Friday, December 25, 2009

Wet Christmas, Part II

Merry Christmas!

Weather note: The Christmas storm of 2009 has mostly fizzled.  Last night, when the predictions were for an inch of snow an hour, we took Pippi out for a Christmas Eve walk in the rain.  More rain today has made it a slushy Christmas.   

Thursday, December 24, 2009

White Christmas, Part I

Our house on the morning of Christmas Eve 2009

On Halloween 1991, I was in St. Peter, Minnesota, for a classics lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College, where I was a visiting assistant professor of classics.  The heavy snow had begun to fall as I came out of the lecture.  I spent that night in St. Peter, and in the morning I took advantage of a lull in the blizzard to shovel my car out of the driveway where I had parked it.  It would have been wiser to stay in St. Peter, but classes at Gustavus had been cancelled, and I was eager to get home to Northfield, where Clara was alone with two-month old Will.  So, as the snow began to fall more heavily again, I started out.  Fortunately, I found myself behind a snowplow between St. Peter and Montgomery, and after two or three hours managed to make it home safely. When the snow finally stopped falling, there was more than 28 inches of snow on the ground.  

This morning, we woke to nearly 8 inches of fresh snow—the official amount for Northfield was 7.50 inches—and another 8-12 inches is on its way tonight.  The second wave of snow started a few minutes ago, right on schedule.  This is predicted to be the heaviest snowfall in Minnesota since that Halloween Blizzard of 1991.  Our usual Christmas plans—my brother-in-law's family down here from Roseville for Christmas Eve, and our family in Roseville on Christmas afternoon—have been scrapped.  For the first time that we can remember, it'll be just the four of us at Christmas.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Books Reviewed in 2009

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage
Storm Jameson, The Georgian Novel and Mr. Robinson
Elina Hirvonen, When I Forgot
Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show
Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere
Rhoda Broughton, Belinda
Edmund Burke, Conciliation with America
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Jon Meacham, American Lion
Jane & Mary Findlater, Crossriggs
John Williams, Stoner
Louis De Bernières, A Partisan's Daughter
Victoria Clayton, Out of Love
John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot
Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels
Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room
David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin
Stefan Zweig, The Post-Office Girl
V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom
Olivia Manning, School for Love
Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart
Helen Humphreys, Coventry
Edith Henrietta Fowler, The Young Pretenders
Susan Glaspell, Fugitive's Return
Nella Larsen, Passing
Barry Unsworth, Land of Marvels
Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reading Journal: "Red Pottage"

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage. Virago Modern Classics 1985.  Originally published in 1899. 

Early in Red Pottage, Lord Newhaven confronts his unfaithful wife.  During their conversation, which takes place in her bedroom, Lord Newhaven picks up a book—"an Imitation of Christ, bound in that peculiar shade of lilac which at that moment prevailed."  It's a small, but telling detail, since Cholmondeley's novel is about what is real and what is imitation, what is true Christian behavior and what is pious cant, what is genuine and what is merely fashionable.  

In a few pages, we are introduced to Sybell Loftus, a superficial woman who, Cholmondeley tells us archly, "had not the horrid perception of difference between the real and the imitation which spoils the lives of many."  At Sybell's party, the conversation turns to Hester Gresley, a young woman who has written a popular novel set in the slums of east London.  One of the pseudo-intellectuals at the party condemns the novel, saying, "it is a misfortune to the cause of suffering humanity—to our cause—when the books which pretend to set forth certain phases of its existence are written by persons entirely ignorant of the life they describe."

"To me they seem real," says Miss Gresley's friend, Rachel West.  

Rachel has lived for many years in the slums of east London, working as a seamstress, before receiving an unexpected inheritance.  An unexpected inheritance, an affair, a suicide pact—Cholmondeley's novel is full of elements of late Victorian sensation novels , but it's also a biting satire of society, a romance, and a novel of ideas.  Cholmondeley is interested in the truth of art, the power of sympathy, and the plight of unmarried women. 

At the heart of the novel is the theme of friendship between women.  In a particularly heartfelt passage, Cholmondeley writes: "Here and there among its numberless counterfeits a friendship rises up between two women which sustains the life of both, which is still young when life is waning, which man's love and motherhood cannot displace nor death annihilate; a friendship which is not the solitary affection of an empty heart nor the deepest affection of a full one, but which nevertheless lightens the burdens of this world and lays its pure hand on the next."  Red Pottage is dedicated to Cholmondeley's sister Victoria.   It is interesting to see how sustaining the bond of sisterhood was to the New Women of the 1890s as they tested their independence, and began to claim their rights as individuals and their voices as writers.*  

In Red Pottage, Hester dedicates her second novel, which she describes as being like a child to her, to Rachel.  There is almost a kind of spiritual and intellectual marriage between the two women that sustains them through all of the sensations and setbacks of the novel's ingenious plot.  

One other of Cholmondeley's novels is currently in print, her 1893 novel Diana Tempest, published by Valancourt Press.  Red Pottage was a massive bestseller in both England and America in 1899.  Like many of the novels I review on this blog, I believe it should still be more widely read.  

*The Cholmondeley sisters were also intimate friends with the novelist sisters Jane and Mary Findlater.  

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Best and Worst Years of the Decade

The Best

For me, 2000 was a banner year. On the first day of school in the new year, I started substitute teaching in the Northfield Public Schools. I still remember fondly my first day of subbing in Mrs. Kohl's fifth grade class at Bridgewater Elementary School. I find it unbelievable that those little children are now juniors in college! Then, in the late winter of 2000, director Ruth Weiner, choreographer Devin Cary, and the Carleton Players began rehearsals for Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis, using the new translation I had made for the production. The production ran May 10-13, 2000. For me it was an unforgettable experience, and one of the highlights of the entire decade. 2000 also saw the publication of the anthology 33 Minnesota Poets (Nodin Press), which included a selection of my poetry and introduced me to fellow Minnesota poets like Joyce Sutphen and Scott King. Finally, the summer of 2000 brought our first family trip to England, where we spent a month living in Kenilworth, with a week-long holiday-within-a-holiday in the Lake District. I returned home to Minnesota to a new job writing scripts for The Writer's Almanac.

One of the choral dances from Iphigeneia at Aulis (2000)

2003 provided a welcome respite after two difficult years (see below). The highlight of the year was our family trip to France, where we stayed with Clara's brother at their sabbatical home in Baillargues, outside Montpellier. During our ten days in southern France, we visited Arles, Nimes, Orange, Aigues Mortes, Les Baux de Provence, and several spectacular ruined hilltop chateaux. We also enjoyed the markets, the seafood, and the wine. The downside: as we were taking off from Minneapolis to fly to France, the first bombs of the Iraq War were falling on Baghdad. And it was a bittersweet year personally: the last summer we spent with Clara's father before his death from cancer in 2004. Before we learned of the diagnosis, we spent a beautiful week with my father- and mother-in-law in Stowe, Vermont, followed by a summer with the whole family up north.

The Hardys and the Shaws at the Pont du Gard, March 2003

In 2005, my poetry chapbook, The Collecting Jar, was published. I spent the first half of the year teaching for Planet Homeschool, a homeschool cooperative in the Twin Cities, and the fall semester teaching Latin at the University of St. Thomas, my first college teaching position since 1992. The Planet Homeschool experience, begun in the fall of 2004, introduced me to Peytie, who has become one of my favorite people in the world. Like 2003, it was also a bittersweet year: my father died in December, after a long illness.

When 2006 started, I was teaching for the first time at Carleton College, and had a wonderful beginning Latin class. At the same time, I was meeting Peytie once a week at a Caribou Coffee in Apple Valley for Latin tutoring, and meeting with a small homeschool writing class once a month. It was a rich and rewarding year of teaching. Then, in August, our family left for a year in England. In the fall of 2006, from our home in Kenilworth, we made excursions to the Peak District and the Cotswolds, and in October we traveled to Salzburg, Austria, for several days of music and sightseeing.

On the Cleveland Way, between Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay, Yorkshire, April 2007

2007 was filled with even more memorable English experiences, including holidays in Yorkshire and the Lake District, a Jane Austen tour, numerous plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company, trips to London and Oxford, walks on the wonderful English footpaths, the world's best ale, and—well, for the full story, see my Sabbatical blog.

2009 has also been a good year, with two terms of teaching Latin 101 at Carleton, and with the massive accomplishment of helping to get the Cannon River STEM School on its feet. And in June, Clara and I celebrated twenty years of marriage. As the year has drawn to a close, we received the exciting news that Will is spending 2010-2011 as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Thailand.

The Worst

2001 was not a good year. In January, the Bush years began, and on a Tuesday morning in September, the whole world changed. Meanwhile, I had started the MA.Ed initial licensure program at St. Kate's, lulled by my excellent subbing experience in Northfield into thinking I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I took one course before abandoning that idea, and spent a stressful six-weeks as a long-term sub teaching Latin at South High School in Minneapolis.

If possible, 2002 was even worse, thanks to my foolish decision to accept a job teaching Latin at a middle school in one of the suburbs of Minneapolis. The entire experience—from the hellish morning commute starting at 5:00 am to the overcrowded classroom full of unmotivated students—was a disaster. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration was edging toward war in Iraq and, on October 25, Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash.

2002 was so bad that it makes 2008—a year in which I spent three months of excruciating pain with a herniated disk in my neck, followed by a hernia operation in July, followed by losing a school board election, followed by an emergency remodeling of our leaking upstairs bathroom that cost twice as much as the initial estimate—look like a fabulous year.

In the final analysis, the good years—2000, 2003-2007, 2009—massively outweigh the bad years. I was 35 in 2000, and now I'm 45. The decade was full of difficult midlife experiences—the deaths of fathers, career challenges, the hazards of homeownership, the aches and pains of a middle-aged skeleto-muscular system—but it also brought the new experiences of international travel and book publication, and introduced me to new places and new friends who have enriched my life.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December Reading: The Eighteenth Century

Earlier this week I finally finished reading the first book of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which ends with two famous chapters on the rise and persecution of the early Christian church under the Roman Empire. Chapter XVI closes with the assertion that internecine strife among Christians themselves claimed many more lives than did persecution at the hands of the pagan Roman emperors:
We shall conclude this chapter by a melancholy truth, which obtrudes itself on the reluctant mind; that even admitting, without hesitation or enquiry, all that history has recorded, or devotion has feigned, on the subject of martyrdoms, it must still be acknowledged, that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissentions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other, than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.
This is a long sentence—nearly seventy words—but carefully balanced. It appears to be based upon the structures and rhythms of Latin. Gibbon has paid extraordinary attention to the construction of his history, not only to the construction of individual sentences, but to the architecture of the whole.

Chapter IV, for instance, begins with the "mildness" of Marcus Aurelius, a philosophical gentleness and indulgence which results directly in the despotism of his pampered son and successor, Commodus. The chapter ends that begins with "the mildness of Marcus" ends with the "approaching misfortunes" of the Roman people. The next chapter begins with the general disorder into which the Empire has been thrown by Commodus, and ends with a partial restoration of order under Septimius Severus. The entire book is a carefully constructed narrative of reversals. Gibbon is interested in how mildness can lead to misfortune, how tolerance can lead to intolerance, how all things seem, over the course of time, to give rise to their opposites.

I am finding Edmund Burke a much less slippery character than Gibbon. Gibbon, as in the case of Marcus Aurelius, finds reason to condemn what he admires, and sometimes to admire what he condemns. Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1788), is clear and direct. The French Revolution is an unmitigated disaster. Burke supports "a manly, moral, regulated liberty," and condemns the descent into mere license that the revolution represents. The revolution is the result of rampant theorizing and innovation, and a dangerous departure from the established principles of an inherited constitution.

What I find most fascinating, especially at the end of this Darwin bicentennial year, is the central importance that Burke places on inheritance and the conformity of the English constitution with nature. Here is a long, but significant passage:
You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.

This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection, or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free, but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of providence are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order. Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts, wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old or middle-aged or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.
For Burke, change must be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, part of the gradual and natural process of generational change.

It's interesting, in the light of Burke's ideas, to look at this graph showing the correlation between age and support for same-sex unions. Support is significantly higher among 18-29 year olds than among people in older age groups. Radical ideas and innovations are introduced into the system, and through the slow process of mental readjustment and legislative deliberation, change happens within the conservative structures of the constitution. Stability and change are compatible. Unfortunately, this Burkean model of gradual change, which is essentially the model of American democracy, is poorly adapted to deal with urgent crises like global climate change.

Burke is quite enjoyable to read. His Latinate eighteenth-century prose style simmers, unlike Gibbon's, with Irish temper, and occasionally reaches a boil.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Commonplace Book (12/16/09)

Favorite quotations from today's reading.

"...that absorbed and inward look that only comes with whipped cream." Katherine Mansfield, "The Garden-Party"

"The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints." Edmund Burke, On the Revolution in France

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I was surprised to find in my change this morning a new 2009 Lincoln penny, with a redesigned image on the reverse of Lincoln standing in front of the Illinois state capital. The redesign, in honor of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, was authorized by Title III of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which called for four new reverse designs for the penny to represent the four periods of Lincoln's life: his birth and early years in Kentucky, his formative years in Indiana, his early career in Illinois, and his Presidency in Washington, D.C. The obverse of the penny remains the iconic image of Lincoln sculpted by Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Lincoln penny was first issued in 1909, the centennial of Lincoln's birth, and was the first U.S. coin to feature the portrait of a real person. It was also controversial for bearing the initials of the sculptor, V.D.B., which can now be seen below Lincoln's shoulder. The Lincoln penny, at one hundred years old, is the oldest U.S. coin in continuous circulation. (The Washington quarter was first issued in 1932, the Jefferson nickel in 1938, the Roosevelt dime in 1945, and the Kennedy half dollar in 1964.)

According to the U.S. Mint website, "At the conclusion of the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial One Cent Program, the 2010 (and beyond) one-cent coin will feature a reverse design that will be emblematic of President Lincoln's preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country."

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Domestic Novel

On my Wordpress blog there's a long post up about Storm Jameson's essay "The Georgian Novel and Mr. Robinson" and the domestic novel.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Journey of Disbelief

Two years ago, I blogged about the bizarre evangelical Christian effort to purify Interstate 35 and make it a "Highway of Holiness" in supposed fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Last night, as I drove to St. Paul for the choir concert, I noticed an interesting progression of Adopt-a-Highway signs on I-35 north of the exit for Northfield. The first sign indicated that the section of highway had been adopted by the Northfield Unitarian Fellowship. The next sign, several miles further along, indicated that the next section of highway had been adopted by the Minnesota Atheists.

The next sign, rather profoundly, said: "This Section Available."

Macalester College Choir Concert

Last night, as a steady stream of cars was heading into Northfield on Highway 19 for the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, I was heading in the opposite direction, bound for the Macalester College Choir concert in St. Paul. Although less famous than the St. Olaf Choir, the Macalester choir has a distinguished history. For many years, it was conducted by the great Dale Warland, and was later conducted by Kathy Romey, who now conducts the Minnesota Chorale. The current conductor is Dr. Eugene Rogers, who led the three ensembles—the Singing Scotsmen, the women's Hildegard Singers, and the combined Concert Choir—in a varied and exciting program that included pieces by Monteverdi and Bach, as well as modern compositions and arrangements, and a new piece for choir and Persian ney by Macalester composer Jan Gilbert.

For me, the highlight was the Bach cantata, BWV 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich), because it featured a solo by my friend and former student Peytie McCandless. But the centerpiece of the concert was the new work, which featured Dr. Hossein Omoumi on ney (reed flute) and vocals. (Click here for a short video which shows the unique emboucher with which the ney is played.) The piece was a beautiful and fascinating blend of Persian musical traditions and western choral singing, and drew a standing ovation from the audience. There were quite a few Iranians in the audience. After the concert, an enthusiastic young Iranian woman approached Peytie and complimented her on how well the choir had sung in Farsi.

The concert ended, according to Macalester tradition, with the singing of "Loch Lomond."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Reading Journal: "When I Forgot"

Elina Hirvonen, When I Forgot. Translated by Douglas Robinson. Tin House Books 2009. Originally published in Finland in 2005. 180 pp. $12.95.

Elina Hirvonen's first novel is set in the shadow of 9/11 and during the build up to the Iraq War that followed. The broken lives of its characters float downward like debris from the tragedy, carrying with them memories of a lost wholeness. Anna, the narrator, is suffering from survivor's guilt. Her troubled brother Joona was beaten by their father, and has landed in a mental hospital suffering from severe psychosis. Anna feels bound to him, she wants to help him, and she wants to forget him. Anna's lover, a visiting American academic named Ian, is the son of a Vietnam vet who came home shattered from the war. As America prepares to go to war in Iraq and anti-American demonstrations fill the streets of Helsinki, Anna and Ian painfully struggle to piece themselves together. Anna and Ian are like human twin towers, reduced to emotional rubble by the people and events—both personal and political—that collide with them.

The narrative shifts between present and past, and between the stories of Anna and Ian. Both were unpopular and persecuted in school. Both came from troubled families. Ian has become an academic—he originally comes to Finland to lecture on Virginia Woolf—and Anna has become a journalist. As the novel opens, Anna is sitting in a café, and seems to be reading Michael Cunningham's The Hours: "There's the book. There's the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water."

The novel itself feels as if it has rocks in its pockets, pulled down by the pervasive tone of irredeemable despair and by the seriousness of its purpose. Hirvonen's writing lacks the lightness of touch that marks her countrywoman Tove Jansson's stories of loss and disillusionment. Hirvonen gives us the image of Virginia Woolf weighed down with rocks, walking into the river to drown herself. Jansson gives the image of her Anna's old furniture piled up on the ice out in the harbor, waiting for spring to break up the ice and pull it all down:
Far out on the ice lay a dark pile of rubbish waiting for the ice to break up, a monument to Mama and Papa's complete inability ever to get rid of possessions. How remarkable, Anna thought. The ice will go, and everything will sink, just go straight down and disappear. It's bold, it's almost shameless... Later it occurred to her that maybe it wouldn't sink, not all of it, maybe it would float to another shore and someone would find it and wonder where it came from and why. In any event, it was not even the least bit Anna's fault.
The ice holds things up, but even when it's gone, some things will float. In Jansson's world, there is some buoyancy—some of it is Anna's personal self-deception, much of it is the human will to stay afloat. At the end of Hirvonen's novel there is a moment of lightness, as her Anna seems to float above her reflection in the puddles of a spring thaw. For me, that lightness came too late.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Winter Projects

Here's my desk at home, all set up for what I hope will be a productive winter. I'm hoping to complete, or make substantial progress, on two projects. The first is an essay for a collection of essays on writing titled Chapter & Verse. According to the prospectus, "Chapter & Verse provides perspectives on the many avenues to success that academic—and formerly academic—writers find, including writing and working outside the academy." The second project is the translation of primary sources to be included in Clara's book on Athens in 415 BCE. On the right-hand side of my desk, my big Greek lexicon and Oxford Classical Text of Thucydides are laid out so that I can work on translating the Melian Dialogue.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reading Journal: "The True Deceiver"

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. New York Review Books 2009. Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, with an Introduction by Ali Smith. Available December 1, 2009. I received an ARC from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known for her series of children's books about little hippopotamus-shaped trolls called Moomins. Jansson created the Moomins as a form of escapism while she was working as a cartoonist for an anti-fascist magazine during World War II. Several books featuring the adventures of the Moomintrolls followed between 1945 and 1970. After her mother died in 1970, Jansson set aside the Moomins and turned to writing novels for adults in which the loss of her mother continued to resonate.

In her novel The Summer Book (1972), also published by New York Review Books, a child who has recently lost her mother spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel beautifully depicts the relationship between the small child, Sophia, and her loving but often astringent grandmother. Loss permeates the book—both the mostly unspoken loss of Sophia's mother and the loss of youth and time that the grandmother increasingly feels.

"It all seems to shrink up and glide away," the grandmother says.

Summer on the island becomes a symbol of loss and loneliness and the shortness of time, but Jansson's touch is light and whimsical enough that the sadness and symbolism never weigh the story down. Her cover illustration for the book is perfect: the dark island, with two dark figures alone on the point, floats weightlessly above its dark reflection in an sea of pale yellow and blue. In the middle of the island, among the dark trees, a square of yellow light glows in the window of the house.

In one chapter in the middle of The Summer Book, Sophia sleeps out alone in a tent and, waking to the profound darkness, ventures out into the night to find her grandmother:
She really listened for the first time in her life. And when she got out in the ravine, she noticed for the first time what the ground really felt like under her toes and the soles of her feet. It was cold, grainy, terribly complicated ground that changed as she walked—gravel and wet grass and big flat stones, and every now and then some plant as high as a bush would brush against her legs. The ground was dark, but the sky had a faint, gray light. The island had grown tiny, floating on the water like a drifting leaf, but there was a light in the guest room window.
When we go through a period of darkness, Jansson implies, we begin to notice things we haven't noticed before: subtleties of the darkness, the light that waits for us, the complicated texture of the ground beneath our feet.

In The True Deceiver (1982), Anna Aemelin is, like Jansson, an illustrator of children's books. She creates meticulously detailed paintings of the forest floor, then populates them with floral bunnies. Her life, in the family villa known to the locals as the bunny house, is quiet and well-regulated. She spends the winter answering letters from children, and when the snow finally melts she returns to the forest to paint. But everything changes when the ruthlessly pragmatic Katri Kling comes to live with her and starts to reorganize her life.

As in The Summer Book, the time and place—deep winter in a small coastal village—become a dominant presence in the novel, and deft symbolism is joined with deep psychological insight. Katri is both honest and calculating. She has no illusions about other people. She sees only self-interest at work, and is ruthless in exposing dishonesty and falsehood. Anna, on the other hand, lives in a kind of sentimental dream world, idolizing her late parents and painting floral bunnies. Although she is the older woman, she has, in a sense, never grown up. The conflict between Katri and Anna, between the jaded and the rose-colored view of the world, lies at the center of the novel. Is a certain amount of deception, self-deception and the hiding of truth from other people, necessary for happiness? Is there more to honesty than a scrupulous keeping of accounts?

Katri convinces Anna that Anna has been cheated by everyone from the local shopkeeper to the toy companies who contract with her to create and market toy versions of her signature floral bunnies. Katri insists on going carefully through the accounts and contracts with Anna, figuring out percentages and profits. Katri is all business, but Anna insists on making the business into a game—a game that moves from the real numbers in Anna's account book to entirely made-up sums. Katri is uncomfortable with the shift into fantasy, but Anna still needs some element of make-believe to make the real world bearable. Anna is an artist, and art, after all, is a form of make-believe, a kind of deception, a insistence on something made up. But should art be purely escapist, or should it make us look more penetratingly at reality?

Here's a wonderful photograph of Tove Jansson, surrounded by Moomintrolls, her mouth set at a wry angle, her eyes wide and hard and penetrating, looking past childish things at something more complex out there in the dark.

Tove Jansson, 1956

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading Journal: "Summer Will Show"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show. NYRB Classics 2009. Originally published in 1936.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “The Music at Long Verney” (1971), an old landed couple find themselves listening to music outside the window of their own large country house, Long Verney, which they have rented out to a sophisticated young couple from town. While the story seems to ally our sympathies on the side of the old couple and their attachment to the English countryside, Townsend Warner dismisses them at the end of the story as “impermeably self-righteous.” Fresh experiences, fresh opportunities for empathy and understanding of other lives, fail to penetrate them. They come away from listening to the music at Long Verney grasping at an excuse not to repeat the visit. They shun the opportunity to make a deeper connection.

Townsend Warner’s fiction is peopled with insiders who find themselves on the outside. Lolly Willowes, the daughter of a respectable family, becomes a witch. Mr. Fortune, an English bank clerk, becomes a missionary on a South Sea Island and an outsider among the natives. Ralph Kello, a vagrant fleeing from the plague, finds himself impersonating a priest in a medieval convent in The Corner That Held Them (1948). Ralph, who becomes known as Sir Ralph, is an outsider who finds himself on the inside, but who secretly remains outside the sanction of the church. The conflict in the Townsend Warner’s novels is often between who people are on the inside, and the different spheres in which they find themselves.

Sophia Willoughby, in Summer Will Show (1936), is another such character. Like the couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” Sophia is a member of the English landed gentry, at the same time bound by the expectations of her class and in mental rebellion against them. She’s bored and unhappy, with nothing to give meaning to her life but her children and the rituals of her class. Then her children die of smallpox, and Sophia travels to Paris, where she unexpectedly falls in love with her husband’s Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and becomes caught up in the revolutionary struggles of 1848. The social insider becomes an outsider, living from hand-to-mouth, but always at the same time remaining, by virtue of her class and upbringing, outside the experience of the workers and revolutionaries who now surround her.

Sophia is caught between passionate engagement and critical detachment. She runs hot and cold. For Minna, life is art. She has an ability to pose with perfect sincerity. She is a talented storyteller, and it’s her stories that initially draw Sophia toward her. Warner is interested in the revolutionary power of stories, and in the revolutionary power of love, to change our lives and change the world. At the end of the novel, Sophia is gradually absorbed into words. “Absorbed” is, fittingly, the last word of the novel.

Summer Will Show is itself absorbing—a vivid, lyrical, bold and stimulating novel. It takes unexpected turns, and never gives its characters an easy way out. Warner has a particular genius for the historical novel, which allows her to recreate a world that is like our own, but with telling differences. The reader, like Warner's characters, is thoroughly absorbed, but at the same time stands at a critical distance—looking back, drawing connections, listening to a distant music.

When she wrote Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner had begun a relationship with another woman, the poet Valentine Ackland. The two women became devoted Communists, helped to organize workers in rural Dorset, and made a trip to Spain during the Civil War to support the struggle against fascism. Sophia’s journey in Summer Will Show from the world of the landed gentry to the world of the revolutionary worker was in many respects like Warner’s own. Warner was the daughter of a schoolmaster at Harrow, an expert on Tudor church music, a poet and novelist. During World War I, she worked in a munitions factory, where she gained first-hand knowledge of industrial working conditions. She began to see the dissonance between middle-class romanticizing of the working class and the actual harsh conditions of labor.

In Summer Will Show, there are intellectuals who romanticize revolution, who see it as something essentially picturesque, and there are real working men and women for whom revolution is a final tragic act of desperation. Sophia, like Warner herself, can no longer romanticize, but she can never be an authentic member of the proletariat. She remains essentially an outsider. Summer Will Show stands on my bookshelf beside another NYRB Classic, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which has at its center a debutante turned Communist. Sophia, like Mitford, cannot step entirely out of the life into which she was born, but neither can she go back to it.

In a significant scene in the novel, Sophia finds herself listening to a conversation between Minna and the proto-Marxist Ingelbrecht:
What I feel, thought Sophia, is what I have seen painted sometimes on the faces of people listening to Beethoven; the look of those listening to a discourse, to an argument carried on in entire sincerity, an argument in which nothing is impassioned, or persuasive, or reasonable, except by force of sincerity; and there they sit in a heavenly thraldom, as blind people sit in the sun making a purer acknowledgment with their skin than sight, running after this or that flashing tinsel, can ever make. I cannot for the life of me see what Minna and Ingelbrecht are after; to me a revolution means that there is turmoil and after it people are worse off than they were before; and yet as I see them is as though I were listening to music, able to feel and follow the workings of a different world. For it is there, that irrefutable force and logic of a different existence.
Unlike the old couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” who likewise stand outside the lives of others, Sophia listens.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Word Journal: Rhodomontade

Loneliness was the famine which had tamed him; and in the release of having some one to talk to he forgot the where and the when, forgot the unintimacy between them, forgot even the lack of credence which she could not conceal as she listened to his rhodomontades.
—Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show (1936)
Sylvia Townsend Warner is a careful stylist, with an ear for the shape and the rhythm of her sentences. Here is an elegant tricolon, built upon the triple repetition of the word forgot. At the same time, excessive repetition is avoided. Townsend Warner might easily have written "forgot the lack of intimacy between them, forgot even the lack of credence...," but she creates variety by coining "unintimacy," a word that even the Oxford English Dictionary fails to recognize. The combination of repetition and variation in the sentence, the juxtaposition of the familiar and strange, is, like the rest of Sylvia Townsend Warner's writing, particularly artful and elegant.

The sentence ends with a word that sent me scurrying to the OED. Rhodomontade (or, rodomontade) means "a vainglorious brag or boast," and is first attested in English in 1612. It is ultimately derived from Rodomonte, the name of a boastful Saracen leader in the sixteenth- century Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto's epic Orlando furioso (1532).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Comment Moderation

Recently, spam comments have significantly outnumbered genuine comments on this blog, so I've reactivated word recognition for comments. Comments will also continue to be moderated.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reading Journal: "Robert Elsmere"

Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere. Oxford World's Classics 1987. Originally published 1888. 576 pp.

Mrs. Humphry Ward

Robert Elsmere was an instant and sensational bestseller when it was published in 1888. William Gladstone, in between terms as Prime Minister, wrote a forty-page review of the novel, finding fault with its rejection of Anglican orthodoxy. Oscar Wilde summed it up with a witticism, dismissing it as "Arnold's Literature and Dogma with the literature left out." Mrs. Ward was, in fact, Matthew Arnold's niece, and like Arnold, she objected to the literalism of orthodox Christianity, which was based on an unscientific acceptance of miracles. The underlying purpose of her novel was to suggest a new Christianity, based on historical knowledge, the humanity of Christ, and the ideal of social justice.

The novel begins in the Lake District, where the saintly and evangelical Catherine Leyburn brings comfort to her poor neighbors and holds her family together after the death of her like-minded father. The first part of the novel tells quite compellingly the story of Catherine's wooing by the young clergyman Robert Elsmere, fresh from Oxford and about to become the rector of a small parish in Sussex. Catherine struggles between her sense of duty to her family and neighbors, and her growing love and admiration for Robert. Finally, she accepts him, and Robert takes up his post in Murewell, Sussex, where he immediately becomes a force for good. At the same time, he comes under the spell of the scholarly and misanthropic Squire Wendover, with his fabulous library and his atheism. Under the Squire's influence, Robert comes to reject the miraculous basis of Christianity, which means that he can no longer accept the 39 Articles and therefore must leave the Anglican Church.

Elsmere, through his historical researches, comes to the conclusion that the miraculous elements of Christianity, like the story of the Resurrection, arose out of prescientific modes of thought and conventions of storytelling. Miracles made Christ's story compelling to a first century audience. But the scientific nineteenth-century had no need of miracles or the divinity of Christ: the self-sacrificing moral goodness of a purely human Christ was enough. There was no need to believe in the literal Resurrection when the example of Christ remained, though the work of his followers, a powerful force for social and moral regeneration.

Robert Elsmere represents a middle way between the evangelical orthodoxy of his wife Catherine—who becomes a less sympathetic character as she struggles intractably with her husband's heresy—and the thoroughgoing skepticism and atheism of Squire Wendover. Gladstone objected that the deck is stacked against orthodoxy because Ward gives the Church no intellectually formidable proponent in the novel to counter the influence of Wendover. For Catherine, Christianity is a matter of feeling, not thought, and she can only pray that her husband will return to the fold. At the same time, Robert doesn't follow the Squire's teaching to its logical conclusion, and become an atheist. The Squire is misanthropic, too absorbed in his scholarship, and dies bitter and alone. Atheism is a moral abyss.

The novel is full of attempts at salvation. Rose, Catherine's artistic younger sister, yearns to save the handsome morose Oxford tutor, Langham, from his lonely and disappointed life. A minor character, Charles Richards, wants to "reclaim" his alcoholic wife. Catherine wants to save Robert from heresy and damnation. Robert wants to save everyone. Salvation, Ward seems to say, is not worked out through the miraculous intervention of the risen Christ, but through human relationships, and human love. Christ was not the incarnation of God; rather, we are the incarnation of Christ when we work together in love for the betterment of the world. This is the essence of Robert Elsmere's new religion.

Storytelling is also central to the novel, and to Mrs. Ward's ideas about religion. Both in his Sussex parish and in his ministry to London workers, Elsmere institutes storytelling evenings, when he reads aloud to his parishioners. Like her uncle, Matthew Arnold, Mr. Ward saw that familiarity with the workings of literature was essential for understanding the metaphorical truths of Christianity. Storytelling also brings us into the lives of others. It draws people together, and becomes an agent of reconciliation. It's hearing from someone else the story of her husband's ministry to the London working poor that finally reconciles Catherine to her husband's loss of orthodox faith.

In the course of the novel, as Catherine becomes more rigid and less sympathetic, Elsmere himself becomes more idealized. One character talks, late in the novel, about "the spirit of devotion, through a man, to an idea." He says, "There is no approaching the idea for the masses except through the human life; there is no lasting power for the man except as the slave of the idea." Mrs. Ward, writing in the late nineteenth century, optimistically believed in the power of the charismatic ideologue to be a force for profound good. The twentieth century would show the other side of the coin.

Robert Elsmere is an absorbing, thought-provoking, beautifully written novel. Mrs. Ward has a sympathetic understanding of human character. Walter Pater called the novel "a chef d'oeuvre of that kind of quiet evolution of character through circumstance, introduced into English literature by Miss Austen..." The influence of George Eliot can also be felt throughout (at one point, Elsmere's influence is said to be "incalculably diffusive"—a quotation from the end of Middlemarch). Above all, Mrs. Ward has a deep Victorian moral earnestness. The novel is, as Gladstone, said, "eminently an offspring of the time," and as such offers a panoramic picture of late Victorian religious and intellectual life. It's a shame that Oxford has not included the novel in the latest reissue of the World's Classics series.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Grand Obsolete Party

On Tuesday, New York's 23rd Congressional District—my Republican father's old stomping grounds in his days as an administrative law judge for the New York Department of Labor—elected a Democratic congressman for the first time since the 1850s. According to a political history of the district—the northernmost congressional district in New York—part of the district (Franklin County) was, until Tuesday's election, more recently represented by a Whig (George Simmons, elected in 1852) than by a Democrat (the last Democrat was elected in 1850).

The Republican Party has strong historical roots in far upstate New York, going back to the founding of the party in the 1850s, when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. The most famous abolitionist of all, John Brown, lived on a farm in Essex County, which is part of the 23rd district, and Underground Railroad lines ran throughout the district, which borders on Canada.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Republican Party was the party of progressive social change, the party of civil rights and environmentalism, the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. In the antebellum era, it was the old Democratic Party that was invested in preserving the institution of slavery. Republicans abolished slavery, broke up monopolies, and pioneered the cause of environmental conservation. The new GOP website lays claim to African-American heroes like Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, who were members of the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. Sadly, in this new century, the GOP has become the party of racism and opposition to climate change legislation and comprehensive health care reform.

The change in the party is probably most dramatically illustrated by the defection to the GOP of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1964, at the height of the civil rights era. Originally a Southern Democrat, Thurmond left the party that had associated itself with civil rights and equal opportunity. But the shift in progressivism from the GOP to the Democratic Party began much earlier, even before the Democrat FDR introduced the New Deal. In 1912, the GOP was split between progressives, who supported former President Teddy Roosevelt, and conservatives, who supported the incumbent President, William Howard Taft.

In language that will seem familiar from the most recent Presidential election, Taft said of both his fellow Republican (Roosevelt) and his Democratic opponent (Woodrow Wilson): "The equal opportunity which those seek who proclaim the coming of so-called social justice involves a forced division of property, and that means socialism." (One of Taft's opponents in the crowded race was an actual Socialist, Eugene V. Debs.) Taft and the Republican Party declared themselves in 1912 the party of the status quo, of small government and big business.

For a fascinating account of the pivotal race of 1912, I recommend James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election That Changed the Country (Simon & Schuster 2004).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friends Signing Books

Rob and Rebekah and BANR

Yesterday, after Latin class, I walked over to the Carleton Bookstore with Rebekah Frumkin, author of the short story "Monster," which is featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009, edited by Dave Eggers. A large group of friends and fans showed up at the bookstore to have Rebekah sign copies of the book. In a unique arrangement, the contents of BANR are selected by a committee of high school students in the Bay Area and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who work with Dave Eggers to compile the anthology.

"They thought my story was creepy," Rebekah said.

Rebekah signed books for an hour before rushing off to write a computer program and study for her Latin quiz. There may be a few copies of BANR left at the Carleton Bookstore; otherwise it can be special ordered or ordered online. A large percentage of the proceeds from the book go to 826 National, a coalition of non-profits "dedicated to helping students, 6-18, with expository and creative writing."

Rebekah's story originally appeared in Post Road Magazine, an online literary magazine published by the English Department of Boston College. It shows once again the incredible quality and variety of creative work now appearing in online publications.

On Sunday, back in Oberlin, Ohio, Kerry Langan was signing copies of Only Beautiful & Other Stories, with my review projected onto a screen behind her to help boost sales. Next she'll be traveling down to Palmetto, Georgia, for a reading and book signing at StudioSwan Gallery on Saturday, November 7, at 5:00 p.m. I wish I could be there for the book event, and to celebrate the birthday that Kerry and I share on Sunday.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Only Beautiful and Other Stories"

Kerry Langan, Only Beautiful & Other Stories. Decatur, GA: Wising Up Press, 2009. 214 pp. $20. Available from the publisher or from, or by special order from your favorite independent bookselller.

In the first two stories in Kerry Langan's beautiful new collection of short stories, there are moments of silence. The silence in the first story, "Makeover," comes in the wake of a trauma: "The furnace shuts off and the house is gradually quiet, so silent I hear the spray of rain hitting the window." In the second story, "Lead Us Not," the silence marks an absence: "The room was so quiet I could hear the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead and the hiss from the radiators." One of Langan's gifts as a writer is her ability to listen intently, and to hear what is unspoken in every situation. She also has a great writer's eye for the significant detail, bringing entire life histories alive in a single moment of illumination. She achieves what the best writers of short fiction can achieve, combining an economy of narration with a depth of insight and sympathy that allows us to feel, in a few short pages, that we know her characters and live intimately among them.

"Makeover" is narrated by a fifteen-year old girl, Barb, who babysits for the children of a woman, Janet, whose marriage has recently broken up. Barb innocently fantasizes about being in Janet's place—a grown-up woman with a lovely house and a closet full of beautiful clothes—but ends up trespassing upon fantasies that are not nearly so innocent. Langan allows us to see the world through Barb's eyes—but unlike Barb, we can at the same time see through our adult eyes the more troubling aspects of Janet's life and relationships. It's a perfect opening story for the collection, because it explores the attractions and the dangers of entering into the lives of others—one of the major themes of Langan's fiction.

In the novella, "Only Beautiful," Langan tells the story of beautiful Mary Connolly in the voices of at least a dozen different characters. The novella is like a diamond of many facets, prismatic, as the characters illuminate not only Mary's life, but their own, with unexpected lights and colors. As in many of Langan's stories, the characters, bound up in their own anxieties and preoccupations, manage to misinterpret each other, to cause each other unintentional pain, and to muddle through—sometimes to a kind of unexpected grace. Langan's touch is so sure that we never fall out of sympathy with these flawed and fumbling, and ultimately very familiar characters. She knows how much we need each other, and how falteringly we fulfill that need.

In one of my favorite stories, "The Marshall Islands," Langan gives us a classic American short story with the Aristotelian unities of a suburban backyard barbecue, and an Aristotelian moment of recognition in which a father sees the epitome of his own life—his failures and his longings—in the life of his son. The story contains everything: the longing of parents for children, of men for women, of age for youth, of the present for the past. The Marshall Islands—where the United States conducted nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll after World War II—become a symbol of poisoned relationships and of a longing for a fresh start. It's smart and potent storytelling.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Flu Update

This subject heading has appeared in my email inbox three times in the past week. Another professor reports that he received five flu automailer messages in a single day. We are now in Week 7 of Carleton's nine-and-a-half week term, usually a stressful part of the term in the best of times. This fall, the flu is taking full advantage of the stressed and sleep-deprived student body. Currently, 30% of my Latin 101 class is out with what appears to be H1N1.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Historical Jesus and the Late Victorian Novel

Ernest Renan

"The great problem of the present age," writes the translator of Ernest Renan's La Vie de Jésus, "is to preserve the religious spirit, whilst getting rid of the superstitions and absurdities that deform it, and which are alike opposed to science and common sense." Renan's book appeared in English in 1863, a few years after the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859), and invited similar criticism and outrage with its challenge to the traditional Christian world view. Renan (1823-1892) attempted to see Jesus in his historical context, not as the Son of God, but as an historical figure whose thought and actions were influenced by the intellectual, social, and political currents of his time, and by a long tradition of Jewish thought.

The influence of Renan's Life of Jesus pervades Mrs. Humphry Ward's great novel Robert Elsmere (1888). The title character is an Anglican rector whose historical and scientific investigations prompt a crisis of faith that ultimately leads him to reject the supernatural basis of Christianity. He is left with "the image of a purely human Christ—a purely human, explicable, yet always wonderful Christianity." Elsmere's crisis mirrors the intellectual and spiritual crisis of the Victorians in general as they faced the implications of the new scientific and historical views of the world.

It's important, in Robert Elsmere, that the rector is an amateur naturalist—like Rev. Farebrother in Middlemarch and like so many nineteenth-century Anglican clergymen. The study of natural history revealed to the religious mind the wonders of God's creation, but to a more critical mind like Elsmere's it revealed truths fundamentally at odds with his simple Christianity. Certain central Christian doctrines—the Virgin Birth, for example, and the Resurrection—were seen to be absurd in light of a scientific understanding of the world. But more importantly, science gave Elsmere a method by which he could scrutinize Scriptural evidence and see it as part of an historical process, rather than as a divine revelation.

Mrs Ward writes: "Perhaps it was his scientific work, fragmentary as it was, that was really quickening and sharpening these historical impressions of his. Evolution—once a mere germ in the mind—was beginning to press, to encroach, to intermeddle with the mind's other furniture. And the comparative instinct—the tool, par excellence, of modern science—was at last fully awake, was growing fast, taking hold, now here, now there."

Elsmere's crisis is precipitated when he reads about and ponders the latest historical criticism of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Renan, among others, realized that Daniel was written centuries after the events it purports to narrate—that it is, essentially, a work of fiction—and that when Jesus quotes from it, he is not bringing a divine prophecy to fulfillment, but merely reflecting the purely human influence of Jewish tradition.

Mr. Grey, Elsmere's Oxford mentor, dissects Elsmere's loss of literal faith: "Well, the process in you has been the typical process of the present day. Abstract thought has had little or nothing to do with it. It has been all a question of literary and historical evidence. I am old-fashioned stick to the a priori impossibility of miracles, but then I am a philosopher! You have come to see how miracles are manufactured, to recognise in it merely a natural, inevitable outgrowth of human testimony, in its pre-scientific stages. It has been all experimental, inductive."

George Eliot—young Mary Ann Evans—went through a similar crisis of faith as the translator of D.F. Strauss's Life of Jesus (Leben Jesu, 1835), a pioneering German attempt to uncover the historical Jesus. As Eliot biographer Jenny Uglow writes: "She was reluctant to reduce the person of Christ, whom she regarded as an unparalleled charismatic teacher, to a mere pawn of cultural consciousness. Strauss seemed to drain Christianity of any application to life, and she realised, in rejecting his negative position, that she did value the symbolic importance of Christian teaching, indeed of all religions based on notions of self-sacrifice, of spiritual community, of supporting love."

That qualification—"the symbolic importance of Christian teaching"—is significant. Christianity could be seen as full of mythical elements—stories that nevertheless touched an essential chord in the human heart. Not surprisingly, the woman who would become a great novelist, known for the moral depth of her fiction, concluded that fictions could contain great truths. A scientific examination of the Bible reduced it to a collection of absurdities. As Matthew Arnold explained, the Bible only made sense, and only remained relevant, when read as a literary text.

Late Victorians like Arnold and Eliot and Mrs. Humphry Ward needed Christian teaching as the basis of their morality, and as the basis of liberal social action to alleviate poverty and suffering and injustice in the world, but they could no longer accept the Bible as the literal word of God. Renan wrote: "To have made himself beloved, 'to the degree that after his death they ceased not to love him,' was the great work of Jesus, and that which most struck his contemporaries." He continues, "If Jesus were to return among us, he would recognise as disciples, not those who pretent to enclose him entirely in a few catechismal phrases, but those who labour to carry on his work."

To live one's life so as to be loved: not a bad standard of conduct.

The work of Ernest Renan is also read by the title character in American novelist Harold Frederic's 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. Theron Ware is, like Robert Elsmere, a clergyman (in Ware's case, a Methodist) whose study of Renan, among others, leads to a loss of his Christian faith. Theron Ware is also, like Elsmere, a gifted preacher. But when Ware loses his faith, and can no longer in good conscience preach Christian sermons, he reapplies his talent in a typical American way: he becomes a salesman.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Beyond Forgetting" Readings

Tomorrow (Friday, October 16), I'll be taking part in two poetry readings from the anthology Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer's Disease (Kent State University Press). Joining me for both readings will be the book's editor, poet Holly Hughes; at the second reading, we'll be joined by Minneapolis poet Ethna McKiernan. The first reading is at 4:00 pm at Viking Theater, at St. Olaf College. The second reading is at the Northfield Retirement Community Chapel, starting at 7:00. I wrote about Holly, and the book, on in the spring. You can purchase the book for 15% off ($25.46) this week at the St. Olaf Bookstore.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pumpkin Flower

October has brought a harvest of new books from people I know or used to know. I'm beginning to feel like the one vine in the pumpkin patch that flowered like the rest, but never produced a pumpkin. Here are a couple of the prize pumpkins produced this October.

Kerry Langan, Only Beautiful & Other Stories (Wising Up Press). Kerry has been a friend since our desks faced each other in the Oberlin College Library in the mid-1980s. She was a young reference librarian and I was a student worker at the circulation desk. Kerry and I share a birthday, and a similar history. In the 1990s, she gave up the reference desk for a life as a writer and a stay-at-home mom. She has written and published numerous short stories, and several of them, along with a novella, are brought together in her new book.

Rebekah Frumkin is a student in my Latin 101 class this term. She won her first national writing contest at the age of seven, was a published fiction writer as a teenager, has contributed to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and as a sophomore at Carleton has had a story chosen by Dave Eggers for Best Nonrequired Reading 2009. You can read her story, "Monster," here. Rebekah really makes me feel like a wilted pumpkin flower. She'll be signing books at the Carleton Bookstore on November 3.

Another Greuze

Here, again, is Mrs. Humphry Ward's recollection of George Eliot's arrival at Lincoln College, Oxford, and her first sight of Mrs. Pattison, the Rector's young wife:
As we turned into the quadrangle of Lincoln—suddenly, at one of the upper windows of the Rector's lodgings, which occupied the far right corner of the quad, there appeared the head and shoulders of Mrs. Pattison, as she looked out and beckoned smiling to Mr. Lewes. It was a brilliant apparition, as though a French portrait by Greuze or Perronneau had suddenly stepped into a vacant space in the old college wall. The pale, pretty head, blond-cendrée, the delicate smiling features and the white throat; a touch of black, a touch of blue; a white dress; a general eighteenth-century impression as though of powder and patches:—Mrs. Lewes [George Eliot] perceived it in a flash, and I saw her run eagerly to Mr. Lewes and draw his attention to the window and its occupant...
Mrs. Humphry Ward

In an earlier post on Middlemarch, I mentioned how Eliot translated this scene to the Vatican, where the artist Naumann spies Dorothea and fetches Will Ladislaw to share his aesthetic experience. The striking scene in the Lincoln quadrangle lodged in Mrs. Ward's imagination, too, and found its way into her 1888 novel, Robert Elsmere. In the novel, the title character, a young clergyman, is showing his old Oxford tutor, Langham, around a remarkable private library belonging to the misanthropic scholar, Squire Wendover. Langham, the disappointed and detached middle-aged scholar, has begun to feel an attraction to Elsmere's spirited sister-in-law, nineteen-year old Rose. In the library, the two men at last come to a dreary room used "as a receptacle for the superfluous or useless volumes thrown off by the great collection all around." The room is filled with frayed and broken volumes, gradually crumbling to dust, and "a musty smell hung over it all." As he is leaving this room, a sudden vision arrests Langham's attention:
He passed the threshold again with a little sigh, and saw suddenly before him at the end of the suite of rooms, and framed in the doorways facing hiim, an engraving of a Greuze picture—a girl's face turned over her shoulder, the hair waving about her temples, the lips parted, the teeth gleaming, mirth and provocation and tender yielding in every line. Langham started, and the blood rushed to his heart. It was as though Rose herself stood there and beckoned to him.
The woman becomes a work of art, the work of art becomes a woman. There are traces of Pygmalion in these scenes, in the relationships between these old scholars and beautiful but intellectually unformed girls. Rose, it should he noted, is herself an artist, a violinist with a rare and exceptional talent. She is both artist and object of art.

Lady Dilke

In Robert Elsmere, Rose has an older sister, the puritanical Catherine, whose strong religious convictions make her call into question the value of art and the artistic temperament. Rose and Catherine seem to represent the aesthetic and ascetic impulses in Victorian women, the tension between the sensual and the spiritual that Dorothea wrestles with in Middlemarch. This tension is vividly illustrated in a memoir of Lady Dilke—the former Emilia Frances Strong Pattison—written by her second husband. In a striking passage, he writes about her days as a young art student in South Kensington: "In 1859, Miss Strong used to horrify her ordinary church friends by her studies in dissection and advocacy of the necessity of drawing from the nude; but, at the same time, still more greatly to shock them by her habit of doing penance for the smallest fault, imaginary or real, by lying for hours on the bare floor or on the stones, with her arms in the attitude of the cross." An aesthetic appreciation of the bodies of others contrasts with an ascetic mortification of her own flesh.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, "Souvenir"

The paintings of Greuze were enormously popular in the nineteenth century. Sir Richard Wallace collected nearly two dozen Greuzes at Hertford House (The Wallace Collection), where Lady Dilke viewed them. Their appeal may have lain in what she called their "immature beauty" and "vein of wanton suggestion." At left is one of the typical Greuzes from The Wallace Collection. Is her expression primarily sensual, or is there something spiritual in it as well, something of the ecstasy of St. Teresa?

In Robert Elsmere, Mrs. Humphry Ward explores the often conflicting facets of woman's nature, as the Victorians understood it. She's interested in the tension between spiritual and sensual, between being the artist and being the object of art, between self-fulfillment and being the fulfillment of someone else's desire.

Footnote: In 1908, Humphry Ward, the novelist's husband, traveled to Berkeley, California, to give a lecture on the development of the Louvre's collection. Ward was a prominent art critic. Although he declined to be interviewed after the lecture, "he did venture the opinion...that American women were good to look upon." He was amazed at the number of women who were able to show up for a morning lecture. The New York Times article on his lecture was headed: "HUMPHRY WARD LECTURES ON ART. Wonders Afterward That So Many Women as Hear Him Have Nothing to Do. BUT FINDS THEM PRETTY."

Related: Greuze works in the Wallace Collection, London

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .