Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What "Gothic" Really Means

When we talk about the Romantic temperament, it isn't going to take us long to get to one of Romanticism's biggest contributions to American literature, the gothic horror story. Remember that Romanticism loves the supernatural, the sublime, and the exotic. Gothic literature can combine all of these elements into something that, well, collapses into a pond without a trace, meanwhile leaving us with our skin crawling and our heart rate elevated.

What does "gothic" mean, in this context? Originally, of course, it was a form of architecture and ornamentation, featuring flying buttresses and pointed windows with intricate stained glass in them. The actual term comes from the Goths, that Frankish tribe most notable for sacking Rome, and the architecture is a kind of misnomer; it really has little to do with the Gothic tribes. In literature, which is our area of interest, we have Horace Walpole to thank for the term and the beginning of the genre.

Walpole and The Castle of Otranto. In 1765, Walpole wrote (in England, so don't mistake him for American literature) a novel destined to become hugely popular. Its medieval setting, complete with castle, helpless females screaming in dark, vaulted cellars, and general air of creepy melancholy earned it the name "gothic." The name stuck, and thanks to the popularity of the novel, the genre flourished.

Most of this gothic fiction was bad beyond belief. The amazing ability of humans to glom onto a formula and milk it for all it's worth did not start with 1980's lawyer novels. Walpole's imitators had many elements in common, and here are a few of them. Please note how the correlate to the elements of literary Romanticism.

Ingredients of Gothic Fiction

  • exotic locations -- look for haunted moors, craggy landscapes, and lots of fog; thunderstorms are popular, too, preferably supernaturally strong ones

  • Medieval-ish settings -- castles and manor houses, often haunted, usually dark and foreboding, inhabited by people wearing old-fashioned clothing and looking deathly pale

  • helpless women -- think Kate Capshaw's character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. These women scream a lot, wear filmy nightgowns at inappropriate times, and faint inconveniently.

  • supernatural elements -- we prefer, of course, the spirits of the vengeful dead, but any spirits will do. Don't forget the malevolent house, the haunted bridge, and the demonic forest.

  • Various mysterious maladies -- think bizarre inherited diseases, curses from beyond the grave, dark family secrets, and all kinds of neuroses, twitches, and nervous tics

  • Strange and terrible events -- for a given value of strange and terrible, of course. The 19th C. version of gothic horror can't match modern horror movies, but a good gothic story will suggest all kinds of torments, physical, mental, spiritual.

  • Generalized anxiety -- the reader experiences sensations of suspense and dread
Gothic Writers to Cherish When we think about the gothic form in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe is always going to be first in our brains, at least until the early 20th C. when we have H.P. Lovecraft. Poe isn't the only person in the genre, however. Most 19th Century writers experimented with gothic stories, at least a little bit. Even though they're not traditionally considered "gothic," we can see how "Young Goodman Brown," "My Kinsman Major Molineaux," and even "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" have elements of the genre. What they lack in castles they more than make up for in atmosphere.
In Europe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and even Charles Dickens contribute to the genre. If you enjoy it, you will enjoy them. Don't forget Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or, at the end of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde's fabulous (and creepy) The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Thank You For Not Reading

The 19th Century brought about a flourishing of the literary arts in America, for a given value of "flourish." We have literary giants like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, who are still read because they're that good. Then we have the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Here's a short list of people we won't be reading, and why.

James Fenimore Cooper. Mark Twain wrote (to my mind) an absolutely hilarious piece called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," that catalogues the awful inconsistencies in Cooper's writing. You should read it. What you shouldn't read is Cooper himself. Caught up in the Romantic view of native Americans, he filled his novels with noble savages who were just short of Godlike in their abilities in the natural world. The main character of his Leatherstocking series is a white man raised by Indians. This person, Natty Bummpo by name, (and yes, it is just ridiculous), has been given amazing abilities by his adopted culture. What he hasn't got is a lick of consistency. He talks like a Boston brahmin in one sentence and like an ignorant redneck in the next. Cooper had a tin ear. I know there's a Fenimore Cooper society out there, but I won't be joining.

Herman Melville. I confess that I actually like Moby Dick, but that's because I enjoy digressions and description. Read Moby Dick and you could probably run a whaling ship yourself. The trouble with Melville is that he's inconsistent. Sometimes he rises to amazing heights of insight, as he does with Captain Ahab. Other times, he wallows in pathos, writes awkwardly, and forgets what he's doing. I put "Bartleby the Scrivener" on the same plane as Charlotte Temple. Melville matters, though, in who he influences. His picaresque novels inspire a whole generation of writers like, well, Mark Twain, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, and their ilk.

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mrs. Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, was a 19th Century blockbuster, and on the positive side, it brought to light the appalling conditions that slaves and their families faced. It humanized the slaves by showing whites that slaves had emotions that were just like white emotions. This came as a shock to some people, even in the North. The problem is that, on the negative side, the novel is both polemic and sentimental. Stowe also couldn't sustain the effort, and nothing else she wrote reached the pinnacle (if that's what it was) of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Oh, and she wrote in dialect, and did it better than Fenimore Coooper, although a ten-year-old would've been better than Cooper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Welcome to Romanticism!

The second weirdest thing to come out of Geneva after John Calvin was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We might think of him as the anti-Calvin.

Rousseau's life, spanning the years 1712-1778, was marked with controversy, both because of his philosophy and because he was apparently a really annoying person. In addition to fathering a tribe of illegitimate children for whom he took no responsibility, he quarreled with everybody, even people who agreed with him, sort of like Thomas Paine with better brains.

The Short Course in Rousseau looks like this:
  • Modern civilization is bad for people. It makes them soft, lazy, and unnatural.
  • People in their natural, uncivilized state, are inherently noble, for a given value of noble.
  • All natural appetites and impulses are good and healthy. Attempts to stifle these by "civilizing" are unhealthy and anti-human.
  • The only legitimate government is one that has the universal approval of the governed, acting according to their aggregate wishes. (And what planet was Rousseau on where this is even slightly likely?)
  • The truly noble, honest human is the savage, whose life has not been blighted by European culture.
  • Studying the arts and sciences just produces more culture, which creates weak people.
You can readily see that this is an antithetical reaction to the Enlightenment, with its glorification of science and reason, and its split of body and soul. Not only did Rousseau advocate a "whole" person, but that person was inherently good -- it was society that was bad. (The idea that good humans created this bad society is one that Rousseau comes back to again and again, but never really solves.) This good person flies in the face of Calvinist and Catholic teaching about original sin, and so, Rousseau spends much of his life in conflict with major religious forces.

Rousseau's philosophy increases in popularity after his death, and will inform much of American literature in the first half of the 19th Century. The concept of the noble savage is his, and it creates a renewed interest in the Native Americans, who are in short supply on the east coast of America and therefore safe to idealize. (Nobody suggests that those savages bashing brains on the frontier are noble. They must have been "civilized.") Literary romanticism, with its idealization of the natural world, the natural man, and raw, unfiltered emotions, comes straight from Rousseau. It will lead everywhere from Poe to Whitman, so buckle up.

Rousseau's major works include his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, (1750), wherein he explained how the study of arts and sciences perpetuates the corrupting influence of modern society. Anything that could remotely be labeled "cultural" was helping to perpetuate oppression of the individual. The notable exception to this was music, which Rousseau loved, performed, and wrote.

The Social Contract (1762) described the problem of government: we need to be organized somehow, but most of the ways to do it (monarchy for example) are wrong. Government needs to reflect the will of the people, banding together for the common good. Any person who wants can opt out of this system and be free of the government. I over-simplify, of course, but this is the gist. Note the emphasis on the individual, for whom the state exists. This opposes the more common European scheme, where the state exists for the individual to serve.

Emile, or On Education (1762) proposed the ideal education for a young man, one that was directed by his own natural inclinations rather than by a state intent on "civilizing" him and bringing his desires and expectations into line with conventional thought. In this polemical novel, Rousseau also asserts that women exist only to serve and please men, and bear children. Goodbye Enlightenment ideas about equality.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some Things to Think About . . .

. . . if you know there's a test coming. Yes, here are some ideas that might help you think about the essay portion of next week's test. The opinions are my own, not something I want you to spout back, as you well know.

Ben Franklin and women: Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is the one who had the most forward-looking attitude about women. From his early Silence Dogood letters, through the "Polly Baker" satire, and all the way to his abolitionist activities at the end of the century, Franklin affirms that women have just as much ability to reason, learn, and be productive intellectuals as men have. In fact, he asserts that the reason women seem preoccupied with trivia is because they aren't encouraged to read and think and wrestle with bigger issues. Abigail Adams agrees with him; Phillis Wheatley is evidence for his point of view, and yet, the Revolution doesn't improve conditions for women at all. Why do you suppose that was?

John Locke and human worth: How can a nation that proclaims "liberty and justice for all," allow the ownership of slaves? Are the Founding Fathers being hypocritical, or expedient, or what? This is one of those questions that plagues me, because I think they really did not see Africans and women as "people" in the Lockian sense, and THAT raises a whole 'nother set of issues, doesn't it?

Slave narratives and captivity narratives -- Once again, we have similarities that, if people were paying attention, would have screamed "Slavery is wrong!" Like Mary Rowlandson and the Puritans before his time, Olaudah Equiano compares himself and his fellow slaves to the Jews in Egypt. His compares his journey to the journey of the children of Israel out of slavery and into freedom. As some people pointed out in class, it's not quite the same thing, though. Even though Equiano gains his freedom, he doesn't get to go home. His family, his culture, his whole world is gone. It would be wise to be able to compare the two genres, and contrast them, too.

Thomas Jefferson and John Locke: Go ahead. Make my day. Explain how Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is based in Locke's philosophy. This is so easy, it's like taking back the country from the British.

Jonathan Edwards and God: While we're explaining things, it might be good to think about how Jonathan Edwards, that uber-Puritan, that throwback to the austere faith of his fathers, was also a revolutionary. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is certainly a hellfire and brimstone sermon, but it's not conventionally Puritan because of the freedom of choice it offers. What does that mean, do you think? Is Edwards going soft? Is Puritanism changing? Has somebody figured out that Calvinism has huge problems? Inquiring minds want to know.

Jefferson and the aristocrats: Yes, I almost typed "Aristocats," which was a Disney movie, I think. Jefferson advoated an aristocracy of ability, not birth. What do you think he meant? I wonder what talents we need now, to create an aristocracy of merit. We tend to confuse "celebrity" with aristocracy, so we have famous people who are of absolutely no benefit to society. We have very talented, helpful people who cannot get anything done for our society because they aren't famous, or because their ideas are unpopular. Jefferson would, I think, be spinning in his grave if he could see who Americans venerate now. What has changed that makes us value Paris Hilton, say, as some sort of aristocrat?

Wheatley and poetry -- you'd better believe you're going to have to explain what makes her a.) neo-classical and b.) derivative.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Literary Tour -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, MA, and you can tour his birthplace. Normally I think the "birthplace" tours are stupid. I mean, what possible influence can a place of birth have on a writer, unless that writer is born, say, on the back seat of a Greyhound bus, or in a royal bed somewhere. What does it matter?

In Hawthorne's case, though, I have to make an exception. His great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, was one of the Puritans to come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony after the first wave of colonists. He quickly became a judge in Salem, and if the Puritans had been given to levity at all, his name would have been Hanging Bill. He was widely known for the harsh penalties he doled out. His son, John, was one of the judges in the witch trials, and not surprisingly, given who his father was, the only judge who never repented of his actions. Not a snuggly family.

By the time Nathaniel's father, Nathaniel Sr., came along, the family was in rather reduced circumstances, and Nathaniel Sr. was the captain of a merchant ship. He died in Suriname when his son was quite young, and from then on, the family lived in a variety of places in New England, with a variety of relatives. None of them stuck in Nathaniel's mind quite like Salem.

When he was in his twenties, Hawthorne added the "w" to his name for reasons he declined to specify, at least anywhere we can find them. Most people feel he was trying to distance himself from his Puritan ancestors and their harsh ideas about justice. If this was the case, he certainly didn't avoid the topic of Salem, Puritanical hypocrisy, or injustice masquerading as morality. Most of his short stories and novels deal with some form of those topics.

A lot of high school students have to read The Scarlet Letter, and because they are young and (we hope) haven't had much experience of a.) adultery, b.) Puritans, and c.) subtle psychological torture, they miss most of the fine points. The short story "Young Goodman Brown," also a high school favorite, shares many of these same components, with a large dollop of allegory thrown in for free. Hawthorne was very gifted at subtle plot gestures, which is why people still read him.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Second Question from Boston

This one's going to be fun. Imagine that we are building a library NOW for people to use to educate themselves. Nominate a book for this library and explain why it should be included. If someone who posted before you chooses "your" book, then choose another one. It can be a book from anywhere, any time period, including our own. And, just to steal everyone's thunder, I'm going to go first. Bwahahahahaha.

Wrestling With the Big Conundrum

. . . Which sounds a bit unnerving, but oh, well. Here's some more food for thought, but it's not Thursday's Question, yet. It's kind of hard not to notice that just about every writer that we study, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson, is a New Englander, either by birth or by virtue of moving here shortly thereafter. What gives?

I have some theories, but that's all they are. I think the first one goes back to the Puritans' love for education and their need for an educated clergy. They didn't just let anybody preach who might have felt led to do so. Preachers had to have a college education, so they could rightly instruct the flock. As a matter of fact, one popular speaker at Old North Church (Second Church) was denied the pulpit because he had not been sufficiently educated.

These people founded Harvard, remember, when they were still swatting Native Americans with one hand and starving with the other. I don't think that education equals writing NOW, but it surely did then, and the New Englanders had the possibly correct view that before you could spill wisdom OUT of your brain, you had to put some IN.

In any event, there's an amazing group of writers I can find here in Boston and the nearby areas. In addition to our Revolutionaries, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, we will later find Nathaniel Hawthorne (a descendant of one of the Salem judges), Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May, Ralph W. Emerson in Concord, and his friend Henry David Thoreau. When we expand our writers to the Northeast, it includes almost everybody -- Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving. The only person south of the Mason-Dixon Line is Edgar Allan Poe.

While I think the Harvard influence accounts for some of it, I suspect that the focus of attention in the southern states was different. For one thing, the communities south of Philadelphia were smaller (with the exception of Charleston, SC), and more agricultural. For another, people weren't as likely to be educated, or to own many books beside the Bible. Obviously there were exceptions, particularly in Virginia and South Carolina, but the general thrust of intellectual life in the south is not literary.

And there's this. If you're going to enslave people, you can't think about it too much. Slavery becomes a deterrent to intellectual growth, and that includes writing and literary effort, because it is very hard to support the inhumane treatment of humans, if one spends any time at all thinking about it. The northern colonies relinquished slavery pretty quickly, in part, at least, because they didn't have huge farms that needed armies of farmworkers. The south felt that it couldn't let go of the free labor. I'm not saying this was the only literary difference, but it has to be on the table.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Adams' Library and other Curiosities

The main reading room at the Boston Public Library may be the most wonderful space for study that I've ever seen. I'm stunned that I'm not still there. . . Once again, this is not my photo. I brought my digital camera and forgot the cable that attaches to the computer. Sigh. My pics will show up eventually.

The thing that took me to the BPL is that it houses 2,700 volumes of John Adams' 3,500 volume personal library. Mind you, it's not the easiest thing in the world to find. It's on the third floor in the Rare Book and Manuscript Room, a beautifully appointed space at the end of a maze of seemingly dead-end corridors and tatty storage areas. Odd beyond odd.

Why is Adams' library so important? Because information is important, that's why, and in Adams' day, books were the only avenue to much of that information. We are so used to multiple channels of learning -- texts, video, Internet, even teachers -- we forget that in the 18th Century, if you wanted to learn about anything, you needed a book. Since lending libraries wouldn't be around for another 200 years, you needed to OWN the book, or have access to someone willing to loan you such a valuable thing.

Books, even those published in America, were expensive to produce. People didn't waste publishing resources on trivia, so you would not see copies of, say, Lusty Witches of Salem. What almost every household did have was a Bible, and often some books of sermons, and maybe a translation of a Latin rhetorician, to teach logic. After that, the more wealthy households would have books of poetry from England and France, works of major Roman thinkers like Cicero and Cato, and sometimes the philosophical volumes of Rousseau, Locke, and Kant.

Reading these works would be an education in itself, and true education was impossible without access to books. This is why Benjamin Franklin's ready access to a library is so important. He needs to know so many things, and books are his only avenue for finding them. Remember, his father didn't keep him in school, so he absolutely had to self-educate.

Adams, being a lawyer, had a somewhat specialized library of law books, many of whom he bought from the estate of his foremost law professor. He also had some amazingly interesting books that he commented on extensively in the margins. The surprising member of this collection? A very heavily annotated copy of An Historical and Moral View of the Progress of the French Revolution, by Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Wallstonecraft (later) Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein. That Adams owned and extensively used this volume is astounding, given Wallstonecraft's well-known assertions that women were intellectually equal to men and should be given equal education and civil rights.

I would like to see what Adams wrote in the margins of this book, but I lack the nerve. Anyone at all can request access to Adam's books; you only have to know the name of the book and have a plausible reason for wanting to study it. If it's not out touring as part of an exhibit, the staff will bring it to you in a small reading room, and keep a beady eye on you while you use it. I couldn't bring myself to do this, because curiosity isn't a good enough reason to be allowed to handle a book, and I wasn't really going to lie about being an Adams' scholar.

Monday, October 5, 2009

First Question From Boston

Let's have a discussion over time and space, shall we? Two questions are burning through my brain as I try to navigate Boston (and BTW, a 350-year-old city and cars are a bad mix. I'm so glad we didn't try to rent one, but it does leave us at the mercy of cabdrivers. I digress.)

My first question occurs as I look at the neighborhood where Phillis Wheatley grew up, and where her statue is. (This is NOT my photo. Yet.) Was it exploitative of her "family" to give her a classical education and then publish her poetry as an African muse? True, they didn't make money from the transaction, but does that make it okay? If it is, why? If it's not, why?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More Books We Will Not Read -- If We Have Good Sense

The 18th C. in America sees the rise of writing as entertainment, not just a means of expressing religious or political views. True, most of this writing still has a didactic purpose, but it's a lot more creative than it used to be. At the absolute top of the writing pile, we have Benjamin Franklin, whose lucid prose makes him still a delight to read. At the bottom of the pile, we have a whole scrum of writers you've never heard of, and with good reason. They're awful. Here are a few of them.

Ebenezer Cook -- poet, sort of. His book-length poem satirized the colonists for being, in the words of Swift, "nasty, brutish, and short." The book was called The Sot-Weed Factor, and might possibly be the first treatise that blames tobacco for everything.

Thomas Godfrey -- playwright, alas. His play, The Prince of Parthia, has been hailed as the first drama in America. He modeled it on Shakespeare, but had none of the Bard's talent, so, alas, it is putrid.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge -- novelist, in the worst way. Brackenridge considered himself a poet, dramatist, novelist, lawyer, and judge. We will hope that he was better in the latter professions than he was in the former. His novel, Modern Chivalry ran to four volumes, and has been read by a total of six graduate students since. All of them renounced academe and became sports-management consultants. (This would be him, at right.)

Joel Barlow -- poet, doubtful. Horrible, horrible poet. His The Columbiad was considered awful in its own day, even, and proves that long poems featuring Christopher Columbus are usually a mistake.

Royall Tyler -- playwright and actor, responsible for the bad reputations of both. His propagandistic play, The Contrast, did okay for the time, but now is widely considered unreadable. Tyler was apparently too busy seducing the wives, daughters, sisters, and friends of his associates to spend much time writing. He was attracted to John and Abigail Adams' daughter, and they acted swiftly to boot him from their company.

Susanna Rowson -- novelist, the same way Jonathan Edwards is a comedian. An actress, writer, and later schoolmistress, Rowson felt her novel, Charlotte Temple, would protect young women from giving in to the blandishments of people like Royall Tyler. The book features a young woman who, seduced and abandoned by a jerk, dies in disgrace and poverty. Naturally, this was a huge best seller. For YEARS. Go figure.