My Curious Reading. Essays about books and articles I seek out in my research, and the ways in which ideas grow where information intersects.
Table of Contents:
Adventures in Research:
Planet Earth and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Dr. Underhill said, if we would destroy insects, we must preserve birds. Birds which run up the trunks of trees, like the Woodpeckers, are of especial benefit. They dig out the larvae of insects from the bark and devour it. A Cat-bird would destroy a hundred caterpillars in a day. Where birds, even Crows, are destroyed, it is through lack of knowledge of their usefulness.
Account of a Farmer’s Club meeting, “City Items”, NY Tribune, 1846.
His ardent desire was to kill an Ivory-billed woodpecker. “I have never seen but one,” he said, “and that was in the Smithsonian Institute.”
Correspondent Amos J. Cummings on General Francis E. Spinner, onetime U.S. Treasurer, Helena Daily Independent, 1891.
You’ve probably seen a photo of the ferris wheel at Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned after the Chernobyl accident. You understand that, like pictures of shuttered shopping malls, the image takes its piquancy from contrast: wasteland and wasted human endeavor, our busy, self-absorbed making of things, of nakedly gaudy yellows and reds, plastic and chrome—and their sad outlasting of us.
This year, in my corner of Ohio, the dandelions lifted their heads, in their dozens, yellow as in springs past, where each bloom would have had its bee. The white clover has come out, and come up empty; the Allium drew a single wasp. The woolly bear caterpillar is not, to read about it, considered endangered—but I haven’t seen one in years. In early falls past, the slaughter of them invariably littered the road, and invariably, newspapers printed those “Can Woolly Bears Predict a Harsh Winter?” articles.
I took up Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), to read again, after more than a decade. What I remembered of the book was Stein’s logical, unfolding argument, for how we go about, not just making a natural garden, but taking what land we possess, and allowing at least part of it to be a piece of planet earth.
Consider thrips. For about three years running, the leaves of my azalea bush were thoroughly silvered (thrips are tiny insects that rasp as they feed). One of Stein’s points is that any member of the plant kingdom has an arsenal of chemicals at its disposal, and subjected to stress, will adjust the composition of its vascular parts to fight back, to poison its attacker. Our absurdity is that we want to fix nature immediately, and want to blame nature when our ornamentals can’t adjust to the environment we’ve place them in. (When I was ignorant, I once sprayed down a Weigela covered with white caterpillars, without even knowing what moth or butterfly these might become.)
My approach today is leave it alone, trust in the plant’s mechanisms for self-repair. Last year the azalea was fine. The marigolds got thrips. The thrips, in other words, didn’t leave the yard, they left the azalea. But it took that span of time for the change to take place.
Stein makes a point well worth returning to: that we have to look at the symbiosis of nature as so many services provided—not so much a question of having (at cost, if it matters) to do these things ourselves, but that we won’t do it right, and we won’t do it well. She lists: “…waste disposal, water purification, pest suppression…plant pollination…atmospheric regulation, nutrient recycling, flood and drought control, soil manufacture.” (Page 43.)
What impetus, as Stein asks in her opening chapter, other than a sense of being robbed of what’s ours, will make us fight, if within a lifespan we can lose what was a commonplace of our common experience, if few by the year 2030 will have seen a meadowlark, or a monarch butterfly…perhaps no one a jaguar or a humpback whale? Are we stirred enough today by the imminent demise of the black rhinoceros and the vaquita?
Whose job is it to inventory insect populations—those not pest species, or endangered?
Not really anyone’s, although a number of universities and volunteer groups do some of the work. But unlike other types of wildlife, insects, with their seasonal life span, are not necessarily safe because their populations had not declined five years ago; if a survey of their numbers had even been taken.
Mosquito spraying, and the use of genetically altered crops (corn, cotton), containing Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), are programs meant to eradicate disease and predation; Bt itself meant, for being natural, to be safe. But the generations challenged to adapt to what, from the mosquito’s or moth’s perspective, are new environmental stresses, are many more than those of the bat or bird that feeds on these insects. Given more opportunities to overcome Bt, first by being exposed to it, then by the survivors of a generation’s passing along resistance, insects develop a different body chemistry—repression of one enzyme favorable to Bt toxins, increase of another that nullifies them (“Researchers identify how insects resist Bt pesticides”, Cornell Chronicle, Krishna Ramanujan, 2011).
Stein, in her chapter six, “The Aphid on the Rose”, observes, “Although Bt is natural in that it has a biological origin, it’s questionable whether spraying is a natural use of it.” (Page 101.) And so the bat, feeding on insects, is ingesting something new as well. Not the bacteria’s protein crystals that pierce that non-resistant insect’s gut, but the new peptide profile of the moth hatched from the resistant caterpillar.
In the 1980’s, when confronted with a host of odd developments, rare or unseen diseases, the medical community began to suspect a common underlying cause. The immune system crisis was labeled a syndrome; eventually the AIDS virus was discovered.
We’ve seen manifestations in recent decades—pine beetle destruction of conifers in the west, polar bears starving in the arctic, bees vulnerable to mites, bat colonies dying of fungal infestation, songbirds in decline—of climate change. Or, contrarians may say…introduction of foreign pests, effluvia from cats’ litter boxes, wind farm collisions, etc. The syndrome is not a virus. It is a lack of conservation, or a disbelief in conservation, or an attitude that the crisis is in the future. All things postponed allow the simultaneous subscribing to their possibility, while no urgency need be felt to act against them. A climate change delayer is not much more helpful than a climate change denier.
But where does the help come from? In the U.S., among agencies that tackle issues of nature’s preservation and restoration, are the E.P.A., the U.S.D.A’s Extension Service, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA…also NGO’s, the above-mentioned universities, community volunteers. Some of these are oriented more towards agriculture and industry, some towards habitat. There is not one national agenda encompassing the whole of environmental concerns, one agency to regulate and enforce it.
A few months ago, I was writing poetry about the Ivory-billed woodpecker. I’d decided to do a survey, looking through newspapers archived by the Library of Congress, to learn when people began noticing the bird’s decline and how they spoke of it.
There was, in the late 1930’s, a chance for the Ivory-billed, within an 80,000 acre tract of forest along Louisiana’s Tensas River, belonging to the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The land was sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Co., and logging began in 1938. A graduate student from Cornell University named James Tanner had been visiting the Singer Tract to study the Ivory-billed. His offer to the company of a land management plan he’d drawn up, that allowed for both logging and protection, inspired no change in their clearing program. John Baker, president of the Audubon Society; U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt; his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes; the governor of Louisiana, Sam Jones, all made appeals to the company, promised to raise money to buy the land from them, tried to acquire it by federal right of preservation. (Fact Sheet: “The Singer Tract and the ‘Last Stand’ for the Ivory-billed woodpecker”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, undated.)
It seems in retrospect an amazing story of intractability over a tract. The lumberers may have found it plausible to suppose that, having lost to the birds once, businessmen in their line would be pushed by an emboldened coalition to yield the best of their profitable land.
The Ivory-billed was called “nearly extinct” in 1877, “rare” in 1891; “almost a rarity” in 1896 (more likely choices of expression, than a measure of numbers). In 1903 Pelican Island, off the coast of Florida, became America’s first bird sanctuary, created by an executive order of Theodore Roosevelt.
An article on the quirks of wealthy collectors (Arizona Republican, reprinted from Everybody’s Magazine), titled “Eggs for $1250 Apiece”, tells us of the bird trade, that in 1909:
William Dutcher of New York sold to Walter Rothschild of England a Labrador duck for $1000. John Lewis Childs of Long Island bought one in Liverpool for $1000, and afterward sold it to John E. Thayer of Massachusetts for $5000.
At this rate, Mr. Childs’s four eggs of the ivory-billed woodpecker—which it took three years to get—may be reckoned to have represented an expenditure in money of $5000 at the least—$1250 an egg.
The disconnect is documented in these old stories. Bird collectors (and there were, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many proud owners of private taxidermy collections) pursued more ardently that which they knew to be scarcer, without noting the difference between a living creature and a Gutenberg Bible. I judge the crucial period for the Ivory-billed to have been between 1890 and 1910, when more than one state may still have had a few breeding pairs, when contiguous forest, even spanning narrow stretches, would have enabled isolated populations to mingle, and depleted food sources to be compensated by new foraging. By the 1930s, the birds of the Singer Tract, even with protection, would have been vulnerable to every localized stress, and in the face of disease or predation, have had no place to go.
Can we now, at the brink, do anything material for our planet’s good? At the side of my garage, I have a stand of white milkweed. Whether this will feed any monarch caterpillars depends on whether an adult butterfly can discover it. In my yard, under the trees, I’ve been mowing paths and letting the grass and weeds around them grow freely. Insects, birds, and small mammals need food and water, but also rely on cover. So while the seed-heads on the grass stalks will give nourishment, the ability to scurry between the brush heap and the tree trunks ought to make a huge difference for the tiniest residents of my patch of habitat. Birds can at least move from tree to tree. A number of earth-bound or limted-range creatures badly need corridors, and one of the worst effects of land development is that it islands wild areas, and their captive populations.
A Book Report from the Zero Income Front
My impression is that, when the average browsing consumer considers the self-published novel, quality is not her concern. By this I mean the question of whether she expects to find quality.
We might (it’s been done) correlate types of publishing to shopping venues—take brick and mortar stores as the equivalent of traditional presses and agents; match online sellers to Kindle Direct Publishing, et al.; flea markets and trade shows to the blogosphere. The open-minded reader ought not to say categorically, “It’s impossible to find anything good in a store”; “Nothing sold online can be worth anything”; “You never get anything decent at a flea market.” (Love flea markets.)
There is no reason, then, to blanket self-publishing with a sneer of prejudice, as though it were all one thing. Or, taking a different analogy: if you were homeless, and the only roof you could put over your head was a cot at the community shelter, it would be no use huddling in a corner, telling yourself, “These others are not my class.”
Your sympathies ought to grow in loyalty for being housed where you’re welcome; more so, if the people who had shut you out of their own neighborhood pointed at the shelter and called its residents losers.
The advantage, also, in getting a contract, doesn’t appear to be in marketing, of which the author must shoulder a great deal (this bearing a little hard on the marginalized and rural), but chiefly in a kind of enfranchisement—traditionally published books are eligible to be panel-reviewed for major prizes, and self-published books are not. Traditional publishers hook up writers with professional editors…no small consideration. Editing is tough. It takes time to learn grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, continuity; then learn again to throw these things out selectively, for effect. Traditional publishers (indies included), confer cachet—trusted names that can be used for promotion, the social support of an official re-tweet. Thus the foot-in-the-door problem goes full circle.
I think, in the same way you come to learn a brand of anything you like (jeans, music, coffee) is less often sourced from the small, quaint and mission-oriented, and more often another label under the corporate umbrella…with self-publishing, it’s the suspicion of fakeness we find dismaying. Some authors seem funded and connected, yet tell a David narrative of themselves, rather than admit their friendship with Goliath. Some cynically peddle teeming catalogs of copy and paste jobs, and some scare away readers by responding to every comment and contact with aggressive sales-pitching.
But if you are the sort of reader I am, you like knowing what’s out there, and you like trying new things…you wouldn’t, therefore, like each publisher’s having its one institutional standard, from which it refuses to depart. And diversity is good for both the reader and the seller of books. Diversity, however, doesn’t teach the writer, for having taken the usual advice to “look at our catalog/latest issue, and see what sort of work we publish”, whether she should or should not submit to a given house.
So let me expand on the things that make me want to read past the opening pages. (I can afford, at least, the “look inside” feature on Amazon.)
My touchstone, as a novelist, comes from a man I know nothing about otherwise: Paul A. Jorgensen, author of an introduction to Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”. (My Pelican Revised Text lists several publication dates, from 1956-1971.) Jorgensen said, to paraphrase, that there are three types of mistaken identity: being mistaken for another person; mistaking the nature of another person; and mistaking one’s own nature. The last is the most profound, the essence of human tragedy, the height storytellers ought to shoot for, whether or not we succeed in realizing it.
Making a character is better than describing a character. I see a trend of adopting in fiction the creative non-fiction approach, and this, while humanizing to journalism, seems actually to impose a distance and detachment on storytelling. There are multiple languages of mood and perspective, and the reader instinctively understands these; she inhabits the role assigned to her by the positioning of the omniscient camera. I noticed this phenomenon when I was editing a snatch of internal speech that belongs to a character otherwise given in the third person. If Bruner were the sole narrator of Sequence of Events, we would hear his words…
So I ask Summers for a letter of recommendation. I tell him, to help me make a start. And what are the odds he can help me make a start? Maybe it works out he knows people in Los Angeles…
…with not much more of hope, or less of self-defeat, than Bruner himself knows. When we are on the character’s shoulder rather than inside his head, and aware of this, we adjust our judgment; we see what he can’t see of himself.
I find the historical present to be a minor flag, even though it has also a kind of brain-candy effect, that draws you into the stream at once. But I think that’s part of the problem…it becomes facile to use this technique. The writer still needs to clip into an engagement with the reader. When a book goes on for six pages and I don’t know yet who the character is, what dilemma we’re grappling with; and my readerly role is bench-sitter, unanchored to the past, disconnected with the passing scene—the reportorial style won’t stop me falling out of the stream.
And, interestingly, this style belongs to poetry as much as journalism: at times the intention is to slip the reader into an unfolding event, the historical present is quite right. In stories, passages where immediacy, inescapability, is the mood, the device works. But ramping up tension is a two-edged sword. When the reader is not engaged, she gets nothing from the author’s withholding from her the reason she ought to be engaged.
I offer here a short list, a few books discovered on the indie press websites, ones I would recommend based on their beginnings (reviews done zero-income style)…would buy myself, and may do, someday. The first, set in Ireland, features a friendless woman; the second, an enemy relationship among neighbors.
Eggshells, Melville House, Caitriona Lally, 2017.
The Arriviste, Milkweed Editions, James Wallenstein, 2011.
And my general comments:
Corruptibility in heroes is one of the biggest novelistic shortfalls, particularly where the lead is female. Because we want corruptibility. We are all dishonest; we are sometimes cruel; we are often cliquish and excluding towards others. We think uncharitable thoughts…and I mean truly ignorant, mean-spirited, bigoted, uncharitable thoughts. Not “she puts that bad person down; she’s so admirable” constructs. We can’t, at least I can’t, really like a character strongly projected as “likeable”. What makes a character likeable is that she causes problems for herself and learns, page by page, to be kinder and more courageous, from the solving of them. (Or resigns herself to not solving them.)
Cat Art Is Spelled Wrong, Coffeehouse Press, Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach, Sarah Shultz, 2015.
This is a crowd-funded project—interesting in its own right—a book that hasn’t yet found a large audience. But if you love cats, and like to view cat videos, why would you not like a weighing of their merits as art?
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Riverhead Books, Lesley Nneka Arimah, 2017.
The last is a book of short stories. The available excerpts (these in generous quantity) show why Ms. Arimah’s book is well-regarded. That voice often designated in reviews as “a genuine storyteller’s” is defined, so far as I can parse it out, by a narrative detail-rich and pared-down, one that lights into action, or the reminiscence of action. And the reader feels happily entertained…not as if she is waiting for a speaker’s prefacing remarks to end, and the actual program to begin.
(Thanks to my Mom, for her funding of my work.)
The Insular I
People don’t like poetry.
That, of course, is not universally true. True enough, though, that a lot of poetry you read (or glance over) launches like the voice of someone you’re stuck with in an elevator.
I write poetry, and I too get that twisty feeling when I’m afraid of being trapped by a poem. Poetry is a great medium for self-exploration, but another party is involved—and many poems give the reader no story to grapple onto, no certain inkling of where this road (potentially, this hundred lines of “I feel, powerfully and graphically”), is going.
I suspect students of poetry tend to be told they aren’t “digging deep enough”; that aspiring poets find themselves harangued (or at least prodded) also, for harking back, stylistically, to sagas, chansons, even sonnets and pastorals. Inhibitions, if categorized as a sort of decorum, things associated with formalism, have long been thought anti-modern. To throw out all devices, all structure: rhyme, meter, punctuation, alliteration; to label these dishonest, manipulative, artificial—“pre” rather than “post”—is as fine a methodology as any, if it produces good art. (Regardless, we should allow room for every type of art.) If it produces volumes of manufactory product, built from aversions, and pandering to the new taskmaster…not so much.
There is an appealing fallacy that whatever time we live in is the cutting edge of modernity—all that passed before being dead and over. We imagine ourselves always progressing: everything of the now, real; everything old, fake in some way—not “vital”, or “true”, or “relevant”.
The human race does progress, by centuries, and at the same time, drags itself back. We have cars; we have air pollution. We have upgraded phones; we have electronic junk. In art, everything is everything. No one thing has an objectively proven superiority. And in the finding of popular taste a de facto bad taste, there is a kind of shadow colonialism. How can this notion be, without the assumption of a hoi-polloi below you, yourself in the high seat judging?
Then, a number of things of softness and sentiment, are—unfortunately—viewed as feminine, and denigrated for this, not always openly so.
Are blood and iron bigger than oxygen and song?
The challenge, when “I” tells the story, is that the narrator knows the outcome, and gets no help from the omniscient guiding force, who can’t live inside this head; while the narrator ought to see things only through his/her own eyes, either in chronology or memory.
“I” feels honest, self-analytical, but is bound by nature to be dishonest as well. The revealing takes place, but the contract is missing, the implied statement of the eye in the sky: “I’m concealing information from you on purpose, and meting it out as I go along.”
I think of a man with a falcon
Who has set it to circle for prey
It seems that the bird cannot hear him
Though perhaps he has nothing to say
I think of things centered careering
When some law of physics has failed
I think this unhinging is nearing
Now madmen and tyrants prevail
Of course, this is doggerel, not Yeats’s “The Second Coming”—one of the poems most often cited on “Greatest Poems” lists as a favorite. We don’t much want this “I” who stands aside from the action, offering opinions. Yeats did often write in rhyming couplets, or in ABAB schemes. Part of the timelessness and strength of “The Second Coming” is that it has a varied meter and rhyme. And here, the poet references himself only twice, only in the voice of a dazed witness visited by vision.
I see lilacs bud at grips with frost-brown earth
Soon to witness blighted dead their mourning dress
April, a month that teases, promising and withholding
And still these rains of spring
Stir in me nostalgic longings; there, under snow, I am aware
Tubers catch the drip of melting
The smallness of root, this life entombed persists
And, for gaining an arguable intimacy, the above lacks the authority of “The Wasteland“. A painting says THIS to the person who views it; a poem without a narrating character does the same. When there is one, the reader has to take an interest in a speaker, his/her reliability, compellingness, one step detached from the story, and the immediacy of the poem’s imagery. In Eliot’s work, the “I” when used is often the voice of a character who keeps in the background (and may or may not be Eliot’s own confession), often appearing late—the narrative is strong, declarative and imperative moods employed; the language delves into word-play, cultural reference, double-meaning, and the stage is always set.
My eyes in morning see pale fingers clutched in rigor
Clover blossoms, a handful gathered
In a glass stayed on my bedstand
The alliteration of the vowels in “handful”, “gathered”, and “bedstand”, have a pleasing echo, and this snatch again has intimacy, but the reader may suspect the poem will maunder on, become a depressive inventory of sad things in a sad person’s room.
What if we introduce a character, and begin this piece as though telling a story?
Howie wakes and sees, on the bedstand, at his left hand
The little clutch of flowers he hadn’t wanted to throw away
The name gives you a picture of a particular type of person, direction from the expectation raised by this. Howie is a little sentimental, but we don’t see him over-signify the clover. The lines have an active rhythm; in this not wanting to throw the bouquet away, a plot point is implied, maybe one of sufficient interest to take the quease off, for a non-poetry lover.
Now, suppose we toss this out, using a speech-maker’s language?
What pale fingers rise above the crystal rim!
Attention-getting…but over-rich. However, many beloved quotes from the canon roll out with such portentousness. Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend” begins:
Ich habe Tote, und ich ließ sie hin
In every translation I’ve seen, this in English is:
I have my dead, and I have let them go
The words are declarative and rhythmic, their tone not that of therapy-language. The poem, for the author was, however, therapeutic—a long study on the nature of death; what relationship the dead have to the living.
As poets we have things to say, worth writing down. Those things may be told allegorically, through an imaginary figure conjured from the ranks of the ordinary. We don’t want to deny ourselves the best means of communication, by substituting one type of reaction for another, but use all the tools our medium has left us in legacy.
(the warning shield means plot points discussed)
Let’s begin by splitting a hair.
E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (Harcourt, 1927), gives his seventh lecture on the theme of Prophecy. He introduces a metaphor: “song” to represent the voice of the prophet; “the furniture of common sense”, to represent verisimilitude. Towards the end of the this section, Forster says, referencing the furniture: “Perhaps he will smash or distort, but perhaps he will illumine.” (Page 135.) But…
You’ll note that the seer will have to be a thing more complicated than a berserker in a furnished room, if he is going to become the lamp that shines light. Illumine is a metaphor in its own right, one buried long since in the language. Logic is what produces this quibble. We read a lot of prose that never achieves the perfect symmetry of logic; we may do so without noticing more than a vague dissonance, or dissatisfaction. My examples for this piece will be a short story I read many times growing up, and that I like, Ray Bradbury’s 1953, “The Dwarf”, collected in The October Country (Ballantine Books, 1955); and a novel I’m tepid on, but had chosen for the recommendation of its having won the Booker Prize.
Bradbury’s creation of atmosphere is a signal feature of his style; nearly a character in itself. In all his work, he strongly imagines a place, then weaves its presence into the narrative as though this setting were sentient and motivated, itself the menacing figure in the shadows. “The Dwarf” is told from a single point of view, that of a boardwalk performer named Aimee. The story is ultimately didactic (not pedantic), driving towards a moral—that Ralph, the Mirror Maze proprietor, himself is the small man.
The dwarf (Mr. Bigelow), has in his own right no antecedents, no foundational truths. Aimee seems a fixture of the place, but has newly discovered the dwarf on the day the story opens. He has been meant (this mentioned a few pages in) to have come to the Mirror Maze for a year. Before that, we might guess, he lived someplace else…or, he has made a decision to begin visiting; a decision which would require reasoned synthesis of various pieces of information: a strong, if not conclusive, characteristic of sanity.
A practical joke’s outcome (one involving a mirror switch), is projected to drive Mr. Bigelow to suicide.
If we take Mr. Bigelow as a real person, who exists in a real world (so far as life is replicated in fiction), then we know he knows he is a dwarf. We suppose him to know bullying, likely enough with a degree of expertise; to know the other side of the coin: patronizing “help”; to know his own physical limitations, the baffles a man of his size finds built into the “normal” person’s world. We must suppose he has seen himself reflected with unflattering distortion many times—in the shine of a coffee pot, in a puddle after a rain; or, as he walks along the street, in a car’s fender, shop windows. Mr. Bigelow has a career; he pursues his affairs. He writes detective stories—does research, presumably, sends inquiries, sighs over rejections, dickers over payments, pays his rent, eats his meals, banks…has purchased the lapeled garment he is described as wearing. He speaks to people, and people speak to him.
As the story is constructed, it is only on the evidence that he has this heart’s wish, to see himself “normal”, that we can account for his complete breakdown at the end (and on the meta-evidence that the story has been so framed and so plotted at all, to offer the concept of normal/not normal, using the dwarf vs. Ralph, as this dichotomy’s embodiment.)
Mr. Bigelow has no attachment to Ralph, no expectations of him, no reason to feel for Ralph the trust of a brother; hence, to feel a deep betrayal, for being subjected to Ralph’s belittling treatment. Ralph is a man whose speech is loutish and disrespectful, a flag to a seasoned victim, of all he expects from a bully. Ralph has telegraphed to Mr. Bigelow that he is about to pull this stunt—today, his “old customer” can go into the maze for free. Unless we add something to the dwarf’s backstory, assume a trauma or a sorrow associated with the dénouement, we can only take the contrivance of the fiction, the single point of view, the information we’re given, as explanation for why Mr. Bigelow would not assume at once a mean joke, the sort of thing his real life counterpart might resignedly roll his eyes over. A real Mr. Bigelow might be tough, fatalistic; he might well have a sense of humor. He might, in naïveté, merely say to himself, “Jesus Christ! Why do people change things around?”…go back to the booth, say to Ralph, “Hey! What’s up?”
The character is possible, then; made seemingly so by the story’s construction—but he isn’t logical. He hasn’t got a psychology true to his circumstances. Even his sympathizer projects feelings and thoughts onto him, seeks gossip about him, makes plans to save him, and only belatedly thinks of speaking to him.
Now consider the way a comic sequence works in a story.
A man, concealing a chicken under the flap of his jacket, boards a subway car. He notices every time the chicken moves, it squawks. He hunches with his arms crossed over his chest, twists to the left and right to disguise the bird’s struggles, and coughs to cover the noise. After a time, he looks up to find all the other passengers staring. Someone tells him, “That’s the worst cough I’ve ever heard.”
He disposes of the chicken, goes to a job interview—the reason for his trip downtown. The reader will anticipate the punchline; that moment the interviewer (and fellow rider) turns from her computer screen, and meets his eyes.
But suppose, rather than a job-seeker burdened with a chicken, our protagonist is an international secret agent; the story a thriller. Across from him in the car sits a woman whose ethnicity he condemns, inwardly, in hostile terms. He proceeds to meet with his contact. Nothing further in the story addresses the subway scene. The writer is criticized for bigotry, and defends himself by saying, “That’s just my ironic humor.” The reader feels, in dispute, that to say a thing doesn’t make it so.
Humor, as the chicken bit indicates, is a formula. The writer signals humor by giving certain types of information, using a certain means of framing the scenario.
This signaling bears on dramatic devices more veiled than comedy.
Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (American edition, Pantheon Books, 1985), is perceived to have a feminist message. Reviewers have seemed to struggle over locating this, and in locating the nature of the book’s central device. Edith Hope’s friends may have sent her away to Switzerland to think on her mistakes. How they could have exercised this power in the late 20th century is harder to see…such a proceeding might have suited a Victorian cabinet minister who’d appeared drunk before Parliament.
In the opening chapter, she writes to her lover…a long letter about herself, in which she assesses her looks—after she has just finished assessing her looks, when recalling her drive to the airport.
(She could also quickly come to a resolution, in this matter of wavering over the married lover, by saying to him: “David, why don’t you move into my house?”)
Edith looks like Virginia Woolf; she has been told so by “several people”. This forces the assumption that she looks like the famous profile shot (comparisons of this type making a sort of subterfuge by which writers avoid the sin of vanity, while showing their characters attractive)…because if Edith looks like Virginia Woolf at fifty, probably she will not have been told so, and might not so like, in her secret mind, bragging to herself about it.
She worries over her writing, a romance called Beneath the Visiting Moon (which I keep reading as Beneath the Viking Moon, a better title for a bodice-ripper), yet by this Woolf affinity seems not inspired to a course of study to improve her writing. She tells her lover, near the end of the letter, that she thinks of him all the time; informs him, for the second time, what sort of person he is, remarks in closing that he is her life.
She has no history with the hotel, no mutual enmity with the family that owns it, but has deprecating—or depressive—words for the room, the scenery, the town. Edith has phrases—“colour and incident”; “emblematic significance”—where observations couldn’t hurt. What makes a wardrobe “costive”? Does the door stick? Is this an antique, a sort of stubborn anti-taste, or just cheapness? How is the room the color of “over-cooked veal”? (All meats overcooked sooner or later achieving the same hue, we may suppose the veal gratuitous, and the room anywhere from pink to charcoal.) But these are Edith’s descriptions; her eyes guiding the reader.
That she is passive, her taste in people-watching bourgeois, her grope for the mot juste inexact, might be taken as foreshadowing—the character’s transgression (an instance of altar-jilting), has been committed in passivity, against the perceived order of middle-class place-holding. If she were surgical in her opinions, she would have also a type of self-awareness. A self-aware woman would not, after humiliating her fiancé, tell him she is really the one who’s suffered. (She might rather, of course, tell him it was his own fault.) And if a character is never the butt of the joke, never reacts (as she would if she were) to seeing herself as others see her, but is constantly shown flattered by others; if her humbleness feels tailored to present her as “the one who is really right”, the reader assumes the author stands behind this.
Edith has had an unhappy childhood, which she recalls intermittently. She might, then, have been poorly socialized…but our attention is never consciously directed towards counting Edith dysfunctional, merely quirky and sad. (But even her sadness is because she feels deeply.)
The expected presence behind the scenes, the finger that guides the pawn, seems absent, so far as to indicate Edith’s egoism material to the novel’s plan. All the comic potential in an obstinately self-deluded woman is left to fall by the wayside, while we are given the heroine at face value, and meant to like her. Readers must like a protagonist because of her weaknesses, or despite them. Yet, even supposing the author to mean this, that Edith’s weaknesses represent an individual morality (an alternate ethos can be a legitimate literary thesis), we should see the underlying message that this is so, signaled to us in Edith’s encounters.
She is taken up by the improbable Mr. Neville, whose proposition begins with his telling her what sort of person she is. She finds this behavior not insight-inducing, but insulting. Of course the canned ending, in a “choosing the right man” story, would be the heroine’s rejecting of the rich suitor and returning to the poor one. Courage as here represented—Edith’s “rightness”—rests with her decision to impose herself once more between David and his wife.
Any protagonist’s “test” can resonate only to the extent that her problem is life-like, relatable; her choice at the end reflecting either the reader’s wish for her, or well-illuminated at least by those experiences chosen for her, and delineated in their unfolding, by the author.
The single point of view can disguise the directed stream of information, so that various approaches to story-telling give us plausibly right-choosing characters, plausible misunderstandings and tragedies. Ideally, we want every character whose choices bear on the plot’s outcome to have a logical backstory, to have his points of intersection with others expose clues for us, so we put the book down at the end of it all, and feel it was neatly done.
The Baron and the Bulge
Dialogue must be the most powerful type of writing.
Most of us, I think, leafing through a book, see dialogue sequences as welcome action; we get from these a little pleased anticipation. Things are picking up. It doesn’t take that form of narrative known as the historical present to make dialogue function as real-time. Conversation is an exchange, and the exchange, for its duration, is all. The character is not flashing back, weighing his choices, having his city and its history explained by an intervening omniscient narrator. Half a dozen straight pages of exposition tend to look, by contrast, freighted with potential boredom.
Dialogue is, of course, entirely artificial. The daydream of a muse-ridden, “natural” flow of words, does crop up…but writers use contrivances, and we know what they are. We know how to hold back information, how to mislead, how to stoke dramatic tension. And we have a number of things to convey with dialogue. This is the character’s voice; it is her life. She has inhibitions and boldnesses, words she is embarrassed to use; she has an education, she has a family—one that encouraged or rebuked her. She has a personal wish: to persuade, to be liked, to avoid being caught out.
Even the between dialogue business: “She refused to meet his eye”; “She paused, then went on”, flavors the scene—and all of that affects us as though we were watching the story unfold, rather than reading about it.
There is a challenge in which writer and reader engage together, offering and accepting a sort of literary magic trick; this is seen in works of translation, in writing done in English (as many journals require), from those whose work takes place in a non-English speaking country. Writers of English (of course, the relationship adjusted, these things apply to all languages) make characters who may both speak in another language, which must be represented in English, and speak English inexpertly.
Here are two excerpts with dialogue, taken from A Figure from the Common Lot. In the first example, Honoré speaks to his mentor, Broughton, in English; in the second, his own language, to the couple he shares a room with.
Thinking of this, he could see the complications in Broughton’s question. These were greater than he had realized. “I could give no information,” he began, finding his way. “But I would not like to refuse help. And then”—another picture came to mind—“the windows in the front are open to the street. I mean…”
He stopped, thinking he had not phrased this well.
“You mean to say,” Broughton prompted, “that one standing outside the house sees the interior quiet completely through the windows; they spanning the house-front as they do.”
Honoré nodded. “How foolish it would seem. But then, I understand, I would belong to the house…I would be as though I were at least of the household, if not knowing the business there.”
“That is the tinsmith, the Sicilian.”
“Ha! True enough.” Her eyes shone with the pleasure of giving dismaying news. “But his friend there, that one has been watching you. And him you don’t know.”
“No, he never followed you here,” Garond preempted Honoré’s question. “He knows you live at this house. No, he does not follow you at all. He waits along the street where you walk each day. He is ahead of you, not behind. He allows you to pass him by. He uses the eyes of others to keep informed. But he will not allow another to make the arrest. Then, he would not be paid.”
Honoré’s limitations are not only ill-health and poverty, self-education, those lessons he has learned by which he defines his relationship to the world—to trust this person, lie to that person, avoid this one altogether—but also his times, the 1870s. To get the language and speech habits of Second Empire France, you must read the publications of that era…better, if you can do so in French. My object has been to read the untranslated Constitutionnel, Figaro, several of the Belgian papers, some reference works; one of which, Mémoires du baron Haussmann, is the autobiographical work of a man arguably the era’s defining character.
Memoirs are written to answer critics. A British view of the baron is shown by a correspondent to the London Daily Telegraph, commenting in a report circulated July 4, 1868:
“Criticism, even of the most inimical nature, M. Haussmann does not disdain. He rather invites it, and seems well-nigh to covet it.”
The Comte de Persigny, Minister of the Interior, Haussmann’s chief who recommended him to Napoleon III as architect of the Paris renovations, said of him:
« …il aurait parlé six heures sans s’arrêter, pourvu que ce fût de son sujet favori, de lui-même. »
He has spoken for six hours without stopping, provided this was on his favorite subject, himself.
Whereas Haussmann, of Persigny, said:
« Quant à M. de Persigny, j’achevai si bien de gagner son estime, de conquérir sa confiance, qu’à la fin, il me parlait de toutes choses à coeur ouvert. »
As to M. de Persigny, I succeeded so well at the winning of his esteem, the conquering of his confidence, that at length he spoke to me of all things with an open heart.
He may have been unaware of Persigny’s private opinion, or considered the (posthumous) complimentary insult the most unanswerable of ripostes.
The memoirist has control of his own material, and can employ novelistic dialogue without having to prove its veracity, while the biographer typically can quote only transcripts, letters, diary entries, interviews. Haussmann’s style is free with long paragraphs of speech, which, excepting such as the above sources, can be only his re-creations…but give to his work a lively character, and to the researcher, if not a perfect historical document, something, at any rate, of value—a sense of the social manners of the era: who could address whom, and how.
Anti-war WWII novels are rare. Ones written in the 1950’s probably amount to a handful. Possibly not. When I am researching, I like to go as close to the source as possible. There is a meta-value, one might say, in reading participants’ accounts of history. They write in the vernacular of their times; they mention incidental detail, things now lost, that give roundness to a human being inhabiting a world.
This is the era’s true voice, which a writer of fiction wants no less than she wants facts. And the second world war was not a homogenous time of heroism. It was a time of labor unrest and race riots, these frequently at military bases.
I go to the NYT archives, and check the book section, when I’m looking for a history or novel from a particular decade. The book I’m about to recommend won’t be easy to find. (And so, of course, we don’t know how many more such books may be going extinct out there.) It’s fun, though, to snare one of the last available copies of a work nearly forgotten.
A Time to Go Home, William C. Fridley (E. P. Dutton and Co., 1951), got a lukewarm treatment from the NYT’s Charles Poore (“Disquieting for the Infantry”, July 21, 1951).
Fridley’s handling of dialogue can be fairly stagey, as Poore notes—if by this he means that the G.I.’s have an ironic, declamatory, reference-laden habit of speech, and that when they speak, they tend to sound alike. Fridley is much stronger on internal dialogue, where his people are reacting and intending, and in personal accounts, where they are providing information, than with chit-chat, where they seem to be showing off. (Likely enough, but each soldier should have his individual turn of phrase.)
I don’t as a reader find philosophical breaks objectionable, on the grounds alone, that the construct is un-lifelike. I doubt people ever speak this way. Even the articulate talk-show guest will string perhaps five or six sentences together—on the page, enough material for a paragraph. And every writer who has crafted a lengthy speech knows how much tinkering goes into a satisfactory draft. A number of writers (Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse), have made novels to expound their philosophy; they surround the quester/instructor formula with a storyline, but are otherwise comfortable in having pages of dialogue that are really prose.
Huxley’s Island has long been a favorite of mine (the hero’s vision of other people as maggots had a lot of resonance for me as a teenager), but I consider it also a template for too-much-philosophy.
Fridley’s Lieutenant Potnik, then, survives to progress through the Ardennes campaign from the book’s start to its end, meeting types, hearing what each has to impart—the meat of which remains entertaining, a feat with which to credit an author.
His intentions, however, should be discoverable in the text.
Fridley had an editor at Dutton, so no doubt chose consciously to make the narrative perspective of A Time to Go Home that of war itself, as did Émile Zola in La Débâcle (Franco-Prussian), and as authors will, at times, tell a story from the point of view of one who is not a protagonist. Thus, Fridley introduces players who are there and gone, as soldiers, refugees, resistance fighters, Red Cross workers, do meet in wartime for an hour, never to see each other again.
Poore seems to have misread or misremembered the Belgians’ story, or I think he would not have reduced their talk to “the merits and demerits of the European and American ways of life.” The scene describes the torture of a man and woman, his crawling to the street and sitting there, while others pass him by, until he has the strength to move on.
A Time to Go Home has the virtues of reportorial detail, boldness of dissent, and evenhandedness of viewpoint—in short, I call it a pleasing find.
I will mention briefly The Death of Hitler’s Germany, Georges Blond (The Macmillan Co., 1954, translated by Frances Frenaye). This history, which has a chapter on the Ardennes campaign, has an innovative style for its time, and is based on documents taken from English and German, into French; then, for this American release, English. Blond has chosen a novelist’s presentation, casting his scenes in dialogue, sometimes in thought, a portion in the form of an imaginary diary. Blond was himself a veteran, and interviewed some of the former Nazi officers. He was allowed to view the interrogation records of the American officers.
In and Out of Conservatism
Many, if not most, acts are prompted by their environment: pressured, permissive, insular, cooperative, anti-social, etc., and by the spirit of the times, whether or not the actor is fully conscious of this.
I had been thinking of the Tylenol killer, of creating a parallel to the story with a character intuitively correct; thinking, that if you could, as a writer of fiction, move this person through space and time, you might “get” him (her). I don’t assume, that for these old, unsolved crimes, the motive needs to be either money or revenge. Motive should matter less, in the resolution of an actual case, than strict mechanics—the non-negotiables. Ultimately, and we know it already, there will have been one individual for whom these all came together: time, place, impetus.
Opportunity in itself isn’t much—a crime no one thinks of as possible has the widest possible field of opportunity. The killer doesn’t need to be overly clandestine. But what he believes about himself (aggrandizement, notions of god-like and prophetic powers, justification of voyeuristic and sadistic tendencies, his jealousy and self-pity), is likely what makes him a killer at all, rather than a paranoid, disaffected outlier. His location, specialized knowledge (conceivably specialized equipment…I picture there being, within the pharmaceutical industry, such as thing as a device for filling capsules…but I’m not in the pharmaceutical industry; whereas—and the point—there are those whose professional milieu has provided them the answer), serve in driving him towards a moment of decision. But to begin it all, you need a spur, something that prods the ego.
Now, changing directions. While looking through the archives of the Chicago Tribune to learn what else had been going on (the spur), just prior to the Tylenol outbreak, I found a piece by a writer I thought had a nice way of putting things. The byline was Dick West. I did a search on Amazon to see if he’d written any books, and in that way came across An English Journey, by Richard West (Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1981).
West’s style is economical, grumpy, often funny, opinionated; his opinions largely rightist. (His obituary, in the Guardian, calls this a late development. He was famous for his reporting on Vietnam). And this made me think…as though magical infection were possible, we prefer books that reflect our own politics; we avoid the other side’s point of view.
The history of conservatism versus liberalism is the history of opposition politics, in which views shift from moderate to extreme, and alliances change, as one side circles the other. There was no incident that made me lean, for about thirty years, Republican. I had always been pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-equality under the law for all, with no making of classes, no adhering of labels. I’ve always disliked and distrusted top-heavy bureaucracies, institutionalization, and political patronage.
I understand West when he complains about modernizing the language of the King James bible, one of the most influential poem-prose works ever written (via translation).
His early account of dealing with the Equal Opportunities Commission would be wonderful satire…if it were. He quotes (page 16), in recounting this story, a few lines from “The Secret People”, by G. K. Chesterton (1907), so good that I include them here.
They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
West opposes housing towers, rightly points out the difficulty in sending emergency help to upper floor residents, sympathizes with locals priced out of home ownership by incomers who leave their vacation investments standing empty. He points out that more of England’s historic buildings have been lost to improvement schemes of the sixties, than to the bombs of WWII. He dislikes big oil, Rio Tinto, shopping centers, nuclear missiles, and the silliness of euphemistic new names for things—as when West says of the Dickens House (now Museum) “…at least it isn’t called the Dickens Heritage Center—” (page 127).
But he seems also to believe that the socialists invented drug addiction, while still he opposes the decriminalization of marijuana; and that an army of leftist social workers are responsible for women rejecting their traditional roles. He is nostalgic for corporal punishment, and blames trade unionism for the decline of industry.
To criticize, as West does, the awarding of prizes to all participants, works as a deploring of watered-down values only if it can be true that mere differences in talent and perseverance separate one player from another. For those not allowed on the team (both in literal and metaphorical terms), or those to whom the ball is never passed, that they can never win has been their reality. And if they get to play, they will have persevered long and hard for that chance alone.
To condemn societal explanations for crime, is again to suppose everyone’s experience of society is the same; that punishment, of some stripe, matters as a preventative to those who have never known reward.
All this is food for thought, a looking back on those days when my politics locked into conservative mode…but in truth, not merely disagreeing with much of Republicanism, I also didn’t at that time care about issues—to know what they were, or to read about them. While I would never have supported the Nixon and Reagan era campaigns to destabilize Latin American left-leaning regimes, Allende, Pinochet, Somoza, Romero, Stroessner, were names I hadn’t heard of, or barely noticed. Iran-Contra bored me.
When we look at political rallies, or the big rah-rah recruitment shows put on for salespeople, we see how readily the human mind attributes explanations to feelings that, in truth, and by design, came first. Sensory stimulants (of types known reliably to be so since Pavlov’s experiments were first publicized in the 1920’s): loud music, heavy drumbeats, group chanting of slogans and singing of anthems, flashing light shows, flashing imagery on overhead monitors—raise pulses, numb thought, and drown hearing. The attendee is excited, biochemically speaking. The attendee soon receives sound bites of ideology.
The attendee feels the reason for the excitement is the ideology.
As well, unexamined ideology can persuade when it resembles something we think we believe. Localism is very close to nationalism, though more associated with leftward thinking. While the localist can be a bully, an exclusionist, and a snob, the person attracted to “us and only us” can find, in nationalist politics, a club that welcomes everyone…other than minorities, women, the elderly, the disabled, immigrants, people of other faiths…
However, the nationalist version of exclusivism permits shopping at Walmart and consumption of non-organic produce.
My theory, as to comfort politics—ideas we settle into, that can’t bear up under deconstruction—is somewhat Jungian. We are powerless over the actions of our leaders, but dependent on them. We, the people, know little of statecraft, and can’t do much about what we do know. We have to trust our leaders; therefore, we may be happier with greater detachment from them, a degree of mythologizing.
The male elder is a strong archetype, one deeply ingrained in our culture, though we internalize this in ways that may seem lightweight. TV shows, especially those with a conflict resolution structuring—cop shows (The Streets of San Francisco), hospital shows (Marcus Welby, MD), legal dramas (Perry Mason), science fiction (Star Trek)…but also soap operas, commercials, sitcoms, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, always have this figure—and their goggle-eyed young casts rely on him. (The 1970’s, bedrock culture for a couple of voting generations presently stirring trouble.)
The elder’s aphorisms are gnomic, obscure in meaning; he sends the young quester off to learn from his mistakes. Frodo (to take a popular example) couldn’t destroy the ring until both mentors, Gandalf and Aragorn, had been left behind, and the choices were his own. The quest loses a lot of its majesty if we picture Human Resources (Human Capital?) on the heels of the hero: “If you had read the company manual, you would know the recommended procedure.” A sage doesn’t say, “If you had, as required by the change of rules, phrased your request using gender-neutral language… However, since you’ve made a mistake, I’m taking points off, and you’ll have to start again.”
More than the product of cultural conditioning, the elder makes us feel safe. We require of him those two qualities: the obscure phrasings that sound like wisdom, and the hands-off attitude. The opposite of these would be the pedantic and the meddling.
Mr. Reagan and the Bushes, elected presidents, were criticized for cronyism and anti-intellectualism. But did they speak reassuringly and non-specifically, and did they leave a great deal alone?
Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry…sage-like, or pedantic and meddling? Do Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seem to have more in common with the above list, or were both, by comparison, worldly-wise, inclined to seem…in Clinton’s case, older brotherly and laid back; Obama a father figure to younger Americans. The Boomers and post-Boomers may be the youngest middle-agers thus far, but Obama’s presidency marked a true divide, between the late twentieth century’s cultural model, and the early twenty-first century’s.
How then do we read the present trend, considering the American office-holder could be a father figure only to a dysfunctional household, where sons and daughters are inured to being shouted at, and the phrase “get out” rings through the halls? Well, it’s worth considering what a woman leader represents to a constituency—mother or Minerva? Europe seems to have settled comfortably for Minerva, but America, I think, still seeks a mother. (And rejects her.)
Offensively behaved people, right or left, have the power to turn away their own potential allies. A secret elite, one improbably consisting of artists and scientists, that yet has pre-emptive power over Big Industry, is an illusion, a stand-in for the frustration of everyday rebuke. The one-two punch of political correctness begins with false positioning, then moves too quickly for the accused to catch up, to categorizing, making her guilty of “being”, rather than “doing”. The rebuker seals the deal by not permitting the accused to agree with him. Apologies are “words”; a wish to join forces an affront, committed by one who “doesn’t belong”.
We would do well to assume what is certainly true, that most people want to get along with others, that many may be ignorant or ill-informed, but that few act deliberately to cause hurt and harm. So many who don’t want to see nationalism on the rise, have been pushed to the political margin by an aversive reaction to pure unpleasantness.
In actuality, do we need customer reviews?
People reportedly give a greater number of ratings in the four-star range than any other. We withhold a degree of our enthusiasm, we don’t five-star as often…and what makes a thing good, but not very good, fair but not good, we haven’t fully decided. We leave an unexplained gulf between fair and rotten, opinions that ought to stand further apart than “good” and “very good.”
The world still retains a portion of its professional critics, concerned with literature, with entertainment in general…and qualified either by their education, their luck in employment, or by having eked out a following, one blog post at a time.
Because I won’t star, because it’s essentially meaningless, but potentially misleading, and I don’t think down-rating people with a purely subjective system does any creator or seller justice (I’ve read books I disliked but didn’t think were badly written. How do you star that?), I rarely, these days, write product reviews—but my choice, if I were making the rules, would be to limit commentary to three hundred words, offer no quick visual whatever (no stars, no blurbs, no shorthand to judgment, no market for fakery); but ask the reviewer to answer a question of his/her choice. What made you want to read this book? What surprised you about this book?…etc.
Here’s a story: In the early years of the 20th century, England had a popular chain of restaurants called Lyon’s Corner House. I first encountered this milieu in Voyagers of the Titanic, by Richard Davenport-Hines (HarperCollins, 2012). He quotes, on page 121, the author Theodore Dreiser; Dreiser says, of a 1912 visit: “An enormous crowd of very commonplace people were there—clerks, minor officials, clergymen, small shop-keepers—and the bill of fare was composed of many homely dishes…” (Kidney pie, if you like.)
My research purpose had been to find “respectable work” for a woman, middle class, circa 1918. Instead of Lyon’s, I kept coming across a two-line advertisement, as follows:
THE QUEEN SAYS: “Is no less thrilling and ingenious than the author’s former stories of mystery and crime.”
The royal blurb would have been Alexandra’s. The book was The Corner House, by Fred Merrick White. White, as I learned from his Wikipedia entry (which seems to question whether he is important enough to have one) was an early twentieth century author of mystery, science fiction, even of a proto spy thriller. He was big in his day, serialized all over the place.
A sample of Edward VII’s wife’s taste in novels:
“She [the Countess Lelage] smashed her fan across her knee, she tore her long gloves into fragments. Dimly, in a mirror opposite, she saw her white ghastly face, and the stain of blood where she had caught her lips between her teeth.”
The Corner House, page 15 (R. F. Fenno & Company, 1906.)
There is good reason for writers who set their stories in history to read the popular novels of an earlier era, and not just for the fun of such un-inhibition. Our characters have to live in the world they knew. There were mass market books in Edwardian times, too, and leisure reading has always influenced opinion. Once the concept of serious novels for the intelligentsia came to serve as a benchmark, a countess couldn’t so freely react to a man’s confiding he’d proposed marriage to her governess.
Here’s another story: I was watching the TV show Restoration Home on YouTube. They flashed a document on the screen, a legal paper, one of the signatures a woman’s, her last name one from my family. I got onto the British Newspaper Archive, searched the late pre-independence eighteenth century (1750-1780) and found clusters of potential ancestors here and there: Chester, Taunton, Bath, another group near Leeds, one in Gloucestershire.
After reading a little of a Trowbridge genealogy (connections, not ancestors), specifically, The Trowbridge Genealogy, by Francis Bacon Trowbridge, “printed for the compiler”, 1908, it occurred to me I’ve never known anything about the Fosters. I found The Foster Genealogy, by Frederick Clifton Pierce, “published by the author”, 1899. It may mean nothing to me…however, Mr. Pierce’s patron, a man named Volney Foster, was an Illinoisan.
Now, bear with this thesis. Learning about your ancestors is an anti-totalitarian act. The totalitarian state becomes so by separating the individual from his/her sense of identity. The goal of the state is obedience, ignorance and dependence are the servants of obedience, individualism* and autonomy its enemies. The mechanisms of authoritarianism find their way into every entity of human civilization, so that, in the workplace, in the schools, in the community, in every minor bureaucracy, including the administration of charities, you find the roots of the totalitarian state—the wish to suppress differences and control information—which may under favorable conditions sprout (to extend the metaphor), blocking the sun with their weedy growth.
Dictatorships oppose freedom of religion—many have opposed religion itself—because a spiritual leader divides the subject’s loyalty, gives her alternate guidance, an alternate authority to turn to when she doesn’t trust the state. Anything that creates pride in the personal exists in opposition to the state. The dictator does not want you asking yourself, “What would Anacher the Great Forester of Flanders do?”
So discover your family history, take pride in it. There is only one you.
*I came across a canard that deserves a call-out: an article (“Big Bad Bully” Psychology Today, 1995) associates tolerance for bullies with America’s “rugged individualism”. No. Bullying is born in a group environment, and fueled by group behavior.
Good piece on ratings: NYT June 7, 2016 “Online Reviews? Researchers Give Them a Low Rating.”