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

Monday, October 12, 2009

Student Journalism on

During the fall term, I'm supervising a work study student, Maia Rodriguez, who's writing regular feature stories for Maia is a senior history major and a student in Doug McGill's journalism class at Carleton. Her stories will be appearing once or twice a week on, and will be archived here. She's already posted stories on National Coming Out Day and the gay community in Northfield, and on the Pressville blog that features student work from her journalism class.

Maia is working for through a partnership with the ACT Center at Carleton, which places student workers in positions with community organizations.

This is my second experience supervising a student journalist at In January, I worked with a student intern, Amy Sack, a senior from St. Olaf College.

Here's a link to a YouTube video of the multi-talented Maia as soloist with the Carleton a cappella group Exit 69.

Related: About NCO|

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reading is Fundamental

During the the course of the nineteenth century, an interesting transformation took place in higher education in both England and America. Universities, which for much of their history had primarily trained clergymen, were now training scientists. One of the results of this was the decline and, in many cases, abandonment of the classical curriculum based on the study of Latin and Greek. At Harvard, which dropped Greek as an entrance requirement in 1887, President Eliot wrote:
Universities are called on to train young men for public service in new democracies, for a new medical profession, and for finances, journalism, transportation, manufacturing, the new architecture, the building of vessels and railroads, and the direction of great public works which improve agriculture, conserve the national resources, provide pure water supplies, and distribute light, heat, and mechanical power. The practitioners of these new professions can profit in so many directions by other studies in their youth, that they ought not all indiscriminately to be obliged to study Latin.
Latin was, he believed, increasingly irrelevant to the pragmatic, industrial, professionalized culture of America as it headed into the twentieth century.

In Oxford, the tide began to turn in the 1850s, when the new Museum of Natural History was opened as a corrective to what scientist Sir Henry Acland called the “intellectual one-sideness” of the University, which emphasized the study of the classics at the expense of scientific research. In his Memoirs, Mark Pattison wrote that the influence of the museum challenged “our naïve assumption that classical learning was a complete equipment for a great university.”

Matthew Arnold

Science became the controlling discipline. Thrown down from its privileged place in the curriculum, even classics attempted to become more scientific, emulating the scientific philology of the Germans, for whom classics was Altertumswissenschaft, the "science of antiquity." And although, with the advent of Darwinism, science was increasingly at odds with theology, theology itself attempted to be scientific. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold saw science and theology, as it was widely practiced, as two systems of dogma. The scientist observed and read nature literally, and theologians applied the same method to the Bible. Science and religious fundamentalism were strangely alike in their rigid standards of proof. The Bible was the theologian's laboratory, where absolute truth was established.

To Arnold, this was fundamentally wrong-headed. In Literature and Dogma (1873), he wrote: "The idea of a triangle is a definite and ascertained thing, and to deduce the properties of a triangle from it is an affair of reasoning. There are heads unapt for this sort of work, and some of the blundering to be found in this world is from this cause. But how far more of the blundering to be found in the world comes from people fancying that some idea is a definite and ascertained thing, like the idea of a triangle, when it is not; and proceeding to deduce properties from it, and to do battle about them, when their first start was a mistake!" For Arnold, who was also one of the three great English Victorian poets, the problem is that people try to read the Bible "scientifically"—as a source of "definite and ascertained" truths—instead of metaphorically, as a literary text.

The root of the problem is that people don't read enough, and aren't accustomed, through extensive reading, to the ways in which literary texts work. They lack critical thinking skills. They lack culture. Arnold wrote: "To understand that the language of the Bible is fluid, passing, and literary, not rigid, fixed, and scientific, is the first step toward a right understanding of the Bible. But to take this very first step, some experience of how men have thought and expressed themselves, and some flexibility of spirit, are necessary; and this is culture." Later, he continues: "For true culture implies not only knowledge, but right tact and justness of judgment, forming themselves by and with knowledge; without this tact it is not true culture. Difficult, however, as culture is, it is necessary."

In 2007, an AP-Ipsos poll indicated that 1 in 4 respondents had not read a single book in the previous year. Liberals were more likely to be readers than conservatives. Conservatives who read tended to read the Bible. If there is a culture war in this country, it may come down to something as fundamental as reading.

I'm heading out now to teach my Latin class, then I'm coming home to read a novel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009



We finally got around to having a professional landscaper come in and remove the weeds that had taken over the flowerbeds around our house. A small stone wall and a few other touches were added at the same time. Here's the before and after.

Notice the weeds all around the foundation, and the out-of-control forsythia.

Notice the neat wall, trimmed forsythia, and lack of weeds. Grass will be planted along the right side to complete the project. Flowers and herbs will be planted inside the wall in the spring.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"A Grammarian's Funeral"

"To the great, the fashionable, the gay, and the busy," Mark Pattison writes in his 1875 biography of the sixteenth-century classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, "the grammarian is a poor pedant, and no famous man."

In Rhoda Broughton's Belinda, Belinda is first drawn to Professor Forth, the character modeled after Pattison, after she hears him read Robert Browning's famous poem "A Grammarian's Funeral." The poem, written in 1855, is a mock heroic dirge sung by the students of a scholar as they bear his corpse to its final resting place on a mountain top. It shifts between the dignified style of the opening exhortation—"Let us begin.."—and humorously contrived Byronic rhymes. For example:

Image the whole, then execute the parts—
Fancy the fabric
Quite, ere you build, ere steel strike fire from quartz,
Ere mortar dab brick.

The scholar in the poem has devoted his life to learning, but has never gotten around to living. His patient studies are a preparation for life—the fully examined life of the wise man—but life slips away from him while he's involved in minute grammatical investigations. There's something heroic about the scholar's goal of comprehensive knowledge, but something pathetic about the execution.

In the last year of his life, Professor Pattison, who understood well the disappointments of a scholarly life, read Browning's poem and wondered "that such doggerel should in these days pass for poetry."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"The Wisdom of Dorothea"

Gertrude Himmelfarb, "The Wisdom of Dorothea," in The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling (Ivan Dee 2006).

If the term "neoconservative intellectual" is not to be considered altogether an oxymoron, the appellation may be applied to the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The wife of the late Irving Kristol and a student of Leo Strauss, Himmelfarb is a scholar of Victorian culture, the author of numerous books, and the recipient of a National Humanities Medal (2004). In 2002, she was one of three conservative scholars who decided to boycott an academic conference because Cornel West had been invited to speak. Her scholarship has been devoted to demonstrating the moral superiority of the Victorians, to demonstrating the superiority of the British to the French Enlightenment, and to demonstrating that Edmund Burke and George Eliot were Zionists.

In her essay "The Wisdom of Dorothea," Himmelfarb addresses the question: "Why did Dorothea marry Will Ladislaw?" This is a question that has troubled readers with feminist sensibilities since the novel was first published. It was a question that Florence Nightingale asked, and that Eliot herself anticipated when she wrote, at the end of Middlemarch: "Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother."

As Himmelfarb phrases the question: "Why could Eliot not have given us a Dorothea more congenial to modern feminists?" Phrased that way, we immediately see Himmelfarb's strategy: to expose such thinking as anachronistic. George Eliot was not a modern feminist. She was a Victorian woman, and very much rooted in the conventions of Victorian morality. Yes, she lived with another woman's husband, but in doing so she adopted all of the conventions of a Victorian marriage, referring to George Henry Lewes as her husband, and to herself as Mrs. Lewes. Himmelfarb writes: "Their twenty-four years together were spent in perfect domesticity and fidelity."

This ideal of traditional marriage, the forms of which she attempted to observe in her own unconventional relationship, is what Eliot adhered to in marrying Dorothea to Ladislaw. "The idea that only in marriage can Dorothea find her personal happiness as well as her moral mission seems perfectly Victorian," Himmelfarb writes. "And so it is."

Himmelfarb is, I think, perfectly correct about George Eliot. Eliot was a conservative, distrustful of radical change, more comfortable if she could align herself with traditional roles. Although her relationship with Lewes was unconventional, she observed the forms of traditional marriage. But more important to her was the substance of that relationship: the mutual commitment and affection, the shared responsibilities, the belief that marriage was a proper setting for the working out of a moral life.

In a sense, Mrs. Lewes was “passing” as a married woman. She was doing her best to align her own behavior with the expectations of the dominant culture.

It was a strain. In his review of a recent edition of Eliot’s Journals, Terry Eagleton writes: “From 1854, when she eloped with the philosopher George Henry Lewes and started these journals, to 1880, when her death brought them to a close, Eliot seems to have had a permanent headache. When she wasn't prostrate with migraine, she was bilious, palsied, depressed and despairing. She also complains about her teeth and of chronic melancholia." Eagleton suggests that Eliot’s maladies are the result of repressed guilt, to which her relationship with Lewes may have been a contributing factor. George Eliot, the strict Victorian moralist, was living happily in sin with a married man.

“What stokes Eliot's guilt most of all,” Eagleton writes, “is the fact that she is happy.”

Middlemarch is on one level the author’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. Casaubon’s faulty heart releases her from a stifling and unequal marriage that would have meant the slow death of her soul, and allows her, despite numerous obstacles set in her path, to marry the man she loves. Eliot knows that she herself stands somewhere on the margins of the moral culture she has so completely internalized. No wonder she has a permanent headache. In Middlemarch, she places Dorothea in the central moral position in Victorian culture—that of wife and mother—that she can never occupy herself.

Contemporary social conservatives like Himmelfarb tend to see same-sex marriages as an affront to “traditional marriage” and the traditions, rooted in Victorian culture, of family life. But I suspect that most same-sex couples want the right to marry for precisely the reasons that George Eliot found it so compelling: because it gives sanction to a relationship of love and mutual responsibility in which both partners have scope for their moral development.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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