Gordon S. Wood (ed.), The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776 (2015)

August 29th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Liberty is the greatest blessing that men enjoy, and slavery the heaviest curse that human nature is capable of. – This being so, makes it a matter of the utmost importance to men, which of the two shall be their portion.  Absolute Liberty is, perhaps, incompatible with any kind of government. – The safety resulting from society, and the advantage of just and equal laws, hath caused men to forego some part of their natural liberty, and submit to government.  This appears to be the most rational account of it’s beginning; although, it must be confessed, mankind have by no means been agreed about it:  Some have found it’s origin in the divine appointment:  Others have thought it took it’s rise from power:  Enthusiasts have dreamed that dominion was founded in grace.  Leaving these points to be settled by the descendants of Filmer, Cromwell, and Venner, we will consider the British constitution, as it at present stands, on revolution principles; and, from thence endeavour to find the measure of the magistrate’s power, and the people’s obedience.

This glorious constitution, the best that ever existed among men, will be confessed by all, to be founded by compact, and established by consent of the people.  By this most beneficent compact, British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws to which themselves have some way consented, and are not to be compelled to part with their property, but as it is called for by the authority of such laws:  The former is truly liberty; the latter is really to be possessed of property, and to have something that may be called one’s own.

– (“The Rights of Colonies Examined.”, Stephen Hopkins, Providence, Rhode Island, 1765, vol. I, p. 125)

The American Revolution, as distinct from the War for American Independence, did not begin with a musket shot in Lexington, Massachusetts in April 1775.  Rather, it began a decade before with a war of ideas fought in newspapers and in pamphlets sold for a shilling.  There, colonial and imperial leaders held forth on issues of liberty, representation, and the limitations and virtues of the British constitution (and Parliamentary power) as it related to the original thirteen North American English colonies.  Both sides, the nascent Patriot and Loyalist/Imperial, often alluded to Greco-Roman orators as being the ultimate source for their arguments on these topics.  In hindsight, what was transpiring just over 250 years ago is rather amazing, as civil discourse became increasingly intertwined with violence (tarring and feathering, burning of officials’ houses, the Boston Massacre of 1770, etc.) and yet until the very end the rhetoric never truly (with a few notable exceptions) directly alluded to these violent acts.  It was as though there were two conflicts being acted out simultaneously and yet never truly in concert with each other.

American historian Gordon S. Wood (author of the award-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution) in this two-volume Library of America set, The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776, has chosen 39 pamphlets published during the period between the passage of the Sugar Act and the Declaration of Independence that present the breadth and depth of the arguments made in favor or in opposition to increased American autonomy in the aftermath of the French and Indian War.  He prefaces each pamphlet with a short précis of the pamphlet’s general arguments and later actions of the author.  These 1-2 page summaries help non-specialists get the gist of the arguments being presented, as there are times that the authors make so many allusions to classical writers and to legal aspects of the documents that comprise the British constitution that it can be difficult for some readers to grasp what exactly is being argued and why.

Yet a closer examination of these pamphlets and how Wood has juxtaposed them reveal some fascinating undercurrents.  In the preface to the pamphlet quoted above, Wood references Rhode Island’s rather unique political system (rotation of the colonial capital among five towns, semiannual voting for assemblymen, a “modern” two party/faction system).  The information there makes Hopkins’ observation about how absolute liberty might be incompatible with any form of government seem not just the abstract musing of a quasi-anarchist but rather a wry commentary from someone who is intimately versed in decentralized politics.

Immediately following Hopkins’ pamphlet is Martin Howard Jr.’s “A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax, to his Friend in Rhode-Island, Containing Remarks upon a Pamphlet, Entitled, The Rights of Colonies Examined.”  This pamphlet is not just a point-by-point response to “Rights of the Colonies Examined,” but it also is one of the earliest and most forceful defenses of the Imperial viewpoint that the colonies by their very foundation by people of English descent have submitted themselves to the strictures of the English constitution:

Our personal rights, comprehending those of life, liberty and estate, are secured to us by the common law, which is every subject’s birthright, whether born in Great-Britain, on the ocean, or in the colonies, and it is in this sense we are said to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Englishmen.  The political rights of the colonies, or the powers of government communicated to them, are more limited, and their nature, quality and extent depend altogether upon the patent or charter which first created and instituted them.  As individuals, the colonists participate of every blessing the English constitution can give them.  As corporations created by the crown, they are confined within the primitive views of their institution.  Whether therefore their indulgence is scanty or liberal, can be no cause of complaint; for when they accepted of their charters, they tacitly submitted to the terms and conditions of them. (I, pp. 150-151)

Howard, as part of a faction that wanted to revoke Rhode Island’s charter and have its radically democratic colonial assembly come under direct royal control, came under direct attack during the Stamp Act protests and he later had to flee to England to avoid physical harm.  These threats, including those made to the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, lie as a dark shadow upon the arguments presented during this time.  In the case of Hutchinson, a native of Massachusetts, he became one of the most hated men in North America because of his principled stance in favor of continued union with England, even as more and more colonial leaders and thinkers, especially after 1770, began to advocate autonomy, if not outright independence, as a solution for the problems surrounding representation and taxation.  In his January 1773 speech to the Massachusetts Assembly, Hutchinson outlines his opposition to this increasingly popular viewpoint:

If what I have said shall not be sufficient to satisfy such as object to the Supreme Authority of Parliament over the Plantations, there may something further be added to induce them to an Acknowledgment of it which I think will well deserve their Consideration.  I know of no Line that can be drawn between the supreme Authority of Parliament and the total Independence of the Colonies.  It is impossible there should be two independent Legislatures in one and the same State, for although there may be but one Head, the King, yet the two Legislative Bodies will make two Governments as distinct as the Kingdoms of England and Scotland before the Union.  If we might be suffered to be altogether independent of Great-Britain, could we have any Claim to the Protection of that Government of which we are no longer a Part?  Without this Protection should we not become the Prey of one or the other Powers of Europe, such as should first seize upon us?  Is there any Thing which we have more Reason to dread than Independence?  I hope it will never be our Misfortune to know by Experience the Difference between the Liberties of an English Colonist and those of the Spanish, French or Dutch. (II, p. 10)

As reasoned as Hutchinson’s speech may be, he could not fathom truly the depth of desire for separation.  For him and other future Loyalists, Parliament was the protector of freedoms and to reject parliamentary suzerainty was tantamount to abandoning security in a wild goose chase for liberty unmoored from centuries of traditions accreting around the acts and documents that comprised the English constitution.  Therefore, the response made by certain members of the Massachusetts Assembly, including future American leaders John Hancock and John Adams, likely baffled him in their rejection of this view of Parliament being the protector of English and colonial freedoms:

We fully agree with your Excellency, that our own Happiness as well as his Majesty’s Service, very much depends upon Peace and Order, and we shall at all Times take such Measures as are consistent with our Constitution and the Rights of the People to promote and maintain them.  That the Government at present is in a very disturbed State is apparent!  But we cannot ascribe it to the People’s having adopted unconstitutional Principles, which seems to be the Cause assigned for it by your Excellency.  It appears to us to have been occasioned rather, by the British House of Commons assuming and exercising a Power inconsistent with the Freedom of the Constitution, to give and grant the Property of the Colonists, and appropriate the same without their Consent. (II, p. 24)

This grounding of the main points of contention within this perceived usurpation of constitutional power by Parliament set the framework for later arguments during the people immediately preceding and following the Battles of Lexington and Concord two years later.  Most of the subsequent pamphlets in the second volume follow, in their support or dissent, upon the premises established here.  By 1776, the argument had switched from a direct focus on Parliament’s regulatory power in the colonies to a debate on the source from whence liberty and popular representation commenced.  Wood does an excellent job in weaving these strands together to present a powerful argument that the American Revolution did not begin with a shot but instead with a thorough debate, via printed media, on the origins of political powers and human rights.  Although this debate had occurred over a century before during the English Revolution through the use of broadsides (and later, the English Civil War), these ideas found their mature expression during the 1764-1776 gestation period that led to the birth of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents written in world history.  What followed after was messy, with consequences that still affect us today.  The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776 serves as a excellent look at these written documents that spawned the modern representative republic form of government now seen in much of the world today.

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America (seven volumes, 1865-1893)

August 8th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear light of History.  In appearance they are feeble; in reality, copious and full of force.  Acting at the sources of life, instruments otherwise weak become mighty for good and evil, and men, lost elsewhere in the crowd, stand forth as agents of Destiny.  In their toils, their sufferings, their conflicts, momentous questions were at stake, and issues vital to the future world, – the prevalence of races, the triumph of principles, health or disease, a blessing or a curse.  On the obscure strife where men died by tens or by scores hung questions of as deep import for posterity as on those mighty contests of national adolescence where carnage is reckoned by thousands.

The subject to which the proposed series will be devoted is that of “France in the New World,” – the attempt of Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome to master a continent where, at this hour, half a million of bayonets are vindicating the ascendency of a regulated freedom; – Feudalism still strong in life, though enveloped and overborne by new-born Centralization; Monarchy in the flush of triumphant power; Rome, nerved by disaster, springing with renewed vitality from ashes and corruption, and ranging the earth to reconquer abroad what she had lost at home.  These banded powers, pushing into the wilderness their indomitable soldiers and devoted priests, unveiled the secrets of the barbarous continent, pierced the forests, traced and mapped out the streams, planted their emblems, built their forts, and claimed all as their own.  New France was all head.  Under king, noble, and Jesuit, the lank, lean body would not thrive.  Even commerce wore the sword, decked itself with badges of nobility, aspired to forest seigniories and hordes of savage retainers. (Introduction, p. 13 Library of America edition, vol. I of France and England in North America)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, I frequently would check out old histories from the local library.  There was something exhilarating to read 50-100 year-old histories where there was a sense of momentousness to tales of daring and doing, of brave souls whose choices seemed to change the course of the world.  The prose might have been purple in places, but oh God was it glorious to read.  Years before I knew what “historiography” and “monograph” meant, long before I delved into primary source material, read pardon tales and experienced “fiction in the archives,” I wanted to be a historian, just so I could read and re-read these fascinating tales of heroes and villains who actually lived, breathed, and died, with their actions affecting the lives of millions.

Of course, the reality of studying history in the late 20th century at the University of Tennessee was far different from my youthful expectations.  There the focus was on trends and societal moldings of individuals and not the inverse.  I discovered a love for cultural and religious histories, seeing in preserved documents such as the trial of an Italian miller for heresy something more real and intriguing than tales of Frederick the Great’s campaigns in Central Europe during the 1740s (that being said, Frederick did lead a fascinating life, full of conflicts both internal and external).  Histories that purportedly had a “theme” or moral to explore just seemed a bit too trite to me, too full of confidence in national and self-delusions to be worth anything more than a diverting look into the world-views of those who composed them in the years just prior and concurrent to Leopold von Ranke’s famous maxim, “Wie es eigentlich gewesen” (“How it really was”), being composed to describe his focus on a more rational, fact-based approach to historiography.  Yet there is still something powerful to these older, more Romantic histories that still calls to me.

This certainly was the case when I recently read Francis Parkman’s 1865-1893 seven volume history of France’s involvement in North America, collected into two volumes by the Library of America and published as France and England in North America.  Parkman’s introduction is a bracing read, especially if the reader, like myself, finds himself reacting to almost every line with questions of how something in a similar vein might never see the light of day in early 21st century “professional” journals.  One just does not talk about destinies and civilizations as being fonts of either good and/or evil without being ridiculed these days.  And yet, in re-reading just now Parkman’s 1865 introduction (and realizing that he’s thinking heavily upon the American Civil War and the fight to remove slavery from the land) there is a life to it that makes these 3000 pages seem fresh even 151 years later.

Parkman’s prose certainly helps the curious reader settle quickly into the story he aims to tell.  Despite the lush, almost turgid quality of his introduction, much of the actual histories he tells are concise yet full of vivid descriptions, such as this observation on French resiliency after an English raid on the early settlement of Acadia (now parts of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) in 1613:

In spite of their reverses, the French kept hold on Acadia.  Biencourt, partially at least, rebuilt Port Royal; while winter after winter the smoke of fur-traders’ huts curled into the still, sharp air of these frosty wilds, till at length, with happier auspices, plans of settlement were resumed. (p. 239, vol. I)

The subject matter, the invasion/settlement of North America, lends itself well to being viewed as an adventure of wills, of villains and heroes struggling for dominance.  Never mind that Parkman, even more so than many of his contemporaries, often portrays the local nations as being oft-perfidious “savages,” whose lust for scalps and mutilations makes them frequent foils for these intrepid explorers.  While there are some exceptions to be found in these volumes, for the most part this is a history that downplays the intricacies of Franco-Native interactions.  This is most apparent in the final volume, Montcalm and Wolfe, as the nations are reduced to little more than waves of savages who aid the French (minus the notable exception of the Six Nations).

Yet despite this major flaw (at least for a one-time historian living in the early 21st century), this narrative approach does make the events of 1535-1763 a compelling read.  This is especially true in two volumes, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West and Montcalm and Wolfe, where Parkman’s penchant for describing key historical figures as though they were characters in a novel makes for an absorbing, quick read.  La Salle in particular is a quasi-saint among ruffians, as his single-minded vision for establishing a true French empire in the forests of North America makes him a truly tragic hero whose denouement, long-foreshadowed, is nonetheless more poignant for its seemingly inevitability.

However, Parkman is more than a one-trick pony.  Vivid and as well-constructed as his tales of historical heroes and villains might be, his use of primary sources is also important.  For the most part, leaving aside his almost calumnious depictions of Native Americans, his histories contain a plethora of citations of letters, diaries, and official documents.  While it might be inconvenient for monolingual readers, Parkman frequently cites, untranslated, various observations by the historical figures and their contemporaries, in his footnotes and appendices.  These citations lend a gravity to the texts that might otherwise have been missing.  His research is extensive and while some of his conclusions can be debated (such as viewing New France versus the English colonies as an extension of feudal/clerical powers vs. incipient liberty-seeking yeomen), the documents themselves do provide a lot of support for other arguments of his, namely the inherent weaknesses in establishing a colony that was based more on the exploitation of natural resources (especially furs) than on the cultivation of these resources.

On the whole, France and England in North America is a well-written, relatively well-researched mid-to-late 19th century history that was written during a time when historiography was being to switch from a narrative-heavy, ideological view of the past toward a more document-based, “scientific” approach toward studying past events.  While some of Parkman’s terminology and conclusions might be cringe-worthy today, his fast-paced, person-centered tales create a vivid, complex tapestry of events and people that makes for a gripping read.  It certainly is one of the better examples of 19th century American histories available today for readers curious about colonial settlements but who may not wish to be bogged down with thorough examinations of contemporary societal trends.

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

June 18th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
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.