Tuesday, September 16, 2014

`Even in This State of Wonders'

“I admire the pattern of the collar you sent John very much and thank you for him; also for the [Dickens] book entitled `A tale of two Citys [sic]’. I can hardly say I like it, though it is well written.” 

Bella Williams was sixteen when she critiqued Dickens’ novel for her brother James on Nov. 25, 1860. With their mother, Eleanor Williams, she had also read Dombey and Son, which she rated “next to Davy Copperfield in my estimation.” When Eleanor read Dickens’ story “The Haunted House,” she wrote in another letter: “Dickens always gives a surprise. It is not what would be expected from the title. [It] is quite interesting but not equal to his other stories that I have read. The caracters [sic] do not seem to live as they do in some others.” Bella also read Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, and Eleanor admired Jane Eyre. In contrast to Eleanor’s assessment of the characters in “The Haunted House,” she and her family come alive in `This State of Wonders’: The Letters of an Iowa Frontier Family (ed. John Kent Folmar, University of Iowa Press, 1986). The book gives the lie to the notion that all American settlers were cretins out to kill Indians and rape the land. 

The patriarch was John Hugh Williams, born in Wales in 1805. He emigrated to Philadelphia at age seventeen, trained as a watchmaker and engraver, and married the boss’ daughter, Eleanor Anderson. They moved west to St. Clairsville, Ohio, near Wheeling, W.V. In 1847, Williams became a leader in founding the Church of New Jerusalem in Ohio. They were followers of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), as were Blake and Emerson (who called him “a colossal soul”). In 1855, the family, now with six children, moved west to the village of Homer in Webster County, Iowa. After the economic panic of 1857, William arranged for his son James to go to work as a watchmaker for a fellow Swedenborgian in Augusta, Ga. Most of the seventy-five letters collected in `This State of Wonders’ were exchanged by James and his family back in Iowa between 1858 and March 1861, on the brink of the Civil War. On Dec. 26, 1860, Bella’s husband George wrote to James, describing an expedition in a snow storm to gather firewood. It recalls Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: 

“There was a dead buroak [burr oak] up on the hill and John said that he would go and get it; it was burnt down and we loaded it on the sledge and started toward home. We went about ten rods [168 feet] when the off runner hit a little nole [knoll], and threw the wood to the near side and the runner b[r]oke down. We managed to fix it so we could ride home on it.” 

The following date, Bella also wrote to James. Folmar uses a phrase from the final paragraph for the title of his collection: 

“On the 23rd we had the quietest and heaviest fall of snow I ever witnessed even in this State of wonders and it continued calm until yesterday evening when the wind—which was coming out from the south east—rose and the snow began to `kelter’ and has continued to do so since.” 

I’m uncertain whether “State of wonders” refers to Iowa or is a scriptural or Swedenborgian allusion. Nor does the editor explain “kelter” or why Bella puts the word in quotation marks. The OED gives four definitions, all nouns, none of which seem pertinent: “a coarse cloth used for outer garments,” “good condition, order; state of health or spirits” [variation of kilter, as in “out of kilter”]; “money, cash,” and “rubbish, nonsense.” 

In his epilogue, Folmar fills in the very American coda. After Fort Sumter, James Williams, a native-born Northerner, enlisted in the Twenty-first Alabama Infantry Volunteers. He led his company at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and was cited for gallantry. By June 1863, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel. He commanded a small battery, Fort Powell, in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864 and was regimental commander during the final months of the war. He lived for the rest of his life in Mobile, Ala., and died in 1903. His brothers John, Jr. and Joseph, served in Company G of the First Iowa Cavalry. They died in 1933 and 1891, respectively.

[Dave Lull passes along the definition of “kelter” as an intransitive verb in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to move restlessly: undulate,” “chiefly Scottish.”]

Monday, September 15, 2014

`What Is Read with Delight'

My middle son is studying trigonometry and second-year French, and last week he experienced the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus realization that schooling is often reducible to brute memorization. Public school didn’t prepare him for this reality. Rote learning is disapproved of today, by students and teachers, but there’s no other way to embed functions and irregular verbs in one’s primary data base – that is, memory, preferably long-term. I reached the same conclusion at thirteen, a year younger than Michael, while studying Latin. Vocabulary and grammar must be reviewed with sufficient frequency to become second nature, and it’s a grind. Only then can fluency and ready application follow. Dr. Johnson puts it like this in The Idler #74, published on this date, Sept. 15, in 1759: 

“The necessity of memory to the acquisition of knowledge is inevitably felt and universally allowed, so that scarcely any other of the mental faculties are commonly considered as necessary to a student: he that admires the proficiency of another, always attributes it to the happiness of his memory; and he that laments his own defects, concludes with a wish that his memory was better.” 

The fault is not in capacity. My Uncle Kenneth once referred to an ample-figured woman as “ten pounds of sausage in a five-pound casing.” The metaphor doesn’t work for memory. In my experience, its capacity is elastic and possibly infinite, especially when we are young. That’s the only way I could have memorized so much Longfellow and Eliot, not to mention commercial jingles, sit-com theme songs, Latin verbs and much of the Burl Ives songbook. Strangely, and contrary to much modern thinking, Johnson disapproves of marginalia and the copying of favorite passages. His own memory was legendary, of course, and perhaps its prodigality blinded him to the capacities of lesser mortals. He continues:      

“If the mind is employed on the past or future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain. What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention; but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.”

Common sense commonly disregarded.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

`Part of This Camaraderie'

“At the library I felt free—free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.” 

Almost daily during the work week I visit the university library. The walk under the live oaks is bracing but I never confuse the hike with anything so mundane as cardiovascular health. Walking is its own reward – an allegory in miniature of life -- and I feel no need to justify it philosophically. Besides, the payoff, guaranteed, is books, almost anything I might want to read. When weighed alongside online access and such gifts as interlibrary loan, we inhabit a reader’s (and writer’s) paradise. We have no excuse for boredom. 

“It was in the Bodleian that I stumbled upon the now-obscure and forgotten works of Theodore Hook, a man greatly admired in the early nineteenth century for his wit and his genius for theatrical and musical improvisation (he was said to have composed more than five hundred operas on the spot). I became so fascinated by Hook that I decided to write a sort of biography or `case-history’ of him.” 

Reading has always meant writing, as eating means cooking. The first book I wrote, with volumes from the public library and my own, was a collection of presidential biographies, from Washington to Kennedy, one page each in a spiral-bound notebook. Next came the biography of a fellow Ohioan, started the day (Feb. 20, 1962) John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. I was nine, and used the newspapers and television news reports for reference. I still love biography. 

“It was there, too, that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions, and it was in the stacks that I found and fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne—his Religio Medici, his Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut-and-thrust of Swift—all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions.” 

My editions were humbler, usually paperbacks, though I share his seemingly incompatible tastes for Browne’s sumptuous prose and the lethal K-Bar economy of Swift’s. How do people learn to write without reading widely, culling the weak and diseased from the strong and healthy? There’s no sustenance in lousy writing. 

“All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books—along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves—was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them between us, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.” 

With dedicated readers I sense true solidarity, stronger than mere politics or demographics. Reading old books from the library is like digging the first stratum of an archeological site, unearthing traces of bookish forebears and, at the deepest levels, the writer. Some books are best read that way. 

[The quoted passages are drawn from "On Libraries by Dr. Oliver Sacks in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review.]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

`Made Up of Unspoken Connections'

Some writers are age-specific. I got Thomas Wolfe out of my system at thirteen and remain in remission. Same for Hemingway and an entire genre, science fiction. Some writers, the rarest of all, we read early and never stop loving. That would be Kipling. I read Proust the first time prematurely, at eighteen, but the encounter served to bolster my resistance to lesser writers. I returned to him happily a decade later and contemplate a third engagement. 

With Sherwood Anderson, my timing was fortuitous because he is a writer best read early, recalled fondly, and seldom or never returned to, like an old girlfriend. In the summer of 1970, I had just graduated from high school and was about to become the first person in my family to attend university. In rapid succession I read Winesburg, Ohio (which I reread a few months later, at school), Poor White, Windy McPherson’s Son, Horses and Men, The Triumph of the Egg and The Portable Sherwood Anderson. The infatuation was intense, uncritical and largely extra-literary. We shared an Ohio birth and boyhood, and I recognized some of the places he wrote about. I liked the idea of coming not from a backwater but from a place certified by literary treatment. I liked Anderson’s emphasis on character and on an America from closer to my parents’ time. Poor White came out in 1920 and The Triumph of the Egg in 1921, the years of my mother’s and father’s births, respectively, in Cleveland. 

In January 1981, after not reading Anderson for years, I went to work for my first daily newspaper, the Gazette in Bellevue, in north central Ohio. Seven miles to the west on Route 20 is Clyde, Anderson’s home from the age of seven, his model for Winesburg and the home of a Whirlpool washing machine factory. My flagging interest in Anderson’s work revived, again for largely extra-literary reasons. I reread his stories with nearby, radically transformed landscapes in mind. 

The infatuation, I’m both relieved and sorry to say, faded a long time ago. When the Library of America brought out Anderson’s Collected Stories two years ago, I borrowed it from the library and browsed around in it (“Paper Pills,” “I’m a Fool,” “Death in the Woods”), but never bought a copy. This time I heard echoes of Turgenev, one of Anderson’s rare non-American enthusiasms. I’ll keep my old Viking edition of Winesburg but I’m not likely to read it again, cover to cover. His prose too often is soggy and generic. He succumbs too often to sentimentality and the close-at-hand cliché. In his essay “The Prose Sublime,” Donald Justice makes no great claims for Anderson but quotes a lengthy and quite lovely passage from Poor White and says: 

“It is a classic instance of things coming together even as they pass, of a moment when things may be said to associate without relating. The feeling raised by this perception is one of poignancy; perhaps that is the specific feeling this type of the prose sublime can be expected to give rise to. Made up of unspoken connections, it seems also to be about them. Probably it is not peculiarly American, but I can recall nothing in European novels, not even in the Russians, which evokes and gives body to this particular mood.” 

Anderson was born on this date, Sept. 13, in 1876, in Camden, Ohio. He died March 8, 1941, in Colón, Panama.

Friday, September 12, 2014

`The Hard Clarity'

In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout celebrates the quietly elegant, brave, witty, enduring work of L.E. Sissman: 

“The hard clarity with which he gazes into the abyss—and that, I have no doubt, is what he expected to find at the end of his own foreshortened road—is exceedingly hard to take if you're the kind of person who, like most of us, prefers to think about something else.”

`Towns Where Everything Lingers Too Long'

“In America, we have them, too—old towns
huddled under forests,
or alongside the kind of rivers that always seem to
flow calmly
into the west.” 

If an American collective consciousness survives in a mobile, fragmented, multicultural age, surely it contains a small town, preferably Midwestern, a reassuring memory fed by movies, books, old photographs and, for some of us, living there. Nostalgia feeds it, faith in a simpler time and place. You don’t have to remind us of the gossip, narrow-mindedness and provinciality because you find that in Manhattan too. 

“Here are the antique shoppes, the oak lane walks, the
the slow falling snows,
and cellars and attics and antebellum porches and the
tinny sound
of old radios. 

“Towns that never flourished, towns where everything
lingers too long,
where moss grows under the shutters of dilapidated houses,
and no one seems young.” 

“Shoppes” reminds us “small town” is a brand, packaged and sold like “artisan bread,” but the romance remains. William Maxwell excavates a pre-World War I Illinois town in Time Will Darken It (1948): “Of certain barns and outbuildings that are gone (and with them trellises and trumpet vines) you will find no trace whatever. In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization.” 

“Rip Van Winkle towns. Winesburg, Ohio. Poker Flats.
Hannibal, Missouri.
The heartbreak town of Grover’s Corners and the
dog-eared one
Of Yellow Sky.” 

The catalog of small towns, fictional and otherwise, commences: Washington Irving, Sherwood Anderson, Bret Harte, Samuel Clemens, Thornton Wilder, W.R. Burnett (with William Wellman). 

“And out of the river, the mist,
and deep in the forest, the devil;
where the world’s just an eagle’s wing in the dusk, or
a cloud
or the moon growing pale. 

The devil entices the good man
who ventures too far.
The river’s too dark. You’ll lose your way, you’ll drown it is
even under the stars.” 

A primal American scene. The westward tug. Hawthorne and Irving again. Willa Cather and Dawn Powell. Tell Taylor and Paul Dresser (Theodore Dreiser’s brother.) Orson Welles and Rod Serling. 

“Morning town, Frenchman’s Bend, Lonesome Dove,
Gopher Prairie,
Eatonville, Cooperstown, Old Eben Flood lying
drunk on the hill
over Tilsbury.” 

On with the catalog: [Malvina Reynolds?], Faulkner, McMurtry, Sinclair Lewis, Zora Neale Hurston, Cooper (and Marly Youmans?), E.A. Robinson. 

[The quoted passages, read consecutively, constitute Dick Allen’s “Sleepy Old Towns” in This Shadowy Place (St. Augustine’s Press, 2014).]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

`Those Who Esteem Nothing'

Some words and phrases are like motel art, those hideous pictures bolted to the wall above the bed. They are not intended to be appreciated, to convey information or to sooth the tired traveler’s body and mind, but merely to take up space, to fill in the inoffensive emptiness of the wall. They are Muzak. With increasing frequency I’ve been hearing a phrase, usually intoned with conviction and a self-satisfied air of wisdom: “Change is good.” On Wednesday I heard a graduate student use the more emphatic variation, “All change is good.” The idiocy is recognizable to anyone who survived the twentieth century. In fact, the statement’s negation is almost always true: Change is usually horrific, especially when planned on a grand scale (death being the ultimate form of change, at least in the human realm). I recently reread Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), and happened upon a dryly comic and very Pym-ian observation: 

“Belinda was looking around the room to see if she could find some sympathetic person to whom she could say that Dr. Johnson had been so right when he had said that all change is of itself an evil, when she saw Harriet approaching with the new curate.” 

Belinda, Pym’s stand-in, is not profoundly learned but collects scraps of culture, high and low. Here she alludes to a passage in Johnson’s The Plan of an English Dictionary (1747): “…the chief rule which I propose to follow is, to make no innovation without a reason sufficient to balance the inconvenience of change; and such reasons I do not expect often to find. All change is of itself an evil, which ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage; and as inconstancy is in every case a mark of weakness, it will add nothing to the reputation of our tongue.” 

Phrased gently, change is “inconvenient.” Belinda is a mostly sensible soul, and she knows intuitively the hazards of change. It’s what life has taught her. In his next sentence, Johnson writes: “There are, indeed, some who despise the inconveniencies of confusion, who seem to take pleasure in departing from custom, and to think alteration desirable for its own sake…” Belinda is not among them. She would no doubt endorse the classic, common-sensical formulation found in Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative”: 

“Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.”

[A reader shares his favorite Tuscan proverb: Ogni muta, una caduta. That is, "Every change, a disaster."]

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

`Our Desires Are Fixed Upon the Past'

“Certainly I have never regretted the publication of my poems. The reputation which they brought me, though it gives me no lively pleasure, is something like a mattress interposed between me and the hard ground.” 

A.E. Housman famously devoted a third of his life, from 1903 to 1930, to editing and publishing a five-volume critical edition of Manilius’ Astronomicon, as well as works by Juvenal (1905) and Lucan (1926). Shortly before publication of the fifth Manilius volume, Housman wrote to Robert Bridges that its appearance would mean “I shall have done what I came on earth to do.” The passage quoted at the top is from a letter to Houston Martin, an admirer of Housman’s verse, to whom the poet wrote seven months before his death in 1936: “Your questions, though frivolous, are not indecent, so I suppose I must humour you.” This should not be mistaken for false modesty, a common stratagem among poets. Nor is it mere crankiness. Housman’s understanding of his accomplishments is as radical a case of critical dissonance as any I know. We can’t conclude his self-assessment was wrong. We can say the author of A Shropshire Lad had priorities at variance with those of most readers. 

As the excerpts from his letters suggest, Housman’s prose is distinguished by its clarity, forcefulness and acerbic wit. To echo Pound, his verse is at least as well written as his prose. The quip about the mattress and the hard ground is as splendidly poker-faced and well-timed as a good joke. That a poet renowned for melancholy verse should also be funny ought not surprise us. Humans are generally more complicated than we give them credit for. He was Kingsley Amis’ favorite poet and Philip Larkin called him “the poet of unhappiness,” though he added provocatively that Housman “seems to have been a very nice man.” In more than his devotion to Juvenal, Housman reminds me of no other writer so much as Dr. Johnson. The differences are obvious but both men embodied scholarship and stoicism. See Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare” for a scholarly antecedent. Neither man sought the pity or even understanding of others. Both detested cant. Here is Housman’s XXXV from Last Poems (1922, annus mirabilis):  

“When first my way to fair I took
            Few pence in purse had I,
 And long I used to stand and look
            At things I could not buy. 

 “Now times are altered: if I care
            To buy a thing, I can;
 The pence are here and here's the fair,
            But where's the lost young man? 

“ --To think that two and two are four
            And neither five nor three
 The heart of man has long been sore
            And long 'tis like to be.” 

In his great edition of The Poems of A.E. Housman (Clarendon Press, 1997), Archie Burnett (later Larkin’s editor) identifies in his notes to this poem allusions to The Greek Anthology, Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village and Pope’s Dunciad. He also quotes Johnson as quoted by Boswell in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides: 

“Johnson: `Sir, sorrow is inherent in humanity. As you cannot judge two and two to be either five, or three, but certainly four, so, when comparing a worse present state with a better which is past, you cannot but feel sorrow.’” 

Cant-free common sense and a profound understanding of the human state. Housman, thinking of his love for Moses Jackson, might have written this, from The Rambler #47: 

“Sorrow is properly that state of the mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something were otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, which no endeavours can possibly regain.”