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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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Mark Twain and the Bible

Mark Twain (1835-1910)Mark Twain is best remembered for his wit. The story goes that by the end of his life, all he had to do was shamble onto the stage at the beginning of a lecture time to send the audience into fits of laughter. Gentle, often double-edged, satire marks this man’s work. How unexpected, then, when Twain steps back from his usual tone in order to offer observations in a more serious tone. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain makes such a move. While we have been treated to many pages of commentary upon the foibles of both Americans and the inhabitants of the Old World, of both our narrator-guide and those he encounters, when the author takes up the topic of the Bible, the mockery subsides, if only for a paragraph.

It is hard to make a choice of the most beautiful passage in a book which is so gemmed with beautiful passages as the Bible; but it is certain that not many things within its lids may take rank above the exquisite story of Joseph. Who taught those ancient writers their simplicity of language, their felicity of expression, their pathos, and above all, their faculty of sinking themselves entirely out of sight of the reader and making the narrative stand out alone and seem to tell itself? Shakspeare is always present when one reads his book; Macaulay is present when we follow the march of his stately sentences; but the Old Testament writers are hidden from view.

Twain is not so glowingly appreciative of all would-be scripture. In Roughing It, he shares his opinions on the Book of Mormon:

The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle—keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, accourding to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

One has to wonder if these contrasting appraisals can be explained by mere bigotry. Twain is, at least nominally, a Christian, a Missourian who would have heard the tales of the “Mormon War” of 1838 in which the followers of Joseph Smith were driven out of the state only to settle in Nauvoo, Illinois, some seventy miles up the Mississippi from Hannibal. Actually, one has only to wonder at this, in my opinion, until reading comparative passages from the two books, but perhaps that is my bigotry speaking.

Reading Twain’s humor in the light of his admiration for the Bible underscores what, in my view, made him such a successful comic talent. Unlike so many of those reputed to be so funny today–Will Farrell and Tina Fey come to mind–one can see that Twain usually preserves a healthy measure of affection and appreciation for those characters whom he most strongly lampoons. He laughs at himself with the same vigor that he laughs at others.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Have You Considered My Servant?: Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)Many people, reading the story of Job from the Hebrew Bible, find it troubling how the tale plays out. After Job loses everything, including all of his children, the story seems to suggest that its all better when the hero’s fortunes turn around:

12 The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. 13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters. (Job 42:12-13)

Happily, if for nothing else than for his literary reputation, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Job-esque novel, The Sport of the Gods, does not end on such an unbelievably upbeat note. Of course, in fairness to the poet behind Job, the point of that work is not so much in the framing narrative as in the philosophical discourse inside that frame. The point of Dunbar’s narrative is not so obvious.

Early in the novel, we find Berry Hamilton and his free Black family living a positive, happy life in the American South. Although Berry and his wife Fannie do not come out of emancipation suddenly behaving like 21st-century college graduates, they do raise two articulate capable children. Clearly, it seems, the next generation of Hamiltons will fare better than the parents. That, as fate would have it, changes when Berry is falsely accused of stealing a considerable sum from his employer’s brother.

With Berry in prison and the community attitude foursquare against the Hamiltons, the remaining family relocates to New York. In relatively short order, all three of them move in negative directions. Fannie, convinced that a prison term gives her a divorce, feels compelled to marry an unpleasant man. Her son, Joe, winds up a drunkard, completely in the thrall of a captivating woman whom he murders when she refuses to endure his folly. Kitty Hamilton, the daughter, flourishes as a singer but allows her character to erode–at least in the view of her mother.

In the end, a helping of Karma is served as Berry is exonerated and freed. Still, he comes to New York only to find his wife married to another, his daughter on the road and absent, and his son incarcerated for life. Berry summarizes his experience powerfully.

He turned to the door, murmuring, “My wife gone, Kit a nobody, an’ Joe, little Joe, a murderer, an’ then I–I–ust to pray to Gawd an’ call him ‘Ouah Fathah.'” He laughed hoarsely. It sounded like nothing Fannie had ever heard before. “Don’t, Be’y, don’t say dat. Maybe we don’t un’erstan’.” Her faith still hung by a slender thread, but his had given way in that moment. “No, we don’t un’erstan’,” he laughed as he went out of the door. “We don’t un’erstan’.”

Berry, devastated, vows to kill his rival but delays that act and then finds that the man has been killed in a fight. The former employer, Maurice Oakley, is reduced to madness in the wake of the revelation that the money was squandered by Oakley’s brother rather than stolen by Berry, and the Hamilton parents return to the site of their previous happiness to live out their lives.

Still, Karma, as Dunbar presents it, is a harsher mistress than the Yahweh-dispensed justice enjoyed by the quickly forgetful Job. Living in their old cottage, they can hear the insane wailing of a broken Maurice Oakley.

It was not a happy life, but it was all that was left to them, and they took it up without complaint, for they knew they were powerless against some Will infinitely stronger than their own.

Job, like Berry Hamilton, never knew the cause of his problems. But as we read Job, we gain insight as to that cause, something that Dunbar never gives us. Instead, we see Berry Hamilton, bruised and battered, enduring the vagaries of life, slings and arrows that both that capitalized “Will” and the book’s title suggest are not simply the luck of a heartless, deterministic universe.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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What Debt Did You Owe? Dunbar’s “The Debt”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)When I read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Debt,” not one of his most anthologized works, I hear an echo of a poem I learned from my father from a far less noted writer, Jessie Rittenhouse. That brief lyric, “My Wage,” goes like this:

I bargained with Life for a penny,
And Life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store;

For Life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.

I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of Life,
Life would have paid.

Take a look now at “The Debt.”
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!
Both works involve some melancholy at the end. Both of them involve a voice looking back onto life with apparent regret. The regret in Rittenhouse’s work is obvious. One could argue that the regret in Dunbar is more ambivalent, that this character had been cheated and forced into debt by the same people who would force him to wear “The Mask” or who cage the bird in “Sympathy.” Such a turn strikes me as forced. Not every poem by a writer of color has to be a poem about race.
In both of these poems, twelve lines introduce us to someone who gives scant specificity about the origin of their problem. Does Rittenhouse mean a literal wage? Did she not request a high enough salary? That seems unlikely, since I have yet to receive a paycheck from life. Does Dunbar refer to an actual, financial debt, or is this, as I think the case in “My Wage,” a metaphor for something else?
What debt does Dunbar reference? It was incurred in the space of a single day, a “riotous” day. How much of a debt can a person rack up in a single day? Even the diamond necklace, which turns out not to be a diamond necklace, in du Maupassant’s “The Necklace” required only ten years to repay, yet this speaker suggests that the debt will be repaid only at death. Since he does not know when death will come, we can only assume that he is not privy to some amortization schedule. This debt will stand unfinished upon his death, but he will be released from it.
This debt was incurred in a day and cannot be repaid, we can assume. And for what bauble did the speaker lay down his 1900 equivalent of a Visa card? The thing was small. That’s all we learn. The loan was small but the interest profound.
Is Dunbar here decrying Robber Baron bankers charging usurious interest? I don’t think so. The idea of sin as a debt, an unpayable debt, is hardly unknown in Christianity. In Colossians 2, we read this:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
A Christian reading of Dunbar’s poem, then, emerges more easily than one from Rittenhouse’s poem, even though my father first encountered the latter in a church bulletin. To reference both Matthew 6 and the Rollings Stones, God does not give whatever we want, but He does give what we need.

Posted in Realism.

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Fallen and Unfallen–Hamlin Garland’s Daughter of the Middle Border

Hamlin Garland (1860-1940)I have written elsewhere that I know of no writer, with the exception of Erskine Caldwell, who wrote so consistently about farming people and yet seemed to have so little sympathy for them. (And in fairness, the residents of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road had long ago given up the claim to farming.) Hamlin Garland, in his stories of late-nineteenth-century farmers, seems to see no redeeming aspect in the farm life and a neverending supply of–to use his favorite word–toil.

Granted, Garland wrote during the decades when a steady stream of rural Americans began to make their way from farms to factories. During the course of Garland’s life (1860-1940), the urban population of the United States rose from 19.8% to 56.5% of the total. Granted, part of this shift came because of immigration that landed in urban settings, but a huge number of rural people made their way to the cities in those years. Virtually my entire family tree was transplanted from subsistence farms to the greener pastures of Kansas City during those decades.

Why then does Garland speak so glowingly, a realist morphed into a mushy, soft-focus romantic, when he looks back on his younger, rural days in Daughter of the Middle Border?

How sweet and sane and peaceful and afar off those blessed days seem to me as I muse over this page. At the village shops sirloin steak was ten cents a pound, chickens fifty cents a pair and as for eggs—I couldn’t give ours away, at least in the early summer,—and all about us were gardens laden with fruit and vegetables, more than we could eat or sell or feed to the pigs. Wars were all in the past and life a simple matter of working out one’s own individual problems. Never again shall I feel that confidence in the future, that joy in the present. I had no doubts—none that I can recall.

It is almost as if Garland recalls a prelapsarian Wisconsin from his youth and then rights of a starkly realistic farming world somewhere east of his childhood Eden. In fact, the contrast here seems to go beyond Genesis 2 and 3. The “realistic” rural world that Garland paints in his stories goes beyond the curse leveled at Adam in Genesis 3:17-19:

The ground is cursed because of you.
You will eat from it by means of painful labor
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow
until you return to the ground,
since you were taken from it.
For you are dust,
and you will return to dust.”

Instead, the hopeless world that the author paints seems more descriptive of the bleak outlook of Revelation 6:5-6:

And I looked, and there was a black horse. The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius.

Neither view, of course, is truly realistic in its portrayal of the American heartland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead, Garland over-romanticizes on the one hand or indulges in the most grim “realism” on the other, employing each point of view as it suits him.

How ironic that in the same autobiography, Hamlin Garland seems dismissive of the claims of both schools of literature:

This bitter war of Realists and Romanticists will be the jest of those who come after us, and they in their turn will be full of battle ardor with other cries and other banners. How is it possible to make much account of the cries and banners of to-day when I know they will be forgotten of all but the students of literary history?

From the viewpoint of a century later, it is Garland who is largely forgotten while the more judicious practitioners of these two approaches remain influential and widely read.

Posted in Realism.

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From Bondage to Bondage–Melville’s Typee

Herman Melville (1819-1891)A well known fact of Herman Melville’s biography and career points out that the author’s reputation–at least his reputation during his lifetime–peaked long before he got around to writing about a crazy sea captain and a white whale. In fact, Melville’s greatest critical success and sales came with his first two semi-autobiographical books, Typee and Omoo.

Typee, I have to begin, is not particularly good taken either as memoir or novel. Obviously, there is not much suspense in whether our narrator will survive his encounter with the Typee tribe. Personally, I did not particularly care if Toby, who disappears midway through Melville’s captivity, survived or not, and Melville, in the original edition of the book, had not answered that question either.

I do not ask why Typee was successful. As H.L. Mencken  famously said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.” This book had just the sort of sensational fare that would be appealing to a reading public confined to lives increasingly free from adventure. In Polynesia, Melville found physical danger, exotic settings and characters, noble and sketchy savages, suggestive eroticism–mild by contemporary standards but pushing the envelope of respectability in 1846–and a character who strains against authority but does not utterly jettison the standards of the day. In his balancing act between admiration and censure, between rebellion and conformity, Melville allowed a glimpse of the genius that he would, in later years, unfurl.

What I find most interesting in this first novel is the manner in which Melville lives within and rejects constraint. One can immediately see the conformity of the writer, typical of a beginner, as his narrative is quite conventional. Compare this pedestrian narrative structure with the complexity of Moby Dick or, even more so, The Confidence Man. Yet the Melville character in Typee derives his very reason for writing from a refusal to be constrained. Signing onto a whaler, our host seems surprised when that life involves spending trying time at sea. From the very first words of the story, he complains.

Six months at sea! Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land; cruising after the sperm-whale beneath the scorching sun of the Line, and tossed on the billows of the wide-rolling Pacific—the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else! Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were all exhausted. There is not a sweet potato left; not a single yam. Those glorious bunches of bananas, which once decorated our stern and quarter-deck, have, alas, disappeared! and the delicious oranges which hung suspended from our tops and stays—they, too, are gone! Yes, they are all departed, and there is nothing left us but salt-horse and sea-biscuit.

Unlike Ishmael or Billy Budd later in Melville’s career, this figure brings rather petty complaints as his rationale for abandoning his post on the ship, focusing his thoughts mostly upon food. Yet when Melville and Toby abandon their shipmates, they recognize that they will be stranded on the island and perhaps fall into the clutches of the cannibals. Indeed, one constraint is exchanged for another, leaving the sailors to fear that in the midst of the Typee plenty of foodstuffs, their own persons might add to the buffet. In order to escape this captivity and his residence on the island, Melville is forced to sign onto another ship.

This rather young, inexperienced Melville, despite his considerable travels, has not come to the recognition that most human experience takes one from captivity to captivity. He is, instead, rather like a young Jacob, seeking quick solutions to lifelong problems.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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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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