"'I know what's to be the end of it, as far as I am concerned' replies Mrs. Pipchin, 'and that's enough for me. I'm going to take myself off in a jiffy."
'In a which, Mrs Pipchin,' says Mrs. Chick.
'In a jiffy,' retorts Mrs. Pipchin, sharply."
"'I know what's to be the end of it, as far as I am concerned' replies Mrs. Pipchin, 'and that's enough for me. I'm going to take myself off in a jiffy."
'In a which, Mrs Pipchin,' says Mrs. Chick.
'In a jiffy,' retorts Mrs. Pipchin, sharply."
Charles Dickens and I are intimate friends and have been so since 1952, when, delighted and astonished, I zoomed through David Copperfield -- the first of ten or a dozen readings. At this very moment, I'm renewing our long asymmetrical friendship by re-reading the fifteen novels (fourteen and a half, actually, inasmuch as Dickens collapsed while Drood was still in process). It's my third pilgrimage through the collected works; first in the summer of 1969, again sometime in the early 1980s, and now once again (no doubt the last). I know a couple of the novels almost word for word -- Great Expectations, for example, -- but others, such as Barnaby Rudge -- gosh, I don't think that I could say any more about it than that it's a historical novel and that it contains both riots and a conspicuous cherry ribbon. I don't know any more about Barnaby Rudge than your average man on the street. Despite these blank spots, my relationship with Dickens has been enduring and satisfying. Troubled, some of the time, but always rich and complex.
He's the best of novelists; he's the worst of novelists. Dickens' formula is "make 'em laugh, make' em cry, make 'em wait." Waiting must have come easier in previous centuries. It's a good thing that I'm a patient person, because these 800-pagers can wear a reader down. There are times in almost every one of the novels in which I would be happier if there was a trifle less waiting. On the other hand, laughing and crying have remained a splendid part of the Dickens experience. No matter how much I steel myself against the obvious tearjerker death or disaster looming at chapter's end, I still fall into the Dickens trap and besprinkle my Penguin with hot tears -- not as plentiful, I think, as those that I let fall when poor David's mother died in 1952, but no less genuine. And when Aunt Betsey threatens to tread on Miss Murdstone's bonnet or when Trabb's boy lashes himself with his empty blue bag -- well, even after all these years, I can't help but break into loud laughter. When he goes after Chadband and Creakle and Podsnap, he's unequalled. No one can equal Dickens for comedy.
I am convinced that the finest moment in all of nineteenth-century literature occurs just in Bleak House, just after the death of poor Jo the crossing sweeper, when Dickens stops the novel right in its tracks and directs the full force of his indignation at his own indifferent country: "Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day." There has never been another writer who had the magnificent effrontery, the bravura daring, to so attack his readers, high and low. Dickens is a force of nature, not to be judged by ordinary canons of literary excellence.
But Dickens can also be awful -- sentimental, gooey, repetitive, obsessive. Sometimes the satire is ill-aimed. Why is it so ridiculous to be concerned with the victims of imperialism? Perhaps the denizens of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the NIger, need all the help they can get. Why should Mr. Guppy or young John Chivery to be so pilloried, just because they dare to love above their stations? Why does Dickens have so much trouble with ambitious or wronged women? Don't Miss Dartle and Miss Wade have a right to be angry? And what about Dickens' Jewish problem? His bigotry disfigures the page and makes the philosemitic Mr. Riah even more offensive than horrid old Fagin. And then there are all those monsters of goodness: the weak-tea Brownlows and Clennams. Dickens is sometimes faulted for his caricatures, but his grotesques are a thousand times more realistic and more interesting than his faultless, blameless, bowel-less goody-goodies. And there are moments of high stupidity, such as Mr. Krook's death by spontaneous combustion. Goodness gracious -- the greatest of hearts supported by the most ordinary of brains.
Up next in my final passage through thovels, already two-thirds of the way to the finish line: Dombey and Son, where I'm going to cry at Paul's death, be offended by perfect Walter Gay, giggle at Mr. Toots, marvel at Edith Grainger, and spend far too much time transfixed by Carker's teeth.
In Pickwick Papers, Pickwick checks into the Great White Horse Inn in Ipswich, is shown to his room by a chamber-maid only to discover that he's left his watch downstairs. He retrieves it but then cannot find his way back to his room. He's utterly, hopelessly lost. "Rows of doors... branched off in every possible direction. A dozen times did he softly turn the handle of some bed-room door which resembled his own, when a gruff cry from within of "Who the devil's that" caused him to steal away.... He was reduced to the verge of despair when an open door attracted his attention. He peeped in.... There were the two beds, whose situation he perfectly remembered." Pickwick steps inside and has removed his clothes when another person enters the room. He conceals himself. Bad turns to worse. "Mr. Pickwick almost fainted with horror and dismay. Standing before the dressing-glass was a middle-aged woman in yellow curl-papers, busily engaged in brushing her hair.... 'I never met with anything so awful as this,' thought Mr. Pickwick, 'what a dreadful thing.' Uncertain how to proceed, Pickwick 'ha-hums.' "Gracious Heaven!" said the middle-aged lady, "what's that?" "It's -- it's -- only a gentleman, ma'am." "A gentleman!" said the lady, with a terrific scream. "It's all over!" thought Mr. Pickwick."
The expected complications ensue. At last, Pickwick flees, carrying his clothes and dropping his shoes. But the nightmare continues because he still can't locate his assigned chamber. Fortunately, he runs into his servant, Mr. Samuel Weller, who escorts him back home.
Clearly, Mr. Pickwick is directionally disabled.
Am I the only directionally-challenged person for whom Pickwick's story is a horrible fear. I've had repeated nightmares of exactly this complexion. In fact, I've dreamed this very dream dozens, perhaps scores of times. I check into a hotel, go for a walk in a strange city and then, for some reason, the elevator doesn't go to my floor, or the staircase comes to a sudden end, or the room numbers go from 401 to 405 when I know that my room is 403. I wander endlessly until I wake up in a sweat, heart pounding.
And now I have to admit that I once narrowly dodged this embarrassment. In real life. I was staying at a bed-and-breakfast somewhere in the west of Ireland. There was no private bathroom -- the facilities were down the hall and a half a flight downstairs. In the middle of the night, after obeying a call of nature, attempting to return to my room, I stepped into a room that was not mine. I was just about to get into bed with a strange party when I realized my predicament. Fortunately, I was able to escape without waking anyone. I found my own room (good thing there were only two to a floor) but I was in quite a state for an hour or so.
As I'm writing this, I'm guessing that most of my readers will harrumph their feelings of superiority. "Couldn't happen to me." My directionally dyslexic friends, however, will understand. And they will also know why I sympathize and empathize with poor Pickwick.
In order to illustrate the precarious social standing of Mr. Smouch, who takes Pickwick into custody for debt, Dickens described his carriage as neither one thing or another.
"The vehicle was not exactly a gig, neither was it a stanhope. It was not what is currently denominated a dog-cart, neither was it a taxed-cart, nor a chaise-cart, nor a guillotined cabriolet; and yet it had something of the character of each and every of these machines. It was painted a bright yellow, with the shafts and wheels picked out in black, and the driver sat, in the orthodox sporting style, on cushions piled about two feet above the rail. The horse was a bay, a well-looking animal enough; but with something of the flash and dog-fighting air about him, nevertheless, which accorded both the vehicle and his master."
The original readers of Pickwick Papers would have known exactly what is meant by a "guillotined cabriolet." I suspect that there's a joke there, but the joke has perished. I certainly don't get it.
Is there also joke in "bright yellow?" What is the usual color of a gig or stanhope?
There might be all kinds of jokes in the following list of socially-crepuscular horsedrawn vehicles, none of which precipitate hilarity, but of which the sum amuses me greatly: barouche, basket carriage, berlin, britchka, brougham, buckboard, buggy, cabriolet, caleche, cariole, carryall, chaise, chariot, clarence, concord wagon, coupe, croydon, curricle, cutter, daumont, dearborn, dennet, diligence, dog-cart, fiacre, fly, fourgon, four-wheeler, gig, go-cart, governess cart, hansom, herdic, jaunty car, jersey-wagon, kibitka, landau, patache, phaeton, pill-box, post-chaise, rockaway, shandrydan, shay, sociable, spider-phaeton, spring-van, stanhope, sulky, surrey, T-cart, telyezhka, tilbury, tarantass, trap, troika, victoria, vis-a-vis, wagonette, and wurt.
It's been a Charles Dickens revival here. The Dickens formula -- "make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait" -- works as well for me now as it did fifty years ago.
I was curious to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, so I trotted over to the library and found a newish biography of Dickens. It looked eminently respectable: St. Martin's Press and its author a "Professor of English Studies" at the University of Stirling.
But youch, what a travesty the new "biography" turned out to be.
Here follow some sentences (none of which I've altered in the least) from a book which has the temerity to call itself Charles Dickens, A Literary Life. Prepare yourself for pretention, bathos, meandering metaphors and syntactic peculiarities marinated in post-modern obfuscation. Savor these monstrosities.
"'Dickens,' a convenient and perhaps unavoidable label, masks a range of Dickenses, which, taken together, constitute a highly complex whole."
"In short, this book will attempt to separate out at least some of the contextual forces that flowed through Dickens's pen along with the ink at the moment when he sat down to the ostensibly solitary and private process of making that series of black marks on white paper that we call novels."
"Suffering is a crucial part of the artistic process and the artist is seen as quite different from the ordinary run of people through his possession of a creative power akin to that of God in His creation of the world."
"This aspect of his career can be explored in a number of ways, in his deep respect for his own activity as a novelist as well as in an intense concern to extract his full pound of flesh financially from publishers and also, in a sense, from the public."
"A dramatic opening and an exciting climax are desirable features of any narrative, but the desire to impose them on historical narratives may distort the flow that is an inherent aspect of historical process."
"But the facts and arguments of this chapter show that the point at which Pickwick Papers came into being was one of turbulence in publishing which carried with it, as periods of turbulence always do, possibilities of movement in a variety of directions."
"The serial violates the decorum appropriate to high art and the imagery of the passage embodies a distate of profusion which could be likened to a class-based disdain for the crowded urban environment and dislike of such new-fangled phenomena as the railway."
"Public school meant the classics and, in England, university spelled Oxford or Cambridge, 'advantages' which Dickens conspicuously lacked."
I could wisecrack about each of the above sentences, but I'm in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger frame of mind. Why oh why do academics feel they have to write this way? Such woeful prose and trumpeting obviousness compromise the reputations of sober scholars and teachers.
Does the author of this book realize that he's bamboozling himself? Does he know how ridiculous he is?
Miss Dusenberry was a formidable presence. She was a teacher of English at Erasmus Hall High School. It was 1954 or 1955 and I was a junior, carrying just sixteen years of experience on my skinny back. To my shy, inhibited self, Miss Dusenberry (Edna? Grace?) was perceived as ancient (50s), statuesque (5' 10"), domineering (she spoke authoritatively on all things literary) and wildly eccentric. She wore fragrant cosmetics and bedecked herself with so many bracelets and bangles that she jingled atonally when she strode around the room.
My performance did not please her. It was Miss Dusenberry who derailed my career, demoting me from the honors track in English (where the bright students were grouped and where lessons were taught) to the general track where classrooms were disorderly, students ranged from noncompliant to sociopathic, and it was assumed that nothing would be learned, and it wasn't.
Yesterday, on an odd impulse, I read Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown for the first time in close to sixty years. It is more shocking to me now than it could possibly have been in the 50s, when I had no equipment to understand puritanism or the manichean view of the world. The story is more alarming for what it takes for granted about American culture than for what it consciously critiques. It's not, and never has been, my America.
Not only was I distressed by the story, but my mind flew back, or regressed, to Miss Dusenberry, who tried to present the story to unsophisticated, unempathetic me back there in the Duke Snider/Joe McCarthy/Sid Caesar era. No wonder that I flopped in Miss D's class. Good grief, was I ever unwordly/unPuritan. On my intellectual horizon, the big question was whether Roy or Gil went hitless for two days in a row. I had not the merest tad of experience (or even reading0 to bring to bear on the elucidation of a dark allegorical treatment of severe Calvinist soul-sickness. Didn't, for that matter, know what Christians were talking about, except that the women and the kids dressed up and went to mass on Sundays (in our Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrant neighborhood, men stayed home and washed the car). There were no devils, real, imaginary, or allegorical in my deep, mysterious forests -- and no forests either, in concrete Brooklyn. I had no concept of spiritual despair or sin or damnation or salvation or any such things -- still don't in fact -- not in any personal way.
Anyway, back in Erasmus Hall, Miss Dusenberry led the class through some stories by Hawthorne. We might even have read The House of Seven Gables -- that other novel, the one with the A-word, would have been far too sexual and embarrassing. Then came the unit exam and that's when the allegorical world of Calvinism hit the fan of naive literalism. The topic on which we were assigned to write an in-class essay was "Is there balm in Gilead?"
I got to tell you, I was buffaloed.
It's easy to look back now, fifty-five years later, and translate the sentence into "in Hawthorne's view, is there hope for spiritual redemption in a fallen universe?" An invitation, I must say, to turn the bullshittery up to eleven. But I didn't know "balm" and I certainly didn't know "Gilead." I didn't know the hymn or "The Raven" and I most certainly didn't know that there was any such thing as a Book of Jeremiah containing dark sentences to be interpreted allegorically or mystically.
So I failed, ignomiously. Not the worst failure of my childhood -- being thrown out at home plate when I had been sent in as a pinch-runner was a far greater ignominy. But to tell truth, I've never made my peace with Miss Dusenberry. Her bangles occasionally rattle my sleep. Hawthorne? well, I've just kind of set him to one side.
The Crackanthorpe name is not as well known as it should be. The short stories in Wreckage (1893) are a good sharp antidote to the pieties and sentimentalities of Victorian fiction.
There must be hundreds of novels which feature a virtuous, long-suffering heroine, who, however mistreated, turns cheek after cheek until her patience is rewarded with a beau and an unexpected inheritance. Think Jane Eyre.
Here is Hubert Crackanthorpe's version of this archetype:
"A blind desire to silence [Aunt Lisbet], to stamp the life out of her, swept over Lilly. Seizing the parasol, which lay on the kitchtable, with all her strength she [had] hit Aunt Lisbet across the side of her head.
And over the thought of that blow she lingered, recalling it again and again, repeating it in her mind with a strange, exquisite pleasure. For into it she had put the hatred of years.
Aunt Lisbet uttered a low, plaintive moan -- the curious moan of sudden pain -- and fell, dragging with her on to the floor a pile of plates.The crash sent every nerve in Lilly's body tingling, but when, a moment later, Aunt Lisbet moved to get up, the blind, murderous desire returned. Another brutal blow of the parasol, and she knocked her back again."
Hubert Crackanthorpe drowned (perhaps accidentally, perhaps taking his own life) at age 26. His fiction is sometimes compared to that of de Maupassant, but I prefer to think of him as the Dostoevsky that England never produced.
I've just read, and much enjoyed, a novel called Mrs. Peixada, by one Sidney Luska. The novel was published in 1886 by Cassell & Company. Limited, at 739 Broadway, in New York City. I had it recalled it from the library's archives, where, from all the evidence, it hadn't been touched for a hundred or so years. Why did I read this book? Because a) I'm reading stuff from the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and b) because the novel is listed in the bibliography of the wonderful anthology Victorian Love Stories (1996) edited and illuminated by Kate Flint -- an anthology which persuaded me that although I think of myself as moderately well read in Victorian fiction, there are untold riches out there of which I am embarrassed to be unaware.
Mrs. Peixada isn't exactly a shower of gold, but it's a revelation. The author "Sidney Luska" turns out to be a pseudonym for Henry Harland, who is better known for his second career as an editor of the Yellow Book. I guess that Mrs. Peixada falls into the broad category, novel of sensation, but it's also a mystery story laced with occasional touches of social comedy and progressive social thought.
The plot could be next year's blockbuster movie. Arthur Ripley woos and falls in love with the mysterious young widow, Ruth Lehmyl, who has recently moved into an apartment in his Beekman Place neighborhood. We're treated to the details their sophisticated and modern courtship -- music, museums, poetry. At the same time, Ripley, a lawyer, has been engaged to track down a murderess named Mrs. Peixada, who fled New York after being acquitted on grounds of insanity of murdering her husband. Ripley trackes her from Vienna to Rome and then to London, but then loses her trail. He marries Mrs. Lehmyl -- only to discover that she and Mrs. Peixada are one and the same person and that he has betrayed her.
Although there are holes in the plot through which a daumont or shandrydan could be driven with room to spare, the novel is engaging and intriguing. But then I'm an easy mark.
Perhaps our screen writers aught to do some looking at the lower tier of Victorian novels -- especially if (as it seems) they're interested in making lower-tier movies.
But for me -- it's time to learn more about Henry Harland.
I have just read,for the first time ever, Agnes Grey (1847) by Anne Bronte, and what a infinitely sad book it is! Poor Agnes, an impoverished clergyman's daughter, goes as a governess and is daily humiliated by monstrously spoiled children and their grotesquely insensitive parents. Her sufferings are poignantly particularized. The novel is structured as if it were a comedy (after extended tribulations, Agnes marries a decent young curate) but it is nevertheless barren, desiccated, and joyless. Even the long-awaited marriage proposal receives the shortest of shrifts:
"And so now I have overruled your objections. Have you any others. "No -- none." "You love me then," he said, fervently pressing my hand. "Yes."
And that's all the romance that this poor downtrodden, passive, beaten-into-the-dust emotionally-stunted "heroine" is granted.
Nevertheless, my own personal sadness while reading this novel arose not from Agnes Grey's suffering, but from Anne Bronte's -- there being not a skin-of-the-teeth space between the bedraggled writer and the bedraggled protagonist. Agnes's experiences as a governess exactly mirror Anne's -- except there was no saving curate to snatch the wedding chestnuts out of the fire. Poor Anne returned home defeated, virginal, and alone, to die at age 28, of tuberculosis. Nor is it simply the doormat heroine or the downtrodden novelist that is so distressing -- it's the general oppression of women in the first part of the nineteenth century that must draw a tear from the stolidest of eyes. Here's a society that offered no decent options for women, and even Anne Bronte, as talented as she was, hadn't the least ability to think her way through attitudes toward women that proved to be paralyzing and ultimately fatal.
I turned to Agnes Grey because I had recently read Anne's older sister Charlotte's Villette, a novel that perplexed me more than any book I've read in years. I couldn't make sense of it. I've read my share of nineteenth-century novels, and I would like to think that I have a general sense of how they're made, and, after I get a few chapters in, how they must conclude. In Villete, all the early markers point to the eventuality that young Lucy Snowe, after the customary and appropriate difficulties and misunderstandings will have been resolved, will marry the handsome young Dr. John. But somewhere in Book II, the game changed and the poor reader (me) became confused. Dr. John is allowed to make some bad choices -- sufficiently wrong that he becomes superfluous and gradually fades into the background. He metamorphosizes from a major character in the first half of the book to a minor character in Book III. His place as Lucy Snowe's suitor is taken by a teacher, M. Paul Emanuel, who is nasty and unatttractive when introduced but who becomes more and more acceptable as the novel proceeds. I couldn't comprehend the seismic shift untill I read the truly excellent biography of CB by Lyndall Gordon (Charlotte Bronte, A Passionate Life (1994). It turns out the plot of the novel parallels CB's experience in Brussels. Initially attracted to a young man who lost interest in her, she fell deeply in love with a teacher at her school. Alas, M. Heger was not available, either matrimonially or emotionally.
But at least Charlotte, unlike Anne, was willing to take a risk -- which is why, in Charlotte's greatest novel, witty, forthright, independent Jane Eyre, for all her weirdness, remains such a striking and refreshing alternative to the ordinary oppressed nineteeth-century heroine.
J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is an anti-bildungsroman -- a "novel of education" without the least shred of moral, intellectual, or spiritual growth. Holden Caulfield, the novel's naive yet jaded narrator, learns absolutely nothing either about himself or about life. Unable to profit from his various encounters, he dismisses almost everyone he meets as "phony." That one adjective, repeated incessantly and ad nauseam, might lead a reader to hope that Holden will find authenticity somewhere in his horizon, but The Catcher in the Rye is not a novel that rewards optimism. It concludes with a vision of Holden's pre-pubescent sister Phoebe going "round and round" on a symbolic carousel-- going nowhere, it would seem -- and in a brief coda Holden himself has been institutionalized and placed under the care of an unsympathetic psychoanalyst. Nor does the whiff of Humbertism in the relation between Holden and young Phoebe contribute any last-second learning or cheer.
Even in the 1950s, The Catcher in the Rye enjoyed a cadre of fiercely loyal partisans who powerfully identified with Holden Caulfield. I didn't believe then, and certainly don't believe now, that Holden mirrored the anguish of my own particular soul. I was not a true believer, and I was not entranced by Holden. For me, the novel was nothing more than a better-than-average coming-of-age story -- although a dispiriting one because Holden Caulfield does not mature but instead remains stranded in perpetual, painful adolescence.
A novel without hope, The Catcher in the Rye has become an inspiration for the hopeless. In Los Angeles, in 1989, twenty-one-year-old Robert Bando shot and killed a young actress whom he had been pestering with trinkets and messages. In a nearby alley, police found a .357-caliber handgun, a bloody shirt, and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Two years later, John Hinckley shot and crippled James Brady and almost succeeded in assassinating Ronald Reagan. Hinckley had fantasized that killing the president would impress the actress Jodie Foster, whom he imagined that he was wooing. In his pocket he carried a well-read, tattered paperback of -- you guessed it --The Catcher in the Rye. In 1980, on Manhattan's West Side, Mark David Chapman, concealing his pistol under a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, shot John Lennon five times at point blank. He had inscribed his copy of the novel with the words "To Holden Caulfield from Holden Caulfield" -- Chapman had tried to legally change his name to that of Salinger's troubled narrator. From jail, the proud murderer issued an endorsement: "My wish is for all of you to someday read The Catcher in the Rye." At his trial Chapman asserted that he had killed Lennon because the singer had become "phony," and at his sentencing he read to the judge the section of the book in which Holden tells his sister Phoebe that he imagined himself in a field of rye with "thousands of little kids" whom he must prevent from falling off "the edge of some crazy cliff."
The Catcher in the Rye still sells well (15,000,000 copies in print by 1996) and has become a fixture in the high school and college classroom, where successive generations of adolescents can calibrate their degree of angst against Holden's. But increasingly, and paradoxically, attention has turned from the novel to Salinger himself, who has not published anything since 1965 and, secluded in his Cornish, New Hampshire retreat, has become the world's most notorious hermit since St. Simeon Stylites mounted his pillar in sixth-century Antioch. Although he is a hermit, Salinger is anything but a saint. In 1987, in a bizarre echo of Holden-obsessed stalkers, Salinger, then sixty-eight years old, flew to California and barged onto the set of the TV show Dynasty in search of one of the series's starlets, Catherine Oxenberg, with whom he had apparently fallen into long-distance electronic infatuation. He was "escorted" off the set. Did Catherine Oxenberg have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. Several, in fact, including Joyce Maynard, described as "the Lolita of all Lolitas," who was eighteen and a freshman at Yale in 1972 when Salinger, at the age of fifty-three, initiated a romance by sending her a fan letter. These and other even less savory details about Caulfield-Salinger's life can be found in Paul Alexander's thin, amateurish biography Salinger (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999), which does not propose, although it might, that J. D. has learned as little about life as his most famous character.
The miller in The Miller of Angibault is, according to George Sand, really, really huge. "The big miller descended, stretching, from his corn-loft, cracking the joints of his long arms and legs. He was well-proportioned, robust, easy in his movements, and strikingly featured. This speciment of the countryside was remarkable for a region whose inhabitants are generally on the short side." How tall was this "tall miller?"
Nineteenth-century novelists rarely give us hard data, but George Sand provides the exact measurement for this "specimen." "Grand-Louis" is exactly five feet eight inches tall!
Le Meunier d'Angibault was written in 1844. It's in Thackeray's Pendennis (1850), I think, that one of the female characters is described as a "maypole" of five feet four inches.
I wonder how tall Shakespeare imagined Helena -- the famous "painted maypole" of A Midsummer Night's Dream to be. Probably just as tall as the boy who played the part, but how much would that be in inches?
Height is believed to have increased a centimeter a decade in western Europe from 1850 to 1950. Is it possible that the great heroes of antiquity -- Hector, Samson etc. -- were all under five feet tall? My grandfather was just a hair above five feet tall.
The average height of American males was 5' 8" in 1960 and is 5' 9 1/2" today. How tall would a Louis have to be today to be called Grand-Louis?
Edith Wharton loved the "motor" but never lost her nostalgia for the horse drawn vehicles of her youth.
A passage in A Backward Glance (1932) conveys the novelty and thrill of her virgin voyage.
"There were no motors in 1903; but as a toy for the rich they were beginning to appear. My old friend George Meyer was the owner of a magnificent specimen. I had never been in a motor before, and could hardly believe that were to do the run from Rome to Caprarola and back (fifty miles each way) in an afternoon. The car was probably the most luxurious, and certainly one of the fastest, then procurable; but that meant only a sort of high-perched phaeton without hood or screen, or any protection from the wind. I had the high seat like a coachman's box . Off we tore across the Campagna, over humps and bumps, through ditches and across gutters, windswept, dust-enveloped, I clinging to my sailor hat. I spent the next days in bed, fighting an acute laryngitis. In spite of this I swore then and there that as soon as I could make money enough, I would buy a motor, and having a delicate throat, scoured the country in the hottest weather swaddled in a stifling hood with a mica window, till some benefactor of the race invented the wind-screen and made motoring an unmixed joy."
The twentieth-century "motor" was hectic, prone to breakdowns, and erratic. In contrast, the vehicles of Newport, Rhode Island of Wharton's aristocratic youth were dignified and stately, as much for display as for utility. "Young ladies, married or single, expected to be taken for an afternoon drive by the master of the house. The vehicles of the fashionable young men were either dog-carts (drawn by a pair driven tandem) or a high four-wheeled conveyance called a T-cart, which was drawn by one big stepper, while the older men drove handsome phaetons with a showy pair, and an impressive groom with folded arms in the rumble. Carriages, horses, harness and grooms were all of the latest and most irreproachable cut, and Bellevue Avenue was a pretty scene when the double line of glittering vehicles and showy horse-flesh paraded between green lawns and scarlet geranium borders."
"Dog-cart?" "Phaeton?" "T-cart?" What do these words signify? And moreover, what the heck was a daumont, "preceded by outriders, which swayed gracefully on its big C-springs to the rhythm of four high-stepping and highly-groomed horses, a postilion on one of the leaders, and two tremendous footmen perched high at the back."
For more philosophizing on these nineteenth-century horse drawn conveyances, click here.
I've been reading the novels of Edith Wharton. It's been one heck of a thrilling experience. The Age of Innocence is a world-class masterpiece, as subtle a novel as any that I've read in years, and The Buccaneers, which Wharton left uncompleted at her death, is almost as good (fortunately, she left behind a plot summary so we know how it was to conclude. (Edith, couldn't you have hung on for just a few more weeks?! In addition, I was dazzled by The Reef and The Children. Also a couple of volumes of short stories. I'm now reading the very intriguing Glimpses of the Moon. And all the while, I'm wondering how I could have passed over all this great stuff in my first seventy years and still considered myself a serious reader. Wharton wrote forty books and I think that until this month I had only read The House of Mirth, which, it turns out, is her most notorious but not her finest work. But I'll give H of M another chance -- when I come to with new perspective.
Edith Wharton and her great contemporary Henry James are often bracketed -- both of them upper-class New Yorkers and writers of "psychological" fiction. I suppose there's some justice to the comparison, but I prefer to think of Wharton's works as a culmination and also a critique of the great Victorian novelistic tradition. One (of many reasons) is that nineteenth-century fictions often revolve around the keeping of secrets. In the archetype, Mr. A loves Miss B, and Miss B loves Mr. A, but some sort of social constraint forbids them to acknowledge or to speak their love until 450 pages have elapsed. Wharton repeatedly brings these conventions out into the open in order to rip them to shreds. She scrutinizes and satirizes the imprisoning systems of manners (as well as conventions of fiction) that the earlier era left unchallenged. She punctures taboos.
The secret that underlay all of those punishing proprieties was, in one form or another, sex: sexual needs, sexual passions, sexual gratification. The godawful messiness of it all.
When the twenty-three year old Edith Wharton was about to be married, she was ignorant and terrified of sex (and this despite the fact that she was then known, and I don't [and couldn't] make this up, as "Pussy" Jones ["Jones" as in 'keeping up with the Joneses', "Pussy" an affectionate diminutive certainly not employed in its modern street-corner signification]). Like many another young lady, she turned to her mother ( in her case, Lucretia Rhinelander Jones, the 'best-dressed woman in New York') for advice. The outcome was catastrophic. So here it comes, sex ed in Victorian America, recollected in anything but tranquility:
A few days before my marriage, I was seized with such a dread of the whole dark mystery, that I summoned up courage to appeal to my mother, & begged her, with a heart beating to suffocation, to tell me "what being married was like." Her handsome face at once took on the look of icy disapproval which I most dreaded. "I never heard such a ridiculous question!" she said impatiently; & I felt at once how vulgar she thought me.
But in my extremity of need I persisted. "I'm afraid, Mamma--- I want to know what will happen to me!"
The coldness of her expression deepened to disgust. She was silent for a dreadful moment, then she said with an effort: "You've seen enough pictures and statues in your life. Haven't you noticed that men are -- made differently from women?"
"Yes," I faltered blankly.
"Well, then ---?"
I was silent, from sheer inability to follow, & she brought out sharply: "Then for heaven's sake don't ask me any more silly questions. You can't be as stupid as you pretend."
The dreadful moment was over, & the only result was that I had been convicted of stupidity for not knowing what I had been expressly forbidden to ask about, or even to think of."
Poor dear Edith, our hearts go out to you and to all the maidens of the last era. Her "heart beating to suffocation," her pathetic ignorant (not stupid, but ignorant) inquiry, and the imperious mother hiding her embarrassment behind an affectation of anger. O my! Along with the ridiculous idea that furtive (I'm sure) glances at "pictures and statues" could convey any bird-and-bee information of value. Edith's derelict mom punted when she should have pulled her goalie. She missed the "teachable moment." But then again, how do we know what mamma Lucretia knew about sex. Perhaps she had nothing to offer. Perhaps she was one of those Victorian ladies who was taught to lie back and think of England (or, in her case, to think of Washington Square).
Pussy Jones's marriage to Teddy Wharton was a miserable failure. Some of Edith's friends suspected that it was what used to be called a "mariage blanc" -- a marriage without sex. After twenty-eight years and, I'm glad to report, a couple of fervent affairs, Edith divorced Teddy, by that time alcoholic, manic-depressive, and institutionalized. Among her manuscripts Edith left an unfinished pornographic fragment, Beatrice Palmato (which I have not yet read but which is supposed to involve, double-eek!!!, father-daughter incest).
Edith Wharton's passage from unnaturally prolonged innocence to sexual sophistication or perhaps even to sexual derangement summarizes, in little, a big hunk of American social history. In the course of her lifetime, she had to cope with revolutionary changes, and those changes provide the background for some extraordinary and sometimes painful works of fiction.
So I will read on.
[Biographical details are from Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (New York: Knopf, 2007).
Modern readers of the great classic novels of the previous era generally have no clue about the significance of horses and horse-drawn vehicles. As I wrote, right here on this blague a couple of months ago, "no, I'm not obsessed, it's just that I have this little bee in my bonnet about the fact that we gasoline-era moderns understand the exact social significance of jeep, Jaguar, Jetta, and jalopy, but we are, except for specialists, utterly clueless as to the valence of barouche, basket carriage, berlin, britchka, brougham, buckboard, buggy, cabriolet, caleche, cariole, carryall, chaise, chariot, clarence, coupe, croydon, curricle, cutter, daumont, dearborn, diligence, dog-cart, fiacre, fly, four-wheeler, gig, go-cart, governess cart, hansom, jaunty car, jersey-wagon, kibitka, landau, phaeton, post-chaise, rockaway, shandrydan, shay, spider-phaeton, spring-van, stanhope, sulky, surrey, T-cart, telyezhka, tilbury, tarantass, trap, troika, victoria, vis-a-vis, wagonette, and wurt."
What does it tell us when our hero arrives on the scene in a wurt? Does it mean that he is rich and stylish, or vulgar and pretentious, or tasteless, or downtrodden. We don't know, and so we read our own traditional literature with one hand tied behind our backs.
Well, I though that I had made my point, and I thought also that I had exhausted the list of nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles. But then I came upon this passage in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (a truly splendid novel published in 1920, though the action is set in the 1870s).
They [Archer and Countess Olenska] walked back toward Beacon Street, and near the club Archer caught sight of the plush-lined "herdic" which had carried his note to the Parker House, and whose driver was reposing from this effort by bathing his brow at the corner hydrant.
"I told you everything was predestined! Here's a cab for us. You see!" They laughed, astonished at the miracle of picking up a public conveyance at that hour, and in that unlikely spot, in a city where cabstands were still a "foreign" novelty.
The novelty, the herdic, was "a kind of carriage invented by Peter Herdic of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 1881" (so Wharton is guilty of a tiny anachronism). "A predecessor of the taxicab, the herdic was a small two-wheeled carriage that had side seats and an entrance at the back. Their low entry made it easy for passengers to enter and exit the cars. The first herdics carried up to eight passengers. The earliest herdics were painted bright yellow."
Cheers to Peter Herdic, forgotten father of the Yellow Cab.
In Caroline Hentz's The Planter's Northern Bride (1859), Eulalia, the daughter of an New England abolitionist, has married a slave owner and traveled with him to his home in Georgia. Here's what she sees. Warning: be prepared to be shocked and revolted.
"All around, far as the eye could reach, the rich rolling fields of cotton, bearing the downy wealth of the South, stretched out a boundless ocean of green, spotted with white, like the foam of the wave. Soon returning in grand march from the fields, came the negroes, poising on their heads immense baskets, brimming with the light and flaky cotton. Little children looking very much like walking semicolons, toddled along, balancing their baskets also, with an air of self-importance and pride. Eulalia recollected all the horrible stories she had heard of negro insurrections, and thought what an awful thing it was to be at the mercy of so many slaves, on that lonely plantation. When she saw her husband going out among them, and they closed round, shutting him in as with a thick cloud, she asked herself if her were really safe. They gathered around him, eager to get within reach of his hand, the sound of his voice, the glance of his kind, protecting, yet commanding eye. More like a father welcomed by his children than a king greeted by his subjects, he stood, the centre of that sable ring. She had never seen him look so handsome, so noble, so good. As she looked at her husband, standing in their midst, the representative of the fair sons of Japheth, wearing on his brow the signet of a loftier, nobler destiny, every lineament and feature expressive of intellect and power, and then at each of that dark, lowly throng, she felt a conviction that freedom, in its proudest latitude, education with its most exalted privileges, could never make them equal to him. She never dreamed that slavery could present an aspect so tender and affectionate. Do the hundreds and thousands buried in the black coal-pits and wretched dens of Great Britain, who have never heard, in their living graves, of the God who created, the Saviour who redeemed them, pass their sunless lives in greater comfort or fuller enjoyment."
Hey, it's good to be a slave. Apparently. "Tender and affectionate????
I was aware that there were anti-Uncle Tom's Cabin novels, designed to showcase the glories of slavery, but I had never read one. The Planter's Northern Bride is supposedly one of the best of the genre. It has the power to make you despair for the intelligence of the entire human race. Some samples:
"Merry voices singing in the fields of labour or filling up the pauses of toil...."
"The joyful songs and exhilarating laughter of our slaves...."
"The negro has an intense appreciation of beauty and grace, and feels the influence of mental superiority."
"You will see the negro, not as he is at the North, an isolated, degraded being, without caste or respectability, a single black line running through a web of whiteness, but surrounded with the socialities of life, and though doomed to labour, yet free from the cares and anxieties that rest so heavily on us."
Here are the words that Caroline Hentz puts in the mouth of one of Eulalia's slaves.
"I tell you what, Crissy, when de nigger have good massa and good miss, dey well off. When dey have bad massa and missis, dey bad off. Talk 'bout us being on a 'quality with white folks, no such ting. De Lord never made us look like dem. We mustn't be angry wid de Lord, for all dat: He knows best, I 'spise. Look a'me, black as de chimney back, -- dey, white as snow; what great, big, thick, ugly lips I got, -- dere's look jist like roses. Den dis black sheep head, what de Lord make dat for? Dey got putey, soft, long hair, just like de silk ribbons. Now look at dat big long heel, will you?" added Judy, putting out her bare foot in the moonshine, giggling and shaking; "who ever saw de white lady with sich a heel as dat? I do wonder what the Lord made us nigger for? I spect de white dust gin out, and he had to take de black."
Slavery deformed society. Arguments in support of slavery deformed the intellect. The attempt to find supernatural sanction for slavery perverted religion. Slavery incapacitated the slaveholding states. One hundred and fifty years after slavery, they have still not caught up and they are still pulling the country down.
Does Caroline Hentz believe the words that she puts on paper? I believe she does. I believe that she makes these observations and arguments with total sincerity. I also believe that the kind of utterances to which she gives vent, though no longer respectable, no longer made in public, are not dead but continue to appear in VFW halls, in bowling alleys, in union halls, and in truck stops all over the land of the free and the home of the brave.
John Updike's novels are loaded to the ever-loving gills with invocations of the most evanescent and ephemeral manifestations of "popular culture." I can't think of another writer who is so relentlessly fascinated by the most trivial of things. If his novels are to be read in a hundred years, they will not be fully understood unless encrusted with extensive and elaborate footnotes.
"Roy has been carefully shaping can his Total mush into a kind of a pyramid with the back of a spoon." Who will understand the meaning of this sentence. "Total mush?" I imagine a footnote: "'Total' was the brand name of a fibrous dry packaged breakfast food which, when liquids such as milk were added, could be formed into a paste."
Here's another example. Rabbit is musing. "Biblical names. Rachel, Esther. Not always. Barbra, Bette." And here's the putative footnote. "In this passage, Harry muses about the names of Jewish women. "Barbra" (sic) refers to Barbra Streisand, a popular Jewish-American singer and actress of the period. Professor Harvey Wrongbody's assertion that "Bette" refers to Bette Davis is clearly uninformed, as Miss Davis was not Jewish. "Bette" as Professor Wrongbody should have known, references Bette Midler, a performer famous in her day for impersonating Janis Joplin (see Index) in The Rose."
In the first few pages of Rabbit at Rest -- which is perhaps the most consistently fine of Updike's novels, there are dozens or scores of allusions that will test a future annotator's learning. It's highly unlikely that with the passing of generations anyone but specialists in late twentieth-century Americana will be able either to identify or grasp the significance of "this guy Bundy who murdered dozens of women in dozens of states." (Bundy? Is that King Kong Bundy? McGeorge Bundy? Al Bundy?) Or have the least idea what is meant by a "Cabbage Patch doll with its bunchy beige face" or the possible thematic significance of "Cara Lott Gets Hot" or "Winn Dixie" or "Ekerd Drugs" or the National Enquirer or "Planter's Peanut Bar" or "Melanie Griffith" or "Deion Sander's recent arrest." It's only twenty years since Rabbit at Rest was published, and I was there, paying reasonable attention, but frankly, I'm already becoming a bit vague about some of the details.
If I were a novelist of Updike's talent, I would think twice about loading up on trivia that cannot help but barricade the novels from future readers. But perhaps Updike doesn't care. Perhaps he's only interested in the moment and in readers of his own generation. To me, it seems as though he doesn't give a royal fig for the future.
Shakespeare, a writer not for his age alone but for all time, occasionally included references to fleeting phenomena. I rather like it that he did so. I'd be intrigued to learn, once and for all, who was that "red-nosed innkeeper at Daventry" to whom Falstaff refers. But neither Shakespeare nor any other writer with whom I'm familiar so saturated his work with multitudinous and forgettable popcultch trivia.
But perhaps Updike has made the right choice. Perhaps the density of reference makes the novels so credible, so real, that scholars will be happy to annotate and readers will revel and glory in the footnotes.
It's a gamble. My guess is that it's a losing one, but time will tell.
"Yellowface" is the Asian equivalent of theatrical "blackface," as in the case of Warner Oland (a Swede) or Sidney Toler (an Scottish-American) impersonating Charlie Chan. "Yellow Face" is also the name of an uncharacteristic Sherlock Holmes short story -- one that is unusual among Conan Doyle's compositions in that no crime is solved nor none committed, and also because Sherlock Holmes' overconfident deductions prove to be entirely erroneous.
Grant Munro has married a young widow, Effie Hebron, who returned to her native England after her Atlanta husband died of yellow fever. After some years of blissful marriage, Effie begins to act most strangely; she sneaks out to a neighboring house in the middle of the night -- a house at the upper window of which her puzzled husband catches sight of a strange and unnaturally immobile yellow face.
After listening to Munro's narration, Sherlock Holmes confidently theorizes that Effie's first husband did not die, but has secretly returned to England to blackmail his erstwhile wife. But when Munro, Watson, and Holmes break into the house, they discover at the window not a husband come back to life but a young girl, Effie's daughter, wearing a mask to conceal the fact that she is a "little coal-black negress." The mystery is solved: Effie has been behaving peculiarly not because she is seeing another man (as Munro seems to fear) or because she is being blackmailed, but because she was afraid to confess to her second husband that her former mate was black -- even though, she proclaims, "a nobler man never walked the earth."
And so the story proceeds to its climax. How will Munro respond to the revelation? Will he reject his wife, or embrace her? "It was a long two minutes [ten minutes in the first American edition!!] before Grant Munro broke the silence.... He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held out his other hand to his wife, and turned towards the door. 'We can talk it over more comfortably at home,' said he. 'I am not a good man, Effie, but I think I am a better one that you have given me credit for being.'"
"Yellow Face" is designed to be an uplifting story of tolerance and trust and in truth it is extraordinarily progressive, even radical, by the standards of 1894. But it's also a naive story. It elides and dodges the complications that it raises, especially about matters of race. Is it credible, or is it not more fear than fact, that a mixed-race husband and an English woman would produce a "coal-black" offspring. Doyle's belief that such an engendering is possible is a mark of the simplicity of his thinking about race. Moreover, there were strict "anti-miscegenation" laws in Georgia in the last part of the nineteenth century. How did Effie and John Hebron manage to evade them? In what way did they live? Hebron managed to leave a considerable estate to his wife? How did he achieve his wealth?
Doyle is interested in making a case for tolerance and he is interested in Holmes. But he does not much concern himself with the other characters that he creates. He does not explore the psychological costs for Effie when, as she says, "she cut herself off from her race." What prompted her to violate so strong a taboo? And why would a strong and independent woman suddenly become so fearful when she re-married? What did it cost her, emotionally, to leave her child behind in Georgia where a dark mixed-race girl would be so awkwardly situated? How could she conceal so much of her history from Grant Munro without overwhelming guilt? How did she manage to achieve so blissful a union with him while carrying many important secrets? And what about the poor child? Born to an illegal union that is soon fractured by death, then abandoned, then reclaimed and brought to a strange land -- and asked to wear a yellow mask for fear the someone would be shocked by her pigmentation. Doyle does not even broach the question of the damage to the child? And what kind of future can be in store for her in England?
Doyle seems to consider that "Yellow Face" concludes happily -- but does it? While it is certainly to the author's credit that he is unfazed by the taboo against "intermarriage," it is also true that he rests satisfied with easy, superficial, and naive answers to hard questions. Or rather, he does not even seem to realize that he has started a whole pack of hares in motion.
It's curiously negligent that Doyle does not even give a name to the "coal-black negress." She remains a plot-device, not a person.
It is equally odd that Doyle does not find fault with Sherlock Holmes' inability to think past the convention of the genre, where blackmail is a commonplace. Intermarriage, Doyle seems to suggest, is so exotic, so unusual, that it would not occur even to so brilliant a detective as Sherlock Holmes that a yellow mask might hide a black face.
The Updike-athon continues Since my last report, I've read Museums and Women, Bech is Back, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest.
The good news: Updike is fluent, a masterful stylist, a remarkable story-teller, a distinguished craftsman. He's original, entertaining, bold, inventive. The section of Beauty of the Lilies that describe Alma DeMott's childhood in Basingstoke, Delaware is as good as anything I've read in years -- a truly classic piece of writing
The bad news: Updike's characters have no heart They're almost uniformly small-minded, bigoted, hateful, unloving and, in fact, incapable of love. The novels are distressing and depressing. And inconsistent. The Rabbit quartet is reputed to be Updike's masterpiece, but the long section about Skeeter in Redux is a ludicrous mess, a total bomb, a failure that disfigures the entire series
A reader who knew America only through the Rabbit series would be convinced that Americans in the second half of the twentieth century were selfish, money-grubbing, racist, entirely without culture, sex-obsessed, alcoholic, uneducated, insecure, obnoxious, undisciplined and knowledgeable only of TV trivia. I suppose that there are such people -- but there are also substantial citizens, artists and artisans, and good, functioning families. I must say that four large novels in the company of Updike's folk can wear a reader down. I think it's time to re-read Trollope's Palliser novels, where there is villainy but also redemption. I crave an antidote.
Two more Updike novels down the hatch. The first, Seek My Face, published in 2002, is an extended short story rooted in the author's prodigious knowledge of the contemporary art scene. It's casually written -- as if Updike didn't try very hard. Am I excessively sensitive to be insulted that Updike didn't extend himself to invent a plot? The second novel is iRabbit at Rest, composed back in 1990 when Updike was trying harder. Harrry "Rabbit" Angstrom, "hero" of four novels, is a force in modern fiction. He's nasty, amoral, and crude, but hardly more so that the panoply of suburbanite creatures who surround him Updike mercilessly draws attention to everything odious in America culture -- he's the poet laureate of tacky. Rabbit is fascinating but repellent. Whatever happened to "to teach and to delight?"
Every once in a while Rabbit, always, alas, comprehensible, becomes momentarily sympathetic. But then Updike allows him to speak -- and Rabbit's words are invariably aggressive and offensive. I think that the gap between what Rabbit thinks and what Rabbit says is a major structural flaw in the novel -- and one that will eventually push the novels from center to periphery. But time will tell. For now, the Rabbit books are a guide to our own American kind of shallowness -- and so here I am, off to the library or to the second-hand bookstore to hunt down the earlier novels in this series. What does Dickens say about Uriah Heep -- something about "fascinating in his own repulsion." Yes, I think that phrase will serve nicely for Updike's Rabbit.
In Terrorist, Updike takes us inside the head of a young,malleable, soft-spoken Islamist fanatic. The protrayal is persuasive, in part because the horror bigotry is understated and casual. It's quite a feat of imagination on the author's part. It's a good novel -- a page-turner, as they say. It's most remarkable feature is that the hero of the novel is a tired and bedraggled high school guidance counsellor; What a breakthrough -- the guidance counsellor, figure of o-so-much contempt and satire, as savio!. Of course, the contrived/dramatic ending in which the terrorist and the counsellor square off is totally unbelievable, but at least it doesn't involve fistfights or animatrons. On the whole, Terrorist is a very readable, imaginative and largely satisfying novel. It's a bit spare, laconic -- but perhaps it only seems so because I'm also reading Doestoevsky. It's not a novel for the ages -- it's too obviously occasional. And I must say, I'm suspicious of a piece of fiction about the interaction of various ethnicities in which the only two Afro-Americans are a whore and a pimp named Tylenol.
Off to the Bradford Public to see what else is in their Updike holdings.
I've shamefully neglected the writings of John Updike. I read the first Rabbit novel when it appeared in 1960 and was struck by its vigor and authenticity. A talent to watch, I said to myself -- but then I lost track. I loved one of the Bech books, devoured on an airline ride from somewhere to somewhere else twenty years ago. I've been dazzled by short stories in various anthologies and by art criticism in the NYRB. But for a writer considered an American master, nominated for a Nobel -- well, I've been inattentive. And now Updike is gone. I'm late (as usual). To remedy the personal deficiency, I hastened to the Bradford Public Library, where, sad to say, the only Updike on the shelf was one I'd never heard of,Villages, published in 2004.
Villages is billed as an autobiographical novel and appears to be so. It's eminently readable, slickly written (sometimes so facilely that it crosses into self-parody). But, my-oh-my, what an embarrassingly bad performance. It's no more than a sexual history of "Owen Mackenzie" in which the succession of women Owen encounters are diffentiated only by the size and shapes and degrees of mucosity and erectility of their reproductive organs. It's an adolescent novel written by a seventy-year-old eminence. What the heck was Updike thinking?. Why would he waste precious time on such unambitious, indulgent stuff -- unless he took a long-ago manuscript out of a drawer and fooled around with it a bit?
Disappointing indeed. A few years ago, I read through the novels of Philip Roth, who is an exact contemporary of Updike. My conclusion: that Roth (see Books over there on the side of the page) was a writer of arrested development. Oh no, not again!
Let's see if the BPL has anything else by Updike today. Let's hope for the best. Villages has got to be an aberration.
It's been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, which describes events of 1834-36 and was first published in 1840. It's a great piece of writing. I've heard about it since I was a child, but just got around to reading it this week. It's a book that alters my understanding of the early nineteenth century.
Why did I like it so much. Let me count the ways.
1. It's a sensitive work. Dana's a Boston patrician but instead of going to sea as a junior officer, which he could easily have done, he enlists as a common seaman. He describes life on board the ship from the seaman's point of view. I don't know another book that's so honest, so real, and so uncomplaining. Dana later put what he learned to work, becoming an advocate for sailors' rights. His is not a modern sensibility, but on the whole there's far less of the deplorable racist and sexist assumptions that disfigure the earlier literature and make us cringe for our ancestors.
2. I've always loved sea stories. Wasn't I transfixed, as a child, by the Bounty and Hornblower stories? But Dana is leagues ahead. Two Years is non-fiction that is more compelling reading than most fiction. I couldn't put it down. Besides, I had just read Moby-Dick, a thoroughly romanticized version of life on sea. Melville is poetic; Dana is gritty and detailed. I'm sorry, but I'm almost always happier in the world of the enlightenment than the world of nineteenth-century romanticism. Something in the mitochondria, perhaps.
3. A large hunk of the book takes place in California, when it was still part of Mexico and there was a shack or two where there's now Santa Barbara or San Diego or Monterey. It's an invaluable record of California before the gold rush, both picturesque and enlightening
4. It has great characters: ship captains both competent and cruel, sailors brave and cowardly, as well as the occasional onboard eccentric. A good account of naval camaraderie.
5. Language. Some of us enjoy specialized vocabulary of any sort. This book is a treasure trove of words unfamiliar to a landlubber like me. "It was clew up and haul down, reef and furl, until we had got her down to close-reefed topsails, double-reefed trysail, and reefed forepenser." "I threw the downhaul over the windlass, and jumped between the knight-heads out upon the bowsprit. The crew stood abaft the windlass and hauled the jib down, while we got out upon the weather-side of the jib-boom... the great jib boom flying out to leeward and slatting." "The cook made us a mess of scouse." "Dessert was duff." Sometimes Dana lays it on a bit thick, but it's worth it. What is a martingale anyway? Well, "it comprises the parts of the standing rigging which strengthen the bowsprit and jib boom against the force of the head stays" Clears that up. Who's up for a great big helping of scouse?
I read this great so-called classic of American literature once in the '50s and twice in the '60s and I just didn't get it. I've now re-read it and, after forty-something years of seasoning and experience, I'm still a dissenter. Moby Dick is like opera or ballet -- it's so highly stylized that either you buy into it or you don't, and I don't. To me, Melville is a quite ordinary GrubStreet quill-driver whose every sentence screams at the very top of its lungs, "Look at me, I'm Shakespearean." I resent Melville's attempt to draft using WS as puller.
Ultimately, there's a deep incompatibility of sensibility between me and HM. I'm not a big Romantic guy. Baring the soul isn't enough to keep me happy, certainly not for the length of so elongated and dense a novel. Perhaps for a brief lyric.
I like stories. Moby Dick must have the thinnest plot in the history of 800-page novels. Man hunts whale, man finds whale, and (last ten pages) whale wins.
Charles Reade's formula for the long nineteenth-century novel was "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait." Melville neglects the first two of these maxims. There's nothing either amusing or pathetic about Moby Dick but I'm here to tell you that Melville totally mastered the "make them wait" part. Totally.
According to Richard Ellman, whose 680-page extremely- detailed Oscar Wilde (1988) I've now read and enjoyed, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde came out of more colorful family situation than is generally known. Oscar's father, the famous eye surgeon Sir William Wilde, brought three children to his marriage with Jane Elgee -- apparently by three different mothers, none of whom he bothered to marry. The first child, a boy named Henry Wilson, was supported by his father and eventually became a partner in his medical practice. The girls, Emily and Mary, born two years apart, were adopted by Sir William's older brother "as his wards" and were also acknowledged to be part of Oscar's family. Emily and Mary were not so fortunate as their older half-brother. "In the course of showing off their ball dresses before a party, one went too close to an open fire, caught her crinoline in the flames, and was terribly burned. So was her sister, who tried frantically to rescue her. Their gravestone records that they both died on the same day, 10 November, 1871. Sir Williams's grief was intense, and his groans could be heard outside the house." The girls were twenty-four and twenty-two years old. Oscar, born in 1854. was just seventeen at their deaths. Although he wrote voluminously about his own life, Oscar nowhere records this horrific event. But was he affected? Certainly the knowledge that his father lived a second, darker life seems to have made a contribution to the plot of Dorian Gray -- a novel in which Dorian is in love with a woman of questionable birth. Matters of legitimacy are raised in two of Wilde's best known plays. Nevertheless, it seems extraordinary that the tragic deaths of two half-sisters should have left no mark either on Wilde's public or private personality. It might be argued that Wilde's lifelong aim was self-destruction and that his sister's deaths served as a template for his own tragedy -- but such an argument would be weak in evidentiary support. The sisters and the fire is a terrible tale that may signifiy nothing beyond its own horror.
When you consider an adult whom you've known from infancy, you're tempted to think that their traits at maturity were evident from birth. You saw it in them. Shyness or assertiveness or enterprise or doggedness or volubility or curiosity -- all there right at the starting gate. "It stands to reason that she would have entered the field of medicine -- she was always so compassionate." I'm never convinced when people say such thiings. I think that it's easy to make retrospective claims. If a child is interested in fifty things, we look back and only remember the ones that "foretold" -- so to speak -- her mature interests. We forget about the traits that didn't develop or which metamorphosized.
As simple as it is to claim that the mature being is a predictabe exfoliation of childhood traits, just so difficult is it to make actual predictions. In my experience it's almost impossible to look at a two-year-old or a five-year-old or even a sixteen-year-old and extrapolate to the adult. In fact, it's far easier to misjudge a child than to get him or her right. No matter how well you might think you know them, children are hard to read.
These thoughts are prompted by reading Nicholas Murray's skillful new Life of Matthew Arnold. The poet's father, the famous education reformer 'Arnold of Rugby,' a man who should have known better, was absolutely wrong about his son. According to Thomas Arnold, Matt was 'not likely to form intimate friendships," "He flitters about from flower to flower but is not apt to fix." "I do not see how the sources of deep thought are to be reached in him." " He does not know what it is to work because he knows so little what to think." The best he can say: "I think he is not so idle as he was."
Idle! and shallow! Has there ever a been a more colossal misjudgment of a son by a father? Or did Matthew Arnold live the most of his life with a giant "I'll show him" chip on his shoulder?
Come to think of it, I'm rather glad that I don't know what judgments or predictions my father might have made about me.
And now a brief quiz for Metablogian readers who are familiar with nineteenth-century fiction. I will describe the situation and quote a short excerpt, and you will be required to identify the novelist. Ready? Let's go. Here's the story: a clergyman considers whether to commit a murder. Although he takes no concrete action, he's overcome with guilt about what might have been. Here's a sample of his extensive, tortured musings.
He struggled to drive from his mind and from his eyes the phantom of the terrible deed but that he did not succeed was made evident to himself by the hot clammy drops of sweat which came out upon his brow, by his wakefulness through the livelong night, by the care with which his ears watched for the sound of the young man's coming as though it were necessary that he should be assured that the murder had in truth not been done. Before that hour had come he found himself to be shaking even in his bed; to be drawing the clothes around him to dispel the icy cold, though the sweat did still stand upon his brow; to be hiding his eyes under the bedclothes in order that he might not see something which seemed to be visible to him through the utmost darkness of the chamber. Why then, could he not sleep? Why should he be hot and shiver with cold by turns? Why should horrid phantoms perplex him in the dark?
And the correct answer is? Obviously, it's Russian anguish, the novelist is Fyodor Doestoevsky and the passage is from Crime and Punishment.
Except that it's not. Surprise. It's Anthony Trollope, master of manners, anthropologist of English civilization. The character is not Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, but Thomas Greenwood, D. D.; the novel is Marion Fay and the year is 1882. (Crime and Punishment appeared in Russian in 1866, in English in 1914).
In Dostoevsky's novel, Raskolnikov does the deed right at the outset. There's no murder at all in Marion Fay. As is common in Trollope's last novels, there's a flirtation with boundary-breaking (bigamy in Dr. Wortle's School, pre-marital sex in An Eye for an Eye, interclass marriage in this particular novel), but there's also a withdrawl or hesitation. Marion Fay would have been quite something if Trollope hadn't lost his nerve and had let Greenwood pull the trigger. And an even stronger piece of fiction if Lord Hampstead had actually married the low-born tubercular Quaker lass and if Hampstead's sister Frances had married the Post Office clerk George Roden before it was discovered that he was an Italian Duke by birth. But Trollope drew back from the dilemmas he created, alas and alack, and and as a result there is no English parallel to Dostoevsky's radicalism -- more's the pity.
I'm reading, or re-reading (what does it matter when it's been fifty years since the last go-around) Henry James' The Wings of the Dove. Once again, I'm variously stimulated, frustrated and infuriated. Has there ever been a writer who cries out to be parodied more than does Hank the J? Try to resist the impulse to make fun house mirrors of this representative, convoluted sentence.
"Her welcome, her frankness, sweetness, sadness, brightness, her disconcerting poetry, as he made shift at moments to call it, helped as it was by the beauty of her whole setting and by the perception at the same time, on the observer's part, that this element gained from her, in a manner, for effect and harmony, as much as it gave -- her whole attitude had, to his imagination, meanings that hung about it, waiting upon her, hovering dropping and quavering forth again, like vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music."
Let me guess that most of Dr. M.'s loyal readers did not finish reading the quoted bit. They made a good faith attempt at the first few words, then whistled, threw up their metaphorical hands, and surrendered. Or if they did get all the way to the end of the sentence, they were certainly puzzled as to whether they had fully deciphered the Jamesian code. It's not that the sentence has no meaning, but is it worth a reader's time to parse and disentangle its many syntactic knots? Now, dear friends, just Imagine 539 small-print pages of prose, every paragraph on every page loaded with similar abstractions, assertions, modifications, withdrawals, subordinations, and equivocations. It's taxing. James takes it out of you, wears you down.
And therefore let me confess that a big chunk of my Henry James problem is that it's so damn hard to keep the ol' eye on the ball when every sentence is so laborious to construe. In most novels, readers are pulled along by the plot. You might have trouble "getting into it," but once you do, your attention is galvanized and you start to sail. In the case of HJ, there's very little plot, very little in the way of story. It's all hypersubtle character analysis and teasing conversation. I can't speak for every reader, but I must admit that, while reading Wings, my mind frequently took flight. I regularly had to forcibly snap myself back to attention. It's anything but effortless to stay with the Jamester.
But let me return to the exemplary sentence that I quoted above. The two key words are "poetry' (line 1) and "meanings" (line 5). To paraphrase: she (i.e. James's character Millie Theale) has "poetry" and the situation has "meanings." Underneath all the wobbly circumlocutions, that's kind of it.
But neither of these two crucial nouns gives much away. What sort of poetry does Millie 'have,' you might ask?' What particular 'meanings' inhere in the situation? I myself want --crave, in fact -- further definition and explication. That's the novelist's job. If he wants to keep me happy and focused, he has to provide considerably more specificity that HJames deigns to supply. Words such as "poetry" and "meanings" don't constrain a reader; rather, they are empty vessels into which I, or any other reader, can pour a variety of significations. The reader, i.e. me, is simply asked to do far too much of the work. I resent it, some of the time.
Which takes me back to where I came in, in the 50s and 60s, when James was the king of the American canon -- or at least he was very much the boss in the Large Eastern University where I was a graduate student in literature. I don't know how my ever-so-civilized teachers managed it, but to appreciate and understand Henry James was framed not as a test of the author's creative skill, but as a test of the reader's sensitivity. James, it was confidently and regularly asserted, was subtle, delicate, loaded to the gills with the most exquisite sensibility. Did I, a kid from Coney Island Avenue, possess the sophistication, the tact, the sensitivity to grasp James superfine insights and his characters' inclinations and velleities?
You know what? I didn't. I failed the test.
James portrays a world to which I could not easily relate. No one in Wings of a Dove works for living. The characters all live off their incomes, derived who knows how? When HJ has to bring two characters together, he has two choices and two choices only -- a dinner party or a chance encounter at a museum. Action? Yes, the characters travel from one resort city to another. I'm exaggerating just the tiniest bit. There is one character in Wings who has an occupation. Although we never see him at work, Merton Densher is a journalist. Which is precisely his problem. How can he be a suitable mate for Kate Croy if he has a job? How shockingly vulgar!
It was a chore to take James seriously, especially in 1960 and especially for someone of my background. But then, not to take James seriously, not to understand him, was presumed to disqualify a guy from the serious study of literature. Which turned out not to be the case.
But I'm glad to say that I persevered with Wings. If I hadn't, I never would have re-read the infinitely splendid, magnificently tawdry piece of dialogue between Densher and Croy that brings Book 8 to a conclusion -- a conversation that's as well done as anything in English since WS lay down his quill in 1613.
Coming soon to these pages: my Marcel Proust problem. Hint: way worse than my James problem.
I would have thought that there wasn't a novel by Anthony Trollope that I hadn't read, but browsing the library shelves, I found one that was unfamilar to me. It's a short, late novel called An Eye for an Eye. It dates from 1878 (Trollope, born in 1815, died in 1882.
Trollope wrote forty-seven fluent novels and thoroughly mastered his craft. An Eye for an Eye reprises familar motifs, most notably Trollope's favorite situation of the weak hero torn between private and public needs. Shall it be love, this time, or shall it be duty? In this particular case, the hero is young, uncommonly simple Fred Neville, who promises himself to the Irish beauty Kate O'Hara but also agrees that he will never dishonor the Scroope name (he's the heir to the Earl of Scroope) by marrying beneath his station. It's a typical Trollope situation but daring for its time, because Fred impregnates Kate (when? between chapters? Although I thought I was reading attentively, I missed the moment). Trollope creates an awkward situation, but I'm sorry to say, gets himself and Fred off the hook by throwing one of the major characters under the metaphorical bus, so to speak. I don't like it when novelists sidestep the dilemmas that they create. Trollope clearly admires the aristocratic Scroopes, but either volitionally or unconsciously (it's hard to say which) manages to persuade his readers that they're better off giving the upper classes a wide berth.
Trollope was not a learned or innovative thinker, like his greater contemporary George Eliot, but in his later novels he pushed, a little, against Victorian prudery. His last novel, Dr. Wortle's School, which I've recently re-read, deals with the potentially shocking question of bigamy.
I often wonder why I'm such a Trollope fan. There's so much about him to dislike: his crude anti-feminism, his condescension to people of other colors and to non-English nations, his obsessions with class and cash, his disgust with Jews, his ridiculous worship of horses and hunting, etc. And yet, he tells a great story, he loves his characters, and his dialogue is often bright and witty. Although not the kind of writer who transcends time and place, a novel by Trollope is still the best place to go to learn about nineteenth-century England.
What, exactly, is a drag? Here's a sentence from Kate Chopin's edgy (in a Victorian way) 1899 novel, The Awakening. "Alcee Arobin and Mrs. Highcamp called for Mrs. Pontellier one bright afternoon in Arobin's drag." A drag? Could it be "a large four-horse coach with seats inside and on top." O my gosh! It's still another nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicle! Along with a cutter and a kibitka. Memo to self: add to list.
I didn't know of the existence of The Awakening, a novel which had dropped completely off the map, until sometime in the 1980s, when it re-established itself in courses in AmLit. It was a banned book for a while, not, I would guess, because of the adultery itself, but because Edna Pontellier acknowledges and acts on sexual desire. Alcee Arobin, drag-owner, senses her vulnerability, but I don't think that in this case the vehicle figures in the seduction. It's a fine, liberating book, the prose a little on the hothouse-gardenia side, but well worth the re-reading.
If someone had asked me, a month, ago, whether I'd read Crime and Punishment, I'd have sworn up, down, sideways, and seven ways from Sunday that I had done so. And I would confidently have specified the date: during the early 1950s, when anyone who read anything at all knew that "existence preceded essence" and that the grandfather of existentialism was Fyodor Dostoevsky. Who, in those days, would have confessed to ignorance about Raskolnikov, his heady jumbled philosophy, the murder, the remorse? We were all striving to be Alienated Youth, and Raskolnikov was the king of alienation -- a hundred times more alienated than the runner-up, James Dean.
I've just finished reading Crime and Punishment, and I have a confession to make. I didn't remember the plot, the characters, or the outcome. Not the picture of louche, impoverished, oppressive St. Petersburg. Nothing except the mellifluous name: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Come to think of it, I didn't remember the Rodion or the Romanovich either. Just the Raskolnikov part.
Did I read the novel back there in the fifties? If I did, is my memory now so flimsy and porous that I've lost everything? Did I pretend to have read the novel? Or was it so much spoken of that I absorbed it without effort. Whatever the facts, I certainly managed to fool myself.
Crime and Punishment is an exceedingly vivid piece of writing. I think that the trampling of Marmeladov and the suicide of Svidraigalov are such brilliantly written scenes that they could not possibly slip my mind. How could I lose track of the pathetic waif Sonya, her dreadful occuption, or her lunatic stepmother? The grand generous gestures, the poverty, the overwrought emotions, the flaunting of propriety.
It's a thrilling, iconoclastic novel -- painful, and not fun for the morally squeamish. It's absolutely unforgettable.