Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
I tried to imagine a title for this piece, one that would neatly embody the significance of this man whose flow of millions of words had, in the first half of the 20th century, amused and inspired a certain class of Americans, loosely described as sophisticated youth, while annoying and scandalizing their straitlaced elders, but he is too multifarious, too contradictory a figure to be embodied in a phrase. A recent biography is called The Skeptic, and while Mencken was certainly far-famed for his skepticism, it was, to a great extent, an unconscious pose: he was actually very credulous.
He was also a very hardworking, talented newspaperman who developed a brilliant, racy style, a perfect vehicle for his bumptious opinions, a style that gradually took shape in his newspaper columns, the two magazines he edited, and his many books. His purpose, the reason he wrote, as he admitted, was to air his opinions to as wide an audience as possible (a reason that impels a lot of writers, whether they know it or not), and the decade of his greatest prominence was the 1920s, when his iconoclastic opinions - condemning provincialism, the Bible Belt, Rotarians, puritans, evangelists, Prohibition, and Babbitry - matched those of the postwar generation, supposedly disillusioned, our first "adversary culture."
Mencken had only the sketchiest high school education when he went into the newsroom at 18, but, great reader as he was all his life, he had more culture than his confreres, and his convictions about life were substantially settled - unfortunately, because this meant that he had already blocked out of his vision large areas of life: religion, politics, national and international affairs, and much of artistic culture. He wrote about all those subjects, but too often what he wrote was shallow and stupid. His mind was already made up: the people involved were all pious frauds. I do not mean he was not entertaining on these subjects - after all, they are often pious frauds, but that is usually the least important observation to make about them.
You see, as an autodidact he lacked what the educated man has (or used to have), acquaintance, in a systematic way, with at least the surface of the great body of knowledge. Missing that, the autodidact will often be surprised by knowledge, will be astonished by the commonplace. We know that hypocrisy is a universal human failing, hardly confined to Congressmen and the clergy, and are Rotarians really deserving of our scorn?
When he got a job as a reporter on the Baltimore Herald, he was so talented and so diligent, on a mediocre staff, that he was a city editor by the time he was 23. A year later he was managing editor, turning out editorials and unsigned columns. At the age of 25 he wrote the first book published anywhere about George Bernard Shaw's plays. The Herald folded, and he switched to the much better Baltimore Sun, where he remained for the rest of his life. Before long he had his own column on the editorial page where he honed his inimitable style and voiced most of the opinions he would express down the years. He began writing a book review column for a New York monthly, The Smart Set, a magazine he co-edited from 1914-24, when he became the founding editor of The American Mercury for another 10 years.
If I say that many of his books were quarried from his newspaper columns (remember that he was writing a weekly Sun column all this time), I mean that the newspaper would be the first place an idea would be articulated, but then it would be refined in the magazine, and refined again in a book - nothing was bodily lifted from one genre to another. And this was a real refining and expanding exercise, as study of the various forms an argument went through show. Mencken was a remarkably conscientious writer.
His first significant book was A Book of Prefaces (1917), a collection of Smart Set columns on Dreiser, Conrad, "Puritanism as a Literary Force," and so on. As he boasted, it was "the most headlong and uncompromising attack upon the American culture ever made up to that time." Two years later, Knopf brought out Prejudices: The first Series, a collection of his book reviews from the Smart Set, whose effect, gathered in one volume was cumulative, helping to establish him as the champion of new writing. His attacks on the genteel tradition would be his hallmark (there would be six Prejudices in all, now collected in the Library of America).
In 1918 he wrote The American Language, an examination of the uniqueness of our language and how it has evolved from Standard English, a genuine contribution to scholarship and a fascinating book. It went through four revised editions with two Supplements. He also compiled A New Dictionary of Quotations, historically based and organized by subject. In the early 1940s he wrote a series of reminiscent essays for The New Yorker, which finally became books: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, which may be, along with the other books mentioned in this paragraph, his most enduring writings. I cannot recommend the Days books highly enough.
I would have to quote at greater length than I have space to show you the full range of Mencken's style, a style that reflects the joy he took in contemplating what he saw as the circus of American life, but here are a few examples.
I believe that the Old Testament, taught to children, has sent more Americans to hell than even necking or the cigarette.
Have you ever examined carefully the speeches made by candidates in a presidential campaign? If so, you know they are of bilge and blather all compact.
There are whole areas in the South - areas quite as large as most European kingdoms - in which not a single intelligent man is to be found. The politics of the region is vapid and idiotic - a mere whooping of shibboleths. Its literature is that of the finishing school. Its philosophy is the half supernaturalism of the camp meeting, the wind-music of Chautauqua. It has no more art than Liberia.
The delegates, herded about like cattle at the stockyards, show the faces and manners of children on holiday from a home for the feeble-minded. And the so-called leaders, at the highest points of their leading, seldom get beyond the average sense and dignity of the speakers at a luncheon of the Kiwanis Club. Here democracy is making its lowest recorded dip. If it gets any lower it will cease to be human.
Mencken's grandparents emigrated from Germany, and his father, a solid bourgeois (as his son characterized him), was a strong influence on the boy, who took so much pride in his ancestry that he looked up to Germany as a superior culture all his life. He carried this opinion so far that he stopped writing for the Sun during both world wars, knowing his opinions - he wished for English defeat in both wars - would be unpublishable. He consistently underrated Hitler, thinking him only a fool, and he defended the Nazi racial laws on the same grounds the Nazis did: Jews were taking over Germany (the "pushy" argument). Like Lindbergh, he warned American Jews not to agitate for war against Hitler, for fear of igniting a wave of anti-semitism. He was an inveterate anti-semite, but that is merely a sign of his ignorance and credulity; his silence about the Holocaust, however, is utterly damning - and also revealing. What is significant is that he could not say a word about it, even in the confines of his diary, sealed for 35 years after his death. He could still bluster (but only a couple of times) about the "dishonorable and ignominious" role of America in the war, but he daren't say more. He, the prolific wordsmith, was struck dumb, traumatized by the horrendous Nazi crime. His stupidity and prejudice and obstinacy had brought him to a cowardly pass, and he knew it. We should be able to read and enjoy Mencken's writing - we shall never encounter such a consummate stylist in the modern idiom - at the same time that we can see how his character created a moral hazard, finally making this fearless challenger of conventional option an abject coward when faced by the great moral challenge of those years.
In addition to the Days books and The American Language, I can recommend The Impossible H. L. Mencken, a selection of his best newspaper work, and A Modern Chrestomathy, his own selection of his choicest writings. The Skeptic, an excellent biography, is by Terry Teachout. *
It is unfortunate that Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is usually thought of in connection with Henry James, as a sort of female imitation, because thereby her unique gifts are obscured. They seem to write about the same upper-class characters in similar milieux, European or American cities and resorts, and they are both said to write novels of manners, a phrase that vaguely suggests sophisticated characters swapping witty repartee. In fact, the characters needn't be sophisticated and the repartee can be almost wordless, because such novels are truly defined as being about a knowing group of people in a very mannered society, and that can be a poor rustic milieu, as in William Faulkner's The Hamlet or As I Lay Dying. I myself have written stories about the highly mannered folk society of Cape Breton. How the characters maneuver among the rituals, how they are (or are not) bound by them, how they interpret the maneuvers of others - these are the elements of a novel of manners. Here's an instance from a novella I wrote about in my essay on Henry James (15 of this series), Daisy Miller:
In the strictly mannered society of upper-class Americans in Rome, Daisy errs by being too familiar with a man, and Winterbourne, an American who has been thoroughly Europeanized, failing to see her act as an innocent mistake, drops her, only to realize his mistake after her death. But the damning point is made that he stays on in Europe, another in the long line of ineffectual dilettantes endemic in the American novel of manners.
So you see that manners and how characters interpret them, are crucial in such novels.
Note that James is making a moral point: Winterbourne is faulted for allowing manners to blind him to innocence, and he is judged a lesser man for it. Manners are always subordinate in James's work to a moral issue, because he was a moralist. Edith Wharton does not have such a strongly moral, masculine outlook; her judgments are subtler, and she is more interested in manners per se. Her experience growing up in the upper-class society of New York in the 1870s, in what seemed to her a rigidly mannered society about to undergo drastic change, seems to have left her with a lifelong fascination with the subject. She was so focused on the class of worthy New York burghers and their thrusting successors, the newly grossly rich, that she saw little else around her, and her imaginative world bears only the faintest of tangential relations to the material New York of the latter 19th and early 20th century. For that, you must go to Frank Norris and Theodore Drieser. What matters, as I never tire of repeating, is that the writer should bring his imaginative world to life for the reader, and to assess her success we must look at her work.
Mrs. Wharton began her writing career with short stories, and continued writing and publishing them until her death. She also published four long stories under the collective title Old New York, and I recommend them all. Some of her stories are among the best written by Americans.
Admirable as her stories are, it is for her novels that she is remembered. She wrote more than a dozen, but only three are really good. She could write convincingly only about the upper-class world as she had known it; she could neither describe nor understand the manners and underlying thoughts and feelings of people in other classes (like the rustics in Ethan Frome and Summer) or contemporary America (Hudson River Bracketed) - she lived in France after 1914. But three novels - The House of Mirth (1905), The Age of Innocence (1920), and The Children (1928) - will be read as long as American books are read.
Her most celebrated novel is The Age of Innocence, for which she won a Pulitzer, the first woman to do so. The most artistically satisfying of her novels, it is written with subtlety and great dramatic power. Until I reread it for this essay, I had not looked at it for over 50 years, but as soon as I picked it up, remembered scenes glowed again in my mind. The scene is high society New York in the 1870s, innocent in a good sense - by contrast to the manners (already looming) that are soon to follow - and a bad: innocence as a consequence of the stifling repression by those same elaborate manners and mores.
The book opens with an emblematic scene at the opera where Newland Archer observes his fiancee, May Welland, in a box with her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has fled form her husband in Europe, and at that point Archer's conventionality is stressed, uniting him with his fellow club members in their box, who think it daring of Ellen's relatives to show her thus in public. But as Archer sees more of her, he gradually becomes infatuated, and at one point after his marriage to May he decides to run off with her. When he begins to tell his wife, she interrupts to say she's pregnant - she has already told Ellen, who has left for Europe - and of course he gives up his dream of escape. Twenty-six years later, after May's death, he goes on a trip to Paris with his elder son. They are to have tea with Ellen, but when they get to the apartment house, Archer tells his son to go on alone. The son doesn't know what to tell Ellen, so Archer says "Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough."
The immediate and obvious theme is the struggle of the nonconformists - Ellen and Archer - to free themselves from the rules of their repressive society, a theme that is managed with great art. We feel the weight of repression almost physically, a force pressing in from all sides, while the feelings of the two would-be rebels burn intensely in terse, powerful scenes, the ones I remembered after 50 years. Conventional society wins, and Archer is so cowed by it that even when he is free he cannot take up with Ellen; he is indeed old-fashioned, trained to the rules of New York society in the 1870s.
That reading, however, is a little shallow. There is a counter-theme associated with May, the unadventurous, culturally dull, conformist wife who gently but remorselessly prevents her husband from wrecking their marriage. While Archer and his son are in Paris, the latter reveals that May, on her death bed, had told the son that "once, when she asked you to, you'd given up the thing you most wanted." The asking, of course, was metaphorical, but in that revelation we see May clearly for the first time as a woman of great courage, sense, and art - the strongest character in the novel. This gives the story a richness, a complexity, and a depth that a simple paean to nonconformity would never have, and now we see Archer's "old-fashioned" self-characterization as not wholly negative. Mrs. Wharton's accomplishment with this novel is beyond praise.
Her first successful novel, The House of Mirth, follows the doomed career of a social butterfly for two years until her death. Although she is only "fashioned to adorn and delight," Lily Bart is a very sympathetic character, more so than anyone in Age of Innocence. As she says herself, she is poor, she is extravagant, and she must marry money, but she has a history of muffing her chances, mainly because of scruples. Lily has one disinterested friend, Lawrence Selden, who can stand outside society and judge it, and he is the confidante of her hopes and fears, but like nearly all the men in Mrs. Wharton's novels, he is a dilettante, weak when he is tested. The reader is carried through the novel by interest in Lily's stalwart, decent character, for this is a novel of character, and it is a tribute to the author's skill that she could create such an interesting figure out of such limited material.
Artistically, House of Mirth is not nearly so well wrought as Age of Innocence; Mrs. Wharton did not have the control of her material in 1905 as she did 15 years later. The book, a third longer than Age of Innocence, is too long and poorly focused, and there is no thematic clarity. Obviously, we are meant to contrast Lily with her social set - the title is ironic, the set is shallow and cruel, and Selden's detachment is clearly praiseworthy - but even as we acknowledge such a theme, we brush it aside because our interest is so taken up with Lily, and her surroundings and associates are not painted with strength and color. Just because of the character of Lily Bart this novel remains a favorite with many readers.
The Children, not nearly so well known as the novels already discussed, is about an engineer in his forties who becomes interested in a group of seven children, some related and some not, who keep being pushed around and redistributed and neglected as their parents divorce, remarry, and live the high dissolute life at various European watering places. Martin Boyne comes to the aid of the children, helping them to stay together (what they desperately want), later becoming a sort of guardian to them for some time in Italy, all this at the expense of his relationship with the woman he's going to marry, Rose Sellars, who takes an unsentimental view of the children and wants him to leave them. The oldest child, their leader, Judith, just turned sixteen, is very appealing. Unknowingly (he keeps saying she's just a child) Boyne is falling in love with her, and near the end of the book, when it seems as if the band of children will be broken up, he suggests to Judith that he marry her and she laughs, thinking he's joking, because she's far from those sort of thoughts yet. Mrs. Wharton's handling of the scene is superb.
"If things went wrong, and you were very lonely, and a fellow asked you to marry him . . ."
"Who asked me?"
He laughed. "If I did."
For a moment she looked at him perplexedly; then her eyes cleared, and for the first time she joined in his laugh. Hers seemed to bubble up, fresh and limpid, from the very depth of her little girlhood.
"Well. That would be funny," she said.
There was a bottomless silence.
"Yes - wouldn't it?"
Boyne grinned. He stared at her without speaking; then, like a blind man, feeling his way, he picked up his hat and mackintosh, said:
"Where's my umbrella? Oh, outside"
- and walked out stiffly into the passage. On the doorstep, still aware of her nearness, he added a little dizzily:
"No, please - I want a long tramp alone first . . . . I'll come in again this afternoon to settle what we'd better do about Paris . . ."
Boyne and Rose Sellars part, and he leaves for a job in South America, but he returns on a short leave three years later and happens to observe Judith at a dance. Entranced, he watches her for awhile and then leaves.
It's another of Mrs. Wharton's tales of renunciation, but not because of the man's weakness.
Boyne, after all, is a strong character. A marriage to Judith would have been impossible, and giving up the very controlled (and controlling) Rose is no mistake. He is, as the last sentence says, "a lonely man," but that's the result of his strength, not weakness. What makes the book so enjoyable (it's my favorite) is the mastery with which the author portrays the wonderful children (especially Judith) and the forthright but sensitive character of Boyne, as well as her deadly accurate picture of the often-divorced parents and their "set" carousing on the Lido.
I have tried, inadequately I fear, to show the qualities that made Edith Wharton the fine artist she was. The best thing I can do is to point you to her work - the stories and the three excellent novels - and hope you will discover for yourselves this marvelous American writer. *
Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them. By Steve Milloy. 2009, 235 pp., Regnery, $27.95.
This is not a book review column, but I've just read the best book I've ever seen on the effects and aims of Greenism, and since this menace is close to my life (we live in the Adirondack Park, millions of acres zealously administered by Greens) the problem may be clearer to me than to many of my readers, so I want to introduce this book to my audience. There are many books that examine Green claims, exposing their fallacies, and the author lists 18 excellent books (as well as some films) in an appendix so that readers can judge the basis on which Milloy mounts his attack. Given the fraudulence of Green arguments, he may then devote all his attention to the consequences of their policies and goals. By thus framing his argument, Milloy is able to concentrate his narrative, making it extremely effective. That his writing is clear, concise, and straightforward is a great help. There is not an empty paragraph in the book.
Each chapter describes a different aspect of the Green assault on our lives. Chapter One, "The Rationing Rationale," opens with an account of the cheery public face of Greenism advocating "sustainable" living, propaganda which he exposes by citing a 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine with the theme: "The Folly of Growth: How to stop the economic killing of the planet," in which various professors and prominent Greens advocate de-development because they regard wealth as destructive of the environment. The rest of the chapter develops this theme, covering issues like the "carbon footprint," carbon rationing, proposals to meter (and control) individual electricity use, "smart growth" - forcing people into high density urban areas, Zero Population Growth. This is done comprehensively, so that we learn exactly what the Greens are up to and why, as well as their disguises. The next chapter, "Power is Power," shows how Greens fight the development of every source of energy, despite paying lip service to "renewable energy." As Milloy points out,
Greens don't really want to increase our energy supply . . . because that would undermine virtually all of the Green's ultimate goals: zero population growth, limiting the development of physical infrastructure, impeding economic growth, and redistributing wealth.
Chapter Three is about anti-car activism and all the measures Greens promote to make it expensive and inconvenient to drive. Milloy documents the folly of hybrid cars, shows Green opposition to new roads, and the pressure to raise fuel economy standards - which means lighter, more dangerous cars. The new standards will cost more than $35 million a day to save $1 million in gas. It is close, documented analysis like this which gives the book such a strong impact.
In other chapters, the author shows the fatuity of other Green concerns, like the fake water "crisis," meateating, "slow flood" ("locavores"), biotechnology, and modern agriculture. Milloy's thoroughness is demonstrated in the chapter "Kiss Your Health and Safety Goodbye," when he shows Green attacks on chlorine, asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, pesticides, incandescent light bulbs, flame retardants, forestry (by preventing logging, Greens have ensured the overgrowth of forests, filled with debris and dead trees, leading to devastating fires), vaccines, mercury (emitted by coal-fired electricity plants). In a brilliant chapter, "The New Social Order," Milloy points out that wealthy Greens will be able to avoid the Spartan lives they have helped to force on the rest of us, showing the hypocrisy of the World Wildlife Fund whose website promotes a self-denying life at the same time that it offers its donors an around the world trip by a luxurious private jet, seeing "top wild life" while enjoying "gourmet meals, chilled champagne, and your own chef" at a cost of nearly $65,000. Milloy calls it "luxury eco-tourism." As the author shows, this sort of behavior is common among the wealthy attracted to Greenism.
Milloy's describes deals of the Nature Conservancy, buying land supposedly to preserve it and then selling it to wealthy friends and donors, as well as performing legerdemain with properties, tax donations, and in-house sales.
The chapter on Green coercion of corporations, whose leadership is nearly always spineless, is chilling, as Milloy shows how one corporation after another has given in to Green pressure, forced to back Green policies - like refusing loans for energy development - as part of the movement for "corporate social responsibility." He thinks that Greenism has become so powerful in recent years because Greens have intimidated big business, which is "increasingly lobbying for greenhouse gas regulation."
There's a chapter on Obama, "The First Green President," which includes this telling quote from The Daily Telegraph after Obama's election:
For 300 years science helped to turn Western civilization into the richest and most comfortable the world has ever seen. Now it seems we have suddenly been plunged into a new age of superstition, where scientific evidence no longer counts for anything. The fact that America will soon be ruled by a man wholly under the spell of this post-scientific hysteria may leave us in wondering despair.
In the last chapter, "Fighting Back," the author shows how we will all be harmed by Green success, pointing out that:
No matter what your particular political outlook . . . there are ways in which your own concerns will be pushed aside by the Green juggernaut.
He goes on to analyze Green rhetoric, revealing its fallacies, encouraging readers to see through it, an important lesson because that smooth rhetoric (think of "sustainability") tends to put us on the defensive, always fatal to opposition. He advocates activism in various ways, paying special attention to corporate shareholder's meetings, devoting several informative pages to showing how this works. Finally, Milloy ends on an eminently sensible and bracing note:
While there's no "vast green conspiracy" that meets regularly to plot and plan, the disparate groups that comprise the green movement are all working toward a common goal - increasing government control of your life.
Our goal is to make sure that day never comes - and we have our work cut out for us.
A wonderful book, written with great intelligence, force, and clarity, recommended to all my readers. *
He is, I think our greatest historian, producing a monumental multi-volume work, France and England in North America, a prodigy of research at a time when the documents had, for the most part, not been published and had to be ferreted out in archives and private collections in France, England, and America, and Canada, a work written as a literary narrative, instinct with the life described. As the author says in his introduction to the first volume, Pioneers of France in the New World:
The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time . . . he must himself be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.
Insofar as was possible for one describing actions of 200 and more years before, he did make it seem as if he were a spectator of the action, as in this passage telling of Champlain's first ascension of the Ottawa river:
On the brink of the rocky basin where the plunging torrent boiled like a cauldron, and puffs of spray sprang out from its concussion like smoke from the throat of a cannon, Champlain's two Indians took their stand, and, with a loud invocation, threw tobacco into the foam, an offering to the local spirit, the Manitou of the cataract.
His ability to make his narrative life-like was due not only to the fact that he visited most of the scenes he wrote about, but also to his discriminating eye for landscape - he was a prominent member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and he wrote a book on roses. Reading his prose is a rich experience in itself.
Reading in the first volume about the early Spanish explorations of Florida and the later abortive French adventures there, the reader begins to get a sense of the significance of the continent to those who first encountered it, a significance that shifted in time and with the viewer. Thanks perhaps to the spectacular treasures gained from their Mexican and Incan conquests, the Spanish seem arrested in the treasure hunting mode, to which we owe the epic journeys of Coronado and DeSoto, and that seems also to have been the impulse behind the French expeditions to Florida. The pattern everywhere is the same: land on shore, parley with natives ("where's the gold?"), hastily build a stockade, head into the bush in search of the cities of gold and silver, followed by starvation, mutiny, repression, massacre, or abandonment of the enterprise. They did not grasp the idea of a continent at all; it was no more than a location for heaps of gold.
Meanwhile, practical men saw that it was a mine of humbler treasures: Breton and Basque fishermen were catching cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in Columbus' time, and there was a nascent fur trading station, Tadoussac, near the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Amazingly, buffalo hides were brought down the Potomac by Indians and thence in canoes along the Atlantic coast to be traded at Tadoussac. This was in the 1560s. But it was not until the appearance of Champlain and his associates in the early 17th century (Champlain founded Quebec city in 1608) that men began to see the fringes where they landed as the shores of a momentous fact that would in time become an idea.
The British colonies, beginning to be founded about this time, were neither exploitative (in the Spanish sense) nor nationalistic, as the French would soon prove to be: all founded under commercial auspices, they sent back to England dried fish and furs while they pursued the ways of life for which they had emigrated, the Puritans trying to erect a Godly commonwealth, the Virginians creating an aristocratic colony, the Pennsylvanians a Quaker society. Although the Virginians would later look beyond the Blue Ridge to the Ohio valley with an eye to land speculations, the continent did not begin to mean much to Americans until after the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was only the most remarkable French explorers like Champlain and later LaSalle, who had a continental vision.
The defining feature of the French effort was the rigid control from Versailles, a royal commission, and the French king's role in the 17th and 18th centuries was absolute. The plan rested on a triumvirate: Jesuit missionaries were to convert and pacify the Indians; soldiers were to protect them from their enemies (mainly the Iroquois) and the colony from the English; and traders would get furs, which would pay for all the outlay, from the Indians. Not exactly a continental vision, but at least it looked westward, believing that the western tribes bringing their furs to the Hurons would be converted and pacified in their turn. The first fallacy was that New France could be managed, without corruption and internal conflict, from Versailles, and the second fallacy was the projected conversion and pacification of the Indians. But the policy was pursued to the end, and it enabled LaSalle to lay before the king his plan and a description of the lands south and west of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi valley.
It is nearly all so beautiful and fertile; so free from forests, and so full of meadows, brooks, and rivers; so abounding in fish, game, and venison, that one can find there in plenty, and with little trouble, all that is needful for the support of flourishing colonies. The soil will produce everything that is raised in France.
The conflict and corruption in the colony, involving everyone, was caused by the blind authoritarianism of the distant government. For instance, officials were banned (vainly) from the fur trade, and monopolies abounded, granted to influential merchants in France who had their agents (corrupt) in New France. As a consequence, very little of the enormous profits of the fur trade got back to Versailles. Parkman points out one advantage of absolutism: it meant that the colonial governor could assemble and direct martial forces expeditiously without the delays of democratic debate and dissent, so prevalent in the British colonies. But in the long run, the absence of a thriving colonial base, precluded by the priority of the fur trade, meant that New France could not rally after military defeat.
Parkman's account, from its beginnings in the 1530s to its end in the 1760s, is minutely detailed, but is never boring or trivial, even when we are taken to France to explore the politics behind various royal decisions. There is one fault, and that is the overemphasis on the ideas and conscious motives of the actors, or the blind ferocity of the Indians, without considering underlying material causes. For example, when the Iroquois destroy the Hurons, Parkman ascribes it to their better organization and especially ferocious nature, when the truth is that, as a result of their trade with the Dutch (and later the English) at Albany, they had become dependent on the white man's tools and utensils, but their hunting area in New York was trapped out. They had to have access to the furs coming through the Huron's territory, and they made that claim explicitly to the French, who failed to understand them. Parkman alludes to this later, but he doesn't see its importance. He over emphasizes the savagery and inconstancy of the Indians, failing to see that they were not stupid and they had good reasons for their actions. For instance, many of the Indian allies of the French defected to the English simply because their trade goods were better and cheaper.
Many writers have tried to catch the spirit of America, that elusive concept, but only when I read Parkman do I really get a sense of the continent looming beyond the innocuous shore, unknown, full of promise and implacable menace, and then I see the men, tiny figures, pushing forward, making trails, spanning rivers, building cities, creating an idea of America, a web of thoughts and dreams woven from, in part, the visions of those first adventurers.
France and England in North America consists of these volumes: Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America in the 17th century, LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West, The Old Regime in Canada, Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman also wrote The Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac, both recommended, the first for its vivid picture of the western frontier in 1846, the second for another fine historical portrait of the wiliest Indian leader. *
It is the genius of culture to use beauty . . . to carry and transmit the most profound truths about our human lives. These truths . . . not only describe what we are; they describe what we should be. They are . . . the highest values - of knowledge of good and evil, of liberty and discipline, of joy and sorrow, of righteousness, work, understanding, courage, loyalty, friendship, pity, love - values that we recognize and try to live . . . Culture, by enduring, can make us comprehend that life - not the lives of men, but the life of man - endures; because the life of culture embodies the value of life, it can teach us all that our lives are worth living. -Samuel Lipman
Recently, two fathers asked me to send them reading lists for their growing children, and while I did what I could, I knew that it should really be the subject of an essay - a serious essay. Hence the epigraph. I see now that that quotation should have been at the head of my first column in this series. As my bemused readers must know by now, I do not write these columns only to entertain (although I hope they do); I want to enrich minds, to show how the beauty of words skillfully combined can "transmit the most profound truths about our human lives." Every generation must be taught anew our cultural heritage, and we cannot begin soon enough. Today the situation is especially perilous, inundated as we are by the salacious trash of what is, with unconscious irony, called "popular culture."
The following list contains titles that are obviously not "the best that has been thought and known" (Matthew Arnold), but these humbler books have their uses, they make their contribution to our knowledge and entertainment. The books are not graded by the age of readers because real readers, no matter their ages, will enjoy all kinds of books, easy or difficult. To my mind, they are suitable for youngsters between the ages of 7 and 16.
Grimm's Children's and Household Tales. Be sure to get one of the older unexpurgated editions. Busybodies are periodically horrified to discover brutality and mayhem in these stories, betraying their naivete. Children, whose lively imaginations are full of brutality and mayhem, love these obviously imaginary tales. My second grade reader was called East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and how I loved that name and the fantasies it promised!
Kenneth Grahame: Wind in the Willows, The Golden Age, Dream Days. Since I have a column on Grahame in the works, I will only say here that the best one is the first-named, a tale in which animals are quasi-human. In Mr. Toad the author created one of the great comic figures in our literature. Get the edition illustrated by Ernest Shepard.
The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder may be known to readers from a TV serial, but the books themselves are greatly superior and are popular with readers of all ages. True, artfully told stories of a family settling in the West after the Civil War.
The Peterkin Papers by Lucretia Hale, published in 1886, is a very funny book about a silly family, always rescued from their follies by "the lady from Philadelphia."
R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island and Kidnapped need no introduction from me, nor do the several volumes of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
Rudyard Kipling: The two Jungle Books. We think of these as the story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, but only three of the seven tales in volume one concern him. The others are animal stories, including the wonderful account of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose. The second volume is all about Mowgli and his friends: Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and so on. Kipling has the great ability to give life to all his creations, at the same time that he casts their acts and thoughts in a moral context, which may be why so many writers have disliked him. I think envy was involved, too. Kim is the story of an English boy who becomes an intelligence agent for the British in India and at the same time the guide and disciple of a Tibetan holy man. Exotic, imaginative, and amusing. In Puck of Pook's Hill, two English children accidentally enact a magic that summons Puck, an ancient spirit of the land, who, in successive chapters, introduces them to various figures from the past. Some innocuous history lessons.
When I was 10 or 11 I went through a phase of reading Western pulp magazines, still plentiful then. Alas! they no longer exist, but a good collection of Western stories is Great Tales of the West, compiled by Pronzini and Greenberg. The Arbor House Treasury of Great Western Stories is also good. Or you can seek out the really superior Westerns of Ernest Haycox. Bugles in the Afternoon is an excellent book about Custer. The Virginian by Owen Wister was the first and is still one of the best. Andy Adams' The Log of a Cowboy tells the true story of a 3000-mile cattle drive from Mexico almost to the Canadian border in 1882.
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi. The value of Twain's writing is that it presents a world free of today's inhibiting restraints in lively, racy prose. Huck Finn is one of the great first person narratives that makes the reader a confidant but preserves a distance; Huck's dignity is never compromised, and the reader preserves his faculty of judgment.
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the archetypal account of solitary life on a "desert island," but an easier read is Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, featuring the fabulous Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus, of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, another recommended title.
Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac bring the early West and Indians to life in prose that, more elevated than Twain's, is still direct and forceful. When I read The Oregon Trail at the age of 10, it had a great effect on my life. Teddy Roosevelt's Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail describes, in wonderfully sinewy prose, his life on his cattle ranch in the same area Parkman rode over with the Sioux 40 ears earlier, demonstrating dramatically the changes in Western society in those years. Readers interested in the history of the West can read Bernard De Voto's The Year of Decision: 1846 and Across the Wide Missouri, exciting and thrilling books. On the Civil War, I recommend Bruce Catton's trilogy about the Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and Stillness at Appomattox. The great value of Catton's books is the way he makes the reader understand the war's meaning to its participants, hence to all succeeding generations of Americans. Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is a deceptively simple account of one soldier's first experience of battle, a book that should always be borne in mind when reading the histories. The best short, uncomplicated life of Lincoln is by Benjamin Thomas, simply and clearly written, but it covers all the issues honestly and fairly. Nothing is better than Lincoln's own words, and an alert youngster can easily memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. R. H. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, an account of life aboard a sailing ship collecting hides along the California coast in the 1830s, before its settlement by Americans, is another one of those solidly expressive books, simply and strongly written, that we seemed able to turn out, almost effortlessly, in the 19th century.
I read, and loved, Herman Melville's Moby Dick when I was 14, the same year I read the Odyssey (in translation), and while the one is our greatest novel and a typically American product, soberly practical and down to earth as well as soaringly idealistic, it also has affinities with the Greek tale of a voyage of adventure, hardihood, and peril.
Of Thomas Hardy's novels I would recommend The Woodlanders, Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native. I would leave The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess until later. What we get in Hardy is a lively, knotty description of a brooding English countryside and its rural inhabitants. Lower class rustics appear as figures in a chorus.
You can start almost anywhere with Dickens, but The Pickwick Papers, a picaresque tale of comic adventures, is an easy way to begin. Then the reader can go on to Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and the rest. I began with David Copperfield. Dickens' novels are alive with fascinating characters as well as intense descriptions of things and scenes that we cannot forget. I still recall Tellson's bank in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, first read some 60 years ago.
Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, which I wrote about in a previous column, recounts the life of a poor country girl in England at the turn of the last century, a beautifully written memoir, simple, clear, and honest. A more fantastic, because primitive, life is revealed in Maurice O'Sullivan's account of life on the Blasket Islands off the Irish coast. I shall consider Twenty Years A-Growing in a future column, but I will say here that it is the most penetrating, beautiful description of life in a folk culture I have ever read.
For thrills and chills, I recommend a Modern Library Giant volume, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, the best such collection I know.
Finally, I recommend Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels to acquaint young readers with the greatest satire in the language, an absorbing read in Swift's brilliant prose.
Reading these books will be entertaining as well as enlightening, and it would not hurt my adult readers to look at them, too.
In the next issue: Green Hell. *
This unusual book, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, written by Michael Burlingame, whose two volume life of Lincoln was recently published, will be richly rewarding to readers curious about the character of President Lincoln, because it probes and analyzes, clearly in a straightforward manner, issues and problems that most books on Lincoln gloss over, mainly because the data are lacking. Burlingame has an answer for that:
For nearly a decade I have steeped myself in Lincoln sources and offer . . . what I hope are informed guesses about my subject's inner life.
This is not to say that the book is all speculation - far from it. Each chapter displays all the facts obtainable about its particular subject, not the inner life itself but something that grows out of it. For example, the first chapter "Lincoln's Midlife Crisis: From Party Hack to Statesman," lays out the evidence for Lincoln's early undistinguished career, and then shows that after his withdrawal from politics from 1849-54 he emerged, determined to shape a legacy, as distinctly himself. As an observer in 1859 said:
. . . what he does and says is all his own. What Seward and others do you feel that you have read in books or speeches . . . but what Lincoln does you feel to be something newly mined-out - something above the ordinary.
It is Burlingame's contention that Lincoln, in those five years of political retirement, consciously and unconsciously confronted himself and shaped anew his purpose. This is a "mid-life crisis," and the author uses psychological insights to delineate its features. As he says in the last chapter, he is "militantly eclectic" in using theories, meaning that he doesn't adhere dogmatically to any one school of thought - he uses them where he thinks their theories are appropriate.
I may say here that I find much of the psychology plausible but irrelevant, for this reason: to say, as theorists do, that early loss of one's mother is traumatic is obvious, but to say that Lincoln's loss of his mother when he was nine is the source of his lifelong fits of depression or his awkwardness with women (or anything else) is presumptuous. For our sins we once ran a small school for disturbed boys, and what was a trauma that marked one boy for life, scarcely touched another. How we react to the buffets of life depends almost entirely on our character, and that is always a mystery. So, while the theories advanced here are mildly interesting, what will really matter to readers are the accumulated facts. Much of his material Burlingame acquired by researching the notes of previous biographers, material they didn't use but stored away in their papers, usually deposited in some library. These yielded many very interesting first-hand observations of Lincoln.
The chapter on Lincoln's attitude to slavery is very impressive, because most historians take a somewhat equivocal stance on this issue, confusing his prudent public stance with his personal feelings. He always hated slavery, and when he reentered politics in 1854 he had worked out a reasoned argument against the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the spread of slavery, an argument he would use again and again in the coming years. Burlingame traces his attitude to alienation from his father, an unsympathetic figure who hired out his son to neighbors for his own gain. In his own way, he was a "slave driver," and his son had nothing to do with him after leaving home.
Burlingame tackles Lincoln's antipathy to women, as well as his strange marriage to an utterly incompatible woman, in two memorable chapters. His inability to trust women and to get along easily with them the author traces to the loss of his mother, but the origin of the problem is less important than the fact that it set him up for his disastrous marriage. That painful story, told in full here, is significant because, as one biographer wrote:
. . . over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.
Or, as another put it more simply:
. . . but for the domestic discipline which Mr. Lincoln underwent living with his wife, he would not have succeeded as President.
It also could be said that if he had had a happy home life, he would have been satisfied with his country lawyer's practice and not gone into politics at all. Lincoln was ambitious (there's a chapter on that), but his wife goaded him on, because she was ambitious, too. So, as the author concludes, the "marriage was a fountain of misery, yet from it flowed incalculable good for the nation."
In the Epilogue, the author concludes:
In most areas, he was a model of psychological maturity, a fully individuated man who attained a level of consciousness unrivaled in the history of American public life. Most politicians, indeed most people, are dominated by their own petty egos. They take things personally, try to dominate one another, waste time and energy on feuds and vendettas. . . . A dramatic exception to this pattern, Lincoln achieved a kind of balance and wholeness. . . . What stands out about Lincoln's inner life is not his psychological weakness but his remarkable strength.
During his first years in the White House, Lincoln was mocked and reviled, condescended to and despised, but as the war ground on, he began to be seen in a more favorable light; in the eyes of the common people he assumed a patriarchal quality ("We Are Coming Father Abraham Three Hundred Thousand Strong"), and even the genteel revised their earlier opinions, but the outpouring of grief after his assassination was, and is, astonishing. Overnight, as it were, people realized the profundity of character of their late President, and it is a tribute to those Americans, and to all Americans since who have felt the same, that they recognized Lincoln's character. When we think of both his inaugural speeches, or the Gettysburg Address, or the last paragraph of his Second Annual Message to Congress:
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation . . .
we know that they are sublime utterances and we are moved beyond reckoning. What Burlingame's book does is to show us, to a considerable degree, the elements that made up the man who could steer the nation through its great trial and ruminate on it in passing (as it were) with such eloquence.
When I was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, Lincoln was a familiar figure. We celebrated his birthday and honored his memory. When I was seven, I read a book, Abraham Lincoln, The Boy and the Man, and afterwards I memorized Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" as well as the Gettysburg Address, not for recitation (I never revealed this accomplishment to anyone) but because, even at that age, they stirred me. It is a matter of great sadness and disgust to me that young (and not so young) people today know nothing about Lincoln but derisive lies, thanks to the efforts of the 1960s generation. A nation that degrades its past has no future.
In the next issue: Children's Reading. *
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a prolific journalist with his own newspaper who, in the last dozen years of his life, wrote four memorable books: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana. They stand out because in them Defoe created a style of narrative remarkable for its verisimilitude, its likeness to life, achieved by writing in a discursive, undistinguished style, notable for its chatter of seeming trivialities. Here's the opening paragraph of Robinson Crusoe:
I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise and, leaving off his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in England we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name "Crusoe," and so my companions always called me.
Where have we seen this before? In the opening paragraph of Gulliver's Travels, published just a few years after Crusoe.
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge, at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied my self close to my studies: but the charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty allowance) being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years; and my father now and then sending me small sums of money, I laid them out in learning navigation, and other parts of the mathematics, useful to those who intend to travel, as I always believed it would be some time or other my fortune to do.
Both writers are intent on creating a believable character, but Swift has another purpose: Gulliver must be credible if he is to carry the burden of the satire. In Lilliput he is the norm, the judge; in Brobdingnag the king is the norm and Gulliver is judged; in Houyhnhum land the norm lies outside the book, in common sense and Christian humility, and Gulliver is a ridiculous fool, falling for the rational horses. But Defoe's characters serve no end beyond themselves. That creates a problem. Since these books are all written in the first person, and the style is deliberately pedestrian, the narrator must be an interesting character, and the plot must be lively. That works with three of these four works, but A Journal of the Plague Year, a daily catalog of plague victims and related incidents, soon becomes drearily repetitive. But Defoe's technique is superlative in Crusoe.
I imagine that most of my readers will know at least this much of the story: that Robinson Crusoe is a castaway on an island who eventually meets a native who becomes his "man Friday," and then he's rescued. What is not known, or not remembered, is that while the bulk of the book is about Crusoe's life on the island, he isn't washed up there until page fifty, and there are some adventures and transactions after he and Friday leave the island. Furthermore, the sequel to Crusoe's sighting of a footprint in the sand is not as we imagine it, or think we remember it: it is two full years before Crusoe and Friday meet, and fifty pages have gone by, which tell of Crusoe's terror at seeing the footprint and his retirement to his secret dwelling which he makes doubly secure by planting more trees until it's surrounded by an impenetrable thicket. We think of it as an uncomplicated story of a shipwrecked castaway, but there is much more to it, and that is the character of Crusoe.
In the twenty-eighth essay in this series, I discussed the question of how authors convince readers of the reality of their fictions, how they induce readers to suspend their disbelief, and I don't want to go over that ground again, but keeping the idea in mind, think for a moment about the great characters in some of the books we have discussed, and ask yourself in how many you believe, and how far do you believe? For example, although Dickens' characters are very vivid, even outside the books, I know they are fictions, whereas Jane Austen's characters are always real as I read. Huck Finn seems very real to me in the book, and I can imagine him living outsides its pages. Conrad's characters seem the most real to me; it is hard to think of them as fictions. Robinson Crusoe? There is never any doubt in my mind that he is a real person, even as I know that he was created by Defoe. It was his great achievement to create characters who do not seem to be characters at all.
How did he do it? We are saturated, from the beginning, with Crusoe's characters because there is nothing reticent about him; he always tells us whatever is in his mind at the moment, but who is "us," who is his audience? By some legerdemain, Defoe gives the impression that Crusoe is talking to someone, but it is not quite himself, or he would be more personal, and it is not quite his readers. At the same time, he is not self-conscious. That's always a problem with first person narratives: too much of that and the narrator is only a mask for the author, thus spoiling the illusion. But how Defoe knew - if, indeed, he did consciously know - just how to create and maintain this tone is one of those mysteries of creation.
Before he becomes a castaway, Crusoe sails on various voyages, not as a sailor but as a small trader, and although he frequently criticizes himself for his rashness and impetuosity, it is clear that he is a shrewd, determined character, an impression bolstered by his escape in a small boat from Moorish captivity, and his eventual prosperous establishment in Brazil. These qualities are apparent as soon as he is shipwrecked: he swims out to the wreck to salvage anything useful, makes a raft, and ferries stuff back to shore. All his actions and thoughts are thoroughly described, and they are always sensible. Thus, how to land the cargo from his raft safely:
As soon as I found water enough, for my raft drew about a foot of water, I thrust her upon that flat piece of ground and there fastened or moored her by sticking my two broken oars in to the ground, one on one side near one end, and one on the other side near the other end; and thus I lay till the water ebbed away and left my raft and all my cargo safe on shore.
And so it goes on throughout the book as Crusoe confronts one problem after another: carving wooden shovels, weaving baskets, making pottery, planting grain, taming goats, making clothing, and eventually training Friday. These are the fascinating pages in the book, the painstaking descriptions of physical processes, a subject of increasing interest in the 18th century. To a modern reader, the only longueurs are the lengthier moralizing passages that are as much a part of Crusoe's character as his practical skills.
Such is the uneven state of human life. And it afforded me a great many curious speculations afterwards, when I had a little recovered my first surprises; I considered that this was the station of life the infinitely wise and good providence of God had determined for me; that as I could not foresee what the ends of Divine wisdom might be in all this, so I was not to dispute His sovereignty . . .
Although Crusoe is not a hero in any sense of the word, he is a representative middleclass Englishman of his time, a type who would be increasingly important in England's affairs (especially her colonial affairs), and Defoe, by an alchemy we can only wonder at, has created in him the realest character in all English literature.
In the next issue: Lincoln's Inner World. *
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known as one of those officers and gentlemen who served in the trenches in World War I and emerged as an antiwar poet, like the better-known Wilfred Owen (killed just before the Armistice). He published sixteen books of poetry, but I think he is more likely to be remembered over the long haul for his semi-fictional autobiography, Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man (1928). That requires some explanation. He wrote a trilogy - the fox-hunting volume as well as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston's Progress - about a character named George Sherston, but when he later wrote his autobiography, also a trilogy, it was seen that the fiction closely followed his life. It seems most sensible (and illuminating) to treat the fox-hunting volume - the best of the lot - as fiction, as Sassoon intended.
This is the opening:
My childhood was a queer and not altogether happy one. Circumstances conspired to make me shy and solitary. My father and mother died before I was capable of remembering them. I was an only child, entrusted to the care of an unmarried aunt who lived quietly in the country.
The rest of the paragraph briefly describes the aunt's sedentary life. Then we quickly move to Mr. Star, George's tutor, and Tom Dixon the groom, the most important character in the boy's life who, not many pages later, induces Aunt Evelyn to buy a pony for George, and who steers him toward fox-hunting. At the end of the fourth paragraph the narrator describes his relationship with Dixon, thereby also describing genteel society in pre-war England, with its marked social distinctions.
But it was Dixon who taught me to ride, and my admiration for him was unqualified. And since he was what I afterwards learned to call "a perfect gentleman's servant," he never allowed me to forget my position as "a little gentlemen": he always knew exactly when to become discreetly respectful. In fact, he "knew his place."
Consider how far we've gone in just two pages: George's circumstances have been defined and the principal actors in his life have been introduced and incisively described, and it has all been done with an easy grace that is scintillating, alerting, and interesting the reader. Probably because of his experience as a poet, Sassoon's style might be called essential; there is nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, and while the narrative moves swiftly, we never feel that it's inadequate. This is a writer who chooses words very carefully, so as to be quietly very effective.
The plot seems simple, but it required clever management on the author's part. Let me briefly describe the first movement, as it were: seven pages from the opening sentence, George gets a pony at age nine; eleven pages and three years later he goes with Dixon to his first hunt. That takes up nine pages, and five pages later he goes to his second hunt, described in four pages. The next chapter opens with his return from boarding school for the summer vacation, going on to describe his triumph in a local cricket match. The transition from winter fox-hunting to summer cricket, with an unremarked hiatus of intervening years is startling at first, but we are soon caught up in George's world. Earlier, Sassoon is frank about his interest and procedure:
Since the continuity of these memoirs is to depend solely on my experiences as a sportsman, I need not waste many words on the winter, spring, summer, and autumn that chronologically followed the last episode. . . .
The next chapter opens with another return of George, now twenty-two, this time from Cambridge, which he has quit in disgust, and again he is involved in cricket. In October, Dixon induces him to buy a hunter, a horse intended for the fox-hunting (he has owned only ponies before), and George begins his real involvement with fox-hunting. The chapter is called "A Fresh Start" and so it is, but the most remarkable aspect of the author's management of the narrative is that the book has been so imbued with the aura of fox-hunting, and we have been so focused on the boy's physical prowess (as in cricket), that it takes an effort of thought to realize that a decade has passed since his last hunt (only his second), and in the intervening years we have been in his company for only six or seven months! Sassoon's writing is masterly in creating the illusion.
I need not go into detail about the rest of the book. In the next six chapters the interest in maintained by having George go to different hunts where he encounters new landscapes and new people, improves his horsemanship enough to win two point to point races, but is nearly as diffident as ever:
I was quite sure that I should make a fool of myself. . . . As I remember and write, I grin, but not unkindly, at my distant and callow self and the absurdities which constitute this chronicle.
Throughout, we are impressed and charmed by George's openness to experience, by his freshness of perception:
As the service proceeded I glanced furtively around me at the prudent Sunday-like faces of the congregation
. . . .
My memory of that summer returns like a bee that comes buzzing into a quiet room where the curtains are drawn on a blazing hot afternoon.
. . . .
[Riding past an old Queen Anne house] "I am riding past the past," I think, never dreaming that I shall one day write that moment down on paper; never dreaming that I shall be clarifying and condensing that chronicle of simple things through which I blundered so diffidently.
Appropriately, the climax of George's fox-hunting experience is his companionship with the Master of a first class hunt in the Midlands in the winter of 1913-14, just a few months before war breaks out. The last two chapters, "In the Army" and "At the Front," inaugurate a new phase of George's experience and definitively end his fox-hunting career. The severing of his ties to that world - and that's the way he thinks of it:
I thought of [it] as the only one worth belonging to. And it was (though a limited one) a clearly defined world. . . .
- is done very adroitly and tellingly. "In The Army" finds George in a cavalry outfit with links to his past because he knows many of the officers from fox-hunting. His horse, requisitioned by the army, is part of the outfit. But he soon manages to shift to a more businesslike unit where he goes to Officer Training, and finally, the front. As he says:
The Yeomanry would have been more comfortable for me if none of the officers had known me before I joined. I now felt strongly in favor of getting right away from my old associations.
Then he learns that a close friend from his hunting days has been killed, and finally Dixon, who had enlisted in the Veterinary Corps, dies of pneumonia. His old fox-hunting world is definitely dead. On leave, George meets an old country friend:
. . . we'd talked about Dixon, who had been such an old friend of his. "Ay; Tom was a good chap; I've never known a better. . . ." He had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him.
I chose this book to discuss not only because I think it's a wonderful read, but because I want to point a lesson: too often, in elucidating a book's contents, we ignore the way the contents are presented. I have complained more than once about conservatives praising badly written books because they like the message, pointing out that the message cannot be separated from the medium and that a lousy book does not expand your horizons but narrows them. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man has no message beyond itself; its content would seem to have little interest for any Review reader. What do you or I care about fox-hunting or the genteel life in prewar England? My point is that Sassoon makes you interested in those subjects because the book is brilliantly conceived, arranged, and written, and his style is precise, elegant, and deeply perceptive. I've quoted a lot in this essay, but here's more to make my point:
The umpires are in their places. But it is in the sunshine of my own clarified retrospection that they are wearing their white coats. While I was describing them I had forgotten that they have both of them been dead for many years.
. . . .
Such was the impermanent fabric as it unfolded: memory enchants even the dilatory little train journey which carried my expectant simplicity into the freshness of a country seen for the first time. All the sanguine guesswork of youth is there, and the silliness; all the novelty of being alive and impressed by the urgency of tremendous trivialities.
I want my readers to be sensitive to such writing, and to realize that a book can be read just for the sheer pleasure of the words and how they are put together to create a character and a world.
In the next issue: Robinson Crusoe. *
I'm speaking of the Bible, of course, but note the plural. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are packed with amazing stories, cunningly told. Think of the adventures and wanderings of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Laban, of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers, of Jacob's wrestling with the angel, of Saul and the Witch of Endor, of David and Absalom, of Samson and Delilah, and so on and on. As centuries of commentaries have shown, these stories, like all good stories, are full of meanings. What I want to do in this essay is to show you the rewards that careful reading of these wonderful stories, prodigies of compression and implication, can yield to an attentive reader.
I must admit that my thinking owes much to my wife Jo Ann, a garden writer (The Old Fashioned Fruit Garden, Living with Herbs, The Heirloom Garden, Herbs in Bloom, Elegant Silvers, Gardens of Use & Delight) now completing a book about the ways the material life in the land influenced the ancient Hebrews. For instance, the pastoral life (think of the Twenty-Third Psalm), embodied in the careers of the Patriarchs like Abraham, created certain mores, patterns of thought and behavior that we can trace in the religious conceptions and laws. Since Jo Ann has been working on this manuscript for nearly two years and we always discuss our writing together, I have been thinking about this subject and how to introduce it to my readers for some time, and I think the best way to do it is to analyze the Book of Ruth, a short (just four chapters) and simple story, easily summarized: Naomi, a native of Bethlehem, long resident in Moab on the east side of the Jordan, now widowed and bereft of her two sons, returns to Bethlehem with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth a Moabitess. Since Ruth is poor and a stranger, she is entitled by Jewish law to glean in the grain fields after harvest, which she does in the fields of Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi by marriage, (hence a kinsman of Ruth, too). Boaz instructs the reapers to drop grain for her deliberately, and when she returns home at the end of the day, she has two thirds of a bushel! Naomi sees opportunity and tells Ruth to spruce herself up and go to the threshing floor at night and cuddle up to Boaz, which she does. Next day Boaz goes to the city gate, and after making sure that a nearer kinsman, while willing to redeem Naomi's land, is unwilling to take Ruth, the way is cleared for him to marry her, and so she becomes the grandmother of King David.
Now let's look more closely at the narrative, and remember that these stories were told for generations before they were written down, and a folk audience would be alert to the slightest nuance, so imagine yourself listening to the words. It opens with the migration of Elimelech and Naomi because "there was a famine in the land" (1:1). (All citations from King James Version.) We know that, because the lands on the west side of the Jordan tended to be drier than those on the east side (Moab, present-day Jordan), they were subject to drought, so such migrations, more or less temporary, were common. In other words, the audience knows this is a commonplace event in a world familiar to them. After the deaths of her sons (her husband died some time before), Naomi hears that the famine at home is over ("The Lord had visited his people in giving them bread") (1:6), and determines to return, telling her daughters-in-law to go back to their mothers' homes. They weep and insist on accompanying her, but finally Naomi persuades Orpah to go back, and Ruth makes the extraordinary statement " . . . wither thou goest, I will go . . . thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (1:16). This whole episode is very important in setting the tone of the narrative. Note what Naomi says, charged with feeling, when she first tells them to go home:
The Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice and wept (1:8,9).
When they still persist, she says she has no more sons for them. "It grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me" (1:13). The first scene, then, is filled with emotion: the love between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, the tearful parting, Ruth's ringing declaration of fidelity, Naomi's implied bitterness at her bereft condition.
When they get to Bethlehem, the town is stirred with curiosity, and when they ask "Is this Naomi?" she is very harsh. "Call me not Naomi [pleasant], call me Mara [bitter]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me" (1:20), and her grief is insisted on at the end of the chapter.
The first chapter can readily be seen in dramatic terms, and each scene is emotionally charged: Naomi's parting from her daughters-in-law, Ruth's moving declaration, Naomi's bitterness. Climatically, they arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest, a very significant event in Israel's agricultural cycle, celebrated religiously (it is associated with Passover). Looked at from the point of the view of the audience, the scene is momentously set.
The next chapter opens with the news that Boaz, Naomi's kinsman, is a mighty man of wealth, and Ruth asks Naomi's permission to go to glean. Here is where an explanation will help the uninstructed reader. In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy there are laws of gleaning (elaborated in the Talmud), a procedure by which "the stranger, the widow, and the orphan" shall gain some subsistence from the harvest. For instance, the harvester must leave the field's corners unreaped - but how large (or small) must the corners be? Well, there are laws that govern that. Anyway, Ruth goes gleaning "in the field after the reapers" and they are Boaz's fields. The audience of Hebrew villagers listening to the story would immediately know that she was violating the etiquette of gleaning: women were not supposed to follow the reapers or mix with men; they could glean only after men had gleaned, and only in the company of other women. So when Boaz appears, he notices the woman and asks about her. The overseer identifies her as
. . . the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi" (2:6). (Throughout Ruth is so designated, emphasizing her situation as an alien, which is very important in the ultimate meaning of the story.) Boaz notices Ruth because she's out of place, but it soon becomes clear that he knows who she is, and the alert reader will suspect that he is already attracted to her. He tells her to "abide here fast by my maidens," and adds "have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee" (2:8,9).
Ruth's strong reaction:
Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that you shouldst take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger? (2:10)
. . . is explained by the woman's situation: notice that the people of Bethlehem express no warmth toward Naomi on her return, only curiosity, and the fact that gleaning is for the poor and strangers and widows defines their situation, just as Naomi's bitter outburst about her name overshadows their return. And everyone, including Ruth, emphasizes that she is a stranger, a Moabitess.
Boaz's answer is magnificent, the dramatic turning point in the story. He says he knows how loving she has been to Naomi and how she cleaved to her "and art come unto a people which you knowest not heretofore" (2:11). Ruth responds graciously, again stressing her alien status, " . . . thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though I be not like unto one of thine handmaidens" (2:13). Boaz invites her to the house at mealtime where she sits beside the reapers and he gives her food (both signs of favor). Afterwards he tells the reapers to let her glean among the sheaves (another irregularity), and even to let fall some grain deliberately. At the end of the day Ruth winnows out "about one ephah of barley" (2:17). She brings the extraordinary amount home to Naomi, and also gives her the leftovers of parched grain from her meal with Boaz. Naomi, very pleased with Ruth's account of her day, says of Boaz, "Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead" (2:20), stressing the theme of loving kindness. So Ruth continued gleaning and "kept fast by the maidens of Boaz" (2:23) through the barley and wheat harvests, about seven weeks (Shavuot in the Hebrew calendar, Pentecost in the Christian calendar).
Chapter three opens with Naomi's scheme to unite Ruth and Boaz. She tells Ruth to dress up and go surreptitiously to the threshing floor, watch out for Boaz, and when he has done eating and drinking and gone to lie down, then "uncover his feet and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do" (3:4). Naomi's psychology is astute. "And when Boaz had eaten and drank, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down" (3:7). Note "merry." He's a little tipsy. He awakes at midnight, discovers a woman at his feet, and asks "Who art thou?" (3:9), and Ruth's answer is essentially a proposal:
I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman (3:9).
Boaz is grateful, flattered:
. . . thou hast showed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as you followedest not young men . . . (3:10).
They lie together the rest of the night (she leaves before dawn - "let it not be known that a woman came into the floor" (3:14) - with her shawl stuffed with barley), and although the whole scene is sexually charged, I (and most commentators) do not think their union is consummated that night. Boaz explains that a kinsman has a duty to a widow to marry her so her husband's name will not die out of the tribe, but there is a nearer kinsman, so in the last chapter we see the final scene at the city gate when Boaz challenges the other kinsman to buy Naomi's land (from her deceased husband), and when the man says he'll redeem it, thus keeping the land in the tribe, Boaz adds that he must also marry Ruth "the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance" (her offspring will bear the name of her first husband). The man rejects Ruth, perhaps because she's a Moabite ("Lest I mar my own inheritance" 4:6). The people, now warm to Ruth, bless the union with Boaz. And Naomi is fulfilled in the end with the birth of Ruth's son:
And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it (4:16).
The dramatic organization here is intricate and very satisfying. In the beginning Naomi is at the dramatic center, making the decision to return to Bethlehem, sending her daughters-in-law on their way, and her character is strong, infused with loving kindness. Naomi provides the base upon which the rest of the story will rest. Then Ruth makes her amazing declaration and becomes the character to watch, although Naomi is a dramatic presence at the chapter's end with her bitter lament at being bereft.
For the rest of the book, Ruth takes center stage (with Naomi in the background as stage manager), although Boaz is a commanding figure at the city gate. At the end, the trajectory of Naomi's dramatic career comes to rest with Ruth's baby in her arms. So we can say that the whole story is about Naomi, but Ruth is the spirited heroine, the stranger who violates the laws and is rewarded for it! If one of the themes of this book is loving kindness, another might be described in the phrase, "The ethical impulse breaks the ethical law." That's why Ruth's Moabite origin is stressed, to make this theme even stronger.
I hope you've learned that while it is useful to know what the original audience would know, like the laws of gleaning and Levirate marriage (kinsman marrying a childless widow), it is not essential. By paying close attention to the text we not only enjoy a remarkable dramatic story, but we also understand it, and gain new respect for the Bible, and for the people who created these stories and bequeathed them to us.
In the next issue: Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. *
When I began this series I knew I would have to write about Charles Dickens (1812-70), but I kept putting it off, knowing how difficult the task would be. How could I work up the skill to describe such a protean writer? How could I convince the audience of the value of reading Dickens without turning the essay into a mass of quotations?
Although he wrote much else (he was a journalist for all his working life), it is for his fifteen novels, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1837 and ending with the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood thirty-three years later, that he will always be celebrated. In them he embodied both himself and the age; reading them you are scanning Dickens as well as the times. Not that he parades himself or writes autobiographical novels (aside from David Copperfield), but his vibrant character, with all his tremendous vitality, pervades everything he wrote. All his experience, transmogrified by his creative imagination, lives in his books.
The outstanding characteristic of Dicken's books is their life. I do not mean liveliness (although they are lively enough); I mean that every page is instinct with life, even when he's writing conventional descriptions (as in some of his early work), life that the reader senses in the language, the pacing, and in the characters, because Dickens himself was extraordinarily alive. We feel this especially in his rich cast of characters (he created some two thousand), his most enduring literary gift; we may forget plot details, but we never forget his characters. I believe that great novels depend on great characters, that the most essential gift of a writer is his ability to create interesting characters. It is characteristic of modern, condescending critics that they should disparage this gift, complaining that they are "flat," stock figures with one or two characteristics which they repeat whenever they appear. They are contrasted to "round" characters, who display the complexity of real people. The first thing to say about this criticism is that Dickens' two dimensional characters are not that flat, as comparison with the deliberate caricatures of Americans in Martin Chuzzlewit will show. Jefferson Brick and Colonel Driver, Lafayette Kettle, General Choke, the Mother of the Modern Gracchi, and so on, make up a glorious company of fools, and knaves brilliantly limned by Dickens as caricatures, clearly distinct from Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, Vincent Crummles and the Mantalinis, wonderful creations from Chuzzlewit as well as Nicholas Nickleby, who act as they do because they must, it is their nature. Tom Sawyer will illustrate this. In Huck Finn he plays the Mischievous Boy, a cliche. He is a shallow conformist, one who knows how far to go in going too far, and that's all he is. That's why he's kept out of the profound chapters when Huck and Jim are alone on the raft. We have all met people like him. In his '"flatness" he displays his "roundness" -- the character as he plays it is himself in all his dimensions.
Thus it is in life. How many people do we know who are "round"? Most of our acquaintances are "flat" in the sense that they exhibit a limited number of characteristics that we depend on to make our social intercourse possible. If we did not perceive people in simplified terms, if they did not present themselves like that, it would be difficult to maintain relationships. I may think of myself as a fascinatingly complex fellow, but I know very well that I appear to others as a man of a few gestures and attitudes, a garrulous old man.
It must be admitted, however, that Dickens' characters are not deep. We care about them, they touch us, but they do not move us deeply as Huck or Anna Karenina or Lord Jim do. Their great virtue is their vitality.
Let us see how that vitality combined with the writing itself makes a book live. The opening scene of Great Expectations takes place in the church yard beside the marshes where Pip, seven and small for his age, is looking at the graves of his parents and five little brothers, when an escaped convict, Magwitch, seizes him and makes the boy promise to bring him food and a file on the morrow. Magwitch threatens him:
There's a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open. I am keeping that young man from harming of you at the present moment, with great difficulty.
Pip's constant fear is made evident throughout the chapter:
Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the iron leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted.
So we are immediately drawn into the book, not just by characters and events, but by the writing, by the way everything is presented. There are three mentalities, three forms of consciousness operating here. The first is Pip's, shown by his terror in the passage just quoted. The essence of a child's fear is its absoluteness, undiluted by other thoughts and anxieties, as it would be in an adult's mind. Thus are we made fully aware of the child's consciousness. At the same time, we know that a grownup Pip is telling the story and looking back at his childish self. Note the first sentence in that last quotation, where this is explicit. Now we are aware of a second consciousness, mitigating our fears about Pip; we know he will survive and surmount his difficulties. There is a third consciousness there, the reader's. Magwitch's bloodthirsty description of the "young man" in the first quote has shown us that he is putting on an act, easing our concern before the older Pip does. Our reading of Magwitch's speech does it. So we are aware of the seven-year-old's feelings and of his consciousness of the people and events around him; we have the adult Pip's consciousness of the same things, showing them in another light, but unobtrusively so as not to override for us young Pip's perceptions. Finally, we have our own consciousness of everything, including Pip the boy and the man.
What this does is create, in a restricted space -- churchyard, home, marsh -- with a limited cast (four main characters), and in a short time (twenty-four hours), a thick narrative, rich in feeling, and awareness, that pulls us into the novel. Understand that Dickens did not carefully construct it. We know from his manuscripts that he usually did little emendation and revision. His creative process seemed to work like this: with the rudiments of a story and theme in mind, he went about his incredibly energetic life, absorbing scenes and experiences, and when he began to write everything flowed out of him, now fitted to the story, vivid experiences as he lived them in words.
Ages ago when I was a "Perfesser," I was listening to a colleague bloviate about the exalted qualities of literature when another interrupted him to say:
Dickens' morality is sentimentality, his plots are melodramas, his characters are two-dimensional, his language is journalistic, but he's the greatest English novelist!
I think he exaggerated Dickens' faults, but it is certainly true that Dickens has those faults -- not all at once and not all the time, but there are pages, even chapters in his novels, including the best ones, you will want to skip. Recently I reread Our Mutual Friend and found some of the last chapters unbearably cloying. Nevertheless, he is the greatest English novelist. Playing the ranking game can be silly, but it can also be illuminating. You have to consider the qualities you value, and you have to justify your valuation, and then you have to show how the writer exhibits those qualities. People with class pretensions have always tried to put him down, preferring dull writers like George Eliot, because they think he's vulgar. And so he is, thank God!
I have ranked the novels, not to play a judge's part, but as a helpful guide, hoping my readers will be encouraged to take them up. I read them twice to my family over a period of years. The best ones are built around a well-thought-out story with a strong theme embodied in a varied cast of interesting characters, and these are David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations with Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend close behind, followed by Dombey and Son. I visualize these books as great dark mansions with large halls and cozy little corners, winding staircases, high-ceilinged chambers and sunny parlors, attics filled with old trunks, musty cellars, and jolly kitchens, all echoing with the voices of numberless fascinating people. Enjoyable as the early novels are, they fall short of the top class because, lacking strong story lines, they are episodic, their themes are immature, and some of the vivid characters run away with the story. Nevertheless, they are very enjoyable. The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzelwit, and Oliver Twist fall into this category. The Old Curiosity Shop has some merit, but its central sentimentality is hard for modern readers to take. Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities seem to me the least characteristic and rewarding of his works. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is very interesting, and its tight, ironic style marks a startling departure for Dickens, but it was unfinished at his death. You could start with Pickwick and the early novels and then go on to Copperfield and the rest, or you could start with the best ones of his maturity and then go on to Pickwick and so on. But start somewhere!
Dickens' novels differ widely, and his total output presents the most varied aspect of any novelist I can think of, but one quality they all share -- vitality. *
"To say that the United States should be answerable for twenty-five millions of dollars without knowing whether the ways and means can be provided, and without knowing whether those who are to succeed us will think with us on the subject, would be rash and unjustifiable. Sir, in my opinion, it would be hazarding the public faith in a manner contrary to every idea of prudence." --James Madison