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The Chiasmus of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain (1835-1910)The standard image of Mark Twain’s masterwork, Huckleberry Finn is of Huck and Jim alone on the raft, making their way down the Mississippi. In reality, the raft sequence makes up only about half of the novel and the portion of that half during which Huck and Jim are alone on the raft is considerably more brief. In order to get a handle on this novel, it might be useful to consider the overall structure of Twain’s narrative.

One of the more obvious elements of the book’s structure can be found at the beginning and end. In the opening chapters, Huck is in “St. Petersburg,” the fictitious version of Hannibal, Missouri, under the care of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. A prominent part of this section is the adventurous aspirations of Tom Sawyer, all drawn from his reading of swashbuckling books. As the St Petersburg portion continues, we find Huck spirited out of town by his father and imprisoned in a remote cabin. Only by a good deal of genuine ingenuity and hard work does the boy make an escape that he believes will prevent his father from hunting him down.

Fast forward now to the last quarter of the novel when Huck discovers that the “Kings” have betrayed Jim as a runaway. Through the most implausible coincidence in the entire work, Huck finds that Jim is being held on a farm owned by Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, who are presently expecting Tom to arrive for a visit. This portion again features Tom’s romantic imaginings and quest for adventure as he ridiculously complicates the efforts to spring Jim from his captivity.

Between these two passages located several hundred miles apart in towns along the Mississippi, we find Huck and Jim drifting down the river.

Chiasmus, traditionally a Hebrew poetical technique, requires an arrangement of elements that mirror each other from a shared center. Symbolically, a chiasmus might take this form: A-B-C-D-E-D-C-B-A. In a more practical sense, it could be presented in a single sentence worthy of Tom Sawyer’s imagination. “My life, an adventure to be explored, against a backdrop of pirates and bandits, demands honor, to combat the buccaneers and highwaymen in unending adventure, throughout my life.”

In this example, you can trace the elements away from that central term of “honor.” If Huckleberry Finn is indeed a chiasmus, with the town-captivity segments as the bookends or “A” elements, then we should be able to find other mirrored elements in the intervening chapters. Further, if this is a chiasmus by design, then we should be able to locate a central element on which the entire story turns. Lawrence Howe argues that this central point is to be found in “Huck and Jim’s slipping past the fog-shrouded town of Cairo, Illinois.” He goes on to insist that the “final effect of the chiasmus in Huckleberry Finn is not . . . a redemtive typology” effecting Christian redemption. Frankly, I find Howe’s arguments forced in this matter, but Huck Finn can scarcely be considered a “Christian” novel. It is, I think, a novel written by a man interested in and concerned with Christianity and its effects on individuals and society.

If Howe is correct in siting the axis of the Huck chiasmus at Cairo, then we should be able to arrange elements out from there in matched pairs. Unfortunately, I think, for his theory, the lengthy encounters with the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud and the “Kings” both come after Cairo. Do these balance against the encounter with the wrecked steamboat, the most prominent raft episode above Cairo? And what do we do with the two on Jackson Island? Can their existence of utter independence there be paired against their lives being manipulated by the con men?

This theory deserves a great deal more working out that I can offer here. Perhaps I will return to it later. Or perhaps you will.

 

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Capitalist in 1984: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)Did George Orwell plagiarize from Sinclair Lewis? Despite the latter receiving a Nobel Prize, I feel fairly certain in saying that Orwell was the better writer. Surely the stronger would not swipe plot points from the weaker. But I cannot get the thought out of my mind as I read Babbitt. In the closing pages, as George Babbitt reconciles himself to a totalizing social order, I expect to read that poignant line: “He loved Big Brother.”

Obviously 1984 and Babbitt have enormous differences, but the similarities are quite apparent. George Babbitt exists on the lower rungs of the upper ladder of society. He can be elected as an officer in this civic organization or deliver impassioned speeches on what needs doing in the real estate business, but he will never be completely accepted as one of the topmost members of the order. Similarly, Winston Smith enjoys the privileges of existing at the bottom of the party’s pecking order.

Neither Smith nor Babbitt is exceptionally bright. Their emotions get the better of them. Both are isolated, alienated men, Smith due to the strategies of the party and Babbitt due to his own personality. Their rebellions are, in the end, meaningless. Both of these men find a form of love in a forbidden and rather tawdry manner.

In both of these novels, we see a rather impotent individual attempting to chart his own course against the profound headwinds of an overwhelming social construct. George Babbitt is hardly an heroic figure because his rebellion is so meaningless. This is not William Wilberforce sacrificing his larger political ambitions, his opportunity to be Prime Minister, on the higher altar of the abolition of slavery. One asks what Babbitt will achieve or receive if he succeeds in his rebellion. Perhaps he will manage to maintain a good real estate business, earning his $8,000 a year, while spending time with Tanis Judique and her “Bunch.” This is hardly the stuff of heroism.

The evil of the Party in 1984 is hard to miss, even as one sees the futility of Winston Smith’s resistance. But is the established order of the town of Zenith really worthy of Babbitt’s rebellion? Although they hardly constitute angels, the city fathers promote growth and the expansion of streetcar lines. They are, it seems, benevolent dictators. While Lewis seems clearly to take issue with this party, I cannot help but wonder if the real fool in this novel is not Lewis.

The individual, I would argue, must surrender to something. Babbitt did not choose a path of individuality against the oppression of a capitalist establishment. Instead, he chose to surrender his will and his ideals to “The Bunch,” Tanis Judique, and the leftist politics of Seneca Doane. One force that Babbitt never seems to consider a worthy object of surrender is God. Babbitt’s brief spurt of churchy interest does not reflect piety but an attempt to apply his ideas of civic and commercial boosterism to the Sunday School.

In the end of the book, faced with his wife’s illness, Babbitt has made his choice and surrendered to the order in something akin to a prayer.

He shut the door with haste. It may be that his frightened repentance of the night and morning had not eaten in, but this dehumanizing interment of her who had been so pathetically human shook him utterly, and as he crouched again on the high stool in the laboratory he swore faith to his wife . . . to Zenith . . . to business efficiency . . . to the Boosters’ Club . . . to every faith of the Clan of Good Fellows.

His minor transgression on the last pages, tolerating his son’s (accomplished) marriage and desire to go into a less prestigious field of work seems nearly meaningless in the grand scheme.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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Too Much Virtue–Mitchell’s Hugh Wynne

S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)I am telling myself now that unless I have exceptionally good reason to change my mind, I will read no more of the novels of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. The present topic, Hugh Wynne: Free Quaker, has been lurking on my Kindle for over a year. After hearing it referred to somewhere as a book worth reading, I decided to push through it. Like the American Revolution, which provides the book’s backdrop, it seemed at times as if it would never end.

An anonymous reviewer in an 1897 issue of The Atlantic, provided some favorable (I think) remarks.

It purports to be the memoirs of its chief character, written many years after the events he describes, and the sense of old age is admirably conveyed. Even in descriptions of the thick of the mêlée at Germantown, or of the charge over the redoubts at Yorktown, one is conscious of the flow of the tranquil pen of the narrator rather than of the waving sword of the actor. It is much as if the old Quaker virus, temporarily neutralized by the hot blood of youth, were once more in the ascendant; and though we have endless incidents, duels, battles, captures, escapes, plots, and counterplots, there is never the sense of excitement, scarcely of suspense, that such a succession of incidents presupposes.

Unlike in Mitchell’s Francois, a novel of the French Revolution, there can be very little suspense here. The historical events, at least for an American reader, are too familiar and the protagonist too close to the center of those events for us to doubt their outcome. Events that could have provided suspense or at least adventure, such as the crossing of the Delaware, young Mr. Wynne narrates second-hand. In The Red City, a later work, Mitchell again places his character into an improbably central position, but the events detailed are far enough from the center of American history that we can find them intriguing. The French-revolution refugee protagonist of The Red City is a character remarkably like Hugh Wynne. Both young men come from wealthy, “well-bred,” families but who have come to America as the result of winds blowing against their ideology. Both young men are absurdly perfect, only flawed (mildly) by the rashness of youth. That rashness, however, is only exercised in the defense of absolute honor. These guys could be knights of the round table and make Lancelot blush.

In the end, I have no doubt that Hugh will get involved with the army (since a subtitle of the book is “Sometime Brevet Lieutenant Colonel), that the Americans will win the war, that Major Andre will be executed, that Hugh’s redcoat cousin will turn out to be a scoundrel, and that Hugh will get the rather bloodless girl. If there is suspense, it is whether the Wynnes will reclaim their ancestral home in Wales. As the book concludes we discover that Hugh feels the same way that I do: he doesn’t care about the estate.

Dr. Mitchell, much vilified for his “rest cure,” which Charlotte Perkins Gilman attacked in “The Yellow Wall-paper,” was undoubtedly a better doctor than a novelist. His reputation in both areas has diminished considerably over the past century. His contributions to medicine deserve better; his writing abilities mostly deserve to be shelved.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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What Man on What Balcony: Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast”

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79)There will be crumbs and coffee for breakfast. As someone who doesn’t think much of coffee and enjoys eating too much to be satisfied by crumbs, I’m left hungry by Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast.” Seeing the title of this poem, one can be expected that a religious reading will not be difficult, although the results might not suit the pious.

The word miracle will appear at least six times in the six stanzas of the sestina, so this reading might well begin by examining what nature of miracles Bishop presents.

In the first stanza, the “breakfast” will be served from a balcony “like kings of old, or like a miracle.” Here the miracle is not definitely a miracle. It might be royal or miraculous. And it is not a miracle per se but like a miracle.

The second stanza’s miracle is merely hoped for. Those waiting for this free meal hope that the coffee will be hot and that the crumbs will miraculous expand not only to entire loaves of bread but to buttered bread, “by a miracle.” The third example comes when the man on the balcony is handed “the makings of a miracle,” the coffee and the roll.

In the fourth stanza, after the receipt of the actual “breakfast,” “one rather hard crumb” and “one drop of the coffee,” some of the group stand “awaiting the miracle.” Next, we are informed that the following image, the vision of another villa, “was not a miracle.” Continuing the description of this other villa in stanza six, Bishop claims the crumb and the mansion, both of which “made for me by a miracle.” Yet this miracle is a decidedly naturalistic one involving water, bugs, birds, and a great deal of time.

Finally, in the envoi, we have it suggested that the miracle is a mistake, “working, on the wrong balcony.”

What shall we make of all this miracle talk? My initial response is to believe that Bishop is warning readers away from miracles. Miracles, in this poem, are fickle things. They disappoint us, suggesting a hopeful loaf of buttered bread and providing only a hard crumb that some flick into the river.

But is the promised/delivered miracle truly to be read as a religious miracle. Is the man on the balcony to be read as God? Given the use of the term “miracle” as well as the somewhat Eucharist-inflected imagery of bread and wine–or rather coffee–one would first assume the religious miracle, but might the man on the balcony just as easily read as Mussolini standing on his Roman balcony, addressing the crowds, throwing down bread crumbs and making the trains run on time? More broadly, why must we read the disappointment wrought by the “man on the balcony” as coming from God when actual humans, either on actual balconies or in other elevated positions, promise and fail to provide just as often.

Could the poet actually be reflecting just as critically on those huddled under the balcony awaiting their unnourishing crumbs and coffee? In the third stanza, the poet asks “Was the man crazy?” yet perhaps it is those who wait on him, those who “stood around, waiting for the miracle” who were crazy.

 

 

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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Justice and Mercy: The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play to watch. Unless extreme liberties are taken with the script, the bard and his favored characters wind up appearing as distasteful anti-Semites. (I am not arguing here for tasteful anti-Semites.) The recent production by the Heart of American Shakespeare Festival, their first ever indoor, non-summer production, made a solid attempt to humanize Shylock and distance itself from the embrace of the prevailing attitudes of 1600, but the sour taste remained. The two most sympathetic characters, Bassanio and Antonio, clearly view Shylock and all Jews as something less that fully human, and the turnabout of justice in the culminating courtroom scene, when Shylock quickly moves the cusp of his bloody revenge to the loss of everything he held dear, rings very harshly in the 21st century ear when the Duke decrees that Shylock must convert to Christianity. It is this attitude that keeps an otherwise tightly constructed and satisfying play from appearing on the stage more often.

If the Christian reader or watcher of this play can get past the nastiness inherent in the story, another, more essential, theme rewards the attention. Rather than focusing on the cast of mostly unpleasant Christians and uniformly unpleasant Jews, one can look at the two forces at work in the play’s denouement. The Merchant of Venice is, at its heart, a play about justice and mercy.

A key to understanding this dichotomy lies in the inscription on the silver casket in the test Portia’s deceased father established to select her husband. The three caskets are read by the first suitor sufficiently daring to make a choice: the prince of Morocco.

The first, of gold, who this inscription bears:
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
How shall I know if I do choose the right?

The silver casket promises “as much as he deserves,” yet time after time in this play, characters prosper most when they do not get what they deserve. The key character who avoids the penalty he deserves is Antonio. In arrogance and foolish confidence, he borrows money from Shylock, agreeing to give a pound of flesh if he fails to repay the loan. Antonio’s risk comes simply to grant Bassanio money with which to impress Portia. Had Bassanio simply waited until Antonio’s ships arrived, then the matter would have been simple, but instead the men engage in a foolish loan. Although Bassanio protests at allowing his friend to put himself at hazard, he could have easily refused to spend the money and ensure that the loan could be repaid. Had he done so, he would have been a more virtuous person but lead to a duller play.

In the courtroom scene, Antonio does not get what he deserves, preserving his life. Shylock, on the other hand, deserves the pound of flesh, although why he would want it we cannot guess. Indeed, Shylock is allowed to take the flesh, but is warned not to shed any blood in the process. It is as if Portia asks Shylock, “Do you really want the letter of the law?” and then demonstrates that he truly doesn’t want what he deserves.

Both Bassanio and Gratiano deserve, according to the letter of their promise, severe punishment for allowing themselves to part with their rings. Portia uses her possession of the ring to gently taunt her husband briefly, but in the end he does not receive the outcome that he deserves.

By the end of the play, the message on the leaden casket is largely forgotten, yet that message is at the heart of a Christian reading of the play. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” the box reads. What separates Shylock and the two would-be suitors from the other characters in this play is that these men seek strictly to gain, while all of the others, with all of their faults, have it within them to give, to sacrifice.

If we can read past the anti-Semitism of 400 years ago, The Merchant of Venice provides a sort of parable of grace. Happily, despite pride, arrogance, greed, envy, anger, lust, and gluttony, the person living in grace need not endure what he deserves.

Posted in English Literature, Renaissance.

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A Night at the Ballet–Giselle

Giselle--Kansas City BalletIn commenting on the Kansas City Ballet production of Giselle, I am out of my area of expertise. My interest in dance is only slightly lower than my interest in the design of Tupperware. However, when my six-year-old grandson was tapped to swell a few scenes in this production, I knew we had to use this as an excuse to make a first appearance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

I knew nothing of the story of Giselle, an 1841 French creation. Before the performance, I learned that this is essentially a fairy tale. A prince (in disguise) falls in love with a peasant girl although he is promised to another, more suitable, woman. When his true identity is revealed, Giselle dies of a broken heart. As the prince, Albrecht, mourns for his lost love, a band of creepy ghost women not only pull Giselle from her grave but attempt to force Albrecht to dance himself to death. In the end, Giselle’s pure love allows Albrecht to survive the ordeal and frees her from joining this peculiar group.

Why has this ballet survived for over 170 years? The music is solid but unremarkable. Like most ballets, the story could be handled in about 15 minutes and serves as an excuse for protracted dance sequences. Any story, it seems, would do, so why has this one endured?

Like a Disney story told a century too early, Giselle presents young lovers with whom anyone would want to identify. I want to be Prince Albrecht. Anyone can understand his actions in falling for the peasant girl on the eve of his arranged wedding, right? Can you imagine the married Frenchman sitting next to the bride he sensibly married? “If only I could have married who I wanted,” he thinks. And what woman doesn’t want to see herself as Giselle? Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Giselle “shall but love thee better after death.” Giselle is utterly blameless. The wife to our Frenchman sits next to her husband and thinks, “Even though you’re a selfish scoundrel, I still love you. Mon dieu! I am certainly wonderful.”

The ballet was marvelous–and my grandson was inspired–but let’s not mistake this excuse for transcendent dance as anything like great literature. The story of Giselle is a 19th century counterpart to Dirty Dancing, pleasant but hardly transforming.

Posted in Reviews.

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Barren Life?–Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground

Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)In the realm of farming novels, perhaps no work I’ve encountered stays as closely tied to the land as this product of Ellen Glasgow’s later career. Barren Ground was published in 1925, when the author already had fifteen novels to her credit. It traces the life of Dorinda Oakley who falls in love with a young doctor, Jason Greylock, only to wind up pregnant and single when the spineless physician is coerced into marrying the daughter of a wealthy family. Dorinda responds by fleeing to New York where she bonks her head in the street and fortuitously encounters a kindly doctor. For no abundantly clear reason this doctor takes a liking to Dorinda, hiring her as a nanny and then loaning her a considerable sum when she determines to go back home to put into practice the “modern farming” knowledge she has accumulated in her spare time.

Upon her father’s death, Dorinda becomes the moving force behind the family farm, transforming it into a thriving place, pushing back the encroaching broomsedge, and employing an ever-increasing cast of locals. Meanwhile, less than a mile away, Jason Greylock lives with his wife Geneva. Curiously, the pair almost never see one another, mostly because Dorinda has so consumed herself in work. We do learn, mostly second hand, that the marriage is a disaster, Geneva is mentally unstable, and Jason is following his father’s decline into drink.

Eventually–decades later–Dorinda’s industry has so paid off that she is able to buy the Greylock farm at auction, ousting her former lover in the process. In a farming novel, what revenge could be as sweet as purchasing the property of an enemy? The peculiar turn at the end of the book comes when Dorinda, after initially resisting offering less intrusive assistance, moves the dying Jason into her own home. Presumably this marks the completion of whatever healing she needed to experience.

On the surface, this story seems to be one of agrarianism triumphing over the lures of the city.  Late in the story, Dorinda is asked, apparently repeatedly, if she might want to return to New York.

“’No, I shall never go back. I had enough of it when I was there.’
“’Wouldn’t you rather look at the sights up there than at cows and chickens?’
“Dorinda would shake her head thoughtfully. ‘Not if they are my cows and chickens.’
“In this reply, which was as invariable as a formula, she touched unerringly the keynote of her character. The farm belonged to her, and the knowledge aroused a fierce sense of possession. To protect, to lift up, rebuild and restore, these impulses formed the deepest obligation her nature could feel.”

Not only does the novel seem to champion agrarianism over the urban but it would seem to argue for a modern, scientific sort of farming. It is in the city that Dorinda attends lectures relating various topics that she puts into practice upon returning home. The problem with this appearance is that Dorinda’s “scientific and modern” farming is really not all that exceptional, not more enlightened than that of her most successful neighbor. And for all of her modernism, Dorinda works herself to a premature loss of youth, passing up all of the enjoyments of her younger years. She is no less work-obsessed than the most vilified industrialist.

In response to her disappointment in love, Dorinda embraces the fecundity of her land, but exchanges it for the promises of genuine relationships. Aside from a perfunctory marriage that she never really appreciates and a friendship with Fluvanna, a Black woman who lives with her but never gains complete respect, Dorinda’s only real love is for a club-footed stepson to whom she will leave both farms but only an arms-length measure of affection.

Dorinda abandoned early the religious enthusiasm of her mother, and enthusiasm she had once shared:

 She remembered vividly the way grace had come to her, a softly glowing ecstasy, which flooded her soul and made her feel that she had entered into the permanent blessedness of the redeemed. It was like the love she felt now, only more peaceful and far less subject to pangs of doubt. For a few months this had lasted, while the prosaic duties of life were infused with a beauty, a light. Then, suddenly, as mysteriously as it had come, the illumination in her soul had waned and flickered out like a lamp. Religion had not satisfied.

In the end, satisfaction is not something that Dorinda experiences in a life that, while taking place on ground increasing less barren, winds up being a largely barren life.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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There’s Work and Work–Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

Philip Levine (1928-2015)NPR’s news covered the fact that Philip Levine, former poet laureate of the United States, died over the weekend. It’s a sad truth that in an age that doesn’t widely value poetry the way that previous ages did, a great deal of very good and very readable poetry is flowing from the pens of people like Billy Collins, Wendell Berry, and Levine.

In 1991, Levine, the poet of the Detroit auto plant, won a National Book Award for his collection What Work Is. The title poem from that book will reward the reading.

What is work? Levine suggests from the outset that his reader knows what work is. Work is the thing that men do, men who are old enough to read a poem, old enough to stand outset in the rain waiting to be denied the opportunity to move inside an auto assembly plant and screw objects onto things. Work is the activity that other people value enough to give you a few dollars for every hour of it you deliver to them. It’s the hoped-for activity that leads people to stand in the rain in hopes of obtaining it.

But that’s not work, Levin argues in this poem. Work is love. If we don’t love it, then it’s not worthwhile, not something that deserves to be called work. How do I draw that conclusion from those lines?

The second-person topic of this poem, the “you” that might just as easily have been an “I” finds himself  thinking about his brother:

he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
The brother understands work. Work does not simply involve punching a time clock and putting taillights on Ford Tauruses. It’s only worthy of being called work when you sacrifice for it, when you work nights and study German to sing Wagner. That’s work. Anything less is just employment.
Our hero here–“You”–doesn’t fully understand that. He shows no tendency to sacrifice for something worthwhile. He can’t even go out on a limb to express his love–genuine but unexpressed love–for his brother.
You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
Levine is not and never was the Christian voice of America, but he seems to understand the sort of thing that Jesus tries to convey in John 15:12-13: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Near the beginning of the poem, Levine dismisses those who know what work is but don’t do it with a curt “Forget you.” He seems to be reaching for a working-man’s commonplace: Someone who won’t work isn’t worth much. But then he extends that definition of work and the implications of what it means to be a shirker. A man who won’t work isn’t worth much, but a man who won’t do the work of sacrificing himself for something greater is equally worthless–maybe more so.
That’s my take, with Philip Levine not even in the grave yet. Perhaps I’ll amend my thoughts later.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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WWJD–Sheldon’s In His Steps

Charles Monroe Sheldon (1857-1946)At about the time that W.D. Howells was entertaining his visitor and that Charlotte Perkins Gilman explored an alternative here in What Diantha Did and a lost civilization in Herland, Congregationalist preacher Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1896 novel In His Steps explored an alternative reality in which various people in a town (and eventually in other places across the United States) accept a minister’s challenge to go a year only reacting to matters in the way that they believe Jesus would react.

Not surprisingly, the various characters, the minister, a newspaper editor, a singer, and so forth, experience a fair amount of push-back when they begin to accept this Christ-following challenge. The editor, begins to refuse advertising that he feels Jesus would exclude from the publication. From his would-be advertisers, his readers, and his writers, he hears the criticism.

Some of them say I will have a weak, namby-pamby Sunday-school sheet. If I get out something as good as a Sunday-school it will be pretty good. Why do men, when they want to characterize something as particularly feeble, always use a Sunday-school as a comparison, when they ought to know that the Sunday-school is one of the strongest, most powerful influences in our civilization in this country today? But the paper will not necessarily be weak because it is good. Good things are more powerful than bad.

The premise of this novel, like that of Diantha is not altogether unbelievable. Despite Sheldon’s remarkable success–he sold some 30 million copies of the book over the years–I would have to argue that In His Steps is a literary failure. Like Diantha, those who take up the challenge in this alternative world suffer no significant set-backs. Even the brief problems that arise either prove to be minimal or are brushed away by some fortunate plot invention. In the town of Raymond, no one loses a job, a spouse, a fortune, or a life by trying to remain true to the challenge of “What would Jesus do?”

Although not his finest work, Howells’ 1886 The Minister’s Charge takes up some of the same ideas as Sheldon’s novel but allows them to unfold in a much more believable manner. In both cases, a rather self-satisfied minister pushes aside an outsider who needs help. In both cases the troubles of this outsiders–the death of the homeless man in In His Steps and the incarceration and robbery of the country boy/poet in The Minister’s Charge–provoke the cleric to action. But the Howells treatment is so much less like a gospel tract, exploring the situation with something approaching a believable level of complexity, that it proves a far more satisfying read.

At the risk of commenting on Sheldon’s work only by reference to other novels, I cannot help thinking that the author intended to create a Social Gospel version of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which, published some eight years earlier touched off a remarkable social-political movement, much like the one described in In His Steps with chapters of like-minded people springing up all over the country. Those closing years of the nineteenth century seem to have been as ripe for utopian fictions as the nation, particularly the Northeast had been for utopian realities a half century earlier.

Reading most of these works, stories of a land in which women live without men and master all aspects of society (as Gilman suggests), of a long-lost land living out primitive Christianity (as imagined by Howells), of a socialist-utopia future in which all problems have melted when people just saw things Bellamy’s way, or of a beatific city in which everything changes because people as “What would Jesus do?” and answer just as Sheldon would have them, one is struck by the simplistic and contrived vision of these otherwise capable authors.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Sacred and Profane Love: Wallace’s Ben Hur

Lew Wallace (1827-1905)For “A Tale of the Christ,” General Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur does not feature a great deal of the life of Jesus on first glance. This 1880 novel, since made into a couple feature films and reportedly in production for another, reputedly outsold all books in the 19th century aside from the Bible, surpassing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and holding that place until the arrival of Gone with the Wind. I say “reputedly” because I’ve heard a similar claim made for Shepherd of the Hills.

What makes this novel such a compelling story? The character of Judah Ben-Hur begins life as a member of a wealthy and influential family, someone whose family is profiting from the pax Romana but who is not a Roman himself. Through an improbable series of events, Judah finds himself sold off to row a slave galley while his mother and sister are stripped of the family’s position and possessions and imprisoned in a hidden cell within the Fortress Antonia where they are virtually certain to contract leprosy.

No wonder Judah Ben-Hur was out to get revenge. On the other hand, not everything has gone badly for this son of Israel. Even as he is being carted off to a certain lingering death under harsh slavery, he is given a needed drink of water by a mysterious youth in Galilee. Later, Judah manages to survive a shipwreck and rescue the admiral, earning that man’s loyalty and adoption. Judah’s wealth, we discover hasn’t completely disappeared and has indeed been expanded by a loyal servant of his father.

The reader, plodding through this lengthy and involved book, wonders whether Judah will manage to gain his revenge, reunite with his now-leprous family, find true love with one of the appealing young women he encounters, regain his lofty position, and avoid the murderous plots of those brutish Romans. And then there’s that whole question about how this is “A Tale of the Christ.”

The appeal of this book to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century readers is clear. It is exciting and complicated. We have villains to jeer and heroes to cheer. A character who seems a friend turns out to be faithless. And then there’s that chariot race, exciting on the page and on the screen.

Judah Ben-Hur is a strong man, a man of action. He stands up for himself, not thinking to “turn the other cheek” toward his enemies, yet he does all of this with almost perfect honor. Sure, he intentionally causes his rival Messala to crash in the chariot race, but we’ve known that Messala had that coming for many, many pages. What’s not to enjoy in such a story. Plus, Judah winds up choosing the lovely and modest Esther, the daughter of his loyal servant, over the glamorous and beautiful Iras, daughter of the Magi Balthasar. This choice is the classic triumph of virtuous and simple beauty over a more worldly beauty.

In the end, the pious reader can marvel at the effects of Jesus, who finally makes a significant appearance in the book, on Judah. Not only does the hero realize that his efforts to lead a rebellion against the despised Roman occupation are foolish, but he sees his mother and sister healed by Jesus. It is only after his encounter with Jesus that Judah reaches true understanding and happiness. And happily for the reader, that revelation took place after the chariot race and other adventures.

In short, Lew Wallace succeeds in crafting a pious romance by giving the reader the whole package: a measure of revenge, a strong and forceful hero, a worthwhile love story, and a conclusion that you can take to church on Sunday.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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