Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1852

(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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Cimarron

Edna Ferber

1930

(The Oklahoma land rush of 1889 gives Yancey Cravat an opportunity to rescue his wife from civilized mediocrity, and head west for the untamed life of the pioneer.)

XiangZhangOklahomaLandRush1893Oklahoma Land Rush 1893, by contemporary Chinese-American painter Xiang Zhang.  This painting can be found in his online gallery.

Yancey Cravat is the Cimarron—the wild one, like an aimless river or a jousting bighorn sheep.  He may tote legal volumes as easily as a gun, and be as quick with a Shakespeare quote as with a trigger; and yes, he’s a lawyer and the editor of a socially active newspaper… but this is no milktoast city boy.  This is Buffalo-Head, the tall, gruff, steel-eyed pioneer for whom three years in the same place or a single day without some sort of risk or conflict is evidently his idea of hell.  And, no doubt, the wife of such a one is bound to be some kind of woman: Sabra, a sharp, spirited, strong, self-sufficient saber of a woman.  In fact, although most assessments of this book will tell you that its permanence lies in its presentation to the world of the unforgettable Yancey Cravat, who is it that ties the book together?  Whom does the narrative follow, when Yancey’s itchy traveling bone takes him to Alaska or the Spanish-American war?  Not him, but the determined, toiling Sabra.  Granted, she lacks the explosive flash of her husband– her way is much too pragmatic to put her in much danger or make her many enemies.  But she is really the central character of the book, the one who grows, the one who succeeds in adapting herself to the various jolting cultural shifts that get thrown into her path by the errant Yancey, or by her son, or by the discovery of oil.  At first entry into the fledgling land rush town of Osage, Oklahoma, fresh from the overprotection of her family the proper Venables of Wichita, she breaks into sobs when kissed by a stranger on the street.  But give her eight or nine years, and she’s riding in the middle of the night into an Indian reservation during a mescal ceremony and demanding that her unconscious son be thrown onto her cart so she can bring him home.  But of course, yes, we do want to hear about Yancey, despite… or maybe partly because of… his refusal to stick around.  He’s idealistic, imposing, and indomitable.  Take one particular tent meeting, for instance. In the course of giving a sermon, he manages to work in a self-defense killing—yes, the actual killing, not the story of a killing.  And when warned that his pro-Indian editorials are going to get him killed, his reply is simply the unearthly death-scream of the Cherokee.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Baroness Emmuska Orczy

1905

(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)

ScarletPimpernel_IanMcKellenIan McKellen as the French inspector Chauvelin in the 1982 London Films production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which also starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.  This and other stills can be found at the blog Of Trims and Frills and Furbelows.  

 

Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you.  This is no Austen or Brontë novel.  It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson.  What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks!  Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere.  Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society.  The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity.  But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.

Sappho’s poetic fragments

Sappho

7th-6th centuries BC

(The tenth muse expresses beauty, love, and the contents of her heart.)

sappho1

Detail from “Woman with wax tablets and stylus”, a fresco from about 50 AD, discovered in Pompei in 1760, commonly called “Sappho”.  Courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

 

Αιαι.  Aiai!  If only our dinner hosts still upheld the custom of ordering beautiful recitations over the wine!  So it was in the days when some, at least, still believed in the Muses.  On one of these evenings, Solon the Athenian stopped his nephew Execestides, who had just sung a song.  “Teach it to me,” he said.  Then he turned to an inquiring fellow guest.  “I want to learn it and die.” (Aelian, in Stobaeus’ Anthology 29.58).  The ancients spoke of only one poet in such tones: Sappho (Σαπφώ, spelled in her dialect Ψάπφω).  Strabo called her the greatest poetess (Geography 13.617).  Her people the Mytilenaeans engraved her on their coins (Pollux, Vocabulary 9.84).  Plato called her the tenth muse (Palatine Anthology 9.506).  We can surmise, then, how precious her works must have been to these many admirers through the centuries, these classical devotees of expression and imagery.  Once, a volume of her poetry was taken from the town hall of Syracuse.  “How sorely this stolen Sappho was missed,” moaned Cicero, “is almost more than words can tell” (Orations against Verres 2.4.57).  Who would have thought that anything could even “almost” leave our eloquent Tully at a loss for words!  But just imagine how his tongue would have failed him if not just one volume but her entire works had been stolen, and not just from a town library but from the whole world!  For we are in this very state today, by some unhappy accident of history.  All we have of her nine books of poetry are a couple hundred fragments, most of them mere words or phrases that scholars have gleaned painstakingly from quotations throughout Greek and Latin literature.  A great irony lies in the epitaph Pinytus wrote for her, whose promise has sadly failed:  “This tomb hath the bones and the dumb name of Sappho, but her wise utterances are immortal” (Palatine Anthology 7.16).

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Whose Body?

Dorothy L. Sayers

1923

(A financier goes missing and a lookalike is found dead in a bathtub.  The easygoing Lord Peter Wimsey searches for the connection.)

wimseyIan Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1970s BBC miniseries (www.popmatters.com)

 

As troubling as murder is in our society, more of them happen on bookstore shelves than anywhere else, and millions of apparently peaceful people pay plenty of money to read about them, as if it were a pity that they don’t happen more often.  I have casually wondered why.  Probably it is an example of entertainment by extremity: if conflict is the heart of any good story, surely lots of people will go for people killing each other, since you can’t get more conflictual than that.  This doesn’t really answer the question, though—it just passes the buck from fascination with murder to fascination with conflict in general.  But of course we humans are inherently scenario-building, personality-scrutinizing, lie-detecting social beings.  Human success has always depended on figuring other people out.  The fact that one of the characters in such stories is likely to be the murderer is probably a large part of the draw.  Trying to solve a murder mystery flexes the same mental muscles that we use for everyday social problem-solving and monitoring.  And a murder is, again, more likely to catch our attention than any other breach of social mores.  The authors make the stakes so high to ensure our attention.  Not everyone goes in for these books, of course, which is simply because our society provides us with a variety of different ways to address basic human concerns.  Take an EEG of a video gamer, sports follower, or romance reader at their respective hobbies.  I suspect they are scratching the same itches in different ways.

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July’s People

Nadine Gordimer

1981

(A white South African family in danger of racial violence flees to a village under the protection of their black servant.)

LukeKgatitsoe1986Luke Kgatitsoe, Magopa, South Africa, 1986 (photo by David Goldblatt)

 

You like to have some cup of tea?—

She runs.

This is the novel.  Rather, between these two lines lies the novel, and these two (the first and last lines of the novel) are the tail ends of two realities that rest on either side of the novel and overlap within it.  The pre-novel reality is a comfortable family in South Africa under apartheid, served by a black man July (I almost wrote “Friday”), “as his kind has always done for their kind”.  The post-novel reality is an unwritten future, a frenzied sprint to the unknown, where the white mother, in some ways the central figure of the family, flees either to her violent death or to her salvation.  Which of these she finds is not known, was not written, never came to pass.  The novel is not about an ending, and so this is not a spoiler.  The novel is about the boiling metamorphosis in process.  As the novel’s frontispiece quote by Antonio Gramsci indicates, the goal is to portray the “morbid symptoms” of a time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.  The first line is the old that is dying, and the last line is the failing to be born of the new.  In a terseness and simplicity of prose not unlike that of her countryman Alan Paton, the eventual Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer unwraps the space between these two lines, guiding us through the development from one into the other.

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