Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Young Pretenders"

Edith Henrietta Fowler, The Young Pretenders. London: Persephone Books, 2007. Originally published in 1895.

Edith Henrietta Fowler

The Victorian era is often credited with the discovery of childhood. When Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, thousands of children were working in mills, mines and factories in both Great Britain and the United States. In Britain, efforts had already begun to regulate child labor in textile mills. In 1840, a parliamentary commission on children's employment began to study the conditions of child labor in mines and factories in England. One of the places investigated was Wolverhampton, a center of the iron industry in Staffordshire. The commission found deplorable conditions in Wolverhampton and nearby Willenhall—disease, maltreatment, and ignorance were rampant among children who worked as assistants in iron foundries or spent twelve hours a day filing keys for locksmiths.

The commission's detailed report on Willenhall came into the hands of Benjamin Disraeli, who incorporated large sections of it into his novel Sybil; or The Two Nations (1845), about the gap between rich and poor in England. Disraeli, more famous as a Prime Minister, was one of numerous Victorian novelists who took on the role of social reformer. The most successful was Charles Dickens, who knew first-hand about child labor from his own childhood experience working in a blacking factory, which he fictionalized in David Copperfield. In his novels, Dickens exposed the deplorable conditions under which many Victorian children lived, while revealing the essential innocence and vulnerability of children.

Part of the nineteenth-century discovery of childhood can be credited to Rousseau's Emile, which sparked a long tradition of books focusing on the nature of childhood and the education of children. Many of the books were unfailingly didactic; their aim was to guide the moral development of children. Heavy-handed didacticism, and heavy-handed sentimentalism, were the pitfalls of the discovery of childhood. On the other hand, there came to be an understanding that imagination was important and good, and that fostering the imagination was an essential part of nurturing the child.

Meanwhile, conditions in Wolverhampton had not improved greatly when the Children's Employment Commission issued a new report in 1864, a year before the birth in Wolverhampton of Edith Henrietta Fowler. Fowler's maternal grandfather, George Thorneycroft, was one of the leading ironmasters in Wolverhampton, and had himself been apprenticed to a blacksmith as a child in Leeds. In 1848, he had risen to such prominence that he became the first Mayor of Wolverhampton after its incorporation. Fowler's father, Henry Hartley Fowler, was a solicitor, privately educated in a series of boarding schools, who later became Lord Wolverhampton. As a politician, he championed a number of liberal causes, including elementary education—something that only became universal in England with the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

Edith Henrietta Fowler had a privileged childhood, as do the little brother and sister in her novel The Young Pretenders (1895), but she was still very much aware of the innocence and vulnerability of children. In The Young Pretenders, Babs is five and Teddy is seven. Their mother and father are in India, and when their grandmother dies, they are sent from their country home to London to be raised by their aunt and uncle. These middle-class children are not sent to work in a factory or a mine, but they are given into the custody of an unsympathetic aunt who cares more about clothes and parties than children. In her concern for appearances, she is especially unsympathetic to plain, chubby little Babs.

Babs is the center of the novel. Fowler charmingly reveals Babs's childish point-of-view, has fun with her innocent lack of tact, and writes all of Babs's dialogue in "baby-talk."

"Fings so often turn out nasty," she tells Teddy.

The nastiness comes from unsympathetic adults—Aunt Eleanor, Miss Grimston the horrible governess—who have no insight into the child mind. They have no imagination, something that Babs and Teddy have in abundance. The title of the novel comes from their ability to pretend, to play make-believe, and from the way in which reality and imagination often blend together in childhood. The wonderful thing about The Young Pretenders for an adult reader is how it turns the didacticism of Victorian children's books on its head: although Babs learns a few things about good behavior, it's really her Uncle Charley who learns and changes in the course of the novel. Fowler's purpose seems less to train her child readers in good behavior than to encourage her adult readers to understand children and their unique needs and perspectives.

"For to see the deeper thing," Fowler says, in one of her few direct didactic statements, "we must look at life through other people's eyes. Which is sympathy."

Sympathy, the ability to "look at life through other people's eyes," was at the root of many of the liberal reforms of the nineteenth century that improved conditions for women and children, for workers and slaves. The novel, one of the great art forms of the nineteenth century, was a great vehicle for broadening sympathy, combining entertainment with social purpose. Nineteenth-century novelists like Dickens and Disraeli and Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that storytellers could be agents of social change. They help us to imagine a different life, and the possibility that life can be different. The novel tells us the story of someone else, and makes that story ours.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Walter Savage Landor

Today is the birthday of British poet Walter Savage Landor, who was born in Warwick, England, on January 30, 1775. At left is a photograph of his birthplace on Smith Street in Warwick, just outside the medieval Eastgate of the city. I took the photograph on a walk to Warwick in March 2007. Landor House, with its blue door, is now the home of the King's High School for Girls.

Landor's father was a physician, and sent his son off to receive his education at nearby Rugby. Unfortunately, headstrong young Walter quarreled with the headmaster and was expelled. Later, he was also expelled from Trinity College, Oxford, after an incident in which he fired a gun at the window of a house where an irritating fellow student was entertaining guests.

For many years after that incident, Landor led an unsettled life. One constant was his love for Latin, and in particular, Latin poetry. It was a love he shared with Dr. Samuel Parr, perpetual curate of the little church in Hatton, a short walk from Landor's birthplace in Warwick. Both Landor and Parr enjoyed composing epigrams in both Latin and English. Here's one of Landor's English epigrams:
On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.
Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky writes of this epigram's "mysterious kind of economy," its "delicacy and finality," and the manner in which it "refreshes" clichés, accomplishing all this in just fifteen words.

Robert Pinsky is not the only fellow poet who appreciated Landor. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, wrote: "Mr. Landor is one of the foremost of that small class who make good in the nineteenth-century the claims of pure literature." The poet Swinburne later wrote: "If we except Catullus and Simonides, it might be hard to match and it would be impossible to overmatch the flawless and blameless yet living and breathing beauty of his most perfect elegies, epigrams or epitaphs."

The 1923 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse includes twenty of his poems, including this lovely little meditation on the power of poetry, inspired, like much of Landor's poetry, by the classics:
Past ruin'd Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth; 'tis verse that gives
Immortal youth to mortal maids.

Soon shall Oblivion's deepening veil
Hide all the peopled hills you see,
The gay, the proud, while lovers hail
These many summers you and me.
Landor wrote several epigrams in appreciation of specific classical poets, including Catullus, about whose poetry he had a typical Victorian ambivalence:
Among these treasures there are some
That floated past the wreck of Rome;
But others, for their place unfit,
Are sullied by uncleanly wit.
So in its shell the pearl is found
With rank putridity around.
As a prose writer, Landor is best known for his collection of Imaginary Conversations (1829), a series of fictional conversations between historical figures. As Landor himself explained: "
When I was younger..[a]mong the chief pleasures of my life, and among the commonest of my occupations, was the bringing before me such heroes and heroines of antiquity, such poets and sages, such of the prosperous and unfortunate as most interested me …[and e]ngaging them in conversations best suited to their characters." The collection includes imaginary conversations between numerous classical figures, such as Pericles and Sophocles, Diogenes and Plato, Alcibiades and Xenophon. But some consider his prose masterpiece to be the collection of imaginary letters, Pericles and Aspasia (1836).

Imaginary Conversations was dedicated to Landor's friend Charles Dickens, who in Bleak House created a memorable portrait of Landor in the character of Boythorn, Mr. Jarndyce's bluff, good-natured friend whose thunderous laugh "makes the whole house vibrate."

Landor spent many years living in Bath, and died in Florence, Italy, at the age of 89.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Northfield.Org Internship

Amy Sack

It's been my great privilege this month to work with Amy Sack, a senior at St. Olaf College, who has been serving as a student intern at Northfield.org during the college's January interim. Amy has researched and written three excellent stories for Northfield.org, and will be contributing one more story before she has to return to her classes at St. Olaf. I've served as editor and publisher, editing and proofreading her stories, then formatting them for the website and publishing them. Amy has produced a set of outstanding stories. She's a careful researcher, she checks and double checks her facts, and she tells a good story.

Amy's first story was an interview with Mary Rossing, Northfield's new mayor. Her second story was about the programs offered by the Northfield Public Library, and the impact of the declining economy on those programs. Her third story, which I published last night, is on the Northfield-based organization War Kids Relief, which matches up American kids with Iraqi pen pals to foster international understanding. Even if you've come to this blog from outside the Northfield area, I encourage you to read it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Project 1929: "Fugitive's Return"

Susan Glaspell, Fugitive's Return. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1929. 324 pp. Currently out of print.

In 1929, Susan Glaspell's novel Fugitive's Return stood near the top of national bestseller lists, only a few notches down from the number one novel of the year, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Two years later, in 1931, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her play Alison's House. The Pulitzer Prize was the culmination of an important and successful career in the theater as a playwright and as one of the co-founders, with her husband George Cram Cook, of the Provincetown Players, the theater that also launched the career of Eugene O'Neill. Unfortunately, Glaspell is little known today outside of academic circles. Two of her novels, Fidelity (1915) and Brook Evans (1928), have been reissued by Persephone Books in London, but Fugitive's Return remains out of print. This is a shame, because Fugitive's Return is a beautiful, deep, and moving book about a woman's struggle to reclaim her life in the aftermath of tragedy.

In 1922, Glaspell and her husband left the Provincetown Players and sailed for Greece. For Cook, like Glaspell a native Iowan, this was an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a shepherd poet on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, a living figure out of the ancient poetry of Theocritus. He and Glaspell settled in Delphi. On the road up from the coast, even the Greek billboards excited him. Two years later, Cook was dead from glanders, a disease contracted from a stray dog he had taken in.

A stray dog plays a pivotal role in Fugitive's Return. The novel is clearly very personal, drawn from Glaspell's own experience in Delphi, her own tragedy, her own personal journey from Iowa to Cape Cod to Delphi. The main character is a woman named Irma Lee Shraeder, and the novel opens as she steps from her bath and prepares to take her own life with an overdose of pills. In dream-like prose, the novel transports Irma to Delphi, where she slowly begins to reinhabit her own life—reliving her Midwestern childhood, her marriage and motherhood on Cape Cod—and to discern its true shape.

Irma—her name suggests Hermes, the Greek god of boundary crossing—is both Alcestis, left voiceless by her trauma, and the Pythia, the oracular voice of old Delphi. The novel is about a woman finding her voice and telling herself, in a meaningful way, the story of her own life. Irma has lived much of her life as one in a play, attempting to give form to her life while drawing back from its more troubling depths—from passion, from risk, from the painful beauty of an intensely lived life. Her journey is toward learning that "form must come from within." At Delphi, in the midst of ancient ruins, she comes to realize that "she might be scrubbing a floor and have more dignity than in ascending noble old steps."

The novel is often stunningly beautiful, and Glaspell is brilliant at charging images with significance without deadening them into static and obvious symbols. In a beautiful scene early in the novel, she describes Irma and Stamula, her Greek friend, setting up their looms on the stage of the ancient theater and communicating with each other through gestures. Glaspell is, obviously, interested in acting and communication, and in how the past remains always present, repeating itself in word and thought and gesture. As she says later in the novel, it is "as if all those things man does in common make man one." She explores these themes—of art and life, individuality and common humanity, suffering and survival—with modernist sophistication and mythical simplicity, in luminous prose that often reads like poetry.

Speaking of the Cape Cod landscape around Truro, she writes: "These hills were as waves arrested. Once it had been dunes; time and man had made the dunes soil, bringing to rest something long restless." This brief description is both lovely on its own, and connected seamlessly to the larger concerns of the novel. How do we create form and meaning out of our human restlessness, out of our suffering, out of our often haphazard attempts at living?

"Just to sit there with her was healing, and brought understanding of what she had herself wanted. She too had wanted an ordered life. Watching Stamula she seemed to be watching generations of women behind her who had spun as the woman now in life was spinning. It gave to Stamula something authoritative, a beauty."

For me, as a classicist, Glaspell reaffirms the importance of the classics as an expression of something enduringly human. "It was now," Glaspell writes, "she read the tragedies of ancient Greece. Her books were an edition both Greek and English; where she could not achieve the old language she turned to her own. At times she was not reading of something outside herself; at times it was almost—(not quite, not yet) as if her own years, formed in tragedy, could also be resolved in beauty."

I'm reminded of my favorite line of Derek Walcott's poetry: "The classics can console. But not enough."

Fugitive's Return is a glorious book, and one that deserves to be reprinted and to reach a new audience.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Un premio bloguero

Last week I received this blog award, the Premio Dardo ("dart prize"), from my Canadian blogfriend Chris. I did a little web Quellenforschung and traced the award back to a Spanish source, which notes that the award is given for los esfuerzos que cada blogger muestra cada día en su empeño por transmitir valores culturales, éticos, literarios o personales ("the effort the blogger makes each day in undertaking to transmit cultural, ethical, literary or personal values"). Thanks, Chris! Following the proper blog award etiquette, I'm going to pass this award along to Elizabeth at JanusJaywalking. Keep blogging, Elizabeth!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Winter Blossoms

The rosemary plant in one of our east-facing windows has been blooming now for several weeks. The lovely pale blue flowers are, like rosemary leaves, beautifully fragrant when crushed. They're edible, and are said to make a soothing bath infusion. This is the first winter in which we've been successful in keeping our rosemary plant alive. We bought it early last spring at the annual Prairie Creek Community School plant sale on Bridge Square.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Praise Song for January 21, 2009

Today is a new day,
like any other.
There are bills to pay,
mouths to feed,
bridges to build.
The map of the world
still looks the same.
There will still be
hands clenched into fists,
voices raised in anger.
People will die,
the earth will grow hotter.
We will still struggle
from paycheck to paycheck,
from dark to dark.
The ends will never meet.
There is still work to be done.

We will still see differences,
forgetting that we are all made
from the stuff of this earth.
We will still magnify
our differences to heaven
in our will to believe
we belong to something more.
That something more is us.
That something more is
what we can do, and the world
we can make, if yesterday
was more than words,
more than saying love out loud,
but the start of living it.

The sharp sparkle has faded
into the dullness of another winter dawn.
But this is what yesterday meant:
that we are still the people we always were,
becoming the people we always meant to be.

Today is a new day,
like any other.
Today we must stop
congratulating ourselves.
Today we must stop saying
that history’s been made.
We must start making it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Project 1929: "Passing"

Nella Larsen, Passing. Negro University Press, 1969. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1929. Also available in more recent editions. 216 pp.

Nella Larsen's Passing takes as its epigram the famous lines from Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which was published in 1925:
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Like Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, published in the same year, Larsen's novel is about an African-American woman who "passes" as white, and asks many of the same questions about race, class, family, and identity.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was the daughter of a black West Indian father and a white Danish mother. In 1929 she was awarded a Harmon Foundation award for her first novel, Quicksand, an autobiographical novel about a biracial woman. Later in 1929, she published Passing, and in 1930 became the first woman of color to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. But she never published another novel, and spent the rest of her career working as a nurse in New York City.

I'm reminded of the character in Plum Bun who's torn between wanting to be a poet and feeling the responsibility to be a respectable dentist. Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote four novels at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, then returned to high school teaching; Larsen wrote two novels and then became a nurse. There seems to be a conflict between the need for self-expression and the comfortable allure of middle-class respectability, between the riskiness of art and the security of a home and a steady paycheck. Larsen says of one her main characters in Passing: "[S]ecurity was the most important and desired thing in life... She wanted only to be tranquil."

How is is possible to be "tranquil," to be comfortable and secure, in a country where color is dangerous, where race is potentially explosive?

Nella Larsen.

In Passing, Irene Redfield wants to hold onto her comfortable middle-class life in the midst of Harlem's black community. Her husband, Brian, wants to leave "this damned country" and his respectable middle-class career as a physician, and settle in multiracial Brazil. Irene is light-skinned, and occasionally passes as white "for convenience." On a visit to Chicago at the opening of the novel, she escapes the midsummer heat by slipping into a posh restaurant where, of course, blacks would not be allowed. In the restaurant she encounters a childhood friend she hasn't seen for years, Clare Kendry, who is also "passing." But Clare has made a life out of passing: she's married to a white man, a seething racist who obviously doesn't know his wife's secret. She's beautiful, daring, and self-centered. Irene is attracted to her and repelled by her. She represents both the possibility of freeing oneself from race, and the danger of losing it.

Irene and Clare both struggle between loyalty to family and loyalty to race—and, ultimately, loyalty to themselves and the things they hold most dear. "She was caught between two allegiances," Larsen says of Irene, "different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! That thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race... It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, as an individual, on one's own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved."

As critics have observed, Passing is structured around "binaries," around opposites or doubles: black and white, security and risk, New York and Chicago, Irene and Clare, hot and cold, summer and winter. Clare's presence in the novel begins among whites in a rooftop restaurant in Chicago and ends among blacks on the top floor of an apartment building in New York. The novel is carefully constructed, but written with such ease and simplicity that it almost hides its own complexities. The ending is famously ambiguous, highlighting the ambiguities of the entire novel. In the end, everything fades to black.

Brian Redfield's attitude—he calls America "this damn country"—reminds me of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's infamous "God damn America," and reminds me that this bitterness is rooted in a real history of brutality and injustice that may be difficult for those of us in white America to comprehend. To some of us, the promise of America has been its reality. To others, like Brian, that promise has never been fulfilled. Of Irene—biracial, middle-class—Larsen says: "She belonged in this land of rising towers. She was American. She grew from this soil, and she would not be uprooted." Angela, in Plum Bun, also longs for rootedness.

Can American soil become so fertile with the richness of race and culture that women like Irene and Angela, and Nella and Jessie, can spring from it without finding their growth stunted? In 1929, that was an unanswered question. Eighty years later, how far have we come toward finding the answer?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Spaghetti alla Blogger

Last night, Clara cooked up one of my favorite "comfort foods," spaghetti alla carbonara. It's one of those recipes that, early in my life as a cook, I followed meticulously in Marcella Hazan's classic Italian cookbook. I cooked in those days as if Marcella were standing over my shoulder, shaking her head disapprovingly if I failed to observe any of her occasionally anal retentive steps. Over the years, I stopped parboiling the bacon before cooking it in garlic-infused olive oil. I also took to adding a small pinch of nutmeg (or mace, which for some reason is what we have in our cupboard instead of nutmeg) to the dish, which brings the flavor imperceptibly closer to the taste of spaghetti alla carbonara made with real pancetta.

When we arrived on the island in Michigan where we spent our honeymoon in late June 1989, we found the kitchen stocked with eggs, white wine, good parmesan cheese, and pancetta. One of our first home-cooked meals as husband and wife was spaghetti alla carbonara, prepared with real pancetta and Clara's homemade pasta. During our first year of marriage, when we were living in Providence, R.I., pancetta was fairly readily available. But I haven't seen it very often since we moved to Minnesota. So imagine my delight when, as I was crossing campus late last week, I was stopped by fellow blogger and Facebook friend Patrick Ganey, who handed me a thick slice of his home-cured pancetta. Like a good blogger, Patrick has written about making pancetta on his food blog, Duck Fat and Politics.

A big thank you to Patrick, and to the brave new world of social networking, for last night's delicious spaghetti alla carbonara!

[Image source]

Reading Journal: "Land of Marvels"

Barry Unsworth, Land of Marvels. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 2009. 287 pp. $26.00.

In Hesiod's eighth-century Greek poem about the origin of the gods, the Theogony, the Muses boast that they know how to tell "lies like the truth." The foundation of myth, of poetry, of storytelling is the telling of lies that compel belief or, at least, the suspension of disbelief. Sometimes we tell stories to beguile others, and sometimes we manage to convince ourselves with our own storytelling. Can we ever tell the whole and unadulterated truth, or is reality always our version of it, shaped and distorted by our need for structure and meaning, by our desires and fears?

Questions like these lie behind most of Barry Unsworth's fiction. He's interested in storytelling and what compels it. He's interested in how people reconstruct events and find meaning in them. One of his most popular novels, Morality Play (1995), is a medieval mystery in which a band of traveling players investigate and reenact a murder. The murder mystery is a perfect genre for Unsworth, because it's about reconstructing events, telling a story that makes sense of them, finding meaning in the past.

His 2004 novel, Songs of the Kings, imagines the Greek army preparing to set sail for Troy, modernizing Homer in light of the build up to the Iraq War. It's about propaganda and the manipulation of the news—about "lies like truth" and the ways in which storytelling can shape events. Unsworth is also fascinated with greed and obsession. His characters are insatiable in their desire for money or power or knowledge. In his 1999 novel Losing Nelson, the main character is obsessed with the life of Admiral Nelson, and in particular with a specific incident in Nelson's career. His obsessive research, his obsessive need to shape events into a story, ultimately consumes him. Perhaps history repeats itself because we become trapped in stories of our own devising. Perhaps stories shape reality, rather than the other way around. We tell stories about the link between Iraq and terrorism, for example, and our obsession with that story makes it so. Stories can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Land of Marvels is set in Mesopotamia—modern Iraq—in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. John Somerville in an archaeologist excavating what he hopes will prove to be a significant Assyrian site. Meanwhile, the German railroad is inching its way toward him, and he becomes convinced that it will destroy his work. Complicating matters is the intrigue of international investors who are prospecting for oil in the region, and making plans for how the Ottoman Empire will be divvied up after a war that seems increasingly inevitable. It's vintage Unsworth in its historical setting and its obsession with storytelling, and with obsession itself. Somerville is obsessed both with reconstructing the Assyrian past and with the looming threat of the railroad. That obsession shapes Somerville's narrative. In various ways, several characters in the book become convinced by their own stories, and those stories shape events.

There are big themes in Land of Marvels, about history and the rise and fall of empires, but it's a relatively small book. It moves quickly, both because of the excitement and suspense it generates and because, at times, it feels insufficiently fleshed out. I was left wanting more. The novel seems to rush headlong to its inevitable conclusion. For me, it lacked the texture and atmosphere and vividness of character that I find in some of my favorite "historical novels," like J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur or Louis de Bernière's Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Unsworth, like his protagonist Somerville, seemed too obsessed with how things would come crashing down.

Unsworth is a skilled writer who can speak volumes in small and carefully-wrought scenes, but the novel, being a literate version of an historical thriller, suffered slightly from heavy-handed exposition—the bane of thriller writers. How does the author provide the reader with important historical background information? He has the archaeologist explain it to his assistant, who has convenient gaps in his or her knowledge. Here's an archaeologist, Jack, and his assistant, Costas, in David Gibbins' The Lost Tomb, standing on the deck of a boat, about to dive for the wreck of the ship that brought St. Paul to Rome:
Costas was quiet for a moment, then squinted at Jack. "Remind me. What was the date of St. Paul's shipwreck?"

"Best guess is spring AD 58, maybe a year or two later."

"Put me in the picture."
Jack goes on to give a long and ham-fisted lecture on Roman history while he and Costas stand there in their diving gear. Unsworth occasionally falls prey himself to this unfortunate convention of the historical thriller, and I was distracted as I read by the annoying echo in the back of my head of Dan Brown explaining the Fibonacci sequence.

Land of Marvels is a flawed novel, but it's also a compelling read, and definitely a cut above ordinary historical thrillers.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Project 1929: "The Black Christ"

The frontispiece from Countee Cullen's The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Illustration by Charles Cullen. Click to enlarge.

One of the writers whose career was fostered by Jessie Redmon Fauset at The Crisis was Countee Cullen (1903-1946), the son of a Methodist pastor, a Harvard graduate, and one of the great poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen was a lyric poet in the tradition of the British Romantics, and made a name for himself with his first collection of poetry, Color, published in 1925. One of the themes that continually resurfaces in his poetry is the inscrutability of a God who would create racial divisions and allow them to be the basis of so much hatred and suffering. In one of his most famous poems from Color, "Yet Do I Marvel," he dwells on what seem like God's arbitrary arrangements. He begins—

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell me why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die...

And ends—

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

In the long title poem that concludes The Black Christ, Cullen wonders what comfort and redemption a white God can offer to the black man in a racist society. The poem briefly tells the story of two black brothers, raised in the South by a devout mother whose faith is a buffer against the racism she experiences. The mother tells her sons:

I count it little being barred
From those who undervalue me.
I have my own soul's ecstasy.
Men may not bind the summer sea,
Nor set a limit to the stars;
The sun seeps through all iron bars;
the moon is ever manifest.
These things my heart always possessed.
And more than this (and here's the crown)
No man, my son, can batter down
The star-flung ramparts of the mind.

Her sons (the younger son is the poem's narrator) are not so sure that God is good. As Jim, the older son, says:

Nay, I have done with deities
Who keep me ever on my knees,
My mouth forever in a tune
Of praise, yet never grant the boon
Of what I pray for night and day.
God is a toy; put him away.

The poem reaches its climax when Jim is lynched for being discovered in a romantic relationship with a white woman. My favorite line in the poem describes their love for each other: "Spring was in them and they were spring."

The poem ends with a reaffirmation of the mother's faith, suggesting that the story of Christ's suffering is reflected in the experience of black Americans in a society rife with racial violence. The poem moves from the inscrutability of a God who allows suffering, to the God who suffers, and who is embodied in the black man. The poem is dedicated "hopefully" to White America.

In the same year that The Black Christ was published, Walter White published his study of the culture of lynching in the South, Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch, which was part of a sustained effort by the NAACP and other groups to bring an end to lynchings of black men in the South. In his poem, Countee Cullen connects the lynching of the black man with the crucifixion of the white Christ, and that connection is reflected in the illustrations by Charles Cullen (no relation) that accompany the poem. Here's a slide show of illustrations from the poem:



Thanks to Kristi in the Carleton College Library Special Collections for access to the library's first edition of Cullen's book.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Polenta Casserole and Chicken Fingers

If you want to get your kitchen smelling like summer in the middle of winter, here's my suggestion. Make a pot of homemake tomato sauce. Large (28 oz.) cans of Muir Glen organic tomatoes are on sale at Just Food Co-op in January for just $1.79. Yesterday afternoon, I dumped a can of diced tomatoes into my small Le Creuset saucepan, added a bunch of chopped scallions (the white part and about an inch of green), a pressed clove of garlic, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of dried oregano, and salt, and let it simmer slowly for a couple of hours. The scent wafted me to a warmer season.

When the sauce was almost ready (thick, rather than watery), I made a small batch of polenta: a cup of water, a cup of milk, and a cup of corn meal, simmered and stirred until thickened, with grated parmesan added at the end. I spread the polenta into a buttered 10-inch tart pan, spread the tomato sauce on top, sprinkled on some pitted kalamata olives, spread grated mozzarella and parmesan on top, and baked at 350° for about 20 minutes. Perfect with a small green salad, some crusty bread, and a glass of red wine.

When the casserole came out of the oven, Will's cheerful friend Dylan had arrived to take Will out to a chicken finger restaurant in Apple Valley called Raising Cane's. Before they left, Will ate two helpings of casserole.

"You're having more?" Dylan asked, when Will took his second plateful.

"Actually, it's quite good," Will said.

Two helpings of polenta casserole didn't stop Will from joining Dylan for chicken fingers. The boys left here at about 6:30 pm. At 7:30, the phone rang. It was Will calling to ask for directions to Apple Valley. They were lost.

I would say that one of the reasons to eat locally is that you're less likely to get lost. But Dylan, who was driving, has absolutely no sense of direction. When he was younger, he was often dropped off at the public library after school, and he would attempt to walk from there to our house. Invariably, Dylan would start out from the public library, get lost, eventually stumble upon the library again, and call for directions.

The route from the library to our house. Dylan is somewhere off the map.

The same thing happened when he tried to walk to our house from Hogan Brothers, the local sandwich shop less than three blocks from our house in nearly a straight line.* In short, I was not surprised that, even with GPS in the car, they were lost. Eventually, about two hours after leaving the house, they returned with their treasure: a "tailgate box" of 25 chicken fingers. They had actually bought a box of 50 and eaten half of them in the car.

"I'm going to be fat," Dylan said, cheerfully.

"I exercise regularly," Will said.

"I don't," Dylan said. "I'm going to be fat."


*Dylan lives about ten miles west of Northfield, on Union Lake. Before he got his license, his father would drive him to school each day along the same stretch of Highway 19. Even after years of taking this route, Dylan would sometimes look out the window of the car in surprise and ask, "Where are we? Have I ever been here before?"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Melodramatic Mode

The first thing I noticed when I entered the Carleton College Art Gallery last night was the group three young women in light Grecian dress forming a tableau, assuming a series of graceful and stylized poses in a kind of semi-static dance, slowly shifting their position throughout the evening. On the opposite wall was the key to this unusual display in illustrations of the popular Delsarte method of dramatic gesture, devised in the nineteenth century by François Delsarte. The Delsarte method became the basis of the stylized acting style associated with silent movie melodramas. At left is an illustration from a late nineteenth-century textbook of the Delsarte method. In the college art gallery's current exhibition, Modernizing Melodrama, similar illustrations of the Delsarte method are juxtaposed with clips from silent films, including The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which features this tableau of Lon Chaney (the Phantom) and Mary Philbin (Christine).

This tableau tells an instantly recognizable story of darkness and light, of monstrous passion and imperiled innocence.

Last night's opening at the art gallery was preceded by a lecture titled "Our Melodramatic Fix," given by film scholar Linda Williams (UC Berkeley), author of Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton University Press). She began her lecture with an illustration from Titanic (1997), which features this familiar tableau of DiCaprio and Winslet on the prow of the doomed ocean liner.

But Williams' lecture went beyond the Delsartian gestures to develop a typology of the "melodramatic mode," the essential features that lie behind melodrama and give it its enduring appeal. These are the features of melodrama that she ennumerated:
  1. It features a "home space of innocence," often a humble abode (such as Uncle Tom's cabin) that becomes an object of nostalgia.
  2. It focuses on "victim-heroes" and on recognizing their virtue.
  3. The recognition of virtue involves a "dialectic of pathos and action." The victim-hero's virtue is validated through suffering and revealed through action.
  4. The characters of melodrama "embody primary psychic roles." The innocent girl, the irredeemable villain. Melodrama is generally unconcerned with shades of gray.
  5. Melodrama is continually modernized by borrowing from realism. In Titanic, for example, the melodrama plays out amidst the most realistic reenactment possible of the ship's sinking.
As Williams listed these features of melodrama, I thought of how easily they could be applied to Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun (reviewed below). In the novel, Angela leaves her "home space of innocence," her parents' home in Philadelphia, and embarks on a journey of suffering and action that eventually reaffirms for her the virtue of her racial identity. Where the novel departs significantly from the characteristics of melodrama is in its exploration of racial "shades of gray," in its resistance to a society that literally sees things in terms of black and white.

But status and identity are certainly important features of melodrama. In Titanic, DiCaprio is a poor third-class passenger and Winslet is a wealthy first-class passenger with a diamond in her pocket. As Williams pointed out, the movie moves spatially between the stern and the prow of the boat, between steerage and the first-class cabins, illustrating spatially the differences in class between the two main characters and underscoring their efforts to bridge those differences. Space is used to similar effect in The Phantom of the Opera, as the action moves from the stage down into the crypt-like basement of the opera house. The stage is the sphere of the ethereal Christine; the basement is the sphere of the monstrous Phantom. In this case, the effort to bridge those differences is unsuccessful.

The Phantom's identity is a mystery throughout the film, concealed behind a mask. In a moment of curiosity and compassion, Christine reaches out to remove the mask, and is horrified by what she discovers. In Plum Bun, Angela assumes a kind of racial mask—she masks herself as a white woman. When she lowers the mask, and reveals herself to be "coloured," many of those around her are horrified. In The Phantom of the Opera, what lies behind the mask has turned the Phantom into a villain, and his blackness is the blackness of villainy. Plum Bun turns the tables: Angela becomes heroic when she drops her mask. Her blackness is the blackness of heroism, and the horrified racist society is the true villain. Plum Bun is a melodrama, but it effectively manipulates the conventions of melodrama to explore the complexities of race in America.

Melodrama opposes black and white, villainy and virtue, and appeals to our Manichaean impulse to see things simply, in terms of good and evil, black and white. But The Phantom of the Opera does invite us to see the villain as a victim—a victim of appearances and circumstances that have distorted him into a monster. Plum Bun goes further toward exploring racial shades of gray and questioning society's racial Manicheanism.

Linda Williams concluded her lecture by characterizing melodrama as "how we attempt to see ourselves as good." It's a moral narrative, a narrative that reaffirms virtue. It reassures us that virtue and hard work will be rewarded. It's also about striking a pose, and slowly shifting our position.

The exhibit Modernizing Melodrama runs through March 11 at the Carleton College Art Gallery.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Project 1929: "Plum Bun"

If you look carefully at the photograph at left, you will notice that Jessie Redmon Fauset is wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key along with her string of pearls. In 1905, Fauset became the first African-American woman to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She was a graduate of Cornell University, where she studied languages: Latin, Greek, French, and English literature. She went on to earn a master's degree in French at the University of Pennsylvania, and to study at the Sorbonne, before becoming a teacher of Latin and French in the New York City public schools. Then, in 1919, Fauset was recruited by W.E.B. Dubois to be the literary editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, where she nurtured the careers of Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and other important figures of the Harlem Renaissance. She left The Crisis in 1924, devoted several years to writing and publishing her own four novels, then spent the rest of her career as a French teacher in New York City.

Fauset was extraordinarily well-educated, cultured, talented, middle-class, and black. A native of Philadelphia, she had been denied admission to Bryn Mawr because of the color of her skin. In 1922, she advised Jean Toomer to read the classics, which she found universal and color-blind: "It gives you a tremendous sense of fullness, and completeness, a linking up of your life with others like yours." At the same time, she seems to have advised Toomer to take advantage of his light skin to break into the newspaper business. "You've got personality," she told him, "and no prejudicing appearances."

Early in Plum Bun, a group of black friends gather for conversation at the Philadelphia home of Virginia Murray and her light-skinned older sister, Angela. The discussion is about the tension between somehow being a "representative of the race" and expressing one's own individuality. One of the characters wants to be a poet, but feels obligated to become a dentist, a profession in which he will be an example of competence and respectability. It's a difficult balance to achieve. As another character puts it, "You've got to consider both racial and individual integrity."

Angela says: "I'm sick of this business of always being below or above a certain norm. Doesn't anyone think that we have a right to be happy simply, naturally?"

Angela, weary of bearing the burden of her race, is able to pursue happiness by "passing" as white. This leads her to cut her ties with her home and family and move from Philadelphia to New York, where she studies art at the Cooper Union and attempts to find a wealthy white husband who will give her the freedom she desires. In the course of the novel, Angela discovers herself as an artist. In a sense, the novel is about the struggle of the black woman in America to secure "a room of her own" where she can create her art.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf talks about the difference between Jane Austen, whose mind "consumed all impediments," and the angry and indignant genius of Charlotte Brontë. Woolf says of Brontë: "one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot."

This is Angela's problem as an artist, and as a "coloured" woman passing as white. She is at war with her lot. Her race cuts her off from certain important opportunities, but denial of her race cuts her off from herself, her family, and her roots. When a fellow art student refuses to fight when she's denied a scholarship because of her race, Angela concludes that "you can't fight and create at the same time." Is it possible to fight against racism and still maintain one's integrity as an artist?

W.E.B. Dubois appears in Plum Bun in a pseudonymous cameo. After hearing one of his lectures, a white characters says: "He is a man, just that; colour, race, conditions in his case are pure accidents, he overrides them all with his ego." Again, I'm reminded of A Room of One's Own: the incandescent mind that consumes all impediments, the male ego overshadowing the page. Is race an impediment to be consumed, or something to be expressed and even celebrated? Fauset seems ambivalent. She seems to want, most of all, a color-blind middle-class society in which neither race nor gender are an obstacle to the freedom of self-expression and happiness.

Fauset has been criticized for her middle-class respectability, for writing "vapidly genteel lace-curtain romances." Plum Bun is, on one level, a conventional romantic novel, with a plot that's tied together with remarkable (but rather satisfying) coincidences. Critics perhaps have a tendency to disparage or, at least, overlook the middle-class artistic sensibility, to demand radicalism in art. But as Deborah McDowell says in her introduction to the Pandora Press edition of Plum Bun: "Fauset uses the romance to criticize it, particularly to criticize the way in which it idealizes love and marriage, solidifies traditional sex-gender arrangements, and thereby effectively limits women's goals and possibilities for fulfillment in non-traditional roles." She uses the convention of romance to criticize romance; she explores the limitations of the middle-class sensibility from the inside. In a sense, this novel of racial "passing" itself only passes as a romance.

I have to admit that I am particularly fond of writers—like Kate O'Brien, Sinclair Lewis, and Jessie Redmon Fauset—who have this kind of dynamic love-hate relationship with middle-class respectability and convention, who recognize both the limits and the rewards of middle-class life. All three of these writers explore the pain and the pleasure of families, communities, and traditions. In Plum Bun, Angela's journey is as much toward reconciliation with her class as it is with her race: "Her roots! Angela echoed the expression to herself on a note that was wholly envious. How marvellous to go back to parents, relatives, friends with whom whom one had never lost touch! The peace, the security, the companionableness of it! This was a relationship which she had forfeited with everyone, even with [her sister] Jinny."

At one point in the novel, Angela, after straying from the middle-class conventions of her youth, realizes the significance of those conventions: "And she began to see the conventions, the rules that govern life, in a new light; she realized suddenly that for all their granite-like coldness and precision they also represented fundamental facts; a sort of concentrated compendium of the art of living and therefore as much to be observed and respected as warm, vital impulses." This could be Kate O'Brien writing about one of her characters' relationship to the Catholic Church. Like O'Brien, Fauset is interested in the perennial issues of the individual in society, rebellion and tradition, the need for self-expression and the value of a time-honored code of conduct that holds society together.

Angela moves to New York hoping to find wealth and happiness with a millionaire husband. She ends up rediscovering the more moderate and less precarious happiness of a middle-class existence. Plum Bun is a story for 1929, when the bubble of the 1920s was about to burst, and it's a story for today, when its issues of race and class and personal integrity still resonate.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Webmaster's Work is Never Done

I've spent nearly eight hours today redesigning the website for the Cannon River STEM School, including two hours down at the Hideaway coffeehouse consulting with local blogging guru Griff Wigley, who helped me to customize a standard Wordpress template. I started working on this project at 1:00 this afternoon. It's now nearly 9:00 p.m., and I'm still ironing out minor glitches.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Winter Term

Winter term classes started at Carleton yesterday morning. I'm teaching Latin 101 five days a week this term. As usual on the first day of class, I was a little manic and the students were a little subdued. I'm hoping that, as is usually the case, we will reach a kind of equilibrium before too long. The class is fast-paced. In the first day, we covered the alphabet, pronunciation, grammatical terminology, the first and second conjugations (present, imperfect, and future), and the irregular verb to be. Fortunately, I have an excellent teaching assistant, Jenny, who can be counted on to correct my occasional mistakes and to laugh at appropriate times.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Terrible News for Local Readers

Dan Bergeson sent this email out today to members of the Carleton community:

Carleton is announcing today that it is closing River City Books, the College-owned bookstore located at 306 Division Street in downtown Northfield.


River City Books opened in March 2002 as a service and benefit to the Northfield community, but the lack of a positive bottom line ultimately led to the decision to close the store. The store has not met its financial goals, and after 6 ½ years of operation and in light of the economic downturn, it doesn’t appear that it will anytime soon. Despite the best efforts of our terrific staff and the generous support of our landlords, the store has not achieved the sales volume necessary to generate positive net income.

The store, featuring more than 10,000 volumes, two levels and meeting space for book clubs and author appearances, is one of only a handful in Minnesota to earn designation in the “McSweeney’s 100” which identifies top independent bookstores.

We’ve had tremendous literary interaction between the staff and the communities, including things like the River City book clubs, countless author appearances, fundraisers for education, the Harry Potter parties, our ‘By the Book’ literary page in the Northfield News, and the Northfield Reads! Community Book program (a collaboration between local booksellers and the Northfield Public Library).

While the closing doesn’t affect Carleton’s on-campus bookstore, River City Bookstore employees’ status will depend on whether they are part time or full time and on their length of service with the College.

The College anticipates closing the River City location sometime in the first half of 2009. If you have any questions or concerns about this announcement, please contact me (dbergeso@carleton.edu).


New Books for January 2009

I always hesitate to shell out $25 for a new hardcover book, and usually convince myself to wait for the paperback, but there are two new books coming out in January that may overpower my habitual parsimony. The first, due out on Tuesday (January 6), is Barry Unsworth's Land of Marvels. Unsworth won the Booker Prize in 1992 for his novel Sacred Hunger, an epic account of the eighteenth-century slave trade. His novels raise the bar for historical fiction, vividly and imaginatively recreating the past while drawing out the profound implications for the present. His 2004 novel Songs of the Kings cleverly and compellingly recast the Homeric narrative of the Trojan War to catch the echoes of modern politics in the era of the Iraq War. It manages to be entertaining and relevant without being heavy-handed. Land of Marvels, a story of archeology and espionage in World War I era Mesopotamia, promises to follow the same winning recipe of history spiced with modern resonances and the timeless themes of power, ambition, and greed.

The second new book I'm booking forward to is Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, due out on January 27. Gopnik is a writer for the New Yorker, and his new book is described as "an original and personal account of the creation of the liberal voice." The impetus for writing the book seems to have been the fact that this February 12 marks the bicentennial of the birth of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Project 1929: "A Room of One's Own"

Some of my thoughts on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) can be found here.

Happy New Year

We rang in 2009, as we did 2008, among friends, with Scotch eggs, habañero margaritas, and a game of Trivial Pursuit. At 11:45 p.m., I flossed my teeth for the last time in 2008. I didn't miss a single day of flossing all year! Meanwhile, in Sussex, on the south coast of England, my friend Louise was watching the first sunrise of 2009. Have a look at the beginning of a new day.

Now Available: Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016.

Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016 . Published February 25, 2017.  Available now from Shipwreckt Books in Rushford, Minnesota, ...