VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, October 03, 2022

Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick


Book Review
Ubik (1969)
by Philip K. Dick

   I got COVID in June of this year and ever since then I've had a hard time reading like I did before I got COVID.  In the past I've been able to basically read very fast with comprehension- well basically for my whole life and it's been instrumental in establishing myself as an attorney and getting to be an attorney in the first place.  It also covered up a lot of flaws that might have otherwise let me off the academic path to becoming a criminal defense lawyer.

    Essentially though, since I recovered at the end of June I've found reading for more than 15-20 minutes to be difficult to impossible.  I imagine it's something akin to what people with learning disabilities feel, although of course I can't be sure.  However it is quite clear that I have no hopes of maintaining this blog in anything like its former state both because I can hardly read anything outside of what is required for my job and stuff on the internet.  I'm thinking of maybe moving back into music or maybe just going back and rereading/writing books I've already covered.

   Ubik I found because I was looking for library available Audiobooks by Philip K. Dick, who is an author I find tedious in print- I thought maybe an Audiobook version of one or more of his books/stories might be more interesting.  Ubik was actually the ONLY Philip K. Dick Audiobook I located and I had to wait for about six months before my number came up.

    Best described as a "real mind fuck," Ubik is a variation on the techno dystopia of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (AKA Bladerunner) with a more acerbic critique of capitalism.  Here,  the protagonist is a indebted salaryman who works as an evaluator for a business that provides anti-psychic contractors to help prevent psionic espionage.  The underlying worldscape is familiarly dystopian: Everything costs money (five cents to open your apartment door!), the inner solar system is being colonized and governments appear to have been replaced by giant corporations.

  Joe Chip, the indebted anti-psychic analyst, is astonished when an agent brings him a young woman with a hithero undiscovered talent: She can alter the past.   I won't get into it beyond that but shit is crazy.  Philip K. Dick was a real wacko!


Friday, August 12, 2022

Arundel (1929) by Kenneth Roberts


Book Review
Arundel (1929) 
by Kenneth Roberts

 My partner is from the Boston area, and her mom lives in New Hampshire, so we end up there at least twice a year.   It's not a bad place to be, particularly the coast of Maine during the summer, which combines a lack of people (even during "high" season), excellent sea food and interesting history. It's led me to an interest in the regional literature of the area- and I was delighted to find this Downeast Press reprint of Arundel, the first in a series of historical novels a la Walter Scott that chronicle the revolutionary war activities in Maine from the perspective of a local participant.

  Arundel covers a pre-betrayal Benedict Arnold and his magnificent, doomed effort to lead a militia heavy army through the heart of Maine to attack the French at Quebec city.   The whole encounter will remind any reader of a Werner Herzog film, with the woods of Maine appearing in place of a South American jungle.  Roberts was quite famous in his day- though he forever tarnished his reputation by getting involved in the Nativist movement, where he served as a mouthpiece for vile anti Mexican and Eastern Europe attitudes.  He also got involved in Florida real estate and wrote copy for several investment schemes that were little more than out-and-out fraud.  

  Roberts is more or less out of print and forgotten- I checked out the second book in this four book series and got a repress edition from the 1940's.   In Roberts favor is his depiction of Native Americans in this book- the Natives are largely portrayed in a positive light, and Roberts includes several arguments that were familiar to Native advocates back in the 18th and 19th century.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Hitler: Downfall (2021) by Volker Ullrich


Book Review
Hitler: Downfall (2021)
by Volker Ullrich

  I love a new book about Hitler! Knowing jokes about obsessions with "Hitler Studies" are at least as old as White Noise, the 1985 novel by Don Delillo, where the protagonist is a professor of the subject.  I confess that while I am 100% not a "Civil War, World War II" type of reader of popular history, I 100% am interested in the great totalitarian states of the 20th century:  the Soviet Union, Communist China and the Nazi's.  There is so much to learn about totalitarianism and its intersections with with the other great isms of the 20th century: capitalism, socialism, media culture, economics. 

   And the nature of totalitarianism as a movement is that you get a powerful leader at the top and, you know, the decision making process, and the way that this guy convinces others to do his bidding, even when the bidding is just bat shit crazy insane- there is a lot to learn about human psychology on the road to murdering six millions Jews and ten million Russians.   

  What the reader learns about Adolf Hitler from Downfall is that Hitler was a gambler who liked to "bet big on a single card," a phrase that is repeated so frequently during the forty hours of Audiobook runtime that I will forever associate playing cards with Hitler's battle strategy on the Eastern front.   This strategy worked wonders for Hitler on the way up- a prime example of an individual seizing the moment, again and again, against the grain of "conventional wisdom."

  This run of wins lasted all the way up to his terrible decision to invade the Soviet Union.  What I learned is that because of his run of wins- from his assumption of power through the defeat of France, convinced the German Army Generals- who were at best Nazi's of convenience, at worst openly contemptuous of Hitler's very being- that Hitler might actually be a genius.   

  The reader also learns that Hitler was amazingly consistent about his desire to eliminate European Jewry and his refusal to rationally contemplate something other than total victory.  For Ullrich, the war was essentially lost for Nazi Germany after Operation Barbarossa- the surprise attack against the Soviet Union- stalled outside of Moscow.  Mind you, this took place before Pearl Harbor.  Hitler's years long refusal to contemplate the reality of this situation led to untold suffering on both sides. 

   As the war drew to conclusion, Hitler became increasingly isolated from reality.  In one memorable scene, he spends the day of the Allied invasion of France (D-Day) micromanaging the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews.   In the end, he became obsessed with a Wagnerian defeat that would also spell the annihilation of the German people.  Fortunately, this was a step too far even for his own followers, who ensured that his orders to raze German industry to the ground in advance of the invading Americans, British and Russians were not followed. 

  At all times, it seems like the premature death of Hitler really would have been one of those great moments upon which history turns.  It is hard to imagine the Nazi's moving forward with the Holocaust in the absence of Hitler's monomaniacally obsession with the subject.  The chapters devoted to the different attempts to rescue the Germans from Hitler are the most moving (only moving?) chapters in the entire book.

The Trees (2021) by Percival Everett


Book Review
The Trees (2021)
by Percival Everett

   The Trees is another 2022 Booker longlist pick written by an American author.  Everett, a Professor of Literature at USC, is a classic author where I am just amazed to be hearing about for the first time after a nomination for a major literary prize.  Dude teaches in Los Angeles, where I live.  He has been publishing novels since 1983.  He is African American, and many of his books contain edgy satirical themes, which are some of my favorite themes in literary fiction.  None of his books are about newly divorced urban intellectual dads or nervous urban intellectual expectant moms.   And yet, literally had never heard of him before he got nominated this year. Shame on me!

   The Trees is an interesting blend of crime fiction, satire and allegory that takes off after the mysterious deaths of two Emmett Till-adjacent rednecks in a small town in Mississippi.   The local sheriff is non-plussed when the state of Mississippi sends up two African-American agents to assist with the investigation into the lost corpse of an African American found with both dead racists.   The plot spins out from there, written from a variety of perspectives but mainly shifting between the two state investigators and the local sheriff.  There is also a female African American FBI agent who joins the fun, an ancient local woman who has compiled files on every lynching in the history of America (including police shootings, which she says, "count as lynchings."

  Everything stays pretty close to the parameters of a work of southern crime fiction written from a contemporary African American perspective until... they don't.  It is, of course, this divergence from traditional genre constraints that elevate The Trees into Booker longlist territory, a la Paul Beatty's 2016 win for The Sellout The plot really goes off the rails in the third act and the last fifty pages is bonkers mccrazy stuff.  Readers will have to abandon any expectations formed by the semblance of the beginning of The Trees to a more or less conventional work of crime/supernatural/fiction and adapt to what Everett is really saying but I found The Trees provided an almost visceral satisfaction upon completion.  I don't think it will make the longlist, but I'm glad to have heard about Everett- I will certainly be taking a look at his back list this fall and winter.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Trust (2022) by Hernan Diaz


Book Review
Trust (2022)
by Hernan Diaz

   There is always a bit of lull for me in the reading year- starting in mid June and running until the Booker Longlist is announced in July.  I'm always inclined to wait for that longlist to come out before I venture beyond the books that grab at me from my feed.  Americans were strongly represented on this year's longlist- notably Nightcrawling by Oakland's own Leila Mottley, The Trees by USC literature professor Percival Everett and two books that I had already passed on until their inclusion made me reverse myself- Booth by Karen Joy Fowler and this book, Trust by Hernan Diaz.

   I'd read reviews when Trust came out earlier this year- I was both ignorant of the author, Hernan Diaz, which reflects poorly on me, not him, and leery of the elevator pitch, "Metafictional text about an extremely wealthy early 20th century Financier and his wife."  It sounded interesting but not compelling, but after the Booker Longlist arrived I quickly checked out the Audiobook from the Los Angeles Public Library.   Trust is a set of four different texts: The first is a work of fiction a la The Financier by Theodore Dreiser.  It's called Bonds, and its tells the ultimately tragic tale of the first and greatest Wall Street operator and his arty wife.  The next text is notes towards an autobiography written by the "real life" inspiration for the main character in Bonds.  The third text is a New Yorker type article by a woman who served as the personal secretary for said inspiration when he was writing his autobiography.  The final text is the pay off, and none of the reviews I've read actually discuss it, leading me to believe its revelation would consitute a "spoiler." 

  I quite enjoyed Trust, though I'm not sure its a short lister- it might be a National Book Award and/or Pultizer Nominee- vibe-wise Trust reminds me of Richard Powers- a recent winner and author of a book- Gain, that really reminds me of Trust, in that it attempts to convey an economic narrative in a novel.   I'm very into that idea, and I wish there were more books that took economics and money seriously-  I often have the thought while reading literary fiction from American and the English speaking world, that every writer of literary fiction is a teacher of literature  or a journalist.  Any novel that takes me outside of that narrow world is a win. 

Lapvona (2022) by Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review
Lapvona (2022)
by Ottessa Moshfegh

    Ottessa Moshfegh is one of my favorite American authors of literary fiction working today- I look forward to each of her books since her break out hit (My Year of Rest and Relaxation.)  Also, I went back and read all of her earlier publications excepting her book of short stories.  What I like about Moshfegh is that she moves around in place and time.    You've got McGlue- set in Salem in the 19th century.  Eileen is set in small-town New England in the mid 20th century.  Death in Her Hands and My Year are both contemporary, though the former takes place in the country side and My Year is a very New York City kind of book.  I would describe that quality as "range."  Ottessa Moshfegh has range, and it is often range that is sorely lacking in contemporary American literary fiction, with its surfeit of stressed out  mothers and nervous fathers.

  With Lapvona she invents her own fictious land- it's what we would call the Middle Ages, in someplace that resembles the petit feudalism of medieval Europe.   Lapvona is not a fantastical place- quite the opposite in its resolute grimness.  The world is grim, the characters as well.   Those looking for uplift are best warned away ahead of time.   The obvious comparison within her own bibliography is McGlue, though McGlue is squarely within the 19th century vein of American literature that reached its apogee with Moby Dick, i.e. tales of the sea and seamen,  Lapvona doesn't clearly fit into any pre-existing genre that I'm aware of- certainly historical literary fiction is a pre-existing genre, but Lapvona doesn't resemble that sort of book.

  Perhaps the closest comparison would be to The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro- which is a work of gentle fantasy (which Lapvona is decidedly not.)  No, Lapvona is in no way gentle.  It is in fact, Brutal.  It is one of those books which loses impact if you know what is coming, even though it is in no way a book with a twist.  

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Collected Writing: 19th Century American Literature

 Collected Writing: 19th Century American Literature

    One thing I learned from writing this blog is that Americans mostly care about American stuff, especially when it comes to art.  The audience for non-American art is largely restricted to stuff from other places where they speak English.  After that you've got a decent sized interest in stuff from France, which is helped by the back many people in the UK speak and read French as their second language.  Following that it's a bunch of countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Italy.  

  I'm still interested in this subject- particularly in Edgar Allan Poe who seems like one of those authors who is actually underappreciated here in the United States relative to his position outside the United States, where he is widely recognized as a pioneer of the avant garde movement of the 19th and 20th century- here he's like a joke or a greeting card or a Simpsons Halloween episode. 

  You can also see here that I've started adhering to the current format of putting the year of publication in the headline- that didn't happen till 2012- years after I started the 1001 Books project.  Part of what I need to do with those older posts is to put that information in so it is more of a chronological experience.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe (3/20/12)

Hollywood made some bad movie versions of Poe's stories.

Book Review
The Fall of the House of Usher
by Edgar Allan Poe
Project Gutenberg Edition 
Published 1997, #932
p. 1839
Read on Ipad Ebooks Program

   Project Gutenberg has been out there, doing it's thing since waaayyyy before Ebooks, Ereaders, or, for that matter, the Internet really got going, but I would have to say that this is Project Gutenberg's moment to become the Wikipedia of Ereading.

  I'm more excited by the format combination:  Project Gutenberg/Ipad/Ebooks Program then the work itself. First of all, The Fall of the House of Usher is, at best, a novella, but more like a short story. It was 35 pages long on the Ebooks/Ipad vertical orientation.  Second, it's not one but THREE short stories that Poe gets on the 1001 Books list (2006 edition.)   There only about 150 books for the entire 19th century, so listing 3 works that together are less then a hundred pages is unwarranted, particularly since I'm pretty sure they are rarely published as stand alone 'books'- let alone qualifying as a 'novel.'

  Just to take the 3 stories that made it to the list: The Fall of The House of UsherThe Purloined Letter and The Pit and the Pendulum- only the first is available as a stand-alone Ebook- paid or free- for the other two you need to get the "Collected Works" or "Short Stories Of" the Author.

  A second strike against The Fall of the House of Usher is that I hate short stories with an abiding passion.  I've been reading the New Yorker for 20 years now, and I've read maybe- one? or two? short stories in that entire time.  I mean, I actually had pretensions of being a WRITER at one point, and I could never bring myself to read the weekly New Yorker short story- the best example of a market for that commodity (short story) as exists in the entire English speaking world.

 Getting a short story in the New Yorker is the equivalent of getting a BNM award on Pitchfork, ha ha.

  The final strike against The Fall of the House of Usher is I feel like Poe has scored tons of undeserved critical attention paid not to the work, but to his life and the critical/economic response to his work- which was mixed, at best.   According to Wiki Poe is allegedly the first "major" America to try to make a living off of writing.  His failure to do so puts him in the pantheon of early 19th century Romantic writers- just based on his biography.

      The work, meanwhile, The Fall of The House of Usher included, is interesting, but doesn't really contribute anything except an example of extreme brevity in a literary work with Novelistic scope.   The Fall of The House of Usher is an example of late, late, Gothic motifs.   The first flush of the Gothic Novel was actually in the 18th century, when books like The Castle of Otranto and The Monk were published- and achieved commercial and critical success.

     By the early 19th century, skilled Authors were incorporating Gothic literary themes, but typically as only one of a number of styles that were utilized to obtain the maximum of Audience and critical attention.   This incorporation of Gothic as a subsidiary style is seen in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and even earlier scattered throughout the work of Jane Austen.

   Which is to say that Poe wasn't doing anything particularly original, nor was he that great at it.   When you consider that both James Hoggs' The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner AND Charles Maturins',  Melmoth the Wanderer were published long before Poe wrote the The Fall of the House of Usher, the later begins to look like a pale imitation of more sophisticated source material.

   Or perhaps you could argue that by utilizing brevity Poe is the master stylist, whereas the earlier Authors, lumbering through 300 plus pages of cranky ghosts and clanky castles, are limiting their potential Audience.  There is no question that the short length of The Fall of the House of Usher helped it draw attention upon initial publication.   It also likely hurt critical reaction.

I guess you could say that The Fall of the House of Usher is a good point of introduction for the Gothic style, but it is literally starting at the end of the line.

The Purloined Letter (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe (3/27/12)

Edgar Allan Poe







































BOOK REVIEW
The Purloined Letter
by Edgar Allan Poe
published 1844
this edition read on Ipad/Ebooks
Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 2.

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12


  Yet another incredibly cheap entry on the 1001 Books Before You Die list, because this is not a book, but a short story. It was originally published in a magazine, and even today you have to read it as part of a "Collected Short Stories" or "Complete Works" of Edgar Allan Poe.

  The Purloined Letter is the third of three stories that Poe wrote that essentially 'invented' detective fiction.  What it didn't event was detective fiction as a novel, that would have to wait twenty some years for Wilikie Collins very tedious The Moonstone.  You can certainly argue that detective fiction has thrived within the literary boundaries of the short story, but as I've recently expressed, I hate the short story as a form.  Weirdly.

 There is nothing gothic or romantic in the style of The Purloined Letter, which makes it different from his other two included stories on the list, The Fall of The House of Usher and The Pit and The Pendulum.  It is striking though that we are talking about something published in 1844 by an American writer, no less.  As I mentioned in the review of The Fall of The House of Usher, Poe was kind of the first "professional" writer of fiction in the United States when he got rolling in the 1820s.

The Pit and The Pendulum (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe (3/28/12)

Edgar Allan Poe was the first American author to survive on his earnings as a writer.
BOOK REVIEW


The Pit and The Pendulum
by Edgar Allan Poe
Read on Ipad/Ebooks
Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume II
originally published in 1842

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  It has become clear to me that I can't review another Edgar Allan Poe short story without additional discussion of the format of the short story, which I despise, just personally. (1)
  Really, the short story has to be viewed as a "modernization" of the Novel, in that it took advantage of technological and social changes in the Audience and modified the length and scope of the Art Form of the Novel to achieve a different effect.  But you can't begrudge the Artistic success of the short story as a form of literature, particularly in the 20th century.
        Certainly the 1001 Books list contains few Novellas and even fewer short stories.   So what makes Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum one of three short stories Poe gets onto the 1001 Books list in the 2006 edition?  I guess the fact that he is pretty much first, that he didn't write any "full-length" novels and that he is American.  I think his American citizenship plays a part in his enduring fame. Also, his Romantic biography helps.
  He kind of has the "rock star" quality where the biographical details outweigh the Artistic output.   You get the sense that he just didn't have the time and space to sit down and write a Novel- that's the impression you get from any introduction to a Poe short story.
  The Pit and the Pendulum is  both one of the first short stories and one of the best, according to the 1001 Books list.   I think most of this has to do with the early publication date- 1842. Considering that the short story "didn't bloom" in the U.K. until the 1890s- that would make Poe fifty years ahead of his time- the equivalent of a delta blues man to Mick Jagger, artistically speaking.
  I would say that this period- from 1840 to 1890- the short story suffered from the kind of lack of critical attention that other popular art forms have experienced- film, photography, pop music, comic books, etc.  It's an attitude that continues in the field of "genre fiction" until today.
    So yeah, The Pit and The Pendulum- the story of this guy- being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition- is rich and atmospheric and achieves in less then 50 pages what lesser Authors took 400 or 500 pages to accomplish.   Poe produced his short stories for a public, magazine reading audience, and his style reflects that audience.  He remains clear and readable to the present which is a testament to the enduring value of his prose style.
   But does Poe deserve three titles in the 2006 edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die?  I would say, no.



NOTE

(1)  I just Googled "history of the short story" and chose an article by Willliam Boyd at site called, Prospect Magazine.  The article is called "A Short History of The Short Story,"  and all quoted paragraphs in this note come from this specific source.

   WHAT IS THE FIRST "SHORT STORY?"




      It has been argued that the honour(sic)(A) goes to Walter Scott’s story “The Two Drovers,” published in Chronicles of the Canongate in 1827.  The only problem is that after Scott’s start, the short story in Britain hardly existed in the mid-19th century...Therefore, in many ways the true beginnings of the modern short story are to be found in America. One might posit the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1837 as a starting point. When Edgar Allan Poe read Hawthorne, he made the first real analysis of the difference between the short story and the novel, defining a short story quite simply as a narrative that “can be read at one sitting.”


       HOW HAVE SHORT STORIES EVOLVED AS A LITERARY FORM?


  Fundamentally, up until the beginning of the 20th century, you have the two great traditions: the event-plot story and Chekhovian story. 
  (1) (2)  The event-plot story (the term is William Gerhardie’s) refers to the style of plotted story that flourished pre-Chekhov—before his example of the formless story became pre-eminent. Most short stories, even today, fall into one of these two categories. From them other types emerged over the coming decades. Perhaps the most dominant of these new forms is what I termed the modernist story, in which a deliberate, often baffling obscurity is made a virtue, however limpid the style in which it is written. 
  (3)    Next among the other varieties I classified was the cryptic/ludic story. In this form of story there is a meaning to be deciphered that lies beneath the apparently straightforward text. This is also known as “suppressed narrative” and is a more recent development—perhaps the first clear move away from the great Chekhovian model. Mid-20th century writers like Nabokov, Calvino and Borges are representative of this mode of writing.
 (4)     The next category, the poetic/mythic story, is a rarer beast. Dylan Thomas’s and DH Lawrence’s stories are typical and JG Ballard’s bleak voyages into inner space also conform to this set. 
  (5) The final category, and one that brings us up to the present day, is what I called the biographical story, a catch-all term to include stories that flirt with the factual or masquerade as non-fiction. Often the impedimenta of the non-fiction book is utilised(sic) (footnotes, authorial asides, illustrations, quotations, font changes, statistics, textual gimmickry). This is the most recent transmutation of the short story form and largely originated in America in the 1990s, where it has found particular favour(sic) with younger writers: Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, William T Vollman are notable exponents. 


Blithedale Romance (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (5/30/12) 

Nathaniel Hawthorne
























BOOK REVIEW
The Blithedale Romance
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
p. 1852
Public Domain Books Edition 2007
Read on Kindle

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

   I think the one Nathaniel Hawthorne novel everyone in the U.S. has read or at least heard of is The Scarlet Letter.  If not from having read the book in school, then having heard of the play adaptation by Arthur Miller.  The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, and The Blithedale Romance was published in 1852.  The enduring fame of both works has shown that Nathaniel Hawthorne could write the shit out of a mid 19th century Novel, but Critics at the time were not so adoring.  Many singled out the sensationalist themes in both works.  In The Scarlet Letter the adultery theme raised contemporary eye brows, and no doubt the setting of The Blithedale Romance in a mid 19th century commune in New England and it's dark theme of suicide.

   The Blithedale Romance was a pleasure to read because I was really expecting something boring and instead it was lively and contemporary-  I really enjoyed the sensationalist themes, the setting in a mid 19th century Commune and the length and pacing.   It was an ideal free Kindle download in that regard. 

The Last of The Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper (6/8/12)

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
                                  James Fenimore Cooper


BOOK REVIEW
The Last of the Mohicans
by James Fenimore Cooper
published 1826
This edition Fiction Wise Classics 2005

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  You simply can't discuss James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans without discussing Sir Walter Scott's The Waverley Novels.

  The Last of the Mohicans is the second of a five-volume series called The Leatherstocking Tales.  The Leatherstocking Tales stand in relation to The Waverley Novels as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles stand in relation to Elvis:  One inspired and survived to maintain a presence during the ascendancy of the other.  Here, Sir Walter Scott's The Waverley Novels were Elvis, and The Leatherstocking Tales are the Beatles.

  The Waverley Novels are known as such because Sir Walter Scott wrote under a psuedonym- but Waverley was the first Novel in his series, and for the second book in the series it said that the Author was "The Author of Waverley;" referring to the TITLE of the first book.  Unlike The Waverley novels, which were just a series of Novels by the same Author set in the past (i.e. "historical, epic fiction."), James Fenimore Cooper's The Leatherstocking Tales refer to a specific character, birth name, Natty Brumppo, although in the books he goes by a variety of names:  the Pathfinder, the Trapper, Deer Slayer, Le Longue Carabine and, most hilariously,  Hawkeye.

 Similar to The Waverley Novels, The Last of the Mohicans is set in the past.  Written in 1826, the events of The Last of the Mohicans re-enact well known "current events" from a half century ago.   Like The Waverley Novels, The Last of the Mohicans and the other Leatherstocking Tales were not written in a political vacuum.  To talk about Sir Walter Scott and his line of descent, as some kind of autonomous "Art for Art's Sake" type work is to entirely miss the main point of these books, which is to entertain, and convince the reader of a set of viewpoints that corresponds to the strongly held beliefs of the Author.

 It may be a fascinating area of inquiry- parsing that out- but not really the concern of someone who is going to read The Last of the Mohicans because they saw the movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis or because, say, it's on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.  For those readers, The Last of the Mohicans is an inevitable disaster because of the clunk methods Cooper uses to go "back in time."  All the dialogue is stilted, and the lavish depictions of scenery are hardly a revelation to anyone who has seen a photograph.

   It's easy to understand WHY James Fenimore Cooper has been canonized, because he's the first internationally famous American Author, and because America INVENTED canonization in the mid 20th century, a time that was more concerned with American roots then we are today.  However, the action doesn't hold the attention, and the politics are, to be kind, "politically incorrect."  Another way to put it might be "well-meaning racism."


The House of The Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (6/21/12)

























Book Review
The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
p. 1851
Read on Kindle

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12


  American Authors are slow to make their initial appearance in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die book.  The first American-authored book is The Last of the Mohicans (Feb. 1826) by James Fenimore Cooper.  A cool 16 years later, Edgar Allan Poe published The Pit and the Pendulum (1842), which is a short story.  After that it's another decade before Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville join James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe in the canon.

 If you look at a Google Ngram of the four Authors: James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, you can learn about their respective popularity/frequency of mention among different time periods.   Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville emerge together, as is demonstrates in the Ngram comparing the four authors between 1800 and 1855.  Initially, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville dwarf James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe.  This is likely because Cooper was old and unfashionable, and Poe was unrecognized.

  As of 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne is the most frequently mentioned Author among the four, but barely more popular then Herman Melville.  If you extend the time line to the present day and look at the respective frequency of mention for the same four authors, it's a much different graph.  During the longer time frame, from 1800 to 2010, Nathaniel Hawthorne dominates until 1910, he is eclipsed at that point by Edgar Allan Poe who has a strong lead until the end of World War II, when he is eclipsed by Herman Melville, who benefits from a sharp increase during the 1950s.

  This graph reflects the belated recognition of Edgar Allan Poe as a literary genius worth canonizing, and the subsequent canonization.  The spike in Herman Melville's frequency of mention is probably caused by the popularity of Moby Dick as a modern/pre-modernist "classic" among the literature departments of American Universities.

   The longer period also reflects the decline in popularity of James Fenimore Cooper relative to the other three Authors.  The period after 1960 reflects a sharp decline for all four Authors in relative frequency- which probably reflects the addition of more Authors to the literary canon, making these four Authors relatively less important and a smaller portion of the works included.

  I agree with everyone else that James Fenimore Cooper is boring.  The Sir Walter Scott "historical romance" is a matter for genre fiction now, and doesn't retain a lot of relevance to modern literary style.  Of the remaining three Authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne is the most intriguing because of his relative low-profile and number of high quality hits- all written between 1850-1860.  I was curt with Hawthorne's, The Blithedale Romance- written in 1852- but I think I was being unfair during that review, and I intend to revise it.

  The Wikipedia entry for The House of The Seven Gables calls it a "gothic novel."  That is an accurate description.  Hawthorne's inclusion of super natural and "cutting edge" social concerns bears some relationship to the blend of interests that feature prominently on say, American Network Television.  Kind of a creepy vibe.  The House of The Seven Gables is another exhibit in the brief supporting the enduring power of Gothic themed Art.   By the publication date of 1851, "Gothic" had been an established literary genre for a century, and Nathaniel Hawthorne was clearly aware of the conventions of literary Gothic-ism.

  Importantly though it's an American Gothic set in New England and featuring American characters. Nathaniel Hawthorne was attached to his New England settings, and like The Blithedale Romance, The House of The Seven Gables has references to Mesmerism and Fourierism. (early Communism)  Of course, Witchcraft is a central part of the machinery in The House of The Seven Gables.  You've never really thought about witches until you've explored Nathaniel Hawthorne's other works.

  Nathaniel Hawthorne published three hit novels between 1850 and 1852: The Scarlet Letter, The Blithedale Romance and The House of The Seven Gables.  Before that he had been writing short stories for close to two decades.   His talent had been recognized by Edgar Allan Poe as early as the 1840s, as Poe wrote in a lengthy review of one of Hawthorne's "Tales" in Godey's Lady Book of 1847.

  But it's fair to say that The House of The Seven Gables represents an effort by Hawthorne to "raise his game" and it was largely successful if posterity's long-term recognition is any guide.

Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville (8/27/12)


Herman Melville
























Moby Dick
by Herman Melville
published 1851


  Herman Melville is the second major Author on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list to obtain his canonical status from a Revival.   The first example of the Revival phenomenon is the well-documented revival of Jane Austen in late 19th century.  Although published in 1851, Herman Melville was ignored for decades after his death except by a small circle of writers and critics in New York City who "kept the flame arrive."

 The conventional explanation for the revival of Herman Melville is that he was "before his time" in using Modernist literary techniques.   Fair enough.  It is true that successors didn't start truly arguing for the enduring value of Moby Dick until 1917.

Moby Dick the White Whales




















  Much of the "blame" for the failure upon initial publications came from the harsh response that London based critics gave to Moby Dick.  The story goes that the less-sophisticated American critics followed their lead.   That is a weak explanation for why Moby Dick failed.

 The best way to illustrate this is by looking at the reception by American critics of books Charles Dickens published in the 1840s. The American critics expressed negative opinions of works like The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby that were "America specific" and independent of those expressed by English critics.

 I would argue that the key to understanding the initial commercial failure of Moby Dick by Herman Melville is held by looking at Herman Melville's popularity BEFORE Moby Dick was published.

 Specifically, he had popularity, and an Audience, based on Audience familiarity with his travel narratives. I think what went wrong when Moby Dick was published was specifically that he confused his Audience.  That Audience included both the folks who actually bought and read his earlier books, and liked them, as well as critics who were only interested in Moby Dick because it was by someone who had sold books in the past and had an existing Audience.

 That existing Audience- wasn't dissuaded from critics from not liking Moby Dick- they themselves did not like Moby Dick because it was so out there.  If the people who bought and read 500+ Novels in the mid 19th century- and that would have been everyone who read Novels, period- had liked Moby Dick, the critics would have come around.  If Moby Dick had been serialized, and the Audience for printed matters had glommed on to Moby Dick for whatever reason, the critics would have come around.

 A "blame the critics" approach to describing the failed initial reception of Moby Dick is wrong, one might as well blame the Audience for existing.


  It is also worth comparing the eventual popularity of Herman Melville and Moby Dick to Charles Dickens and his crowning achievement,  David Copperfield.  They were published almost within a year of one another in London, so it's a good comparison.  If you look at a Google Ngram comparing the frequency of mention of the two Authors names between 1840 and 2000,  Charles Dickens "takes off" in the mid 1860s and Herman Melville is flat well into the 20th century.  Since the 1960s both Authors have been flat, with Charles Dickens reasonably more popular then Herman Melville, but with both in the same league.

 If you add Jane Austen to the mix (another "revived" Author) you can see that she has blown both men out of the water in the late 20th century.   In the Dickens/Melville/Austen graph you can also see the impact of the earlier Austen revival during a time when Melville was essentially dormant.

 You can also add the names of the works: David Copperfield & Moby Dick, to the Ngram that contains the names of the Authors, Herman Melville and Charles Dickens.  This Ngram shows that Moby Dick the work is almost more popular or as popular as the Author, whereas David Copperfield is only a fraction of the popularity of Charles Dickens.

  I think the irony of the initial failure/eventual success of Moby Dick by Herman Melville is that it has literally inspired a hundred years of writers to write books people don't want to read.  Think about it, think about the later impact of literary modernism on the Novel and the shape that the Novel takes as an Art form during the 20th century.  Moby Dick has inspired a century of terrible writers to actually be terrible on the theory that after they are dead some egg head will finally "get" their brilliance.  Personally, I'd rather throw in with Charles Dickens then Herman Melville.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe (9/12/12)


Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin






































Book Review
Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among The Lowly
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Published in 1852
Read on an Amazon Kindle, public domain edition

  Above all, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a monster, monster hit- with sales in excess of one million copies in Great Britain and half a million copies in the United States within three years of publication.  Today, Uncle Tom's Cabin is better known for the controversy it has inspired due to its frank depiction of the conditions of slavery in ante-bellum America.   I never read Uncle Tom's Cabin in school, but I was certainly aware that:

 a) It existed
 b) It was where the term "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came from
 c) That it was a hugely popular and successful book that was published before the civil war by an Author with Abolitionist beliefs.

    Harriet Beecher Stowe has attained a canonical status that compares to the two other "Major" novel writers from America in that period, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.  If you look at a graph comparing their relative popularity between 1800 and 2000, you can see that Harriet Beecher Stowe has held her own against both Hawthorne and Melville, though I suspect that is more for her popularity among non-literature or quasi-literature related disciplines like "history" and "gender studies" etc.

 Stowe only surpasses Hawthorne in over-all popularity between 1866 and 1888- after that

   I suspect if you looked at the largest Audiences for these three Authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne would have the largest Audience of school assigned and general audience attention because he wrote in an accessible style and wrote in school friendly formats like the short story.   Melville's largest Audience would be higher education "types": students, teachers, and those who aspire to advanced education.  Stowe's largest Audience would be academic specialists- graduate students and Professors.

Portrayal of the character of "Topsy" from Uncle Tom's Cabin




































   Considering that all Authors are neck and neck in a current Google Ngram comparing the three, it's hard to say that any is more "worth while" then the other- though my sense is that if we were to look ten years from now you'd see Herman Melville reinforcing the dominance he's displayed since the 1950s-60s.  Both Melville and Hawthorne "take off" in the 1940s and 50s, but Stowe's level of popularity stays relatively flat.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin is particularly shocking for anyone who's come of Age in the "P.C." era where the very use of the "N-word" is a highly charged subject.  Obviously, I take the position that you take a historical text "as it comes" and don't imply modern canons of construction when discussing the work in question.

   Stowe was an unabashed abolitionist, and the purpose of Uncle Tom's Cabin was to encourage the abolition of slavery.  Taken in that context, the racist characters and "Jim Crow" dialect of the African American characters can be seen as a  well-meaning attempt to provide "realism" to the text.

Portrayal of Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom's Cabin





































   I wouldn't say that school kids should be reading Uncle Tom's Cabin- it is no doubt an Adult book today.   I can't even imagine how awkward it would be to try to teach this book in a public school. I wonder if anyone even tries to get anyone to read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Judging from the consistent popularity the answer must be yes, but perhaps the frequency results from the frequent citation to Stowe as the writer in Academic sources.

  The main take-away for me personally was the demonstration of how slavery ripped apart slave families.  When you look at society today and problems with families and crime etc., there is no way you can disregard the impact that slavery had on the perpetrators and victims.   For that reason I think it's incumbent on a modern reader to really grasp the way that slaves were separated from spouses and children with impunity by slave owners.  That, and the fact that Slaves were not "people" for the purposes of the Justice system, and could thus not testify about excesses committed by slave owners.


  The sheer success of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a novel among purchasers of Novels can be seen as a major catalyst for the more "social problem" oriented Authors of the mid 19th century.  If you look at the next Novel that will be reviewed here, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South- you can see a writer who is in the mainstream of popular British Literature- a biographer of Charlotte Bronte, for God's sakes, who certainly must have read and reacted to Uncle Tom's Cabin.  North and South was published three years after Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Like Uncle Tom's CabinNorth and South grapples with an "Issue" but it is the issue of Factory worker/owner relations, rather then slavery.

 I imagine the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin must have been a shock to the established taste makers of 19th century London.  I can almost imagine Elizabeth Gaskell reading it in her study and having a light bulb go on.

The Marble Faun (1860) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (9/19/12)


Emma Stone, doing her take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's hit, The Scarlet Letter.



The Marble Faun Or, The Romance of Monte Beni
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
p. 1860

 It is with real regret that I move beyond the 1850s.  Probably the most crucial period for literature up to this point.  I haven't even looked at some of the biggest hits: Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Bleak House by Charles Dickens to just name two missing titles, and here we are at 1860 with Nathaniel Hawthorne's travel memoir/Sir Walter Scott style gothic influenced Romance, Marble Faun.

  Hawthorne's description of The Marble Faun as a "Romance" is telling in a way that requires some explaining.  The issue here is the creation of the novel as an institution, and whether there might be an alternative understanding of the so-called "Rise of The Novel" and the genesis of that rise.

Demi Moore plays Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne


  The alternative beginning for the Novel is the Romance: The Romance preceded the Novel by several centuries, and it described a literary genre that ranged from written songs, poems, short stories to longer stories. (1) Romance literature existed in several "native" languages centuries before the Novel, including all of the languages that played a role in the development of the Novel as an art-form.

  Sir Walter Scott- the author most often written out of the narrative of the Rise of the Novel, is also the Author most responsible for exploiting Romantic literature (by placing his Novels in the past) but also for recognizing a distinction between Romantic and "Victorian" Novels.

  So it is telling that here, in 1860- half a century after Sir Walter Scott and contemporary with Alexandre Dumas- another revivalist Romance writer from a country other than England-  Hawthorne is penning a self described "Romance."  If you look at the popularity of Hawthorne's major worksScarlet LetterThe Marble Faun and The Blithedale Romance, it runs one-two-three in that order with Scarlet Letter way out in front. Two of the three works contain the description of the work as a "Romance," which suggests that Hawthorne did not see himself as a Novelist in  any sort of modern sense.

  The Marble Faun is also notable because of the level of market related "sales pressure" the publisher exerted on the Author- The Marble Faun runs two volumes and contains reams of what we would today consider "travel journalism."  Interesting from our current post-modern perspective, but certainly jarring for a period when Authors were just beginning to discover the "Serious" Novel.

 The characters in The Marble Faun are recognizable as the backpacking student culture of today- outcast and alienated would-be Artists being supported from home- hanging out in Rome and getting wrapped up in quasi-supernatural mysteries. The mish-mash nature of a fairly straight forward Gothic Romance being combined with excellent factual description of the major tourist sites of Rome- The Trevi Fountain, The Forum, etc. is bound to lead to awkwardness.

FOOTNOTE

(1) Homer Obed Brown, Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott, University of Pennsylvania Press, published 1997.

Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott (3/9/13)


Winona Ryder plays Jo March in the 1994 film version of Little Women


Book Review
Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
p. 1868-69

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  I've known what photograph I was going to use to illustrate this book review: Winona Ryder playing "Jo March" in the 1994 film version of this immortal classic.  Little Women is most certainly both a CLASSIC and a HIT- with all the modern meanings of those terms: plays, films, remakes, sequels, sales measured in hundreds of thousands, international media attention.

  And while reading Little Women wasn't particularly fun, it's impossible not to admire the craft of what Louisa May Alcott put together and sold to an adoring public.  On the surface, Little Women is a tale about four sisters growing up during and after the Civil War: three marry, one dies and the character of Jo is essentially the "main" sister.

  The "adventures" such as they are closer to the era of Frances Burney and Ann Radcliffe than to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, but Alcott had a supberb grasp of different literary idioms and manages to integrate literary devices that constitute an encyclopedia of 18th and 19th century Novelistic techniques.  Alcott throws in epistolary dialogues, picaresque travelogues of exotic locations (Italy), a healthy dose of sentimental fiction, and a detailed description of quiet domesticity that track more closely to the proto-literary modernism of George Eliot.  And it all added up to a huge, monster, gargantuan hit.

 Did you know that Alcott wrote like seven sequels to Little Women?  And that she never had another hit?  And that people make another film or tv version every few years?


Ben Hur (1880) by Lew Wallace (6/13/13)

The famous chariot race from the 1959 film version of Ben Hur

Book Review
Ben Hur
by Lew Wallace
p.1880

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  It's the 80s, ok? The 1880s?  Only 20 years until the 20th century.  Are you excited???? Can you feel it? Modernism is breathing hot breath on my neck- I can feel it coming.  Ben Hur these days is best known for the Chariot race from the 1959 film of the book, but the book itself is more then a chariot race.  Rather, its the full story of Judah Ben-Hur, the heir to the estates of a wealthy Jewish family, he is imprisoned and sent to the galleys after he accidentally dislodges a roof tile that happens to hit the Roman Governor in the head.



  While rowing in a Roman galley he is befriended by a Roman officer, who decides to adopt him as his son and heir on his death bed.  Hur returns to Jerusalem, where he bests his rival in the famous chariot race and then spends the rest of the book hanging out with Jesus.

  It is hard to believe, but I think Ben Hur is the first example of what was to become a popular 20th century genre called "Sword & Sandals."  It's a genre made most famous by film, Spartacus & Ben Hur and the religious spin on Ben Hur hardly removes it from that category.  Wallace is sure to give ample description to the creature comforts (and discomforts) of live under the Romans in the Holy Land.  The overall impact is to set the scene as surely as Thomas Hardy sets the scene in his fictionalized English countryside of Wessex.

  The most unusual aspect of Ben Hur is that it represents the revival of the historical novel, a genre which, by 1880, had been out of fashion for more then a half century.

The Portrait of a Lady (1880) by Henry James (7/6/13)

Book Review
The Portrait of a Lady
 by Henry James
p. 1880 serial us/uk
p. 1881 book

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

 Man I was so wrong about Henry James.   Now, having read what came before, I am in a position to appreciate James' role as the first modern novelist.  This much is clear from the intro where James discusses the position of the marriageable young woman as the central figure of the novel as an art form.  He's right, and the only other authors he name checks in this preface are George Eliot and d Ivan Turgenev, and, uh... he's a brilliant prose stylist, equally adept at describing inner thoughts and outward appearances.  His theme of New World vs. Old World in the context of the traditional marriage plot is as fresh thematically as anything- certainly more so then other proto-modernists like George Eliot let alone the Russians who are is his nearest competitors.

     And of course, Henry James is an American who conquered London with his work- the first such novelist to ever do this.  I believe this is the first novel I've read chronologically that describes specific characters as being "modern."  He's like a blast across the bow of the Victorian literary establishment.  I haven't read enough secondary works to be able to speak with authority on the subject but I saw it with my own eyes- one of the benefits of the chronological method I've taken with this project.

  Isabel Archer- she's so REAL.  Reading The Portrait of a Lady the reader is drawn into her charms in a way that escapes the stereotypes and cliches that dominate Victorian literary female protagonists.   At the same time, The Portrait of a Lady is a book calculated to appeal to that very same Audience- it is a book with a standard Victorian marraige plot.  Only here, in The Portrait of a Lady you get a lengthy second and third act where it is made painfully, painfully, painfully clear that Ms. Archer has made a bad choice.  And she pays for it, and there is no happy ending.

 Welcome to the Modern World- Henry James was there in the 1870s.

What Maisie Knew (1897) by Henry James (9/26/13)

Book Review
What Maisie Knew
by Henry James
p. 1897

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12


  What Maisie Knew is about the fall-out from a messy, messy divorce, written from the perspective of the daughter of the divorcing parents.  James starts What Maisie Knew with what must have then been a newish phenmenon: A split custody arrangement where she is to spend half her time with Dad and half her time with Mom.  Both Mom and Dad quickly remarry, and the first several chapters will ring true to anyone has been through a nasty divorce, with both parents jockeying for affection and trying to turn Maisie against the other parent.

 This, however does not last, instead first Mom loses interest, then Dad, and Maisie ends up spending time with her step-Parents, who have their own new relationships.  It's a sad but familiar plight, but James creates Maisie as a calm, thoughtful little person (it would be a stretch to call Maisie a child given her narrative prowess) who persists as a calm center in a maelstrom of failed relationships and sexual drama.

   Maisie's parents are thoroughly despicable people, feckless and "immoral" by the standards of the day.  Thankfully her step-parents are slightly better, particularly Sir Claude, who when he is not having an affair with Maidie's step-mother (Yes, the step-father and the step-mother hook up in What Maisie Knew) treats her with respect and dignity.

  In the end Maisie turns her back on all her assorted would-be step parents, parents and guardians and chooses the reliable Mrs. Wix and literally sails off into the sunset, leaving Sir Claude behind.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (10/8/13)

Nicole Kidman played the nanny character in Alejandro Amenabar loosely adapted film version, The Others (2001)  Did Nicole Kidman get the rights to every gd Henry James novel or what?

Book Review
The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James
p. 1898

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  In grade school there was this program called "Great Books" where we would read short stories and such and then have a discussion about the themes and issues raised by that story.  I particularly reading a Ray Bradbury short story about a boy living on Venus where it rained every day.  On the one day it is sunny he is victimized by bullies and locked in a closet, so he misses the sunny day.

  Reading The Turn of the Screw, I was reminded of that grade school experience, because James seems to have written The Turn of the Screw specifically to enthrall and dismay readers who want a novel to have a specific meaning.  At a basic level, The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story heavily influenced by the genre of gothic fiction, but at a more sophisticated level it is a story told by an unreliable narrator with multiple potential interpretations.

  The two central unresolved issues at the heart of The Turn of the Screw are first, are there actual ghosts involved or is the narrator/nanny insane; and if the ghosts are real, what is the horrible, unspoken secret that they are concealing.  Like a road trip, all the fun in The Turn of the Screw is the journey, because the end gives you no answers, unless you consider a dead child an "answer."

  This kind of narrative ambiguity obviously foreshadows a central concern of modernist literature, that of the collapse of a certain narrative, and it is totally clear while Henry James is so utterly beloved by literary critics.  He really gives you the best of both pre-modernist/Victorian fiction while including enough Modernist themes to keep the reader interested in the deeper meaning of his work.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (10/15/13)

Book Review
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
 by Mark Twain
p. 1885

Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12

  I was startled to discovery that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published a full 30 years after the Civil War ended.  Huckleberry Finn depicts the antebellum near south (Arkansas and southern Ohio figure prominently in the river driven plot.)  I won't say that Twain was nostalgic for that time and place, since the pages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are chock full of unflattering characteristics of the people of that period, but when you consider that this book was published the same year as Germinal by Zola, it's hard not to see Twain as a huge outlier on the fringes of contemporary (in the 1880s) literature.

  I don't think I'm being controversial by saying that Twain is much, much more important inside America then outside. Growing up I had the impression was a major literary figure world wide, but I believe I was mistaken.  Hell, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer didn't even make the list of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.  Seems like they should include both or neither, since Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer.

  In the final summation it is the American-ness of Huckleberry Finn that strikes me.  Other then Uncle Tom's Cabin, major American novelists of the mid/late 19th century like Hawthorne and Henry James are American only in that they have American characters and settings- their work is strictly within the confines of the English Novel.  Twain, with his use of argot and especially with his use of humor, is something different, a naturally American novelist writing outside the constraints of the literary mainstream of the time.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (10/17/13)


19th century American author Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening, a kind of American version of Madame Bovary.

Book Review
The Awakening
by Kate Chopin
p. 1899

  The Awakening by Kate Chopin is often called the American Madame Bovary.  That makes her the fourth and last of the national Bovaries.  Let's see- you've got the original by Flaubert, the Russian Anna Karenina by Tolstoy and the German Effi Briest.  Although The Awakening is the only book of the four to be written by an actual woman there is nothing about it that marks off the presence of a female authorial voice.  The Madame Bovary of the awakening is Edna Pontellier, a bored New Orleans house wife of a wealthy Creole stock market guy.  Edna is unhappy, but she doesn't know why, oh, it must be her husband whom she decides that she no longer loves.

 It is impossible to read any of the quartet of national Bovary novels without reflecting on my own experience.  I have heard the words of Bovary/Karenina/Briest/Pontellier from the mouth of my own wife, and I've been through the marriage therapy sessions that these women lacked, so I am intimately familiar with the thought process that leads a woman from a "happy" marriage to an "unhappy" marriage without any assistance from a disrespectful or malevolent husband.  That is something that all of these protagonist's share in common:  A husband who doesn't "do" anything to merit abandonment.

After reading all four novels I am left with the abiding conviction that all four husbands make the same mistake of treating their wives with respect.  It seems like if all four of these characters had been treated with a bit less respect, they might have stayed married.  Perhaps they would have been unhappy, but they all seem to be pretty unhappy post separation as well, so it hardly seems like an unfair swap.


Guide to 19th Century American Literature

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin ,1899,  9/26/13
Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885, 10/15/13
Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ,1880 , 7/16/13
Book Review; Ben Hur by Lew Wallace,1880  6/13/13
Book Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott,1869, 3/9/13
Book Review: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne 1860, 9/19/12
Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe 1852, 9/12/12
Book Review: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne,1851, 5/30/12
Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851, 8/27/12
Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables,1851,  6/21/12
Book Review: The Pit and The Pendulum  1842, 3/28/12
Book Review: The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe, 1844, 3/27/12
Book Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839, 3/20/12
Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826, 6/18/12


The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (4/26/18)

Image result for demi moore the scarlet letter
Demi Moore played Hester Pyrnne in the famously terrible 1995 movie version of The Scarlet Letter.
The Scarlet Letter (1850)
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Scarlet Letter is another fun read from high school English class.   Published in 1850, it is, I think, the first published American novel still widely read. The Last of the Mohicans was published two decades earlier, but I don't think people really read that book anymore. The Last of the Mohicans is also too long to be read in the context of a modern high school schedule, and The Scarlet Letter has almost the perfect length to be read in full by a high school student.

   Listening to the audiobook this time around, I was struck by at just how very dark The Scarlet Letter is.  It's one thing to know that the language is "darkly romantic," another to actually hear the language spoken aloud.  Were it not for the Puritan wilderness location, you could call The Scarlet Letter gothic. And even if The Scarlet Letter isn't technically gothic, you could forgiven for describing it that way.

   Honestly, it's hard to find much of the dialogue comical when heard aloud.  Again, I was struck that listening to The Scarlet Letter instead of reading it raised the possibility of a satirical element that I totally missed reading it in school.  Googling satire in The Scarlet Letter brings up a wide range of sources, so that's one point against high school me.  Like I said, hearing it, the humorous/satirical intent is apparent. 

Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau (7/9/18)

Book Review
Walden (1854)
by Henry David Thoreau

   Everyone reads Walden in high school in the United States. I was no different. At least I think so- before I started the audiobook version this time through I couldn't remember anything except the things everyone knows, Thoreau, in the woods, talking about self-reliance and nature.  Listening to the Audiobook is a real experience- memorable- like listening to a Spaulding Grey monologue.  Or a Thoreau monologue.  If I had to make one dinner party point about Thoreau is that he is very detailed about the mechanics of his solitary existence, down to the cent, on multiple occasions.  There is also the more familiar transcendalism which is more or less an American rewriting of the Hindu-Buddhist-Greek wisdom that was not well diffused in Anglo-American culture in the mid 19th century, and indeed Thoreau was one of the first on this side of the Atlantic to popularize that bevy of ideas.

  Withdrawal and retreat are at the heart of any thorough understanding of Hinduism or Buddhism, and Thoreau plainly is attempting to make those same points his American context.  I finished listening while staying at the Bee Keepers cottage outside Freeport, Maine.  The Airbnb we stayed in had a hardback copy on their living room table, and Thoreau was very much on my mind as we sat on the ocean shore and tried to identify sea-birds and ocean life.  Thoreau is still relevant today, particularly for those unfamiliar with the underlying Eastern wisdom that informs his work.

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville (8/7/19)

Book Review
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852)
by Herman Melville


    Herman Melville and Henry James are two American authors I've singled out for further reading- checking out the non canonical titles and revisiting the hits that I didn't quite get the first time around.  Basically, all of Henry James passed me by the first time through- I'm hoping that the Audiobook format might make the experience more fun than actually reading Henry James- which is really not very much fun at all.   With Melville I'm more focused on revisiting the non-canonical titles- Melville is one of the best examples of an artist moving into the canon after a lifetime of relative obscurity.   Melville had a couple of hits with his early books, basically travelogues of the sailing life circa the mid 19th century.  Moby Dick was his masterpiece but it was sorely underappreciated when it was released, and typically the story of Melville is that after it flopped he got a job as a customs inspector and lived in obscurity until his death.


  Not true! He continued to publish in a variety of formats after Moby Dick- including The Encantadas, a novella and two novels: Israel Potter and The Confidence Man.   Pierre; or The Ambiguities is an incredibly strange novel- combining elements of gothic fiction with a bildungsroman.  The elements are the wealthy scion of an ancient American family, his still attractive mother, who he calls "Sister," his fiance and a mysterious half-sister who emerges from the ether and throws Pierre Glendenning- the protagonist but not narrator- into a positive tizzy.

  There is no way to take Pierre at face value- only if the reader is familiar with the conventions of 18th century gothic fiction and the state of American literature in the early 19th century can one begin to develop an appreciation, and even then it takes.... some gumption.   Here, the Audiobook format was crucial- no way I would have ever sat down and read it as a physical book.

Typee (1846) by Herman Melville (11/19/19)

Image result for young herman melville
Young Herman Melville
Book Review
Typee (1846)
by Herman Melville


   The crazy fact about Herman Melville is that his first book, Typee, more or less a travelogue about his adventures as a cannibal captive on the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific, was a hit, and made him a popular and literary celebrity.  You can surmise that none of his later creative and critical failures, i.e. Moby Dick, would have been countenanced were it not for the success of this book.   In other words, Melville was a variation on the pop star who decides he or she only wants to be known for "serious" music, or the matinee idol equivalent in film.    This makes him not just a forerunner of literary modernism but also an example of "modern" celebrity culture and the impact it can have the creative life of the artist.

   Melville is one of the older writers I've singled out for further review in Audiobook format.  I think I read Typee in high school english- and I still have that paperback on my book shelf, but I enjoyed the last Melville book I listened to in Audio format, so Typee seemed like a natural choice.  I wasn't disappointed, Typee is perfect as an Audiobook, being a single narrator recounting of an adventure- akin to a story you might hear someone tell in person. 

   Other than his obessession with cannibalism- which ultimately proves to be a valid concern, Melville is pretty slim on culture specific details that might have shocked his mid 19th century readership.  He references slim, beautiful maidens who cavort in the nude, but doesn't appear to engage them in sexual encounters.  Still, considering he was writing before the 20th century rise of cultural relativism, he is progressive, inveighing against the influence of Christian missionaries and defending the island lifestyle on its own terms.

  857) by Herman Melville (10/4/19)

Book Review
The Confidence Man (1857)
 by Herman Melville

   Melville's last novel was The Confidence Man, published in 1857- after it tanked he retired from writing and spend the last 20 years of his life as a government employee.  The crazy thing about Melville and his literary career was not that he basically gave up because people didn't understand how great he was- but that he had an early period of success and fame based on his earliest travelogue style books- and THEN when he started publishing his epochal, canonical books, audiences deserted him and critics turn against him. 

   I've bought, started and promptly lost at least three different copies of The Confidence Man over the past two decades, so when I saw there was an Audiobook edition readily available I thought to take the plunge.  Most of The Confidence Man consists of a series of dialogues between characters in the form of flowery, rotund 19th century rhetoric, and that is the kind of the book that makes for much better listening than reading.  True, you can't effectively stop and look up references or vocabulary, but you also don't fall asleep reading pages of dry philosophical back and forth.

  The Confidence Man is filled with characters based on real life people in the 19th century, and it is apparently supposed to be, at some level, a satire and/or funny.  Listening, it struck me that The Confidence Man is as involved and elaborate as any mid 20th century work of "metafiction" or post-modernist literature, but again- listening as an Audiobook, I couldn't really stop and review passages and make notes etc, BUT I actually finished it,

   The Confidence Man of the title is not just a con-man in the modern sense of the word, instead he is literally obsessed with the word "confidence" and swindles people by playing on their desire to be perceived as trusting.  As he works a riverboat travelling the Mississippi, each chapter features a dialogue between the Confidence Man, who assumes a variety of different forms, and a mark, the object being to part the mark from some money.  Each dialogue revolves around different understandings of the word "confidence" and the allegorical approach- if not the specific subject of said allegory- is never far from the surface- this isn't a book where you lose yourself in the story.

Benito Cereno (1855) by Herman Melville (1/4/20)

Book Review
Benito Cereno (1855)
by Herman Melville

  Benito Cereno is a novella originally published in three installments in Putnam's Monthly in 1855, then published in book format as part of Melville's collection of short stories, The Piazza Tales (1866).   Cereno is a fictionalized account of a slave revolt on a Spanish ship actually captained by a man named Benito Cereno.  I'd never heard of it before, probably because The Piazza Tales was posthumously removed from the list of canonical works in Melville's bibliography after Billy Budd, his greatest work of short fiction, was published in 1920.  Thereafter, collections of short stories had to include Billy Budd, rendering The Piazza Tales obsolete.

   Benito Cereno is positively Conradian in its portrayal of the brutalities of slavery, and the plot of slave revolt whose very existence is supposed to be a secret.  Listening to the stand-alone Audiobook, I was struck by the proto-Conradian milieu and Melville's portrayal of African slaves as characters with intelligence, cunning and agency to spare.   Benito Cereno certainly deserves to be better known, but I would guess that is a victim of comparison to Billy Budd and Bartleby the Scrivener- the two shorter works by Melville that are read by almost every high school and college student of the English language in the United States.    

The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James (5/5/20)

Book Review
The Bostonians (1886)
 by Henry James

  I am six books into the work of Henry James, and I would still be hard pressed to make a coherent observation about his work.

What Maisie Knew  (1897)(Review 2013)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)(Review 2013)
The  Wings of the Dover (1902) (Review 2013)
The Ambassadors (1903)(Review 2013)
The Golden Bowl (1904)(Review 2013)

   I raced through his five picks from the 1001 Books list, grumbling throughout about the unpleasantness of the task.  Since 2013, I haven't felt the need to revisit my opinion.   My decision to revisit James was spurred by a quote I read from Cormac McCarthy from a 1986 New York Times interview:

McCarthy's style owes much to Faulkner's -- in its recondite vocabulary, punctuation, portentous rhetoric, use of dialect and concrete sense of the world -- a debt McCarthy doesn't dispute. "The ugly fact is books are made out of books," he says. "The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written." His list of those whom he calls the "good writers" -- Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- precludes anyone who doesn't "deal with issues of life and death." Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. "I don't understand them," he says. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."  (NEW YORK TIMES)
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) by Edgar Allan Poe (9/28/21)


Book Review
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)
by Edgar Allan Poe

  If you want to cast a cool, appraising eye towards the canon of 19th century American literature and specifically fiction, it's totally possible to argue that there isn't much there.  Yes, Henry James, but is he really an American writer?  In the middle of the 19th century there is Melville, of course, but it's impossible to ignore the fifty years it took for the American literary establishment to figure him out- which- let's face it, is a black eye. 

   Hawthorne, Alcott, Stowe are all must for students of 19th century American literature, but not really for the general reading audience in 2021.  James Fenimore Cooper hangs in there year after year but he isn't actually read.  That leaves Poe who was, like Melville, roundly ignored in the United States,  though it seems that it might be that Poe was the first American writer to be taken seriously outside of America. It's also worth considering for a moment that Poe actually continues to be cool and relevant, see the continued viability of a gothic aesthetic and the importance of Halloween in American culture- two subjects that more or less originate with Poe in several important facets.  

   My perception is that even though Pym is Poe's first novel- and his only novel- since the commercial failure of Pym required Poe to engage in a literary form of prostitution in order to survive- it isn't appreciated by contemporary American readers, even those well familiar with the prose and poetry of Poe.  There is no denying that first, Pym is a very strange book- more "Poe-ish" than you might expect from the title.  Second, it is worth mentioning that the other not-Henry James titan of 19th century American Literature, Herman Melville, appears to have been directly inspired by different components of Pym, particularly in Typee and Moby Dick.

    To be fair to the 1001 Books editors, Poe did rate threelistings in the original 1001 Books, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Purloined Letter and The Fall of the House of Usher- all of which are essentially short stories.  Maybe replace one of those with this book. 
   
   The fact that I agree with McCarthy is what made me revisit Henry James, and my opinion of him.  I thought perhaps an Audiobook might open him up a bit for me, if only because reading the hard copy has proved to be such a drag.   I chose The Bostonians because I'd read that it was James' "funniest" book- if there one thing that James is not, it is funny.  I started the Audiobook before the beginning of the pandemic, when I was still driving hundreds of hours a month, but had to abandon it now that I only listen to a few minutes of Audio a day.

   Instead, I checked out the Ebook from the library- lots of Henry James ebooks available, fyi.  I did find The Bostonians to be pretty funny.  It is said to be based on one of a number of relationships between Susan B. Anthony and young, female proteges.   The story revolves around Basil Ransom, a Mississippian gentleman forced to find his fortune in the north as a lawyer, Olive Chancellor (the Susan B. Anthony character) a young, wealthy, very single woman, and Chancellor's protege, Verena Tarrant, a gifted speaker from a grifting background.  

   


   

Blog Archive