429 BC

(Disaster follows when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin - Phaedra and Hippolytus 1815Crop of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1802), by the French neoclassical painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Louvre, Paris). The painting manages dramatically to squeeze in several elements of the plot: the youth expresses his resistance to Phaedra, even as the nurse whispers in her ear; meanwhile Theseus clenches his fist in rage.

The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.


The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)


Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan LibraryNew York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.


The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells


(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

 John Mills stars in the 1949 film version of the History of Mr Polly.John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive


“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.



Mark Twain


(A champion of common sense and nonsense casually delivers his colorful yarns, witty satires, and twisty dramas.)

KolmanRosenberg_lodi-farmhouse-porchCrop of a photograph of the front porch of a 200+ year old farmhouse in Lodi, Ohio, by Kolman Rosenberg.  Such a setting is perhaps the most agreeable for the telling of Twain’s rambling tales of American life and human foibles.  This photograph can be found on Kolman Rosenberg’s blog Photography Unposed.


Sitting with Mark Twain when he’s in a storytelling mood, we get to know the man—or at least he leads us to believe we get to know him. He lets us in on private jokes; he talks to us freely and without affected polish, perhaps puffing on his pipe in the middle of a sentence; and he doesn’t mind making clever offhand remarks about even the touchiest of matters. And, to reciprocate the casual friendship, we allow him to wander on tangents, even if it prevents him from ever getting to his point; and we don’t let on that we mind when he decides not to tell us the end of a story, or when he makes fun of something that we happen to like; and, especially, we just don’t get too critical with him in general.  Since Twain’s favorite literary pastime is to smirk at people who take themselves too seriously, when we take him too seriously the joke is on us!  Besides, the path of his narrative, though unpredictable, is as organic and spontaneous as a stream– who can criticize a stream?


The Hound of the Baskervilles

Arthur Conan Doyle


(The scientific minds of Holmes and Watson are tested by howls on the moor, the legend of a fiery hell-hound, and a giant pawprint next to a dead nobleman.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles bCrop of The Hound of the Baskervilles, an illustration by Matthew Stewart commissioned for the Easton Press edition of Doyle’s novel.  It is accompanied by the following quote from the book: “Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined with a flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face.”


A novel-length Sherlock Holmes mystery!  The readers of the Strand Magazine must have been delighted.  They must have vigorously discussed with each other the prospects of the case between installments.  Releasing a detective story by degrees has got to be risky, since the readers have so much time to figure everything out.  There are enough threads interwoven in this story, though, and enough minor details that must be incorporated into a solution, that I suspect almost everyone will be surprised at something in the denouement.  Besides, we would need a healthy dose of luck to solve the riddle ourselves, for there are crucial elements about which we can only guess during the narration.  These are revealed to us only after Holmes has discovered them and solved the case in his mind.  In this way, Doyle all but ensures that competition with the sleuth is beyond our grasp.

Although the most haunting aspect of the typical Sherlock Holmes case is nothing more than the dense fog of pipe smoke around the detective’s chair, Doyle did have an interest in spiritualism, and wrote a few books on the subject. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he combines these two interests by infusing the tale with a strong atmosphere of macabre otherworldliness. Probably more than the facts of the case or its solution, the damp darkness and chilling moans of the moor are likely to remain with us long after we have finished reading the book.


The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy


(The fortunes of a strong-willed hay-trusser prove to be as volatile as he is.)

HardyCasterbridgeHenchardAndSusan“Hay-trussing–?” said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. “O no.”  The first of Robert Barnes’s 20 illustrations for The Mayor of Casterbridge in the 1886 weekly magazine The Graphic, where the novel appeared between January-May 1886.  Here the protagonist, Michael Henchard, is asking whether there is local work available.  All 20 illustrations can be seen on The Victoria Web.


Michael Henchard is an unemployed field laborer who, under the influence of rum at a fair, impulsively starts to auction off his wife and baby daughter, to much laughter.  His wife stands.  A hush falls as a sailor actually puts five guineas on the table.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

But Henchard will not be shamed or threatened.  When he says something he means it!  And so minutes later he sits there blinking away his disbelief as Susan, with little Elizabeth-Jane, walks away with a stranger.  Thus begins The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.  Here we see how a person’s destiny is shaped by the interaction of external forces and internal qualities– the world and the self.  Take one part circumstance, add one part decision, repeat continually towards success or failure.


The Oregon Trail

Francis Parkman


(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)

AlfredJacobMiller-FortLaramieCrop of Fort Laramie, by Alfred Jacob Miller (1858-1860), painted from memory, as Miller had joined an 1837 expedition along the Oregon Trail.  This is the only painting of the fort, as no other artist had trekked there prior to 1840 when it was torn down.  Fort Laramie lay at the junction of the east-west Oregon Trail and a north-south Indian trail.  The Cheyenne and Sioux would camp outside the fort for trading purposes.  This painting can be found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):

“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”

So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue.  But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches.  Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition.  Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.


early poems

Matthew Arnold


(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).


“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.


The Song of Roland

(La Chanson de Roland)

anonymous (Turold?)

late 11th century

(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)

BattleOfRoncevaux Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778). Sir Roland’s death. From a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, that can be found at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal), a department of the National Library of France.

The year is 778.  The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn.  Roland will not.  He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal.  He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine.  They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book—a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories.  This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre—the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe


(Two slaves struggle mightily: one for her liberty, the other for his integrity.)

Group of SlavesCrop of A Group of Slaves leaving to Work in the Field on James Hopkinson’s Plantation in Edisto Island, New Hampshire, circa 1862 by Henry P. Moore. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).


This novel, the best selling book in the nineteenth century besides the Bible, is a remarkably forceful argument against the world’s most blatant form of widespread institutionalized violation of human rights. It is a collage of slave lives and lifestyles assembled with a thin glue of plot, all combining to urge our sympathies with the slaves and our antipathy to the injustice of their condition. It is an effort to bring free people to the realization that slaves are real persons who have the same sorts of spirits and minds as their masters, and yet they are and will always be subject to all sorts of anguish, suffering, and torture until slavery is abolished. “It is a comfort to hope,” Harriet Beecher Stowe writes in the Preface, “as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.” We can be thankful that the author’s hope came true– the book served phenomenally well the purpose for which Stowe designed it. Testament to this are its enormous sales, the several hasty rebuttal “slavery isn’t so bad” novels, and, perhaps more than anything else, the comment of Abraham Lincoln when he met the author, calling her the “little woman whose book started this big war”.


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