Showing posts from August, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited, Part VI: George Eliot on Health Care Reform

When Dr. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch, he immediately stirs up animosity among the medical establishment in town. Lydgate is a surgeon. In the rigid class system that pervaded all aspects of nineteenth-century English life, physicians were the gentlemen of the medical establishment; apothecaries were the lower class tradesman. Surgeons like Lydgate were of middling status, between physicians and apothecaries. For example, surgeons often dispensed drugs, like apothecaries. But Lydgate refuses to dispense drugs, viewing it as an invitation to quackery. He believes that many surgeons dispense drugs not because of their effectiveness against disease, but because they bring in extra income. In an age of reform, Dr. Lydgate is a medical reformer. This, of course, stirs up resentment and distrust in conservative Middlemarch. It makes little difference that his outcomes are as good, if not better, than those of other Middlemarch doctors.

As the Middlemarch lawyer tells Mr. Bulstrode…

Middlemarch Revisited, Part V: On the Possibility of Dividing by Zero

And here I am naturally led to reflect on the means of elevating a low subject. Historical parallels are remarkably efficient in this way. The chief objection to them is, that the diligent narrator may lack space, or (what is often the same thing) may not be able to think of them with any degree of particularity, though he may have a philosophical confidence that if known they would be illustrative. It seems an easier and shorter way to dignity, to observe that-- since there never was a true story which could not be told in parables, where you might put a monkey for a margrave, and vice versa-- whatever has been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled by being considered a parable; so that if any bad habits and ugly consequences are brought into view, the reader may have the relief of regarding them as not more than figuratively ungenteel, and may feel himself virtually in company with persons of some style. Thus while I tell the truth about loobies, my reader'…

Minnehaha Park

Minnehaha Falls

Today was a lovely day for my first visit to Minnehaha Park, originally Minnesota's first state park and now a Minneapolis city park. Peytie and I had a picnic under the beautiful bur oaks near the falls, then walked along Minnehaha Creek down to its confluence with the Mississippi River.

Obscure Victorians: Dr. Rolleston Dissects a Brain for George Eliot

May 26, 1870. G. and I went to the Museum, and had an interesting morning with Dr. Rolleston, who dissected a brain for me (George Eliot, Journals).

Dr. George Rolleston

On the May 1870 visit to the Pattisons in Oxford (when she saw Mrs. Pattison framed like a Greuze portrait in the window of the Rector's lodging), George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes paid a visit to the University Museum of Natural History as the guest of Dr. George Rolleston (1829-1881), the first Linacre Professor of Physiology and Anatomy. I suspect that Eliot would have found Rolleston a congenial host. He was known as a "fluent and rapid talker," with an ability to speak intelligently on a wide range of topics. The son of a Yorkshire clergyman, Rolleston was sight-reading Homer at the age of ten, and received a thorough classical education at Gainsborough before going up to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he received a first in Classics in 1850. He subsequently turned to medicine, ser…

Reading Journal: "American Lion"

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House 2009). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Paperback. $18.00. Available at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

The broad outlines of Andrew Jackson's Presidency are familiar. He put down nullification in South Carolina, eliminated the Bank of the United States, hastened the forced removal of American Indians from the southeast, fought divisions within his own cabinet, and greatly expanded the powers of the Presidency. These stories can be found in any textbook of American history, and are told at length in previous Jackson biographies like Robert Remini's The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988). In American Lion, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham covers all of this familiar ground, but wisely chooses to take a more personal view of his subject, drawing on family correspondence—some recently discovered—to explore the importance of family to Jackson and to reveal how Jackson, left fatherless at a young age, saw h…

Middlemarch Revisited, Part IV: Jewels and Motives

When we are introduced to Dorothea Brooke in chapter one of Middlemarch, her younger sister Celia brings her a sandalwood box containing their late mother's jewels and suggests that they divide them among themselves. Puritanical Dorothea disclaims any interest in jewels, but the sunlight catches an emerald and Dorothea goes into raptures:
"How beautiful these gems are!" said Dorothea, under a new current of feeling, as sudden as the gleam. "It is strange how deeply colours seem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. They look like fragments of heaven. I think that emerald is more beautiful than any of them."

"And there is a bracelet to match it," said Celia. "We did not notice this at first."

"They are lovely," said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window on a level…

Middlemarch Revisited, Part III: Dorothea at the Vatican

When we next see Dorothea, now Mrs. Casaubon, after an absence of eight chapters, she is on her honeymoon in Rome. A German artist named Naumann sees her standing abstractedly in front of the statue of the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museum, and rushes to find his friend Will Ladislaw: "Come here, quick! else she will have changed her pose." Ladislaw comes, and the two men contemplate Dorothea as if she were herself a work of art.

Sleeping Ariadne (Vatican Museum). Roman copy of a Hellenistic original.
Known at the time of Dorothea's visit as "Cleopatra."

The scholar A.D. Nuttall points out that this scene is echoed in a story told by Mrs. Humphry Ward about a visit George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes paid to Mark Pattison and his wife in Oxford in 1870 (while Eliot was writing Middlemarch). Pattison, an aging scholar who married a beautiful young woman twenty-seven years his junior, is often cited as a model for Mr. Casaubon. Here's the sc…


Several of my friends are coming out with new books this fall:

Kerry Langan, a dear friend from Oberlin, is publishing her first collection of short stories, Only Beautiful and Other Stories (Wising Up Press).

Obie Holmen, a new friend from Northfield, is coming out with his novel A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle (Mill City Press).

Shannon Tassava has an essay in P.S. What I Didn't Say: Unsent Letters to Our Female Friends(Seal Press).

Finally, I will be participating in two readings from the book Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose About Alzheimer's Disease (Kent State University Press) in Northfield on October 16. The first reading will be at 4:00 pm in the Viking Theater at St. Olaf; the second will be at 7:30 pm at the Northfield Retirement Community. Also participating will be the book's editor, poet Holly Hughes (a St. Olaf alumna) and Minneapolis poet Ethna McKiernan. Stay tuned for more details.

Middlemarch Revisited, Part II: Dr. Lydgate at the Opera

We have already met Dorothea Brooke, ardent and idealistic and eager for knowledge that she can translate into social good. To achieve her end of arriving at "the core of things," she has married the dessicated scholar, Mr. Casaubon, whom she hopes will open up new vistas of knowledge to her. She has, in other words, made a Faustian bargain.

Book I of Middlemarch was published in 1871, but is set half a century earlier, in 1829, the year in which Goethe published the corrected second edition of the first part of Faust. Dr. Faust, like Dorothea, is hungry for knowledge of "the core of things;" as Goethe puts it, was die Welt im innersten zusammenhalt." Faust promises his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge.

Dorothea is not the only Faustian character in Middlemarch. Tertius Lydgate is, like Faust, a doctor, a physician and scientist determined to discover "the very grain of things" (178). His ambition is to build upon the work of the Frenc…

Thoughts on the William Henry Harrison Dollar Coin

This morning I was pleased to receive in change at Eastman Music in Faribault a 2009 William Henry Harrison dollar coin. Harrison was the 9th President of the United States, and served from March 4 (Inauguration Day) until April 4, 1841—when he died of the pneumonia he contracted while delivering his Inaugural Address. I happen to have a copy of that address here on my laptop; it fills fourteen single-spaced pages. The speech was edited by Daniel Webster, who found it swimming with classical allusions. Webster deleted many of them, and later joked that he had killed "seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them." Much of the speech is devoted to a discussion of the Presidential veto and the limits of Presidential power, which had expanded dramatically under Jackson and Van Buren. Before Jackson, there had only been six Presidential vetoes in forty years, and Presidents had only used it to stop legislation which they found unconstitutional; Jackson wa…

Bridge Chamber Music Festival

Last night was the opening concert of the 11th annual Bridge Chamber Music Festival in Northfield. The concert, at Urness Recital Hall at St. Olaf, featured works by Haydn, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, performed by members from the St. Olaf and Carleton music faculties.

The concert opened with a typically delightful and relaxed piano trio by Franz Joseph Haydn, who died in 1809, and ended with a typically frenetic and impassioned string quintet by Felix Mendelssohn, who was born in 1809. The contrast was striking. Despite a foray into the minor key in the slow movement, Haydn's trio was predominantly cheerful, full of invention and good humor. Haydn always makes me happy, even when, as they were last night, storm clouds are gathering. I imagine that Haydn himself had a warm and easy-going personality; in any case, he lived to the age of seventy-seven, an old man by eighteenth-century standards. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, died at thirty-five, and his music is tightly-strung a…

Middlemarch Revisited

I'm currently rereading George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871), which is perhaps the culminating masterpiece in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century English novel. I wish I had kept a journal the first time I read Middlemarch. My mother-in-law says that Middlemarch was a different book when she read it at forty from the book she read at twenty. It was still different when she read it again at eighty. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first read Middlemarch, but I must have been in my early twenties. My copy of the novel is a 1986 Penguin edition. I graduated from college in 1986. I was close, at least, to the age of Dorothea Brooke, who was “not yet twenty” at the start of the novel. Now I’m closer to the age of Mr. Casaubon, who is “over five-and-forty.” This time around, I'm keeping a journal, which can be found on my WordPress blog (which better accommodates long posts). The first entry, "Middlemarch Revisited, Part I: Reading Miss Brook…

Island Music 2009

There was plenty of music-making on the island this summer. At various times there was guitar, piano, oboe, flute, recorder, banjo, violin, cello, harmonica, and ukulele. Will practiced his oboe for hours each day, and at the end of the last week got together with three of his cousins for a read-through of Bach's oboe and violin concerto. The Log Cabin Strummers, featuring various aunts and uncles on ukuleles, treated us to a sing-along of oldies from the 1920s and earlier. And, best of all, there was a stunning all-cousin performance of a medley of songs for my brother- and sister-in-law's 30th anniversary.

Peter was an eager volunteer at the kitchen sink after dinner, because it gave him an excuse to play his own music on the boom box. As often happens, there was one CD in his rotation that stood out for me. This time it was Blitzen Trapper's 2008 album, Furr. You can listen to the album here on Singer and songwriter Eric Earley manages to channel B…

Reading Journal: Island Reading 2009

Tomás O'Crohan, The Islandman (1929). Oxford.
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008). Random House.
Paul Gallico, Flowers for Mrs. Harris (1958). Penguin. Published in the U.S.A. as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris.

On days when rain prevented me from getting up on the roof, I managed to do a lot of reading on the island. A few summers ago, I started a tradition of reading a book about an island, or islands, each summer. I started in 2004 with Shakespeare's The Tempest and Kathleen Dean Moore's The Pine Island Paradox. This summer I read two very different island books. The first was The Islandman, originally published in Gaelic as An tOileánach in 1929, a memoir of life on Ireland's Great Blasket Island by Tomás O'Crohan (1856-1937). A fascinating narrative of a difficult life—fishing, cutting turf, hunting seals, scavenging shipwrecks, evading tax collectors—on the harsh edge of the Atlantic Ocean. O'…


I'm back from nearly a month without internet access or electricity. I spent most of that time re-roofing the north porch of the main lodge where we stay each summer. Unfortunately, I neglected to take "before" photos of the old roof, which consisted of a thick layer of moss, a layer of old asphalt shingles, a thick layer of partially rotten cedar shakes, a layer of ants, and damp and rotting tongue-and-groove sheathing. I was greatly assisted in the demolition by my brother-in-law Jason, my brother Jim, and my sons Will and Peter. Jason and my friend Ken helped me with some of the reconstruction, and Clara was a genius at cutting shingles to fit. Here are some pictures of the work (the first three were taken by my sister Ruth).

Will and Jim amid the demolition debris

Jim, Will, and Rob demolishing the old roof

Rob removing old nails

Clara cutting shingles

The finished roof, with skylight

The north porch, ready for afternoon tea