think there were braver deeds.”  Surely there are.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Stephen Crane's Maggie - similes in the Bowery - and then I slugged him

I started my little bit of American reading early, before Christmas, which means for a while I will make remarks about books I read weeks ago and barely remember.

Let’s start with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Stephen Crane’s first book, a novella about poverty in the Bowery when it was full of immigrant tenements.  Now it has a Whole Foods and a branch of Momofuku and I couldn’t afford to live there.  Crane was a young reporter slumming in Bowery bars for research purposes only.  That research was poured in to Maggie.

Maggie is pretty and innocent, a bad combination.  Her parents are violent alcoholics, her brother Jimmie merely violent.  “He menaced mankind at the intersections of streets” (Ch. 4).  He gets a job as a truck driver, though, and turns out all right.  His truck is pulled by horses.  The sociological detail of Maggie is often a lot of fun, and this little chapter about the life of a wagon driver in high-traffic Manhattan is full of good examples – Jimmie’s fear of fire engines and contempt for pedestrians and street cars.

At first his tongue strove with these beings, but he eventually was superior.  He became immured like an African cow.  In him grew a majestic contempt for those strings of street cars that followed him like intent bugs.  (Ch. 4)

Those similes, oh yeah.

In a room a woman sat at a table eating like a fat monk in a picture.  (Ch. 19)

The little boy ran to the halls, shrieking like a monk in an earthquake.  (Ch. 2)

He waved his hands like a man of the world, who dismisses religion and philosophy, and says “Fudge.”  (Ch. 5)

The authentic Bowery dialogue was a problem for me:

“‘Gee,’ I says, ‘gee!  Deh hell I am,’ I says.  ‘Deh hell I am,’ like dat.  An’ den I slugged ‘im.  See?”  (Ch. 6)

The problem was that I found it so funny, because of its association with Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson – no, because of parodies of Cagney and Robinson in cartoons.  All of the men in Maggie talk like cartoon gangsters.  Perhaps younger readers will not have been corrupted by Bugs Bunny and can more soberly appreciate the dialogue.

Pete took note of Maggie.

“Say, Mag, I’m stuck on yer shape.  It’s outa sight,” he said, parenthetically, with an affable grin.  (Ch. 6)

Or maybe not.  “Parenthetically.”

Crane writes like he has a case of the jitters.  In a couple of years, in The Red Badge of Courage (1895), he will have calmed down some.  I call that an improvement, but whatever the oddities of Maggie, it pops and fizzes.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2016 plans - some readalongs, some American literature

First, planting some flags:

The long Spanish novel La Regenta (1886) by Leopoldo Alas aka Clarín in July.  I remember that there was some interest in a readalong.  Please see seraillon for more on this tempting novel – “belongs with the greatest of psychological novels,” “something memorable on nearly every page,” etc.

Goethe’s travel memoir Italian Journey (1816) in November.  A subtly strange book, with a Goethe quite unlike the one known by readers who for some reason think The Sorrows of Young Werther is “autobiographical.”  For one thing, the author of Italian Journey is alive.  This book may also belong with the greatest of psychological novels, even if it is not a novel.

Maybe I will follow along with The Little Professor’s Nineteenth-century Gothic literature course, at least the texts I have not read.

Second, the American literature non-Challenge:

For several years, I have picked some easily and narrowly defined literary tradition to read around in and attached to it a phoney baloney, parodic “challenge,” which mostly involved me reading books I wanted to read anyways.  But as I approach the end of the 19th century – the chronological creep of my reading is obvious, right? – I see that many of the books that I want to read soon are American – the United States kind of American – and from the 1880s and 1890s or a bit later.  Books I have never read, or last read in college, or even, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, since my childhood.

I have never had any particular interest in American literature, which in a way is a shame.  It is my tradition, the one in which I live, the one in which I do not need to learn everything from scratch as I have done with Russian and French literature and even English literature.  Pounds and shillings, dukedoms and baronetcies, Suffolk and Norfolk, rotten boroughs, that sort of thing, rather than the deeper understanding I could have of American literature (rereading this sentence - who am I kidding?).

My college American Lit II class and its assigned Norton anthology served me well, too.  There are good arguments against worrying too much about “coverage” in literature survey courses, but boy did coverage ever work for me, in the sense that I crammed in a little bit by a lot of American writers which later allowed me to read magazine articles with a reasonable level of understanding.  Go ahead and refer to Vachel Lindsay or Hamlin Garland, I’ve read them.  A poem, a story, something.

Well, I am ready to do better.

In practice this means a lot of Mark Twain and Henry James.  I will test my appetite for both writers.  Say The Bostonians (1886), What Maisie Knew (1897), another short 19th century novel, and one of the three long late novels.  A good sampling of the tales.  That sounds like a lot of Henry James.  We’ll see.

A commenter suggested I save James’s ghost stories for an October readalong.  What a good idea.  Yes, let’s do that.

Twain is easier.  Huckleberry Finn (1885), Connecticut Yankee (1889), Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), the Joan of Arc novel (1895), some of the later, darker works, lots of his shorter stuff, stories and speeches and throwaway jokes.  Maybe another travel book besides Life on the Mississippi (1883), which I am reading now.

A William Dean Howells novel.  The Awakening.  Lots of Stephen Crane.  More Edith Wharton – I’ve read nothing but Ethan FromeThe Damnation of Theron Ware.  Finish Parkman’s history of Quebec.  More so-called Naturalists – Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London.

Poetry is a problem.  The 1880s and 1890s saw the Great Winnowing of the American Poets, with the deaths of Bryant in 1878 and then Lanier (1881), Emerson and Longfellow (1882), Dickinson (1886), Melville (1891), and Whittier and Whitman (1892).  Some were retired; others, like Melville, were still writing good poetry.  Much of the next generation of talent died young, like Crane.  The casualty rate of poets born in the 1870s is horrifying.

I want to get to know Edwin Arlington Robinson and Paul Laurence Dunbar better.  Any opinions about George Santayana’s poetry?  Things get really interesting in the 1910s, but I doubt I will get that far.  I’ll mostly look elsewhere for poetry.

I am looking forward to reading some high proportion of these books, but I cannot suppress the suspicion that the result will be the most boring year of Wuthering Expectations.  Or most boring nine months, or six months, or however long before I can’t stand it anymore and want to gorge myself on French weirdos.

If anything here looks interesting, let me know and we can coordinate.  A lot of these books are mercifully short.  Suggestions for more books are perpetually welcome.