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A Calculated Chaos–Chesterton’s Manalive

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)Having been quite pleased by The Man Who Was Thursday a couple of years ago, I eagerly attacked another Chesterton novel, Manalive. Unfortunately, when I read Thursday, I really did not read. Instead, I consumed a Librivox recording of the novel. The audiobooks at Librivox range from the very good to the unlistenable. I endured the reader of Manalive for perhaps five minutes before determining that I could not tolerate this voice for the duration.

Somehow, this little tale of non-readership seems to fit with the novel in question. Manalive seems to be a combination of Dead Poets’ Society and The Screwtape Letters. In fact, the light-hearted nature of Chesterton’s work, the same sort of feel that one gets from Screwtape, might be the highest recommendation for this book. Chesterton seems to be holding the sanctimonious but supposedly unfettered types that populate the pseudo-Transcendentalist works up to a close and unforgiving inspection, arriving at the conclusion that the truly emancipated, the truly alive person is the one who has been liberated from the burden of sin.

This novel revolves around the arrival at a London boarding house of Innocent Smith, a man who may or may not be a school friend of one of the other lodgers. Smith turns the house on its head, much to the delight of virtually all the inhabitants. However, his hijinks do not please everyone, and Smith is put on trial, accused of being insane and dangerous.

The bulk of the novel relates in a “tell don’t show” fashion the accusations and explanations for many of Innocent Smith’s past misdeeds. As it turns out, we discover that he only shoots pistols in the general direction of people in order to make them feel more alive. He runs off with a series of women who mysteriously disappear, but in fact he is really running off with his wife who, each time she is “won,” drops her false identity. His history of house-breaking and burglary involves him breaking into his own home.

The chaos that Innocent Smith brings wherever he goes is clearly well considered. Granted, Chesterton’s premise is rather forced, but my real impatience with this novel lies with its rather glacial pace. Once the trial of Innocent Smith has begun and before the book has reached its midpoint, the point that Chesterton seeks to make emerges clearly. Imagine that The Sixth Sense had revealed its twist ending half-way through the film and then proceeded to make and re-make the point for the next forty minutes.

Have I missed the charm or depth of this book? Perhaps. If so, let me know what I should have seen.


Posted in English Literature, Realism.

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Reading the Charges–Howells’ The Minister’s Charge

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)Although it does not carry the reputation of The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells’ follow-up novel, The Minister’s Charge, may be the better work because of its greater focus. That’s a theory in process. What are we to make of this book? The question can begin with the title. Clearly the “charge” in question is the young man, Lemuel Barker, who feels himself encouraged to come from country to city by the same Reverend Sewell who gave such glib advice to the Laphams in the previous novel. To cement that assertion, we see the alternate title:  The Apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker.

The problem with this pair of titles and the overall reading of the novel is that Sewell and the socially established set in which he travels gives takes so little real responsibility for Barker. In fact, the Barker’s problems erupt first of all when he takes seriously the polite encouragement of his poetry and then when Sewell, barely allowing the boy across his threshold, pushes him out into the night where he is quickly victimized by the streets of Boston.

In the ensuing chapters, Sewell does render some assistance to Barker, but he never seems willing to actually dirty his hands with the young man. This supposed man of Christ, clearly sees Barker as beneath him. Even his protestations to the contrary seem to underscore that bias.

“Why, suppose the boy really had some literary faculty, should I have had any right to encourage it? He was very well where he was. He fed the cows and milked them, and carried the milk to the crossroads, where the dealer collected it and took it to the train. That was his life, with the incidental facts of cutting the hay and fodder, and bedding the cattle; and his experience never went beyond it. I doubt if his fancy ever did, except in some wild, mistaken excursion. Why shouldn’t he have been left to this condition? He ate, he slept, he fulfilled his use. Which of us does more?”

“How would you like to have been in his place?” asked his wife.

“I couldn’t put myself in his place; and therefore I oughtn’t to have done anything to take him out of it,” answered Sewell.

Lest we drop all of the blame at Sewell’s feet, much of his lack of assistance to Barker is encouraged by his wife who, despite her theoretical defense of the boy–”How would you like to have been in his place?”–repeatedly finds his occasional visits to the parsonage annoying and out of place. Clearly, Barker is not the Sewell’s “sort of people.”

Sewell clearly does not take his “charge” as seriously as he might, nor does he behave as an adequate “master” to the apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker. Instead, the “charge” in the title can be seen as a legal charge against Sewell. Given the considerable talent that Barker demonstrates as he proceeds through the novel, one can only imagine how easily he would have progressed in life had the minister’s “ministry” have come ahead of his problems rather than in guilty response to them.

It is difficult to read this novel and not think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ Samaritan has even less reason to “dirty his hands” with the man on the side of the road, yet he takes the initiative, he inconveniences himself, and he behaves as a neighbor, something which Sewell really never manages.

Whether Howells intended it or not, The Minister’s Charge stands as an indictment of the arms-length charity of elite society. Even at his best, David Sewell is an “expert in the law,” performing only the good works that social standards demand.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Foresight Is 20/20–Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898)Hindsight, a proverb says, is 20/20. But in the case of Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel, Looking Backward, it is foresight that supposedly earns that distinction. It is, of course, rather easy to predict the future when you place your target far enough ahead so that no one living is likely to be able to call you on the failure of your prognostications. In fairness, though, I am holding Bellamy to a standard that should not be imposed upon him. Let’s examine the premise of this book: a man from 1887 wakes up after mysteriously snoozing away 113 years in a secret chamber of his Boston home, which happened to burn to the ground on the very evening that a friend put him into a trance (the sort of trance that allows the body to forego all normal metabolic functions for over a century) and then this friend conveniently left the country leaving no one about to say, “Hey, Julian West probably didn’t die when his house burned down. He’s probably just hynotized in the basement.” Yes, this is a remarkably plausible premise.

Despite dropping this premise and a supposedly prescient view of the world at the turn of the century after next, Bellamy clearly did not set out to predict the future. Instead, he intended to suggest a form that the future could take if people were just bright enough to allow his socialist vision to make virtually every decision in how society would be framed.

Why is Looking Backward remembered largely as an historical and philosophical artifact and not as a great work of literature? We can understand this by comparing Bellamy’s book–I really hate to dignify it as a novel–with a couple of other decidedly second-rate but still superior works that have been explored in this space. The improbabilities behind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland–a King Solomon’s Mines-style, lost-kingdom book and behind William Dean Howells’ A Traveler from Altruria–in which rather than visiting the lost kingdom, we encounter a visitor from that place–are similar in degree with those in Looking Backward, but these books have what Bellamy’s story lacks: a plot and actual, narrated events.

The action–if we can call it such–of this book is almost exclusively dialogue, long, tedious, policy- and process-laden dialogue between West and his 21st century adopted family. We learn about each facet of this new world through chapters that conveniently explore a theme or two at a time. We learn about the education system, the labor system, the methods of international trade, women’s issues, and a dozen other areas of concern.

In the end, Bellamy escapes into the escape hatch employed by feeble writers in every creative writing class: It was all just a dream. Then he begs off of that exit and decides that maybe it wasn’t all a dream after all. Honestly, I have to wonder how Bellamy kept people reading to the end in his own day and how so many impressionable people could be gulled into a serious discussion of his book’s ideas.

The ultimate failure in Bellamy’s work, and the reason we should all be pleased that Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote fiction, lies in the absence of what makes Hawthorne and Melville great: flawed human nature. Bellamy seems to have seriously believed that people could behave themselves in a perfectly equitable society. Leaders, in his mind, would not abuse their power, and the vast majority of people, given the opportunity to pick their own profession, would pick wisely. Apparently, some people would actually choose to dig ditches and collect garbage, when they might opt for far less odious occupation.

Couple naivete with a decided lack of narrative skill, and you have Edward Bellamy, an interesting social thinker, an historically significant figure, but a truly inconsequential artist.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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The Well Calculated Risk–Melville’s “The Lightning-Rod Man”

Herman Melville (1819-1891)One almost has to read Melville’s story “The Lightning-Rod Man” as allegory or think the writer completely mad for offering such a peculiar tale. Indeed, over the past half century or so, scholars have latched onto this story with the sort of feverish enthusiasm produced by any story that clearly offers symbolism but unclearly indicates what is signified. For Eric Wertheimer, the story is a tale of commercialism and the illusory quality of home security, while most others have taken some sort of religious reading. Most commonly, the salesman of lightning rods is seen as a represenative of revivalist Christianity, preaching gloom and doom at a moment of apparent peril. In short, he can be read as Jonathan Edwards, offering a commodified version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Given Melville’s history in the “Burned Over District,” such a reading seems reasonable. It doesn’t explain why the story is apparently set in Albania–with its reference to the Acroceraunian hills–but there is a thoroughgoing exotic quality to this story. The characters, places, and situations seem simultaneously familiar and foreign.

Let’s assume for a moment that the key to Melville’s allegory is indeed religion rather than science or commercialism. In such a case, the mysterious lightning-rod salesman, a fellow who appears only in the midst of particularly ominous thunderstorms, would seem to stand as a representative of religious faith. A lightning-filled world poses dire physical (and even more significant) threats in this man’s mind, and he possesses the only key to salvation, a three-pronged lightning rod sure to deflect the wrath of an vengeful deity.

The narrator and host, then, stands in as a skeptical auditor of this lightning evangelist’s gospel. Far from being cowed into submission, the narrator mocks the lightning-rod man and the danger that he espouses.

“You pretended envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to and from Jupiter Tonans,” laughed I; “you mere man who come here to put you and your pipestem between clay and sky, do you think that because you can strike a bit of green light from the Leyden jar, that you can thoroughly avert the supernal bolt? Your rod rusts, or breaks, and where are you? Who has empowered you, you Tetzel, to peddle round your indulgences from divine ordinations? The hairs of our heads are numbered, and the days of our lives. In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God. False negotiator, away! See, the scroll of the storm is rolled back; the house is unharmed; and in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow, that the Deity will not, of purpose, make war on man’s earth.”

The combination of sarcasm with scientific debunking and semi-religious phraseology explains the angry response of the lightning-rod man. Clearly the narrator is not the most accomodating of hosts, but his attacks, while provoking the salesman to local anger, do not slow his efforts. At the story’s close, we learn that he “still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”

Accepting that the lightning-rod man represents an evangelist, either of religious salvation or home safety, and that the narrator rejects and in fact inverts the very claims of peril on which the sales pitch is constructed, the question that a reader must ask is how to interpret the wisdom of the narrator’s stance. Clearly neither the narrator’s house nor his person have been dashed apart by lightning as of his telling of this story, but such fortune neither proves nor disproves the wisdom of his course of action.

One cannot be entirely sure of Melville’s attitude toward his skeptical narrator in the way that one can be sure of, for example, Bunyan’s attitudes toward his various characters. Does this narrator speak for Melville? Does Melville offer him for tacit condemnation? Or is the author more ambivalent, simply presenting the story for our interpretation. Given what we know of Melville’s biography and other work, the direct critique of the religious seems likely but hardly a settled matter.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Someone is Watching–Beckett’s “Film”

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)In 1965, Samuel Beckett created his one and only effort at film, a seventeen-minute offering entitled, cleverly enough, “Film.” Starring silent-film veteran Buster Keaton, this brief silent plays just as inscrutably as some of Beckett’s minimalist work. (I’m thinking of “Breath” here.)

Happily we do not have to journey to some trendy theater to witness “Film,” but can enjoy it for free on our computer screens thanks to the nice people at Open Culture.

If you don’t want to wade through a quarter hour of Beckett-style squalor, here’s the synopsis. Keaton, seen only from the back for most of the film, scurries through a rubbly urban landscape, nearly knocking over a couple he encounters. They look straight into the camera and are horrified. By Keaton? That’s not clear. Entering his apartment house, he comes upon an old woman. She too is horrified, but again it isn’t clear if he is the object of her shock. He then enters a singularly dismal apartment with a bed that looks as if someone melted on it.

He draws the tattered blinds, covers the cat, the birdcage, the mirror, and other items around the room. Eventually he sits in a rocking chair and gazes at a print of a curious, Assyrian-looking face. After a moment, he snatches the item from the wall and rips it up. Then he sits again and looks through several photos, apparently of his life, that suggest happier days. When he reaches a portrait of himself much as he now appears, he begins to rip these up, moving backward to his infancy. Then he sees a horrifying figure before him. It is…him. He collapses into the chair, covering his eyes. “The horror, the horror.”

I’m not sure how to respond to a film like this. Part of me wants to dismiss it as mid-century French (Irish) posturing. The attitude is not terribly different from that of the gloomy goth kids one sees today: Life is really terrible and bleak and awful, and we’re really clever and hip for realizing that. Is Beckett really no better than a late adolescent? Having read Waiting for Godot, I have to think he was.

A Christian reading of this film is fairly obvious. Who, after all, is the eye that follows our “hero”? Is it society? Himself? Or is it God? I’m not sure that it really matters? We can assert that God sees all, but the key thing in “Film,” whether we interpret it from a theistic or atheistic viewpoint, is the awareness that the character has of himself. I would argue that the other characters, the three who react in horror to something, are similarly aware of the true nature of themselves.

Keaton’s character realizes himself as those Isaiah prophesies against in Isaiah 64:6-7:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

Beckett correctly sees humanity in all its depravity. That much is admirable, but how do we respond to that depravity? Do we wallow in despair or reach out to the only source of hope. In Beckett’s universe, that hope is illusory and pointless. I’m pleased, on this Good Friday, to suggest that the light Keaton attempts to block out with his shabby curtains is not just an accusing light but a hopeful light.

Posted in Existentialism, Irish Literature.

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From the Porous to the Buffered: Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”

John Milton (1608-74)“Way leads on to way,” as Frost tells us, and my recent reading in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has me looking into various unfamiliar ways. Specifically, I’ve been intrigued by Taylor’s references to the Waldensians, a religious movement that ran afoul of Catholic orthodoxy before Luther came on the scene. I had heard of this group before, but I knew only that they were a group deemed heretical. As it turns out, they stand as poster children for Taylor’s complicating account of the move from what he terms a “porous” age, when lives were seen as intertwined with each other and a world seen and unseen, and a “buffered” age, when the only things that matter are within individual minds.
Peter Waldo, the leader of the Waldensians, led his group from the late 12th century into the early 13th, placing him more than 300 years before Luther. Some 450 years had passed by the time of the 1655 massacre memorialized by Milton in this sonnet:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones
       Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
       Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
       When all our fathers worshipp’d stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
       Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
       Slain by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
       Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they
       To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
       O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
       A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
What I find somewhat remarkable about the historical background to this poem is that 450-year span. Looking back on the “bad old days” of the Reformation and just before, we are allowed to believe that all dissent was quickly and cruelly stamped out by the Inquisition and other jack-booted assets of the Roman Church. Somehow, though, the Waldensians managed to hang onto their lives and their faith for centuries, predating Luther by a long span and surviving through the most active years of Counter-Reformation adversity.
Looking back on this event from our buffered world, we find conclusions easy to draw. The poor Waldensians simply wanted to worship in their own chosen manner. When they refused to conform to the authorized religion, they were set upon by soldiers. Of course, Charles Emmanuel II, the Duke of Savoy who ordered the attack, would have seen it differently. In his eyes, living within the porous mindset, he could not simply tolerate these people. To allow them to exist outside the control of the church would be like tolerating a carrier of the bubonic plague working in a restaurant. In a day before germ theory, those living in the porous world saw religious dissent as a contagion, a dangerous element that could not be ignored.
Notice that for all his modern aspects, Milton has not moved fully into the buffered mindset of the Renaissance and beyond. He does not say, “Why couldn’t the Pope just leave the poor Waldensians alone?” Instead, he simply inverts the players. In his mind, the Waldensians are those “who kept thy truth so pure of old,” while the Catholic forces are condemned as the “Babylonian woe.” It is virtually impossible for anyone, religious or not, living in the buffered age,  to fully understand the porous mindset. Milton’s sonnet, hardly the finest work he ever produced, provides some small glimpse into it, yet leaves most modern readers a bit uneasy, rather like the closing lines of Psalm 137, which Milton fairly clearly means to evoke:
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Somehow, very little church music sets those words, and especially that last sentence, and offers them for Sunday worship.

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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Appropriated Legends–Longfellow’s Hiawatha

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)When Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha in 1855, he experiened immediate success. As with most of his work, critical attention in the intervening years has not demonstrated the same sort of enthusiasm. Just as most of the interest in “Paul Revere’s Ride” has been in attacking the historicity of the poem, the bulk of the attention to Hiawatha has focused on demonstrating its lack of fidelity to Native American legends. While such scholarship has value, it suggests that Longfellow’s poem has no value on its own.

One can’t read Hiawatha without hearing echoes of virtually the entire Western canon in addition to the intentional usage of Ojibwe legends. In fact, Longfellow describes the works as “this [American] Indian Edda,” taking the references far into Europe. What did Longfellow intend to create in the pages of Hiawatha? Hiawatha seems at turns to be Achilles, Hercules, and even a Christ figure.

Before the United States got itself into full empire-building mode, the Romantic-infused crowd with which Longfellow ran were grabbing up cultural territory and bending it to their own purposes. One need look no further than the Unitarianism that flowed from Harvard Divinity School during the early years of the 19th century, perhaps best exemplified by William Ellery Channing. The vocabulary of this movement corresponded to the Christian vocabulary, but the meanings were significantly different.

This is, I would argue, what Longfellow does in various poems when he invokes Christian images and themes. At various points in Hiawathawe hear Christian-sounding ideas only to see them resist a thoroughly Christian interpretation. Hiawatha experiences a miraculous, semi-divine birth, and part five’s account of his fasting suggests the temptation of Jesus before transforming into an evocation of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

 “From the Master of Life descending,
I, the friend of man, Mondamin,
Come to warn you and instruct you,
How by struggle and by labor
You shall gain what you have prayed for.
Rise up from your bed of branches,
Rise, O youth, and wrestle with me!”

As in Genesis, the wrestling goes on a very long time. As in Genesis, the opponent is a mysterious creation, apparently human but apparently somehow non-human. In this case, Hiawatha prevails and, as so often happens in wrestling matches, kills his opponent. He buries him and allows him to sprout into the first maize.

In the final section of the poem, a white Catholic missionary appears and begins teaching about Jesus. Longfellow offers precious little detail on what that teaching involved. Instead, Hiawatha welcomes the missionary, who begins:

 And the Black-Robe chief made answer,
Stammered in his speech a little,
Speaking words yet unfamiliar:
“Peace be with you, Hiawatha,
Peace be with you and your people,
Peace of prayer, and peace of pardon,
Peace of Christ, and joy of Mary!”

As much as I would like to serve as an historical apologist for Christianity, I am fairly certain that this was not how the first encounter between Christians and any Native American group went down. And after welcoming these people who, if they are teaching any Christianity worth crossing waters to teach, will be undermining nearly every important thing that the previous twenty-one sections of the poem have presented as true, Hiawatha get into his magical canoe and heads off into the mists.

Longfellow appropriates the stories and images of the Jewish and Christian scriptures in order to graft them into his own Romantic legend just as surely as he appropriates the Native American legends for inclusion in his work, bending them both to his own ends. But what is that end? Longfellow seems intent on crafting a vision of America where benign Christianity gently pushed back a magical and heroic age. Yet one has to wonder, as the drumbeat of Longfellow’s trochaic verses ends, if we are truly to believe this to be a satisfying end. On the other hand, it is perhaps as satisfying an end as Homer gave Odysseus or Achilles.


Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Art Gratia Artis–Longfellow’s “Nuremberg”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Margaret Fuller had limited respect for Longfellow, saying things roughly the equivalent of those who dismiss Norman Rockwell as a talented illustrator. One of her quibbles with the poet lay in his tendency to translate, either literally or figuratively, the things of foreign climes for the American readership. How odd then that perhaps her most fulsome praise of Longfellow comes as he writes a poem from Germany.

InNuremberg are charming passages. Indeed, the whole poem is one of the happiest specimens of Mr. L.’s poetic feeling, taste and tact in making up a rosary of topics and images.

Like most of Longfellow’s output, “Nuremberg” is charming, tripping easily off the tongue. But in reading those lines, I find myself stuck on a couple of the poet’s illustrations, namely Nuremberg residents Albrecht Durer and Hans Sachs.

Not thy Councils, not thy Kaisers, win for thee the world’s regard;
But thy painter, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Sachs thy cobbler bard.

In both of these figures, Longfellow seems to find artistic heroes, the sort of creators whom Emerson or Keats champions. Consider his coverage of Durer:

Here, when Art was still religion, with a simple, reverent heart,
Lived and labored Albrecht Dürer, the Evangelist of Art;

Hence in silence and in sorrow, toiling still with busy hand,
Like an emigrant he wandered, seeking for the Better Land.

Emigravit is the inscription on the tomb-stone where he lies;
Dead he is not, but departed, — for the artist never dies.

How intriguing that “Art” carries a capital letter but “religion” does not. Indeed, if I read the poet correctly, I am to understand that Art itself was a religion, yet my understanding of Durer’s work would definitely subordinate art to faith. In the second line quoted above, again, Longfellow inverts what I would understand to be the proper order of things. Durer was far more the artist of evangelism than the Evangelist of Art.  A couple of lines later, Durer’s tombstone is considered. Apparently, in Longfellow’s view, Durer’s epitaph is irrelevant. “Emigravit,” suggests that the artist buried within has departed, yet the poet would keep him there, “for the artist never dies.” Had he not departed, one imagines the painter of the Reformation rolling over in that grave.

The same can be said for the “cobbler-poet” Hans Sachs. What has Longfellow to say of this figure?

Here Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, laureate of the gentle craft,
Wisest of the Twelve Wise Masters, in huge folios sang and laughed.

He then goes on to speak of Sachs’ old home, now converted to a tavern. Does he do Sachs justice? A notable poet, indeed, Sachs was, like Durer an artist of the Reformation, someone risking reputation and possibly life in the advance of something far more significant and enduring than mere artistic expression.

Virtually every image that Longfellow captures during his tour of Nuremberg originates with a Christian passion but is stripped down to a celebration of the human spirit. I would argue that both Fuller and Longfellow are entitled to their humanism, but for either of them to read that humanism back into the lives of those who championed a perilous religious freedom strikes me as dishonest and unkind.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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The Story Teaches–Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)On the centennial of Longfellow’s birth, William Dean Howells wrote an appreciation of the poet’s work in The North American Review in which he praised the work but pointed out what he perceived as  ad  defect.

[I]t is interesting to note how, in certain of his most popular poems, which are often his best, the ethical strain seems an afterthought, and the moral is as plainly a tag as any text coming out of the mouth of a saint in an archaic picture. “The Village Blacksmith” is entirely a poem, if you leave off the needless last two stanzas in which it becomes a homily.

Struck by this claim, I went back to read that poem and to pay special heed to what Howells declared to be the useless final stanzas. Indeed, the first thirty-six lines concisely present images of sight and sound that clearly describe this man and place him within his community. Given the brevity of the portrayal, the reader feels that they know a great deal about the blacksmith from those lines. Then we come to the last twelve lines. Since you may not have that entire poem committed to memory, I’ll repeat those offending stanzas here.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!

In retrospect, Howells has a great point. Do we really need to have a neon sign illuminated with an arrow saying, “Here’s the Point”? Consider a poem by a much less gifted artist, Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue,” which my father, late in his life, could not recite without tearing up. In that work, Field exhibits the confidence to simply paint the picture and trust in his own abilities and the cleverness of his reader to understand the message.

Longfellow, at least in this example, lacks the confidence that animated the best narrative writers of the Bible. In the spare stories of Genesis or Mark, we have sufficient details to understand. Rarely do the Biblical writers find themselves explaining the “moral of the story.” As I recall, in only one case, the Parable of the Sower, does Jesus explain the meaning behind his allegory.

Howell’s appreciation of Longfellow is intriguing for its contrast with his reputation in literary circles today. While my undergraduate American Literature survey completely ignored this writer, Howells held him up as comparing favorably with Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. What accounts for the drop in Longfellow’s stock? Or was Howells the one misjudging the poet’s merits? These are good questions that probably resist simple answers.

One thing that comes to mind is that Longfellow’s strengths lie in his form. Perhaps no American poet has ever shown such a facility for making complex verse forms sing. At his best, Frost does this, but Longfellow rarely fails to sound as if he as absolute control, working in a variety of forms. Form, it seems, warrants little respect today, perhaps because the poem has shifted its venue from the family sitting room to the college classroom.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Nature vs. Nature–Longfellow’s “Nature”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)Why is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not a Transcendentalist poet? One has only to read Longfellow’s verse in close proximity to that of Emerson or Thoreau or Jones Very in order to recognize that he is the better poet, and his themes mark him as clearly a romantic in orientation, far more inclined in that direction than, for example, Washington Irving. Longfellow’s sympathies lay with the Unitarian cause, virtually a prerequisite for Transcendentalist membership. And although Longfellow seems to be a product of a previous generation, he was four years the junior of Emerson and attended Bowdoin with Hawthorne, who might have become a Transcendentalist under different circumstances. Where, then, does Longfellow not fit into this camp, an outsider status that, in my opinion stands to his credit?

Both Emerson and Longfellow wrote considerably on the topic of nature, in fact, both penning a work with that single word as the title. Longfellow’s “Nature,” far less significant than Emerson’s, is  a sonnet that can be seen to illustrate the distinction between the Transcendentalist and this poet.

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
Henry James, Sr. famously declared Emerson as our “fair unfallen friend,” pronouncing him “literally the most childlike, unconscious and unblushing egoist it has ever been my forgune to encounter in the ranks of manhood.” Such could not be said of Longfellow. Like Hawthorne and perhaps Melville, Longfellow found himself drawn in the direction of the Transcendentalist zeitgeist, but held back by an awareness of the fallenness of human nature. In fact, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Melville could be described as populated different points on a spectrum of awareness of sin from the semi-optimistic Longfellow to the fairly bleak Melville.
What was Longfellow’s view of nature? The poem above, rather like Emerson’s Nature seems at first blush to say very little about nature itself. Where are the flowers and ducks and rocks and trees? That wasn’t what interested the man. Where Emerson sees nature as a source of mystical knowledge, a force that leads to life, Longfellow recognizes nature as a force leading to death with only the hope of a hazy hereafter to lessen the pain. Nature, in Longfellow’s eyes, “takes away our playthings one by one.” Here, the poet describes a very ambivalent view. In the final lines, the subject is “too full of sleep to understand how far the unknown transcends the what we know.” What does that mean? Is Longfellow referring to an ineffable afterlife, something that the dimming faculties of humanity cannot comprehend? Or is he suggesting that this lack of perception has nothing of consequence to perceive? While I incline toward the former, I believe these lines can be read both ways.
As attractive as the Transcendentalist camp might be, I find Longfellow’s view to be more realistic. And as I read him, I wonder whether the little glimmers of a nascent Christian thought that I perceive were placed there by the poet or inserted by the reader.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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