stories

Mark Twain

1865-1890

(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?

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

1886

(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.

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early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(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.

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Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste… or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his “lesser”, although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot’s ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one’s tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

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A Sand County Almanac

 Aldo Leopold

1948

(An ecologist contemplates and celebrates the land, and recommends an expansion of our moral world.)

 LeopoldArcherAldo Leopold in Mexico, 1938.  Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin

Today it is routine in courses on ecology, forestry, conservation, environmental philosophy or land use, to introduce three personalities as the fathers of modern concern for nature, the three voices that first and most strongly urged us to enlarge our conception of what in this world is a proper object of moral consideration:  Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.  Contemporary American (and to some extent world) culture has been impacted by A Sand County Almanac, as by Thoreau’s Walden, to such an extent that we cannot yet begin to assess it.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we as a culture have still not attended to the two main lessons A Sand County Almanac would teach us.

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The Travels

Marco Polo

(with Rustichello of Pisa)

1299

(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).

 Caravan_Marco_PoloMarco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France

 

We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards.  He dictated– apparently from memory– his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa.  No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious.  I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked.  I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch.  It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.

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Go Down, Moses

William Faulkner

1942

(Vivid tales from the deeply rooted McCaslin family of Mississippi explore the human desire to dominate others.)

BoydSaundersEtchingCropCrop of an etching by Boyd Saunders illustrating Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  Courtesy of HottyToddy.com

 

Faulkner raises a novel, especially Go Down, Moses, like a mountain range.  A small peak here, another one some indefinite distance to the side but nearer to the viewer, another apparently between them but actually much further in the distance.  The slopes are irregular in grade, no shape is symmetrical, no sequence predictable.  The greatest of the mountains has flanking foothills—here at least is order and intelligibility!  One is prepared for the most gigantic landforms.  Actually all of them, though apparently haphazardly arranged, are obviously part of a single landscape, each part depending on those around it for its qualities and significance.  The suggestion that each mountain be viewed as an isolated individual, despite distinctions of personality and structure, is ridiculous.  One best realizes this, perhaps, by receding somewhat from the view.  For when close to it, when stumbling over craggy outcrops and struggling to circumvent gorges, the scene seems hopelessly chaotic and fragmented.  Such is Go Down, Moses, a challenging and awesome range of tales.

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Tom Jones

Henry Fielding

1749

(Tom really wants to be good for the sake of his love Sophia, but his nature keeps getting in the way!)

TomJonesMovie1963Albert Finney as Tom Jones, and Susannah York as Sophia Western, in Tony Richardson’s 1963 film adaptation. Courtesy of the British Film Institute.

 

It is prudent to be morally pure– there can be weighty unseen consequences to any moral failure.  Fielding’s signature novel has this ponderous theme, and yet manages not to be at all heavy-handed but funny, colloquial, at times bawdy, ironic, rollicking.  The theme is kicked here and there and tossed around like a ball, but it is pervasive nonetheless– throughout this History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, from his birth to the point at which he finally comes to the beginning of what promises to be a good and happy life with Sophia, all of Tom’s sundry dilemmas and anguishes are a result of his own moral weakness.  Although an otherwise upstanding and honorable individual, poor Tom cannot seem to surmount two kinds of temptation: to lust and to folly.  He repeatedly places himself into compromising situations with women that– even if Fielding’s presentation of them makes us smirk– only prove disastrous to him through his family or his beloved.  Also, to achieve his goals he often resorts to schemes that involve some deceit, and that always backfire on him in the worst way imaginable.  We see Tom, and rightly so, as a victim of Fortune throughout the book; but he lays himself open to Fortune’s whims by his actions, and so he has lured his own fate.  No elements of the plot of this book are foreign to this theme.

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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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Walden

Henry David Thoreau

1854

(A philosopher and naturalist returns from the woods to deliver a message: Wake Up! Think! Live Meaningfully!)

Courtesy of Walden Pond State ReservationWalden Pond (Photo courtesy of Walden Pond State Reservation)
 

The account of Thoreau’s temporary retreat from civilization and the philosophy he developed and tested during that time, is perhaps the greatest single work in American literature.  I say this not so much because he was right, not because he got the nature of the cosmos straighter than this or that thinker.  Rather, this work is great—I say perhaps the greatest our country has produced—primarily because in it we see a man who is awake.  It is not what he gets right that is earthshattering here, but rather the fact that he sees that there is a right to be gotten, so to speak, and that he bursts the strictures of convention to strive for it, and that he so eloquently exhorts us to do the same.  Thoreau here is a Crusader for examining our lives, for living well, for life itself!  In a world of so many petty tensions, so many lures into complexity and distraction which decompose any central vision or purpose in our lives, Thoreau opens his eyes, looks about him, and realizes the great harm we are slipping into unaware.  He sees the “quiet desperation” of people about him, and the empty catalog of assumptions and dry truths they (we!) harbor in place of a real, living, mission statement.  He, as if by a sudden revelation, is horrified at the masses of humans like lemmings who are content to follow the path over the cliff into the sea of meaningless existence simply because the way is worn clean and so is the easiest to tread.

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