Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Not Your Father's Beatitude

It's comforting to know that not everyone looked at the 1950's and said, "What a great decade!"  We have Congress, lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy, seeing Commies behind every rock and protecting American freedom by forcing people to sign "loyalty oaths."  We have society clamping down again, after it loosened up a bit to accomodate, well, war.  We have African-Americans agitating for the same freedoms at home that they enjoyed in the rest of the world (see "war" above).  We have Elvis.

In short, a lot of the violence and social upheaval that boiled over in the 1960's happened because it was all bottled up in the pressure-cooker of the 1950's.  I'm not going to repeat John Clellon Holmes here; I'm going to recommend that you read him for yourselves, by clicking here for the article he published in the New York Times in 1952, characterizing his tribe. 

Some of that tribe included Allen Ginsberg, (in the hat at right), and Jack Kerouac, (the man on Ginsberg's right).  The other members you may know are Gary Snyder, the poet, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where a lot of poetry and literary rebellion happened.

The interesting thing about the Beats is that they were non-conformists who non-conformed in the same ways.  Most of them were gay, or bisexual, they all drank to -- here comes an understatement -- excess, recreational pharmaceuticals were their chosen path to spiritual enlightenment, and they disavowed materialism, stealing only when they absolutely had to.

And they wrote.  Dear whiz, how they wrote.  Poetry, essays, novels -- it all flowed from them like a stream, and like a stream, there's quite a bit floating around in there that you wouldn't want to encounter on a full stomach.  They also captured, in all of its unresolved anguish, the disillusionment of their generation.  They didn't package it for mass consumption; they didn't WANT mass consumption.  They wanted to be left alone to tell the truth as they saw it.  This was not a popular activity in mid-century America.

Thing is, they were right about so much of it.  Mainstream America wallowed in materialism, unthinking hawkishness, shallow intellectual life, and bland, watered-down spiritualilty. (Even as I write this, part of me thinks, "And this has changed, how?")

The telling of their own inconvenient truth produced no small measure of persecution. They were hauled into court on obscenity charges.  They had many bad trips, and I don't mean to Atlantic City.  They took involuntary vacations in mental institutions.  They occasionally died young.  Their influence, though, spread throughout a generation, and echoes down to our own.  Not so many people have read Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," but a LOT of people have listened to Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, U2, Rage Against the Machine,  and dozens of other musicians who trace their roots to the Beats.

Like lots of people who live fast and die young, the Beats inspired hero-worship and beatification (that means elevation to sainthood).  The truth is a lot more complicated, because like most of us, the good and bad in them are intertwined.  Some of those who made it out, Ginsberg among them, felt later that they'd done unintentional harm to thousands of people in the 1960's who bought into the philosophical hedonism and didn't realize the addictions, poverty, and disenfranchisement they were also buying.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Drama Queens (and Kings)

The Twentieth Century turned out to be a heyday for American drama. The theater had languished for a long time under a bad reputation and worse publicity. American playwrights didn't do themselves any favors, either. Think about those guys in the 18th Century -- remember any of them? There's a reason for that.
But after World War I, America changed, dramatically speaking. It loosened up a bit. It began to realize the artistic value of live theater, and theater began to attract some lively minds.
The first of these was Eugene O'Neill (photo at right, thank you Library of Congress). O'Neill is hard to classify, so we won't try -- his work is insightful, deeply true to human psychology, and sometimes borders on the surreal. His play The Emperor Jones was one of the first times a literary white person used black people in serious drama. His 1920 play Beyond the Horizon won a Pulitzer Prize. Other successes included Desire Under the Elms, Ah, Wilderness!, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
For generations, high school students have been forced to read and over-analyze Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie, and perhaps have missed the depth and power of this playwright. Williams created plays that stood on the strength of their characters and the subtle tensions that require the audience to pay attention. Many of his plays were made into wildly successful films, and they include A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (my favorite), Suddenly Last Summer, and Camino Real.
Among the great tragedies of American Literature is the death of Lorrainne Hansberry of cancer at the age of 34. This talented playwright created A Raisin in the Sun, a play loosely based on
her family's experience of trying to move into an all-white Chicago neighborhood. The title comes, of course, from Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred," and could be used to describe the attitude of the family matriarch, Lena Younger, as she determinedly makes a down payment on a house in a neighborhood that she believes will be happier for everyone. Hansberry was the first African-American on Broadway, with a black producer and a black cast, which included Sidney Portier playing Walter Younger. The play was a huge success, and has been adapted for film several times, once starring Danny Glover.

Arthur Miller unwittingly provided the view of the Salem witch trials that everyone remembers. His play, The Crucible has been made into a film, and his characters have superseded the historical ones in almost every way. If you don't believe me, remember how convoluted the discussion of the witch trials was last fall, as we tried to sort out what was history and what was Miller. He also wrote Death of a Salesman, and other plays that have since been made into films. Miller wrote drama for the radio, a challenging medium, since the plot had to be carried by voice alone -- no movement, appearance, facial expression, or stage direction.

Drama continues to be a fertile field for American writers. There's something about live performances, with their potential for great success or merely great suckage, that draws audiences. In a movie, everything has been smoothed out and made perfect; in a live performance, the chemistry (or lack of it) is happening right before you -- you're watching something be created in the moment. Long live live theater!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lumps in the Melting Pot

" . . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

One of the ironies, not to say tragedies, of the 21st Century is that Americans have forgotten their immigrant past. We can read Emma Lazarus' inscription on the Statue of Liberty and think, even if we don't say, "We've got enough of those, thanks." We utterly forget that most of us have ancestors who were probably part of the "tired, poor, huddled masses."

Now, it is quite true that a number of these folks came and huddled over here, mostly as wretched as they were at home, only here they were free to starve in a democratic republic. Some of these, however, brought with them deep memories of their cultural tradtions (which were once ours), and fresh ways of expressing those memories. They wrote, published, failed to starve, and thus did what we call "enriching the local culture."

We can debate whether this is "American" literature, since it is written by people who didn't start out as "American." Interestingly enough, this forms the heart of the debate we had last fall when we started this adventure -- can we count people who aren't "American" by birth?

My answer, of course, is "yes!" I mean, Saul Bellow, for instance, came from Canada to Chicago when he was what? nine? He grew up in American culture. Even people who didn't grow up in the culture appreciated the freedom of expression that it gave, and continues to give, them. Consider the list that includes Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Vladimir Nabokov, Isabel Allende, Ayn Rand, and newer writers like Elmaz Abinader, Chimamanda Adichie, Edwidge Danticat. A bunch of other writers are American by birth, but strongly identified with their parents' countries of origin. Amy Tan falls in this group, along with Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Valdez and a host of others. Each one of them (and there are scores of others) not only brings his or her orignial national and ethnic heritage, but brings a writer's eye to look at America in new ways.

As we've said before, American literature is a real patchwork of different voices from different cultures. Today's question is, what constitutes an "American" voice?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Eudora and A Bunch of Others

Once upon a time, at Virginia Tech, I taught a whole semester on Eudora Welty. I can't say it was a rousing success with all my students, but some people loved it. I confess to being a fan, so I'm not going to pretend to be objective.

Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1909. Her family was a comfortable one -- parents, two younger brothers, a fixture in Jackson society -- and they did not hinder Eudora's creative impulses. In fact, her autobiography, One Writer's Beginnings, speaks very descriptively and lovingly of this family milieu. She attended Mississippi State College for Women, where she distinguished herself as a writer and artist, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin.

She went to New York City for graduate school in 1930, attending Columbia University and studying advertising. New York expanded her brains and her horizons, and deepened her fiction in a way that Faulkner could envy. When her father died, in 1931, she came home to Jackson, and never really left. In fact, despite having written a first novel and won several O. Henry Short Story Awards, she actually gave up writing completely from 1951-1966, to take care of her mother and brothers.

Her 1972 novel, The Optimist's Daughter, won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is among my favorites, although her short story, "Why I Live at the P.O." is also a winner. I'm not going to spoil them for you. Read them. They're short!

Welty's artistic talent manifested itself in many ways, but photography was her medium of choice. You can check out her photographs on the web, and recognize the eye for emotional content that makes her so outstanding as a writer of description. This ability come across in "The Worn Path," as Aunt Phoenix's entire trek unrolls before us, almost as if we were watching a movie. Again, I'm a sucker for detail; Phoenix dancing with the scarecrow, pulling her skirts out of the thorn bush, lying on her back in the ditch . . . it's as if Welty had photographed those things, but not, thankfully, sentimentalized them at all.

For me, good fiction should give me room to think and breathe. I just cannot stand being hit over the head with a point, which is possibly why I don't like Joyce Carol Oates. Welty is subtle, generous, optimistic, but never cloying, mushy, or trite. After I have read her work, I feel more alive, not less. (Consider that ominous foreshadowing.)

The 20th Century spawned a bundle of writers that we won't have time to read. Here is the quick skinny on them, nothing like enough information, but you can pick the ones you might be interested in.

Flannery O'Connor. Southern gothic with Catholic overtones, good if you like your fiction moral with a grotesque aftertaste. I recommend "Good Country People."

Joyce Carol Oates. A dark, full-bodied fiction, or perhaps it's just full of bodies. I don't like her, but perhaps you will enjoy the creeping horror of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been."

Toni Morrison. Raw-edged, not to say brutal, but absolutely worth it in every sense. If you can't read all of Sula, at least dip into it.

Amy Tan. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, explores the lives of four Chinese women and their daughters, in a structure that parallels a Mahjonng game. Crisp and inviting.

Stephen King. I feel about reading horror the way some people feel about reading the phone book. But King can write. His autobiographical On Writing is fantastic. This is not literary wine, though; more like some horrible spiked Kool-aid.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How to Read Poetry

It occurs to me -- right before the test, unfortunately -- that we've lost the art of reading poetry. We read a poem the same way we read a newspaper, and then wonder why we don't get much out of it.

Here, then, is a handy rubric for ways to read poetry. It won't work with everybody, i.e., you'll have a hard time applying it to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but it will help get you through.

Step One; Read the title. Yes, I know this is obvious. You'd be amazed at how many people just skip right over it. They read the words, but they don't allow the words to register. Titles are important. "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" tells you everything you need to know, right there.

Step Two: Read the poem all the way through, out loud, without stopping but with -- and this is REALLY important -- the pauses in the right places, where the punctuation is. Pausing at the end of every line is a common mistake, and it makes the poem more confusing than it has to be. The punctuation is there to guide you, so let it.

Step Three: Stop and register your impression of what was said. Make a note if you need to. You'll probably revise this, but first impressions are important with poetry.

Step Four: Read the poem again, slowly, silently, and make sure you know what all the words mean. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Who is the speaker?
  • What is the setting?
  • What is happening, or being discussed, in the poem?
  • What kind of rhyme or meter does the poem have?
  • Does anything strike you as symbolic, or metaphorical?
  • What tone does the poem have -- joyous, melancholy, playful, serious?

Step Five: Paraphrase. Put the poem in your own words. It proves that you understand it. Be careful not to change the meaning, though. If you can't paraphrase part of it, then you know you don't understand that part. If you can't paraphrase ANYTHING, repeat steps one through four, expecting different results. (Isn't that the definition of madness?)

If we did this with, say, "In a Station of the Metro," we might discover that we have no idea who the speaker is (that's Modernism for you), the setting is a Parisian subway stop, people are walking past, the poem has no rhyme scheme, and there's a metaphor here, but it's purely visual. The tone of the poem is artsy, and we might paraphrase it by saying "The pale, blank faces of people getting off the trains look just like the petals of blossoms on a wet tree branch."

Admittedly, this takes all the charm right out of it, but you could argue that Pound doesn't have a lot of charm to begin with. It still helps.

It's Time to Ponder Some Questions

Yes, campers, we are almost ready to say goodbye to the turn of the (20th) Century, with all its concomitant hoo-ha. We can't let it go without a few remarks, though, and a few more questions.

Has anybody been paying attention to the portrait of marriage that emerges in "The Yellow Wallpaper," "The Second Choice," and Trifles? If you haven't, you might want to go back and do that, because it's unsettling. We have husbands being paternalistic ("The Yellow Wallpaper"), which is much better than husbands being abusive (Trifles), or being hapless dupes ("The Second Choice").

Notice that in all three of the marriages and near-marriages, the woman is trapped and helpless. No one listens to her, no one understands who she really is, and no one is on her side, when things go bad. Even Theodore Dreiser's Shirley is stuck in the belief that her life has to contain a husband, albeit a stout, dull, uninteresting one. How sucky is that?

People who believe that the women's movement was just a lot of -- pardon me -- hysteria, need to remember that women really were at the mercy of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Some lucky women married men who respected and admired them, and encouraged their intelligence. Others, though, married men like John in "The Yellow Wallpaper," men who believed they had weak brains, hair-trigger nerves, and limited usefulness. There's not much worse than having a lot of intelligence and talent and being denied the opportunity to use those things in productive work.

And while we're on the subject of marriage, let's think about the different responses of some women. Shirley, in "The Second Choice," is forced to let go of Arthur because, well, he was never hers to begin with, and he had the good sense to go and stay gone. But Emily Grierson, in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," now there's a woman who knows how to hang onto a man. Which of them is the stronger? Who would you rather see dating your brother? We thought so.

Shirley falls victim to her own romantic fantasy, and when it collapses, she blames herself. A clearer thinker would blame Arthur, but she's not one of those. Emily, on the other hand, has a brain that is as clear as a bell, even if she's as mad as a weasel -- she knows that Homer Barron is likely to leave again, and she's going to make sure he doesn't. Fortunately, among her requirements for the perfect man, she does not list a pulse.

If I have a favorite among these women, it might be Mrs. Hale, from Trifles, who is an excellent detective and who has all kinds of brains, but Emily Grierson is a close second. I don't admire her -- it would be like having a fondness for dirty sheets -- but I respect her. She doesn't lie around all day being helpless, waiting for someone else to fix her life.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cure

Let's say you're a woman at the turn of the 20th Century. Further, you've got a working brain, and you've spent the first 25 years of your life doing what everybody else wanted. Now you've been married for six years, you've had a kid, or several, and suddenly you're looking at the world going, "Is this it?"

Yes, my dear, this is it. You're going to grow old, surrounded by your children and grandchildren, caring for their needs, making your husband happy, and reading the latest issues of Godey's Ladies' Book. You're done. You have fulfilled your function. You have exhausted your creative enterprise. Now what are you going to do?

You're going to wack out, that's what. "Hysteria," which comes from the same root word that gives us "hysterectomy," was a common complaint among women around the time of the first world war. Denied any healthy outlets for their intelligence and creativity, and stuck in many-child households with little help, many women took to their beds with nervous complaints that we now recognize as depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Physicians at the time just put it down to having a uterus. If you've got one of THOSE, then you're mentally unstable, end of discussion.

In its mild form, hysteria was just Mama spending a few afternoons in bed with the blinds drawn. But in its more vicious form, Mama was completely debilitated, and her doctors would prescribe "the rest cure."

The rest cure amounted to total isolation. Women with hysteria were removed from all stimulation -- no books, no visitors, no responsibilities, no nothing -- and allowed to fester. Why this was supposed to cure them is anyone's guess, but it's not too surprising that the creator of this regimen was a man, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, pictured at right.

The rest cure was, without a doubt, a form of torture. Some women were restrained and not even allowed to turn themselves over in bed. Mitchell himself explained it thusly, "..to lie abed half the day and sew a little, and read a little, and be interesting and excite sympathy, is all very well, but when they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew, and to have one nurse—who is not a relative—then rest becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine and they are glad enough to accept the order to rise and go about when the doctor issues a mandate which has become pleasantly welcome and eagerly looked for.”

In other words, restrict all their activity, punish them for being anxious and depressed, and then they'll be happy NOT to be in bed taking the cure. No wonder they were "cured." We might note that one of the things that led to Virginia Woolfe's suicide was the thought that she might have to go through the rest cure AGAIN. Admittedly, this was not the only factor, the impending second world war being a larger one, but it underscores the brutality of ennui.

Interestingly enough, the rest cure only applied to relatively wealthy women. Poor women -- those who worked, held responsibilities, and were considered equal to their spouses -- were supposedly immune to the disease because they were tougher. In reality, they didn't have time for nervous complaints, or the money to pay for expensive restrictions on their liberty.

So why did anyone do it? Because women trusted Weir Mitchell; he got results. Dr. Mitchell and his ilk believed that women were under the total control of their reproductive organs, not their brains. Hormones drove women mad, and before you laugh and mention PMS, put yourself in that locked room with nothing to do, no music, no friends, nothing but your lonely, depressed brain, and see how you feel, hormones or no. No one was actually studying brains and how they work; all of the energy was focused on glands. At one point, glandular theory was thought to be responsible for everything from religion to criminal behavior.

Science eventually put a stop to the rest cure. Psychoanalyists like Freud and Jung began looking at brains as the root causes of anxiety and depression, and thus the isolation and torment of women fell out of favor, at least as a "cure." Doctors recognized that everyone wants to have a purpose, and wants to be self-directed. The focus of mental health shifted from something that was imposed from outside -- the cure -- to work done on the inside -- analysis.

Before that happened, though, we have Charlotte Perkins Gilman writing "The Yellow Wallpaper," about a woman driven bats by the rest cure. Gilman actually sent a copy of her story to Dr. Mitchell, who, rather typically, didn't respond to her. He DID say of himself, however, "I urged, scolded and teased and bribed and decoyed along the road to health; but this is what it means to treat hysteria.”

Trust me. I'm a doctor.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So the Storm Passed and Everyone Was Happy

Look at the picture on the left, please. Really look at it. What kind of woman is this? Ignore the hair for a second and focus on her expression. This is Kate Chopin, the woman who rocked polite society with The Awakening and then slammed it again, posthumously, with "The Storm." Does she look like an "unnatural" person? What IS an "unnatural" person, anyway?
If you're William Dean Howells, and you should probably be thankful that you're not, since he's been dead for 90 years, you believe that a woman should be too high-minded to think about sex, much less write about it. The Puritan influence has dropped to nothing and the European influence has won. That means, among other things, that sex is bad again, and well-bred people pretend it doesn't exist.
The best word we can think of for 19th Century fin de si├Ęcle society is "repressive." People had buttoned themselves up and down. "Nice" women put little panties on their pianos, lest the sight of piano legs drive male members of the household into a lust-crazed frenzy. (You think I'm kidding? Go check.) People didn't even say the word "leg." It was a "limb," which might as well be something out of a tree. A lot of time was spent in avoiding "coarseness," which meant anything to do with the body. The epitome of this, and I mean it in the worst, most vicious way, was Virginia Woolfe, who ate sparingly because she could not bear the vulgarity of eliminating waste.
In the middle of all this "niceness," all this denial of the body and its animal functions, Kate Chopin wrote a novel, The Awakening. It was published amid a furor, because it is about a woman who leaves her husband and children because they stifle her, takes a lover because she wants to, and is forced to kill herself because she doesn't fit anywhere in her world any more. We can pretty much bet that neither Kate nor her heroine, Edna Pointellier, covered up their piano legs, but they did understand the power of the physical body.
And that, said Howells, proved Chopin's "unnaturalness." Women weren't supposed to talk about sex, adultery, and abandoning the family for a life of one's own. (Men could do this, although they were expected to reaffirm the mainstream values in the end.) Howells didn't believe that women were stupid -- he published many stories by women writers -- but he DID believe that they should remain innocent, even after marriage, and preserve those core values of marital fidelity and maternal fecundity.
Chopin totally flouted all that, bringing down on her beautifully coiffed head the wrath of men and women alike. Some of this wrath was just ordinary brainless outrage at anything outside the cultural norms, but some of it was the outrage of the intelligent, who saw in her a crack in the dam, threatening to wash away the foundations of American society, or at least move them around some.
Even now, as witnessed in our class discussion, we are indignant, even angry, at Calixta in "The Storm." How dare she? What kind of idiot would suggest that a woman could commit adultery and not suffer at all? It begs the question, and I am asking it, what are Kate Chopin and her amoral characters still threatening to do?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oogie Boogie Fever: Henry James and The Turn of the Screw

In the novella The Turn of the Screw, Henry James brings us a little creepfest that may be hard for you to appreciate in the installment the class read. (And if you're not an AmLit student, go online to Project Gutenberg and read the whole thing. It really is good, and maybe your hair standing on end will keep you warm. )

Here's the quick plot summary: (SPOILERS for the haven't-read-it-yet folks.) A mysterious narrator tells the story of someone he knew -- a governess -- who had a horrific experience while working for two orphaned children. She was hired by the children's uncle to care for them in a large, country house, but forbidden to contact him concerning them. (Cue dramatic music.) The children, Flora and Miles, are a little weird, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, seems to be Not Telling Something in a capital-letters kind of way.

The governess eventually discovers that, 1. Miles has been expelled from his boarding school for something mysterious and probably horrible; 2. Miles and Flora see dead people, and talk to them every chance they get; 3. Flora resents the snot out of the governess for interfering with the aforementioned conversations; and 4. the dead people are the former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, the butler Peter Quint, who died apparently because everybody associated with Flora and Miles kicks the bucket sooner rather than later.

The governess decides it's her duty to protect the children from the ghosts, although it's unclear what the threat actually is. It's important to realize that ALL her information about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, including suggestions that they, while alive, had an unsavory influence on the children, comes from Mrs. Grose. The governess never questions this information, but instead takes on the "moral" job of saving the children's souls from Jessel and Quint. In the course of trying to shield them, however, she makes Flora so mad, the girl goes to live with her disinterested uncle. In trying to protect Miles from Peter Quint (who appears to be standing outside the window, which wouldn't be all that scary, except that it's on the second floor), something happens to the child and he dies. Eventually the governess dies, and this account of the story comes down to the narrator in all its creepy sophistication.
Here are some questions about it for us to ponder right here, in lieu of class, and these are questions that have kept James scholars busy for generations, so don't be too glib with your answers.
First, where do we locate the real evil in this story? Is it in Flora and Miles, the ghosts, the governess? The answer to this question hinges on what we believe about the efforts to corrupt, or protect, the children, and on the answer to another big question . . .
. . . Is the governess a reliable narrator? If we take her at face value, she is protecting two innocent children from soul-stealing ghosts. If we start to question her motives, or her sanity (after all, she's the one who admits to seeing Peter Quint and Miss Jessel), then a new picture can emerge. She could also be the credulous dupe of Mrs. Grose, who might have some supernatural axe to grind herself. It's all so COMPLICATED.
That, of course, leads us to wonder who is sane in this story, and who is delusional. Go ahead and wonder that in the comments box, but again, don't be too quick to make the call, and ALWAYS offer evidence from the story to back yourself up.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bierce the Jolly Rogue

If you read a literary biography of Ambrose Bierce, you might think that he was the finest fellow to ever grace the halls of American journalism. You would learn that he was a "proponent of civil rights and religious freedom," and that he wrote "many humorous stories." You would find out that his education came from his father's private library, and his moral philosophy from the First Congregational Church of Christ in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio.

And after you found all this stuff out, you would happily bootle off to read "Chickamauga" or "The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," or even The Devil's Dictionary, (which Bierce was forced to call The Cynic's Word-Book), expecting somebody like Mark Twain. The resulting experience can be compared to being attacked by a riding lawn mower driven by a rabid goat: maybe the wounds will heal, but the humiliation will leave scars.

Ambrose Bierce was the tenth of thirteen Bierce children, all of whom had names beginning with the letter "A." By the time they got to him, Ambrose's parents discovered all the good names had been taken, and that probably tells you everything you need to know about them. They practiced a particularly hellfire form of religion and lived for a while in a religious commune. Ambrose's cynicism developed early, despite attempts on the part of charitable religious types to beat it out of him. (Apparently no one knew yet that cynicism is like meringue -- it gets tougher the more you beat it.)

As soon as he could, he left home and went to work as a gofer in a print shop, a trajectory not unlike Ben Franklin's. Like Franklin, Bierce worked his way up through diverse channels to official journalist, but unlike the optimistic and friendly Ben, he spent the rest of his life picking fights, making friends and just as quickly making them furious, and generally being a social misfit. He even managed to seriously annoy the usually gracious and forgiving W.D. Howells.

Bierce's fiction, particularly his Civil War fiction, is the literary equivalent of a blunt instrument. His criticism is like a scalpel, (wielded by an enraged bull with a toothache and a hangover). He spent the later years of his life as a newspaper editor, whose editorials attacked the usual targets -- politicians, clergymen, local governments -- but also anybody else who stuck their heads up above his horizon -- women, children, other writers (particularly poets), and, weirdly, anarchists.
The trouble with being a pit bull in a suit is that your incessant barking stops having an effect after a while. Attacking people occasionally gives you a reputation for intellectual honesty. Attacking everybody, all the time, just makes you a nuisance. By the second decade of the 20th Century, Bierce's contentiousness had cost him his marriage, his relationships with his children, his relationships with other writers, and a chunk of his reputation as a journalist. In addition, two of his children had died (does this sound familiar?), and he began to hear that small voice of regret in the back of his brain.
In 1913 he decided to go to Mexico, possibly to report on the massive civil unrest there. His last letter, dated December 26, 1913, indicates that he's on his way into the Sonoran Desert with Pancho Villa, of all people, and that is absolutely the last anyone ever hears from him. Oh, people looked, because he was a public figure, and it's not polite to just let those disappear without a trace, but they never found, well, a trace. He wandered off into Mexico and vanished completely. His presumed date of death is sometime early in 1914, but nobody really knows.
Why are we bothering about him now, almost 100 years later? Because Bierce gave voice to a sentiment that will increase to a crescendo after WWI -- the happy ending of fiction is fiction; real life is brutal and likely to remain that way until it ends. The optimism that characterized Emerson has faded faster than a Bierce friendship, in the face of stunning economic, educational, and employment inequalities. It will be a while (think 50 years) before a light begins to glimmer, and even then, we will not regain those lofty Transcendental heights, where the world was beautiful and everyone was good.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Welcome to today's discussion of literary naturalism. It is not necessary to be a complete nihilist, but it helps.

Naturalism is literary realism that read Darwin, gasped, and said, "Dang, Emerson was wrong! Humans are not the center of the universe, and nature doesn't look out for them. They're just as pointless as the flies we swat every summer afternoon."

This theory was further refined to maintain that humans were the helpless victims of their genetics and their environment, and those two things would conspire to make them miserable at every turn. Further, if they somehow escaped with good genes and good luck, nature itself would try to kill them. The mantra of literary naturalism is "Life sucks, and then you die."

One might wonder why, if writers truly believed that humanity had no point, they bothered to write about it. Possibly they felt that shared misery was more bearable than the lonely belief in their futility. Possibly they just wanted to shock people. More likely, though, and I'm actually being serious here, they got sick of the moral complacency that arose out of Transcendentalism. "If we're so great," a naturalist would ask, "Why was the war so brutal, and why do we continue to exploit everything and everyone we come across?"

Late 19th century American industrialism and expansion came at a price, and often it was a very high one in terms of human life and human quality of life. Children died in industrial accidents; Native Americans died in settlement disputes, and over all of this was the specter of the Civil War, that left many people desperately poor and still oppressed. The naturalists looked at this world and felt confident in saying that people are not inherently good, and life is not full of promise.

Prominent "naturalistic" writers include Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Frank Norris. In all their work, we can discern the grey thread of hopelessness, mingled with the red one of vicious nature, looking for its next meal.

It is interesting to note that, with the possible exceptions of London and Drieser, a lot of naturalists died young. Ambrose Bierce was getting up there in age when he disappeared in the Mexican desert but we can assume he wasn't happy about it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

We're Ba-a-a-a-ck

Yes, the American Literature blog continues, with yet more opinion, irreverence, and tangential discussion.
When we left off, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman had revolutionized poetry, at least for the American literati. The popular taste, as it is wont to do, lagged behind. One of the behinds that it lagged was Julia A. Moore, "The Sweet Singer of Michigan," whose poetry left many readers speechless.
Mrs. Moore wrote several volumes on such topics as gory disasters and untimely deaths. She also enjoyed dispensing advice to children, when she wasn't writing about dead ones. Her idiosyncratic terribleness, complimented by her tin ear and her horrible choice of subject matter, made her the favorite poet of Samuel Clemens, and he said so, at length. Because irony was lost on her, Mrs. Moore took this as an endorsement, and used Clemens' name to sell even more volumes of poetry. She was, and I wish I was kidding, one of the best-selling poets of the late 19th Century, although it's impossible to tell whether anybody took her seriously, or if they read her work for the same reason they ogle train wrecks (which she also wrote about).
Just to whet your appetite for another four months of American Literature, here is a sample of the work of Julia A. Moore. Enjoy.
Hattie House
Come all kind friends, wherever you may be,
Come listen to what I say,
It's of a little girl that was pleasant to see,
And she died while out doors at play.
Oh! Hattie, dear Hattie,
Sweet little Hattie House --
May the flowers ever bloom o'er the little tomb,
Of our loved one, Hattie House.
She had blue eyes and light flaxen hair,
Her little heart was light and gay,
She said to her mother, that morning fair,
"Mother, can I go out and play?"
Her mother tied her bonnet on,
Not thinking it would be the last
She would ever see her dear little one
In this world, little Hattie House.
She left the house, this dear little girl,
On that bright and pleasant day --
She went to play with two little girls
That were near about her age.
She was not gone but a little while
When they heard her playmates call --
Her friends hastened there to save the child,
Alas, she was dead and gone.
Those little girls will not forget
The day little Hattie died,
For she was with them when she fell in a fit,
While playing by their side.
She was her parents' only child,
And her age was near six years,
And now she has left them for a while --
Left all her friends in tears.
She has left this world of grief and woe,
Dear friends, she has left behind --
She is waiting on the other shore,
To meet them bye and bye.
One fine morning, the fifth of July,
The summer flowers were in bloom,
Eighteen seventy-one, little Hattie died,
And is sleeping in her tomb.
If you just have to have more of this, and I have no doubt that you will, then you can find LOTS of Mrs. Moore's work here: http://www.poemhunter.com/julia-a-moore/poems/ Feel free to weigh in . . . oh, yes.