Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose (1855-1892; Library of America edition 1982)

June 18th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

1
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
     them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond
     to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the
     charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own
     bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they
     who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do full as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
– opening section of “I Sing the Body Electric” (p. 250, Library of America edition)
Every so often, there comes along a literary genius who makes a genre sui generis.  Shakespeare, talented as he was, was in his lifetime merely one of several gifted English playwrights.  Goethe was a master of many trades, yet his impact on prose, drama, and poetry, while profound, did not mark as much of a break with German literary tradition as did the singular work of a 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman.  What Whitman accomplished over the course of thirty-six years of revisions of his seminal Leaves of Grass is truly remarkable.  Although there were other, earlier American poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, who created memorable poems, there were none who captured the collective ethos of the burgeoning American republic to the depth and breadth of Whitman.
Reading Leaves of Grass is more of an experience than a passive activity.  It does not follow older poetic traditions of metre and rhyme; it often contains clashes of styles and insights within its verses (not for nothing does Whitman state in section 51 of “Song of Myself” the following:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (p. 246))
 Yet there is something within this occasionally bombastic collection that makes such poetic conventions seem restrictive, if not outmoded.  Whitman’s poems are at once personal and epic, yet without an over-reliance upon Greco-Roman or English historical themes.  One example of this can be found in “O Captain!  My Captain!,” which dealt with the assassination of President Lincoln.  The opening stanza is full of metaphors for his leadership during the American Civil War, yet there is nothing that immediately rises to the grandiose:

O Captain!  my Captain!  our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart!  heart!  heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. (p. 467)

In reading this poem, at first I saw not a myth, not an Olympian figure that might be found in the Romantic poetry of the 19th century, but a man, one chained by duty to something that afflicts him.  Lincoln’s conduct of the war, this “vessel grim and daring,” guided by his steady, unrelenting demeanor, is presented in a vivid, yet grounded fashion; Lincoln is merely a worker, albeit one who has achieved greatness not due so much to any preternatural gifts but because of a steadiness to him that reflects the character of the young, divided nation that he helped guide through the turmoils of the War of Secession.

Yet as moving of an elegy as “O Captain! My Captain” is (and certainly it has been referenced frequently in the following 150 years), I think it is an outlier compared to the other poems that appeared in the various editions of Leaves of Grass.  It (and by extension, the other poems in the section “Memories of President Lincoln”) is more somber, less full of the joie de vivre found in earlier sections, such as the more erotic Calamus poems.  Those, such as “We Two Boys Together Clinging,” in content and form presage the works of the Beat Generation a century later:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray. (p. 282)

This perhaps is not one of Whitman’s more famous poems, but within this litany of rakish acts I sensed a spirit of raw newness, something that isn’t shaped by societal conventions or past models as much as it is testing those bounds, yearning to burst free and to live and by so living create experiences different from those that came before.  This yearning quality in Whitman’s poetry does not always work (there are several poems that feel more like sketches of great works than anything substantial), but I would argue that even these relative “failures” make Leaves of Grass a staggering work, precisely because we can see the poet’s work not as a polished work but instead as something whose flaws and virtues have blended together to create something that feels almost alive, replete with its own literary warts and scars.

The second half of Poetry and Prose, Whitman’s numerous essays, letters, and various ruminations on contemporary events and the experiences that he distilled later into his poetry, is a fascinating read in its own light.  Whitman does not shy away from making strong comments about other writers (see his comment on Edgar Allan Poe in “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads):

Toward the last I had among much else look’d over Edgar Poe’s poems – of which I was not an admirer, tho’ I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell’d ones, of certain pronounc’d phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious – has room for all – has so many mansions!)  But I was repaid in Poe’s prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem.  The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe’s argument, though short, work’d the sum out and proved it to me. (p. 665)

But more so than his literary commentaries Whitman’s diary of his time as a nurse during the Civil War makes his prose works a worthy read in their own right.  He notes several conversations with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, with several entries presenting in just a few lines deep insights into these soldiers’ lives and their world-views.  Almost the entirety of Specimen Days is fascinating to read and consider at length.

Poetry and Prose is ultimately one of those works that is virtually impossible to review in depth in a single article under 2000 words.  There are so many poems that are worthy of deeper investigation than was possible in a short review such as this.  In composing this post, I decided that perhaps it would be better to just quote a few snippets of works that intrigued me and to discuss briefly things within them that I liked.  Hopefully those who have not read Whitman’s poetry (or at least not beyond the usual suspects reproduced in literature survey anthologies) will find themselves wanting to read more.  Those who have read and enjoyed his works but who have not yet read his prose (such as myself before earlier this year) will want now to investigate those as well.  Whitman certainly is an American literary treasure, one who consciously refused to follow contemporary literary conventions.  In breaking with the literary past, Whitman ended up creating works that differed significantly from those of his peers and his influence on American poets over the past 160 years has been immeasurable.  Poetry and Prose is an excellent one-volume collection of his literary output, as it is an edition that presents the entire breadth and depth of Whitman’s writing without overwhelming readers with too many citations and footnotes.  It certainly is worth the time and money spent.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches (1830-1854)

February 11th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Bartram and his little son, while they were talking thus, sat watching the same lime-kiln that had been the scene of Ethan Brand’s solitary and meditative life, before he began his search for the Unpardonable Sin.  Many years, as we have seen, had now elapsed, since that portentous night when the IDEA was first developed.  The kiln, however, on the mountain-side, stood unimpaired, and was in nothing changed, since he had thrown his dark thoughts into the intense glow of its furnace, and melted them, as it were, into the one thought that took possession of his life.  It was a rude, round, tower-like structure, about twenty feet high, heavily built of rough stones, and with a hillock of earth heaped about the larger part of its circumference; so that blocks and fragments of marble might be drawn by cart-loads, and thrown in at the top.  There was an opening at the bottom of the tower, like an oven-mouth, but large enough to admit a man in a stooping posture, and provided with a massive iron door.  With the smoke and jets of flame issuing from the chinks and crevices of this door, which seemed to give admittance into the hill-side, it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions, which the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains were accustomed to show to pilgrims. (“Ethan Brand,” pp. 1051-1052, Library of America edition)

Like many Americans, I first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school (sophomore year for me) when we devoted six weeks to the “reading” of The Scarlet Letter.  Although I liked that novel a bit more than most of my classmates, I don’t recall ever really having a desire to read any of his other works, even despite seeing encomiums to him written by divers writers whose works I did enjoy reading over the intervening twenty-six years.  Even in college, I never was assigned any of his short fiction in my English Comp classes (however, I was blessed to be introduced to William Faulkner then), so it wasn’t until this past month that I ever got around to reading any of his short stories and sketches.

I say this as a long preface because the stories found within the Library of America volume, Tales and Sketches, that collect all of his extant published stories from 1830 to 1854 were a revelation to me.  It was interesting to see certain story conventions that I had encountered in other writers here in a slightly different, sometimes rawer, state decades before those other tales were written.  In reading several of his stories, particularly “Ethan Brand” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” I was struck by how chilling his backdrops were due to the elegant placement of metaphor and simile; it was no wonder to me that Henry James praised him highly, as there seem to be certain stylistic elements in common between these two stories and James’ The Turn of the Screw, if memory serves (it has been, however, nearly twenty years since I last read that novella, so I might be mistaken).

Even more than any superficial or substantive influences Hawthorne might have had on some of my favorite authors is the effect that his native New England had on his writings.  Born on the fourth of July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne might appear to be fated to be blessed and cursed to bear the burdens associated with that date and place.  There certainly is a different strand of “local color” to his stories that differentiates him from the mainstream of mid-19th century Anglo-American literature.  Sin and the desire to expiate it run like a current through many of his tales, but most explicitly in “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” where we witness the tortured life of Reuben Bourne and the effects that a vow made in his youth has on his life.  Or how about this passage from “Young Goodman Brown”:

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world.  A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock.  Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light?  or was it blood?  or, perchance, a liquid flame?  Herein did the Shape of Evil dip his hand, and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. (p. 287)

In Hawthorne’s best stories, such as the ones cited above, there is a palpable sense of emotion, sometimes verging on dread, that slowly yet steadily builds through the narrative course.  In these tales, there is an interesting interplay between the often-stern, sometimes eloquently taciturn New Englanders who populate his sketches and tales and their harsh, unforgiving environments, both natural and internal alike.  We see the predecessor of Hester Prynne and her scarlet A in “Endicott and the Red Cross,” where an anonymous young adulterous woman is seen sporting the scarlet A embroidered with fine materials, “so that the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or any thing other than Adulteress.” (p. 544).  Yet this tale does not revolve around this arresting yet fleeting woman, but rather around another act of rebellion, one that presages, in narrative terms, that of the region against royal/Anglican authority.  Hawthorne does an excellent job plumbing the depths of emotional turmoil in order to bring to light some of our basest, most primal urges and conflicts.

Yet as outstanding as a great many of these tales are, it is equally obvious that amongst the hundreds of stories included here that there are a fair share of duds.  Some of these are truly sketches of greater stories, replete with false starts and unfulfilled promises.  Others are just tedious to read and are obviously essays into narrative craft that are otherwise unmemorable.  Then there are Hawthorne’s retellings of classic myths, in which the sometimes saucy commentaries by the children toward their pompous tutor are far superior to the actual retold tales.  I was of two minds while reading those “Twice-told Tales”:  First, the moralizing and occasional distortion of the Greco-Roman originals was irritating.  Second, the children’s responses within the frame narratives partially redeems these moralizing tales, imbuing them with a second layer that, while not superior to that employed by Boccaccio in The Decameron, at least adds certain subtleties to the narrative that otherwise might have suffocated in its primness.  Although I suspect the latter interpretation might not have been exactly what Hawthorne had intended (after all, these were marketed then as children’s tales), it certainly is a plausible reading, at least for twenty-first century readers.

Tales and Sketches shows Hawthorne before and at the cusp of his greatest literary success.  Although the collection as a whole is uneven, containing as it does the known entirety of his shorter works, there are enough gems in here to appeal to those who did enjoy his novels or to those like myself who are fascinated with stories that utilize atmosphere and internal conflicts to drive the narratives.  After reading it, I find myself more curious not just about Hawthorne’s longer prose works (which I will read and likely review later this year), but also about the 19th century New England literary scene.  In particular, after seeing a reference to him in one of the frame stories of “Twice-told Tales,” I especially am curious to explore the literary relationship between Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  Certainly this volume helps the reader gain a better, deeper understanding of Hawthorne and how his stories have influenced generations of American (particularly New England) writers.

Herman Melville, Mardi (1849)

January 25th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Her name was Yillah.  And hardly had the waters of Oroolia washed white her olive skin, and tinged her hair with gold, when one day strolling in the woodlands, she was snared in the tendrils of a vine.  Drawing her into its bowers, it gently transformed her into one of its blossoms, leaving her conscious soul folded up in the transparent petals.

Here hung Yillah in a trance, the world without all tinged with the rosy hue of her prison.  At length when her spirit was about to burst forth in the opening flower, the blossom was snapped from its stem; and borne by a soft wind to the sea; where it fell into the opening valve of a shell; which in good time was cast upon the beach of the Island of Amma.

In the dream, these events were revealed to Aleema the priest; who by a spell unlocking its pearly casket, took forth the bud, which now showed signs of opening in the reviving air, and bore faint shadowy revealings, as of the dawn behind crimson clouds.  Suddenly expanding, the blossom exhaled away in perfumes; floating a rosy mist in the air.  Condensing at last, there emerged from this mist the same radiant young Yillah as before; her locks all moist, and a rose-colored pearl on her bosom.  Enshrined as a goddess, the wonderful child now tarried in the sacred temple of Apo, buried in a dell; never beheld of mortal eyes save Aleema’s. (pp. 799-800, Library of America edition)

After the successes of Typee and Omoo, with their exotic locales and wondrous marvels, it might have been expected by contemporary readers that Melville’s third novel, Mardi, might mine this rich narrative vein one more time.  At first, there were indeed some similarities to the first two novels, as the protagonist, Taji, accompanied by a fellow sailor, Jarl, have relieved a captain of one of his lifeboats, as they set sail for new adventures.  For the first third of Mardi, the tone and prose resemble that of his earlier works.

However, after a little over one hundred pages into this 654 page novel, the narrative shifts wildly into something that is much, much more complex than what any might expect.  As Taji and his companion begin exploring islands in the region, it becomes clear that these new discoveries are as much representations of philosophical ideals and political allegories as they are adventure tales.  Melville’s prose shifts from a more expository form to a denser, allusion-rich style, with islands such as Dominora, Porpheero, and Vivenza representing divers nations and their world-views.

At the heart of this allegorical “world” narrative (the word “Mardi” means “world” in certain Polynesian dialects), lies the story of Yillah, whose origin is quoted above.  She is Taji’s la belle dame sans merci, minus the cruel capriciousness.  She is an ideal woman, or perhaps it is better to say that she is the Ideal after which Taji quests, despite being haunted by the shades of those he has killed in the past.  There is a touch of Captain Ahab to his character, especially in the single-mindedness of his yearning to find Yillah, yet Taji’s afflictions are not as clear-cut as those of Moby Dick’s hunter.

Mardi requires a great deal of patience from the reader, as it necessitates a greater willingness to not just suspend disbelief, but also to parse the plethora of allegories to political and social customs.  At times, the reader will be rewarded for her efforts, as Melville certainly supplies several fascinating takes on literal matters of life and death, of love and desire.  However, there are also many troughs where the reader might find herself wondering if the author has lost his way and has been swallowed up in his tempestuous sea of words.

On the whole, Mardi is a rather uneven narrative.  The joins are at times quite visible, especially as Melville shifts from a straightforward action/adventure tale to a more metaphorical one.  Readers desirous of a linear plot might find themselves baffled by his chapters-long ruminations on certain points of philosophy, yet for those of us who find delight in being confronted with such passages, there are many gems nearly as valuable as those found in his magnum opus.  The Taji/Yillah quest, although not the only one found in the narrative (there are several ancillary ones, some of which dovetail into this central one), in particular is a symbolism-laden tale that leads the reader to consider the battle of Will and Fate, of Love and Desire, of Truth and (self) Deception.  The dream-like qualities of the latter half of the novel certainly bring these themes to the forefront.

However fascinating these themes are, they unfortunately are not always integrated well into the text.  The Yillah arc, for example, is introduced nearly 150 pages into the story and there is the acute sense of prior plot developments either being abandoned or otherwise reduced in seeming importance.  Furthermore, the chapters devoted to the relations between the fictitious islands at certain key times fails to impress upon the reader their full potential power.  Yet despite these shortcomings that make Mardi as much an essay and failure than a fully-realized achievement, it certainly is a novel that deserves multiple reads and careful consideration.  It may be no Moby Dick, but within its pages can be seen the evolution of thought that led to that masterpiece.  For those brave enough to engage it, Mardi can be the sort of challenging, mindblowing sort of fiction that is all too rare these days.  If only more “failures” were akin to it.

Herman Melville, Typee (1846); Omoo (1847)

January 24th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; – the heart burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated people.

But it will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals.  Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed.  But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh so very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practised in enlightened England: – a convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and suchlike heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into a fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!

The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth. (pp. 149-150, Library of America edition)

Although more famous today for his 1851 novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville experienced his greatest commercial success during his lifetime with his first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).  Based in large part upon Melville’s own experiences in Polynesia during the early 1840s, these two novels are a fascinating read nearly 170 years later for their detailed depictions of life on the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti just as European governments and missionaries were beginning their efforts to transform these islands and their inhabitants into “civilized” regions and cultures.

Typee is loosely based on Melville’s month-long sojourn in the Taipi Valley of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas during July-August 1842.  It is not a plot-driven novel; there is a thread detailing the first-person narrator’s adventures from the time he deserts a whaling ship with a companion until he is “rescued” by another ship a four months later, but it is secondary to descriptions of the flora, fauna, and customs of the Taipi people.  Typee‘s narrative power resides in these depictions of native customs and habits and in their juxtapositions with industrializing Western societies.

Melville carefully balances out these “exotic” stories.  They do not exist merely to entice curious American and English readers into reading his narrative for titillating descriptions of tattooed women and their relatively licentious ways, but instead each chapter/scene explores how and why the narrator finds himself reflecting on how his own reactions (such as his initial visceral disgust at the tattooed leaders he encounters) are in a constant state of evolution the more he comes to know and (partially) understand the Taipi.  In some senses, there is an almost anthropological field study element to his writing, albeit one that serves mostly to provide depth to the adventure aspect of the novel.  Melville certainly digresses at times in his explorations of perceived differences in approach to life, sexuality, and societal customs, yet these digressions mostly serve to appeal to readers who might otherwise find the “adventures” here less swash-buckling than they might have desired.

Typee, however, is still at its heart a story of exploration and new experiences and on the whole, it succeeds at conveying the narrator’s (and by extension, the author’s) wonder at what he encounters.  It is a deeper, more ponderous work than most of the adventure novels of the late 19th century set in this region, but it also rarely fails to entertain as a narrative devoted to what then was a scarely-known region of the world for Westerners.  It is not without its difficulties –  the narrative style does take several chapters to establish its rhythm – but on the whole, it is still a vivid adventure that presages the more anthropological/social novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Omoo is a direct sequel that focuses more on the maritime aspect of exploration.  It continues Melville’s exploration of Polynesian adaptations to European/American intrusions.  Similar to Typee, Omoo is not a mere fictionalization of Melville’s experiences.  Rather it is an elaboration that meshes those recollections with other, secondary histories, creating a work that is substantially more fictitious than what it first appears to be.

There is more of a plot to Omoo, namely dealing with the narrator’s experiences on a whaling ship after his “rescue” at the end of Typee and the crew’s experiences after being jailed in Tahiti after a failed mutiny.  While Melville himself was put ashore in Tahiti in late 1842 after a mutiny failed, the account in Omoo is much more elaborate, devoting several chapters to discussing how life in Tahiti was changing under nascent French administration and how the natives were assimilating Christianity and European legal practices into their culture.  There is a more focused narrative here, concentrating more on how the sailors are dealing with their immediate situation, yet Melville still manages to weave in several examinations of societal change and cultural assimilation in a fashion that strengthens the narrative, feeling more unified than in Typee.

There are traces in both novels of the thematic elements that were later explored in Moby Dick, but here they are less prominent, as the adventure novel aspects are more front-and-center than in the later novel.  The prose tends to be less elaborate than in Melville’s later works, yet there is still a sufficient level of narrative depth to make these two early novels worth reading not just for fans of Melville’s later work, but also for those readers who enjoy reading adventures set in the South Seas.

Vera Caspary, Laura (serialized in 1942; published in book form in 1943)

September 7th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The city that Sunday morning was quiet.  Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity.  Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.  Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing.  The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow.  Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura’s epitaph.  My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

American crime fiction of the mid-20th century has, due to chance or something else, been often viewed as a male-oriented literary enterprise, with hard-nosed detectives interacting cynically with a dark world.  Yet noir-style fiction was not the only strand of crime fiction and although men like Chandler and Hammett are lauded for their ingenious plots and intricate prose, women then, as they do now, also constructed some memorable crime fiction.  In the recently-released two-volume Women Crime Writers that covers eight novels written in the 1940s and 1950s, Sarah Weinman has chosen works that not only represent some of the best crime fiction of that era, but they also are stories that challenge reader preconceptions of what constitutes a crime novel.

The first novel in this anthology, Vera Caspary’s Laura (published in book form in 1943 after an earlier seven-part serialization in Colliers), contains multitudes within its 181 pages.  It is not only an exploration of the titular Laura’s apparent demise, but is also a shrewd look at how an independent woman in 1940s New York manages to maneuver her way through social landmines more insidiously planted than those that World War II servicemen faced.  Caspary goes to great pains to insure that Laura is no wilted (wilting?) flower.  In the various points of view presented over the course of the novel, she is neither saint nor whore, but instead something more complex and fascinating.

Caspary’s use of these multiple POV perspectives serves not only to delineate Laura’s complexities, but the other characters’ biases and neuroses are also illustrated in a subtle yet powerful fashion.  This can be readily seen in the very first paragraph, as Waldo, an aspiring novelist of sorts and a former lover, presents a picture of himself that differs significantly from how he views himself.  This situational irony is repeated in other characters, such as Laura’s former fiancé, Shelby, and how his rakishness contrasts with his professed love for Laura, or in how the detective assigned to her case, Mark McPherson, presents more personal vulnerabilities than he is aware of doing.

At times, these multiple perspectives can almost be distracting, as these secondary characters are just as flawed and fascinating as the emerging composite portrait of Laura.  Yet by the second half of the novel, Caspary has managed to weave a compelling plot out of them, especially when she introduces a plot twist that turns topsy-turvy our expectations of how this crime investigation is going to play out.  In hindsight, this development is not unexpected; there are several clues placed through the character narratives that foreshadow this development.  But once this twist is executed, the novel becomes more urgent in tone, with the prose taking on a leaner, more menacing character.  The final scenes feel as though they could have the inspiration to countless crime TV series episodes, yet there is more to them than just characters re-enacting struggles for love and understanding that were explored earlier in the novel.

Laura is a fascinating novel not just for how well Caspary explores the innermost motivations of her characters, but also for how adroitly she depicts the social milieu.  Laura is no innocent; she has had her fair share of sexual conquests.  She is in many ways a truly “modern” woman, with values that correspond to her desire to be independent and yet not “masculine.”  Some critics see in her a quasi-autobiographical sketch written by Caspary, with their similar careers (advertising) and attempts to balance career and romance.  Despite whatever surface similarities author and creation might have, Laura’s character and situation are appealing to readers who see in her inner conflicts a mirror of sorts for their own.  Waldo, Shelby, and McPherson might not be self-aware enough to see the hypocritical social attitudes they hold, yet Laura in contrast was very much aware of them.  She used them as much they attempted to use her and it is in this realization that makes Laura not just a page turner, but also a well-developed exploration of sexual identity during the mid-20th century.

There are few structural weaknesses.  The biggest complaint some might have is that as well-detailed the character discussions of Laura and her life and apparent death are, there are times where the narrative flow slows to a lazy meandering.  Occasionally the prose overreaches, most notably in reading Waldo’s more grandiose proclamations, yet on the whole the writing not only supports the deepening narrative, it manages to deepen the tension, making it more palpable.  Laura may not be the “perfect” crime novel, but it comes close enough on occasion to make it a very good, entertaining read that will leave readers satisfied after a couple of hours.

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (2015)

July 18th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

In evaluating certain literary works, conventional, tried-and-true approaches sometimes must be jettisoned.  This certainly has proven to be the case with the recently-released Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Much (e-)ink has been spilled on the origins of this 1950s trunk novel that later begot To Kill a Mockingbird and how after a half-century of near-silence the dubious fashion in which it came to be published has come to light.  Those lines of thought are more the provenance of journalists than literary reviewers, however.  It is more than fair to raise the issue, but when it comes to the text itself, then it comes to the text itself and all else should be ancillary.  Yet in cases like this, attempting to remove oneself from the uproar would be a Sisyphean task.

When I began reading Go Set a Watchman, I found myself thinking of the various posthumous works that I had read or listened to:  Vergil’s Æneid; Jimi Hendrix’s post-1970 releases; Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again; among others.  Vergil reportedly made a deathbed request that his “unfinished” epic poem be burned after his death.  While obviously this was not the case (another such example would be the majority of Franz Kafka’s work that his friend and literary executor Max Brod published despite Kafka’s occasional declaration that they should be burnt), the debate on the merits of publishing, whether posthumously or in a situation where an author potentially could require a conservator to make legal and business decisions, is an interesting one.  I believe that if an appropriate framework is established for evaluating the works in question, then there is little to quibble about in the case of a work that almost certainly would have been published immediately after the author’s death if not beforehand.

Go Set a Watchman‘s complex textual history makes for a fascinating study.  Readers familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird are going to see several parallels in descriptions, characterization, and plot development.  Jean Louise/Scout Finch’s journey home to Maycomb, Alabama sometime in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling contains several flashbacks that the germ of numerous events in the latter novel.  In a weird sense, the first novel becomes a quasi-sequel to the latter, not so much for the flashbacks (which in some cases were revised and altered in To Kill a Mockingbird), but for readers’ understandings of how certain characters have developed.  Although much ado has been made about Atticus Finch’s seeming character shift in Go Set a Watchman, there are certain other characters, Calpurnia in particular, whose actions here in this novel may be surprising or even unsettling to those readers who approached To Kill a Mockingbird as a mostly nostalgic, mildly “heroic” Southern novel despite the heartbreak of the Tom Robinson case.

Certainly there are grounds for being startled throughout.  Go Set a Watchman slays its gods, strewing about disillusionment in the wake of its revelations.  This is no accident, as it appears that Lee originally conceived of the autobiographical Maycomb milieu as being a way of retelling the civil rights era upheavals within a slightly fictitious family account.  Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, was also a lawyer who became caught up in the counter-protests common throughout the South after 1954.  But in the case of Atticus Finch, what is interesting is seeing just how fully conceived his character was in this earlier draft:  he is just as wry, courteous, and humane as in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the key difference is the narrative perspective through which he is viewed.  Young Scout’s first-person narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird portrays him as a sort of demi-god, a father who may not always understand his children, but whose wisdom and humanity inspire them to be the best they can possibly be.  Go Set a Watchman, written in a limited third-person point-of-view, demonstrates this lingering hero worship that Jean Louise has for her father, but it also reveals the cracks in this façade and also how much Jean Louise has changed while becoming an independent, opinionated young woman in her late 20s.

Go Set a Watchman deconstructs these earlier views of Scout through the liberal use of flashbacks (many of which were later transported, virtually unchanged, into To Kill a Mockingbird).  Although they are invaluable in demonstrating just how Lee initially constructed this coming-of-age tale and how it later morphed into a sometimes very different “daughter” novel, at times these flashbacks weaken the narrative thrust considerably.  For example, more space is devoted to discussing Jean Louise’s first period than in connecting that to her complex emotions regarding the former family cook, Calpurnia.  The near “as in” presentation of this 1950s draft as the published Go Set a Watchman does an injustice to the “new” scenes, as an occasional judicious pruning of extraneous scenes could have heightened the narrative tension that builds throughout the course of the novel.

Yet despite this uneven narrative pace and its numerous digressions, there is a strong, questing core that should captivate most readers.  The revelation of Atticus’s views on race, while disappointing to his daughter (and readers), are only the tip of the iceberg.  What Lee focuses more on is how Jean Louise tries to process this sudden upheaval of her world.  It is not always a pretty sight, as 21st century readers might find Jean Louise’s arguments and rationales to be rather antiquated, if not bigoted themselves.  But perhaps that is exactly a point behind this novel.  Maybe for white Southerners, especially so-called Southern progressives of the mid-20th century, there are some hypocrisies that still need to be exposed to the light.

The final two parts of the novel are the strongest, most attention absorbing, because they distillate these inner and familial conflicts into a series of dialogues (Jean Louise-Jack, Jean Louise-Alexandra, Jean Louise-Henry, and most especially Jean Louise-Atticus) that present a wide spectrum of white Southern thought during this period.  There is little that is facile about them; Atticus’s counterarguments, when viewed within the context of the times, prove to be challenging to his daughter’s more idealized views.  As a reflection of contemporary social views, these concluding sections are very well realized.  However, it is difficult not to see flaws in how Lee arrived at these final scenes.  It is not just the meandering flashbacks that clog up the narrative flow, but also those false steps, such as Jean Louise’s impulsive visit to Calpurnia and her rebuffal there,  where much more could have been said to even greater effect than what was ultimately achieved.

Go Set a Watchman perhaps should be judged primarily as an ur-text; it represents a genesis of thought that led to a modern classic.  It certainly shows enough in character and plot evolutions to serve as an example of how to develop a story.  But with the majority of events taking place after those of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is in many regards its own story.  It contains characters that shift somewhat in presentation, yet on the whole these are characters that are easily recognizable as being those who appeared in the earlier tale.  No, it does not contain the same narrative magic that made To Kill a Mockingbird dear to tens of millions of years, but what it contains, warts and all, is a story of confusion and conflict that speaks most clearly to white Southerners who have tried, like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber, to “come home again,” only to discover that “home” is a more repulsive, conflicting place where hatred and love make for strange bedfellows.  This is not to say there can’t be other readings for this novel, but only that the central conflict, or at least how it is phrased and conducted amongst its participants, might be foreign to non-Southerners or at least not as vital to them.  As it stands, Go Set a Watchman is a flawed yet occasionally riveting work that does not weaken or ruin Harper Lee’s legacy, but rather is a testament for just how deeply she conceived this retelling of how an independent-minded, idealistic daughter comes to terms with the complexities of a father she had adored and worshiped her entire life.

James Shapiro (Ed.), Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (2014)

June 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell just as sweet.”

“To be, or not to be, that is the question…”

“Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war…”
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”

Chances are, if you are a native English speaker (or one even casually familiar with English-language culture), you could identify the composer of these quotes even though the exact source and context might elude you. Next to the King James translation of the Bible, William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are the lodestone of the English language; so much of this language’s idiomatic expressions and metaphors orient themselves to these rich, imaginative text. It is nigh impossible for me to fathom an English-language culture, much less literature, existing in a form similar to today’s without Shakespeare’s Olympian influence. Although there are numerous great writers that have left their own indelible marks on contemporary English-language literature, Shakespeare is that rare talent whose turns of phrase are often quoted, frequently without full awareness of their source, by those who aren’t regular readers of literature of any sort.

Part of this is due to Shakespeare’s writings being almost chameleon-like in their ability to be adapted for almost every situation and need. Although composed mostly before the first English settlement in what is now the United States, in the intervening four centuries, Shakespeare’s work has become as much a central part of American literature as it is the keystone of English literature. In James Shapiro’s 2014 anthology, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, there are dozens of selections from writers and politicians, social activists and ministers, from lay people to composers, all of which testify to Shakespeare’s influence on them and their course of action. A fascinating mosaic image emerges when these disparate threads of American social and cultural life are placed in chronological order.

The anthology begins with an anonymous 1776 publication of a Loyalist response to the demands of the First Continental Congress for the colonists to sign an “association” boycotting British goods. Making use of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it is also, as Shapiro notes in the introductory header, a retort to a pro-colonist screed that began “Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.”:

To sign, or not to sign? That is the question,
Whether ’twere better for an honest Man
To sign, and so be safe; or to resolve,
Betide what will, against Associations,
And, by retreating, shun them. To fly – I reck
Not where: And, by that Flight, t’escape
FEATHERS and TAR, and Thousand other Ills
That Loyalty is Heir to: ‘Tis a Consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To fly – to want –
To want? Perchance to starve: Ay, there’s the rub! (p. 3)

However, in Peter Markoe’s 1787 poem, “The Tragic Genius of Shakespeare,” published in the year of the Constitutional Convention, already there are overt moves to claim the Bard as America’s own:

Monopolizing Britain! boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin’d;
Shakspeare’s bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen’ral blessing for the world design’d,
And, emulous to form the rising ase,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage. (p. 12)

And yet as grandiose of a claim as Markoe makes here, the question still remains, over two centuries later: Just what is an “American” view of Shakespeare? It is fitting that our national motto, E pluribus unum, come into play when examining the disparate views presented throughout this collection. For the nineteenth century, with “nation building” (including the horrendous treatment of the various nations that dwelt on contested land and the execrable treatment of African-descended slaves) foremost on their minds, divers writers, poets, and politicians would frequent cite Shakespeare in order to further their ambitions. In 1849, this nationalist rendition of Shakespeare boiled over into a riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City, as partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest assailed the performance place of British actor William Charles Macready’s performance of Macbeth. Some 15,000 people participated in this riot, leading to the New York State Militia firing into the crowd, killing more than twenty and wounding perhaps over a hundred more. Here is a brief citation from a lengthy anonymous pamphlet published soon after the riot:

The result was, that the constant rivalry of Forrest, though carried on in the most friendly manner, could not fail to injure the success of Macready. A certain degree of partizanship was everywhere excited – for Forrest was everywhere placarded as the “American Tragedian,” – and the tour of Mr. Macready was comparatively a failure. A sensitive man could not but feel this; and whether he made any complaint or not, his friends saw what the difficulty was, and felt not a little chagrined about it; and when Mr. Forrest made his next and last professional visit to England, this feeling among the friends of Macready, in the theatrical press and the play-going public, found its vent. The opposition to him was, from the first, marked and fatal; and, so far as the metropolis was concerned, his tour was a failure. It was only in the provinces – away from London influence – that he met with any degree of success. (p. 67)

It is hard for a twenty-first century reader to fathom this level of outrage over who performed Shakespeare and with what accent it was performed. And yet in accounts like this, coupled with lengthy allusions to him throughout the years, there can be seen a sort of metastasis occurring: Shakespeare’s characters, form, and very language were being assimilated into this growing American culture, being transformed by it as much as it imbued this nascent civilization. Echoes of this can be seen in the mid-19th century literature, especially in the work of Herman Melville. In his “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville not only pays homage to his mentor, but also to what lurks behind any perceived “work of genius”:

In Shakespeare’s tomb lies infinitely more than Shakespeare ever wrote. And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do, as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing. For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only be cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches. (p. 130)

It is interesting to see how observations like this are reflected in subsequent pieces for the remaining 500-plus pages. Shapiro has placed these selections in a fashion where it is easy to discern certain currents of American thought on Shakespeare and his ability to voice deep-seated fears, hopes, and anxieties. “The play’s the thing”, ironically, is where a collision of received cultural understanding of Shakespeare and divergent interpretations of that very same understanding take place. It is the source of contemporary takes on West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, as well as arguments over just how well (or poorly) Marlon Brando performed in Julius Caesar. Peppered amongst critical (both senses of the word) theatrical articles are allusions made by recent authors who echo and cast back, perhaps a bit distorted, the views of Melville and others of the first half of American socio-cultural history. For Shakespeare does not belong to any one class or nation; he is, as what was later associated with St. Thomas More, “a man for all seasons.” This can especially be seen in Langston Hughes’ 1942 poem, “Shakespeare in Harlem” (there was also a play of that name by him):

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go? (p. 450)

With pieces like this presented side-by-side with scholarly references and layperson allusions, Shapiro’s Shakespeare in America serves as a good introduction to the Bard’s influence on American culture. It is a rich collection of primary source material that does not overwhelm the reader, but instead provides enough of a framework by which readers can draw their own connections to currents of thought regarding Shakespeare. Certainly it is one of the more enjoyable pieces on Shakespeare that I have read in recent years.

Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)

February 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.  Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees.  Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls.  God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men.  The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them.  This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white.  This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations.  Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions.  After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.

Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama.  Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again.  Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s.  Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another.  And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, “November Cotton Flower”:

Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance.  Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)

This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery.  Toomer’s writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line.  Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when “brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear” is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.

Toomer’s gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages.  Here is one section taken from “Esther,” concerning another major character in his cycle:

Esther begins to dream.  The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor’s notion shop aflame.  Esther makes believe that they really are aflame.  The town fire department rushes madly down the road.  It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side.  It whoops.  It clangs.  It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own.  How had she come by it?  She thinks of it immaculately.  It is a sin to think of it immaculately.  She must dream no more.  She must repent her sin.  Another dream comes.  There is no fire department.  There are no heroic men.  The fire starts.  The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew.  Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames.  The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice.  Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.  The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.  She alone is left to take the baby in her arms.  But what a baby!  Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin.  Once held to her breast, miraculous thing:  its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.  She loves it frantically.  Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)

There is a lot to unpack here.  The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire.  There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly.  This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the “ludicrous.”  But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty.  The baby rejected as “ugly as sin,” is transformed through the woman’s love, changing the others’ “jeers to harmless jealousy.”

As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions.  Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives.  Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer’s design can be seen in all its glory.  Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written.  Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers.  It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.

William Wells Brown, Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853; revised three times by 1867)

February 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

It was late in the day, when the greatest number of persons were thought to be present, that Currer and her daughters were brought forward to the place of sale. Currer was first ordered to ascend the auction stand, which she did with a trembling step. The slave mother was sold to a trader. Althesa, the youngest, and who was scarcely less beautiful than her sister, was sold to the same trader for one thousand dollars. Clotel was the last, and, as was expected, commanded a higher price than any that had been offered for sale that day. The appearance of Clotel on the auction block created a deep sensation amongst the crowd. There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo–Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her position. The auctioneer commenced by saying, that “Miss Clotel had been reserved for the last, because she was the most valuable. How much gentlemen? Real Albino, fit for a fancy girl for any one. She enjoys good health, and has a sweet temper. How much do you say?” “Five hundred dollars.” “Only five hundred for such a girl as this? Gentlemen, she is worth a deal more than that sum; you certainly don’t know the value of the article you are bidding upon. Here, gentlemen, I hold in my hand a paper certifying that she has a good moral character.” “Seven hundred.” “Ah, gentlemen, that is something like. This paper also states that she is very intelligent.” “Eight hundred.” “She is a devoted Christian, and perfectly trustworthy.” “Nine hundred.” “Nine fifty.” “Ten.” “Eleven.” “Twelve hundred.” Here the sale came to a dead stand. The auctioneer stopped, looked around, and began in a rough manner to relate some anecdotes relative to the sale of slaves, which, he said, had come under his own observation. At this juncture the scene was indeed strange. Laughing, joking, swearing, smoking, spitting, and talking kept up a continual hum and noise amongst the crowd; while the slave–girl stood with tears in her eyes, at one time looking towards her mother and sister, and at another towards the young man whom she hoped would become her purchaser. “The chastity of this girl is pure; she has never been from under her mother’s care, she is a virtuous creature.” “Thirteen.” “Fourteen.” “Fifteen.” “Fifteen hundred dollars,” cried the auctioneer, and the maiden was struck for that sum. This was a Southern auction, at which the bones, muscles, sinews, blood, and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars; her moral character for two hundred; her improved intellect for one hundred; her Christianity for three hundred; and her chastity and virtue for four hundred dollars more. And this, too, in a city thronged with churches, whose tall spires look like so many signals pointing to heaven, and whose ministers preach that slavery is a God–ordained institution!

What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it.

Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars, but her purchaser was Horatio Green.  Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder! (pp. 67-68, Library of America edition)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the best-known of the antislavery novels published during the antebellum period, but there was another, relatively obscure novel that perhaps is even better at getting to the heart of the pernicious evils of chattel slavery.  This novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was first published in Great Britain by a former slave fleeing from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Clotel is a remarkable novel for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is the first known novel published by an African American writer.  Yet for nearly 125 years after the end of the Civil War it languished in obscurity, more a curiosity than anything actively taught or studied by historians or literature professors.  Some of this lack of attention may be due to the end of slavery and the desire to forget, even when it concerns antislavery literature, the particulars of that sordid business, but this does not explain the continued popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  There are two competing reasons remaining:  either Clotel‘s narrative style was not appealing to later generations of readers or there was a growing prejudice against reading works by black writers.  There likely is an element of truth to both of this, but then what explains the recent rise in interest in Brown’s writings?  It may be that as a historical artifact, Clotel is a superior example of not just antislavery literature but also that it captures the espirit du temps of the 1850s even better than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even if much of its initial impact was not in the United States but across the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the more striking features of Clotel is its didactic tone.  Early 21st century novels very rarely are polemical in nature, so it can be a bit jarring at first to read a novel whose very first lines lays out for the reader the bleak, horrid setting:

With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America, there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted that the abolition of negro slavery would be brought about by the amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of his native state, that “the blood of the first American statesmen coursed through the veins of the slave of the South.” In all the cities and towns of the slave states, the real negro, or clear black, does not amount to more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America. (p. 61)

Clotel and her family do not appear until a few pages into the narrative; Brown is more concerned with establishing for his mostly-white audience (at least for this original edition; he extensively edited it later, changing some details, for a more mixed-race American audience in later editions) in Great Britain just how horrible American chattel slavery truly was.  In a sense, Clotel and her family are not as much original characters as they are emblems for what millions of enslaved Americans suffered in the mid-19th century.  It is best to keep this in mind, as some of the narrative elements otherwise might seem too melodramatic.

Clotel’s ancestry is based on the then-rumors about Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings but more so than that, it is meant to establish just how deep racial prejudices ran, so that while some fathers of biracial children might dandle a child on his knee, he would be just as likely to whip them or sell them down the river to New Orleans.  Although the fictional Currer, Clotel’s mother, was not the property of Jefferson but instead lent out to him, she and her daughters were sold off with nary a mention of Jefferson himself afterward.  It is a brutal, effective way of establishing the dehumanizing experiences that Clotel and her relatives experience throughout the novel.

Clotel is bought for $1500 (roughly $30,000 in today’s money, or the cost of a well-equipped new car or truck, to put it in the perspective of those who equated African-descended people with labor machines) by Horatio Green, who was earlier struck by her beauty and who desired her as a concubine.  Although Brown does not explicitly label this as rape, showing some reciprocal feelings on the part of Clotel, there is enough to be read between the lines to indicate that there is some level of coercion involved; after all, Clotel is Green’s property.  Yet regardless of whatever attachments, real or feigned, that might have developed between them, according to Virginia law, no slave could marry a white person.  This plays a role years later, when Green enters into a marriage agreement and his new wife forces him to sell Clotel and their daughter, Mary.

Meanwhile, the lives of Currer and Clotel’s sister, Althesa, are little better.  Currer is sold to a preacher and dies of yellow fever before his daughter is able to emancipate her.  Althesa and her new owner also enter into a common-law marriage, as Althesa is able to pass for white, but she and her master, Morton, also die, leaving their daughters to be sold into slavery (one, Ellen, chooses to commit suicide, and the other, Jane, dies of heartbreak).  Their stories, which are permutations of Clotel and her daughter’s experiences, are told with a detached yet highly charged emotion similar to those passionate tales which were the forerunners of late-19th century sensational novel.  Although at times the individual reactions border on the melodramatic, for contemporary audiences it had the effect of a series of blows to the gut.

Clotel has at this point been sold to a planter in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There she meets and falls in love with another slave, William, and they plan their escape, with Clotel passing as William’s master.  Their escape, based heavily upon the remarkable 1849 escape of Ellen and William Craft, succeeds, and William goes forward into Canada, while Clotel returns in disguise to Richmond in order to attempt the rescue of her daughter.  However, things go awry and forced to choose between death by drowning or a return to slavery, Clotel chooses the former.  Although the novel could have ended effectively at this point, Brown extends it over another ten years, showing how Mary manages to gain both her freedom and a lover she thought she was forced to leave behind.  It is a touching, tenuously hopeful conclusion to a novel that repeatedly batters its readers with its blunt, horrific descriptions of the degradations that Clotel and her family had to experience.

Taking into consideration the differences between mid-19th and early-21st century literary conventions, Clotel is a very evocative novel, one that gains its narrative power not so much from the force of its individual characters but from the polemical nature of the third-person narrator.  There are very few wasted passages; Brown knows exactly what effect he seeks to effect and for the most part, he manages to execute this very well.  The characters themselves, while perhaps not as immediately memorable as a Simon Legree or an Uncle Tom, are also effective in presenting humanity in the midst of degradation; love surviving callous brutality; hope enduring while surrounded by hatred and despair.  While some of the scenes might seem a bit too flashy or sensationalist for modern readers, on the whole they are rendered vividly, leaving a lasting impression in readers’ minds.  Today, Clotel should be remembered not just as the first known African American novel, but also as one of the classics of mid-19th century American literature.  Over 160 years after its initial publication, it still possesses a power to move the hearts and souls of its readers.

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (c. 1602)

February 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Thersites:  Agamemnon is a fool; Achilles is a fool; Thersites is a fool; and, as aforesaid, Patroclus is a fool.

Achilles:  Derive this; come.

Thersites:  Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded of Agamemnon; Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool; and this Patroclus is a fool positive.

Patroclus:  Why am I a fool?

Thersites:  Make that demand of the Creator.  It suffices me thou art.  Look you, who comes here?

Achilles:  Come, Patroclus, I’ll speak with nobody.  Come in with me, Thersites.

Thersites:  Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery.  All the argument is a whore and a cuckold – good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon.  Now the dry serpigo on the subject, and war and lechery confound all!

Act II, Scene 3

Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida has vexed critics and audiences four centuries since its first appearance between 1602 and 1609.  It is a so-called “problem play”; it is neither tragedy, history, nor comedy, although it contains elements of all three.  Rather, it is a social commentary that utilizes satire and bawdy wit to explore issues such as the impermanence of sworn oaths, whether they be of a political or romantic nature.  Such issues can make for an unsettling experience for an unprepared audience and certainly Troilus and Cressida has had a rocky relationship with its critics for most of the past four centuries.

Troilus and Cressida is set during the tenth year of the Trojan War and it riffs off of Homer’s Iliad and Chaucer’s Troius and Cressida.  There are two parallel plots here:  the tiff between Agamemon and Achilles over the former’s seizure of the latter’s female captive and the budding romance between the Trojan prince Troilus, Priam’s youngest son, and the Trojan lady Cressida.  Shakespeare’s original audience would likely have been familiar with the basic plots of both, as the Trojan War was a popular stage setting in the years prior to this play and Chaucer’s narrative poem had been wildly popular in England for over two centuries at the time of Shakespeare’s play.

What Shakespeare does here is invert certain elements.  Instead of following Homer’s lead on aristos and portray the Greek camp situation as revolving around matters of personal greatness and quality, he portrays the riff between Achilles and Agamemnon, which envelops other leaders such as Ulysses, Diomedes, and Ajax, as a base, political affair.  There is no nobility on display; instead, we see the ugly political machinations that lay bare the falsity of their oaths to unite to fight the Trojans.  As for the romantic relationship between Troilus and Cressida, he does not follow Chaucer’s story either.  Referencing freely the “whore” and “cuckold” elements of the Helen/Menelaus relationship, Shakespeare recasts Cressida’s relationship with Troilus as being at its heart a mirror of that of Helen’s.  There is no true love, there is no true faith.  We deceive ourselves and others, presumably for our own gain.

This is not a pleasant topic for a play or even for a sermon and Shakespeare utilizes bit characters such as Thersites to present these falsities in a crude, bawdy fashion that would get audiences chuckling until they paused later to consider the import of such statements as the one quoted above.  At times, however, the humor feels rather forced, as the ugliness of the situations casts a pall over matters.  It certainly was jarring to read clever turns of phrases from the “fools” after the more notable (and unwitting) fools demonstrated through their actions and perfidies the ridiculousness of their positions.  Yet despite the sordidness on display, Troilus and Cressida is fascinating.  It is certainly a clever play, one which plays upon reader expectations before twisting them and throwing them back in their faces, but it also says much about ourselves that could not be said straightforward in either a comedy or a tragedy.  Troilus and Cressida occupies a nebulous middle ground between those two poles of human drama and its tragic ending does not overshadow its black comic middle, but rather it reinforces that sense of futility we often feel in our own lives.  It certainly is a “problem play” in that it is more than just a commentary on social problems, but also it represents things which trouble us long after the final words are read or spoken.  Certainly a play which I will revisit in years to come.