Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

July 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm (History, Poetry)

In my youth, when my parents were still very much alive and very ardent fans of the opera, especially the productions of the Metropolitan Opera, I recall how when they got home from a performance, they were filled with exultation – such art! such beauty!

This seems like as good a time and place as any to insert one of my favorite pictures of my parents. The place is Bayreuth, Germany, home of the world famous Bayreuth Festival. They are standing beside the Festspeilhaus, the hall purpose built for performance of the operas of Richard Wagner. Mother and Dad loved this music. At the time this was taken, mid-twentieth century, they were in their glamorous heyday, as this photo will attest:

So, as I said, they’d come from the opera, almost always exultant at the memory of what they’d seen and heard. And then they’d read the review in the New York Times. More often than not, the opera they’d just seen had received a review more or less in the ‘meh’ range. My father would thunder to anyone within range, “Did this idiot see to the same opera we did?!”

So, there are times when I read a review of a book I’ve just read and highly esteemed, when I am genuinely perplexed, not to say dismayed, by the reviewer’s take on that same work. For instance, Charles McGrath’s review of the new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appeared  last month in the New York Times. Here’s part of it:

Nicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, “Cross of Snow,” he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day.

Wait just a second…”a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder…”? Yes, Basbanes writes about the issue of Longfellow’s reputation, but he does not, at least in my view, belabor the subject.

But wait – there’s more:

…by the time of Longfellow’s centennial, in 1907, he was already beginning to be dismissed as old-fashioned, and nowadays, if he’s remembered at all, it’s mostly as the author of lines almost laughable in their badness: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water”; “I shot an arrow into the air, /It fell to earth, I knew not where”; “Thy fate is the common fate of all, /Into each life some rain must fall.”

“Laughable in their badness?” Okay, dated, quaint, I’ll grant you. But ludicrous? Just plain bad? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

It’s true that some of Longfellow’s poetry has not worn well. It can be sentimental, and his insistence on rhyme imbues some of the poems with a childish quality. But others have a timeless essence that I for one find appealing; plus the language can be quite beautiful.

One of my favorites is called “Resignation.” I did not know this poem before I encountered it in The Escher Twist, a mystery by Jane Langton:

There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call Death.

Toward the conclusion of The Escher Twist, Eloise Winthrop, a widow who has daily visited her husband’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, suddenly finds herself welcomed to a tea party given by none other than Isabella Stewart Gardner!

It was so exciting! There was the little stone bridge across Auburn Lake, and there was Mrs. Gardner herself on the other side, her long skirt trailing on the grass. She was holding out both hands.

“Welcome, my dear,” called Mrs. Gardner, laughing. “Welcome to the other side.”

Overjoyed, Eloise hurried across the bridge. The party was in her honor! Gently Mrs. Gardner took her arm and introduced her to the other guests. “Mrs. Winthrop, have you met Mr. Longfellow? Do you know Mrs. Farmer? Oh, Fanny, dear, your triangular sandwiches are so delicious.”

This is one of my favorite scenes in all of crime fiction – in all of fiction, for that matter.

(Fanny Farmer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are all three buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Longfellow mentions the place very particularly in a letter:

Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that is, my own tomb. I assure you, I looked quietly down into it without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot, this Mount Auburn. Were you ever there?)

Jane Langton (1922-2018) never made it into  the top tier of famous mystery authors, but I’ve long considered her to be one of the best. Her mixture of inventive storytelling, wit, mercurial characters, and perhaps a soupçon of the supernatural I find captivating.

Anyway, back to Longfellow:

Charles McGrath obviously is no fan of either Nicholas Basbanes or Longfellow, but he does offer this grudging admission:

…whatever you think of Longfellow the writer, Longfellow the person is hard to dislike.

What an understatement. Longfellow was kind, empathetic, generous to a fault, and endlessly patient.  For most of his adult life, he mixed readily with the great and the good of this country and Europe, but throughout, he retained the modesty and forthrightness that characterized his interactions with others.

More things I learned about Longfellow from this book:

The house in which he and his family lived had, some sixty years before they moved into it,  been inhabited by George Washington as he planned a strategy for dealing with the Siege of Boston.

The National Park Service now administers The Longfellow House –  Washington’s Headquarters National Site. They have made a lovely welcoming video:

Longfellow was a scholar of languages, able to read at least fifteen different ones, and to speak almost as many. In his position as a professor at Harvard, he taught literature in many languages. He did a great deal of translating, often aided in these endeavors by his brilliant wife Fanny; in some cases they were the first to introduce works in various foreign tongues to American readers.

Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. The late, great critic Harold Bloom has high praise for it:

[Longfellow’s] “translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.” In an interview for this book, Bloom went further, saying that he preferred the Longfellow translation to “all the current versions.” His reason: the “fidelity” it shows to Dante’s original Italian.

Although we associate Longfellow with the constellation of worthies who inhabited the Boston-Cambridge area in the early to mid nineteenth century, he was actually born and raised in Maine. Moreover, he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825, the same year as his classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Bowdoin has an impressive list of alumni.)  Longfellow taught for a time at Bowdoin before moving on to Harvard.

There’s much more in this lively biography.  Longfellow’s personal life receives welcome attention. He was married twice. His first wife Mary died at the age of 24, following a miscarriage. He later wed Frances “Fanny” Appleton, after an arduous courtship of several years. Once she finally accepted  him, though, theirs proved to be a marriage of true minds, if there ever was one. They shared a deep love of literature and the arts, and together they had six children, losing one, a daughter, not long past infancy.

Longfellow, Fanny, and their two eldest sons, Charley – a real handful, apparently – and Ernest

(Many years ago, I visited the Longfellow home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I came away with a vivid memory of the story, told by a docent, of the terrible accident which cost Fanny her life. It took place in the house. She was 44 years old at  the time. I confess I read a large part of this book with mounting dread, as I was not sure at what point I would encounter this story.)

The book’s title refers to both a photo and a painting of a site in the Rocky Mountains where  a cross made of snow lingered on the mountain’s face the year round.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, by Thomas Moran, 1890

 

Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1873

Here is Longfellow’s poem, “The Cross of Snow:”

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

 

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News of the Art World

July 2, 2020 at 2:36 pm (Art)

A previous unseen sketch in charcoal by Picasso is slated to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on July 28. Dated 1931, this portrait, called Femme endormie (Woman Sleeping) depicts one Marie-Thérèse Walter, ‘lover and muse’ of the artist.

On seeing it, I was immediately put in mind of this image:

Ara Pacis Augustae

This frieze resides in the Museum of the Ara Pacis, in Rome. I had never previously heard of this institution, or this work, until I obtained this book:

Does anyone else perceive the likeness? I think it’s the angle of the head, the suggestion of a slightly veiled repose.

As to the book itself, it is slow going, but I like the elegiac tone. I return to it from time to time.

 

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Pico Iyer: ‘Best Books’

June 25, 2020 at 8:00 pm (books)

The June 5 issue of The Week magazine featured a brief column by Pico Iyer entitled simply “Best Books.” I was pleased to find that of the six titles appearing on his list, I had read four. They are:

Pico Iyer and I apparently share a deep interest in Graham Greene; Iyer has even written a book on the subject called The Man Within My Head (2012). In his review in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie sums  Greene up shrewdly:

Greene was drawn to causes to which he could never fully commit himself. He was a Catholic convert who took the baptismal name of Thomas, the apostle who doubted. He found his reputation as “a Catholic novelist” irksome and made of this discomfort and his doubts one of his best novels, “A Burnt-Out Case” (1960). He championed commitment against indifference, perhaps because indifference offered him the stronger temptation, and he accordingly felt deeply the evil that can stem from it. The narrators of both “The End of the Affair” (1951) and “The Quiet American” (1955) are men ravaged by an inability to believe who consequently harm others and also themselves.

Or, as Dante puts it:

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

I highly recommend the  2002 film The Quiet American starring Michael Caine. His was a moving and powerful performance in a film that was so relentlessly tense  that I don’t think I could sit through it today.

 

In re Thoreau, do yourself a favor and visit lovely Concord, Massachusetts, where his spirit resides peaceably, along with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and other illustrious notables of America’s literary past. Take along with you Jane Langton’s delightful mystery God in Concord.

Also highly recommended: Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls.

And then, of course, there’s the quiet power of Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.

For my write-up of Too Much Happiness, click here.

As for A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s chronicle of the unremitting cruelties that characterized Indian society in the mid-1970s was just plain excruciating. I read it soon after it came out in 1995, and I was devastated. It was  brilliant. But it’s one of those novels that you have to recommend to people with a caveat: It will probably break your heart. I know it did mine.

So: The other two title’s on Pico Iyer’s list: One is The Letters of Emily Dickinson.   I love Dickinson’s poetry and have read several books about her, in which her letters have been quoted. Coming as they do from the pen of this undisputed genius, these missives are obviously worth seeking out. And if you buy into the fiction that Dickinson’s life was quiet and uneventful, may I recommend Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon.

Iyer’s final title is In Search of Lost Time, aka Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. I’ve made several attempts at the first volume, Swann’s Way, and never gotten much farther  than the first few pages. Ergo, I will let Pico Iyer have the final word:

Some writers show us the self; some give us the world. Proust saw through both with enough cool poise to fashion the wisest, deepest — and funniest — handbook to life this side of a Buddhist sutra.

Marcel Proust

 

 

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Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Art

June 25, 2020 at 1:43 am (Art)

I recently took a week long course on art inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was a wonderful experience.

Here are just a few of the paintings we studied:

The Rape of Europa, by Noel Nicolas Coypel

 

Jupiter and Io, by Antonio da Coreggio (Can you discern Jupiter’s face? Hint: look closely at Io’s face.)

Many are the ways the wily Jove sates his seemingly endless desire! Here is Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa:

This is one of the few mythological subjects painted  by Rembrandt.

The Rape of Europa

This masterpiece by Titian is owned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. We’re lucky to still have it; the thieves who perpetrated the notorious theft of March 18, 1990 kindly left it behind. There was some hope that when Whitey Bulgur was finally apprehended in 2011, that he might reveal knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing art. But apparently he did not; if he possessed any useful knowledge on the subject, it’s gone with him to the grave.

Meanwhile, the museum is currently offering a $10 million dollar reward “…for information leading to  the recovery of the stolen works.”

Anybody know anything?

Empty picture frames remain in place – sad reminders.

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Mercury and Argus, by Velasquez. This one of the last paintings Velasquez did. I find it utterly haunting; Mercury is preparing to kill the hundred-eyed Argus. He has seen too much.

 

Deucalion and Pirrha, by Giovanni Maria Bottala. Following the Great Flood, humanity is being reborn from those rocks this man and woman have  been commanded to throw behind them.

This is a huge, delicious subject. There’s more to come.

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‘And what is so rare as a day in June….’

June 14, 2020 at 1:14 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Weather)

Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;

From The Vision of Sir Launfal by James Russell Lowell

This is a happy, even joyous poem, for a decidedly not joyous time. Yet it may  be a worthy consolation.

Yesterday, when I stepped outside to retrieve the paper, I was greeted by a day of almost unearthly beauty: shining sun; cool, still air; intense  blue sky…perfect. And yet, of course, it was very much of this earth, this very earth, which at this moment is so torn by grief and pain.

[O have mercy on us, Great Creator….]

Meanwhile, I attempted to capture the sound of the neighborhood woodpecker plying his trade. You have to strain most awfully to hear him:

Of  course, I have never seen one. I would  be the world’s worst birdwatcher. Neither of the following photos were taken by me. They  are ‘possibles’ for woodpeckers here in the Free State:

Downy woodpecker

 

Red-bellied woodpecker

 

Pileated woodpecker

(At times, these feathered creatures may be heard rat-a-tat-tatting on the house. In those moments, we refer to them as Aluminum-siding peckers, or just Siding peckers. When they choose to engage in this activity when one is trying to nap, they are called Clueless peckers, or possibly Annoying peckers.)

Anyway, one is eternally grateful for clear, dry mornings, rare as they are in these parts. Just a few mornings ago, I was greeted by this, on our west-facing windows:

Has anyone written a poem about humidity? Probably, but I don’t know it. Music has certainly been written about spring and summer:

 

 

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The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, by Maria Tatar

June 3, 2020 at 2:05 pm (Book review, books)

This is an odd, and oddly appealing, little book. It is comprised of a lengthy introduction – 62 pages including notes – followed by 21 short tales, all variations on the Snow White story.

As I wrote in a previous post, Maria Tatar’s introduction consists of the following:

An analysis – at times, a psychoanalysis – of the Snow White story and its different meanings and iterations in a variety of cultures.

It must first be stipulated that the Disney film, released in 1937, created the template for this fairy tale as it has come down to us at present. That film in turn relied as its source on the story as told by  the Grimm Bothers in the 1812 edition of their fairy tale collection.

Here is a scene from the Disney movie:

This was the first full length cel animated feature length film in the history of motion pictures.

Maria Tatar discusses how the reader is affected when, as she picturesquely terms it, “we trip across a trope:”

There are narrative tropes (“woman in peril…” ), but there are also the tropes that folklorists refer to as motifs, instantly recognizable that connect to other tales and produce a pleasing resonance, for example “haunted castle,” “impossible tasks,” or “hedge of thorns.” These tropes not only arrest our attention but also draw us into a force field that demands intellectual engagement by challenging us to make connections, draw contrasts, and consider how the trope is deployed.

So, as you can  readily perceive from the above, this book may ostensibly be about a fairy tale, but it demands an adult engagement with the material being presented. In fact, as she later observes, “That brilliant allegory of aging, bewitching in its artistic virtuosity, reminds us that just as much is slipped into  fairy tales for grown-ups as for the  young, even more in many cases.” Continuing in the same vein:

It is easy enough to put t he story of Snow White in dialog with other myths – Demeter and Persephone, to cite just one example – with its daughter abducted and taken to the underworld, only to return, seasonally, in a move that signals resurrection and renewal. What is important in these narratives – all bits and pieces of what anthropologists tell us is a larger myth about life and death as much as about beauty – is how they draw from the same storytelling arsenal to take on the great existential mysteries as they try to create counternarratives to the reality that all living beings must die.

Well, this is deep stuff. Psychology, philosophy, religion, teleology – all are evoked in this quest. I found Tatar’s ruminations on these questions, profound and thought provoking. And it helps greatly that her writing is quite simply beautiful.

The introduction takes up nearly half of the book. The remainder consists of 21 stories which are variations on the Snow White tale. As absorbed and delighted as I was by the introduction, I’ve found the stories tough going. They vary from fanciful to grotesque, and after a while, I was surprised to find them somewhat irritating. So far, I’ve read seven of them, widely spaced, of necessity.

Even so, I recommend this unique and fascinating volume. And I am especially grateful for the picture inserts. They serve as a reminder of the transcendent art of the great illustrators. There is the enchanting Schneewittchen (Snow White), at the top of this post, by Alexander Zick, a German artist of the 19th and early 20th century. And these:

by Victor Paul Mohn

 

by Thekla Brauer

by Katharine Cameron

by Lothar Meggendorfer

by Jesse Willcox Smith

by Hans Makart

 

by Maxfield Parrish

There are many more.

In her review of The Fairest of Them All in one of my favorite magazines, Literary Review, Lucy Lethbridge concludes:

Shocking yet familiar, these stories of regeneration and transformation even when written down retain the secret whisper of storytelling. This is a properly magical, erudite book that follows Snow White’s trail into the darker forests of  the human psyche in which she originated.

 

 

 

 

 

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Solace in Beauty

June 1, 2020 at 7:18 pm (Art, Current affairs, Music, Poetry)

I am deeply sorry for the pain being felt by many people right now in this country.

I fear that the beauty of this first day of June little avails aching hearts. So I would like to offer some words, sounds, and images of  beauty, as possible solace.

Willem Kalf (1619-1693), Pronk Still Life with Holbein Bowl, Nautilus Cup, Glass Goblet and Fruit Dish

About the chambered nautilus, Wikipedia tells us this:

Nautilus shells were popular items in the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and were often mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem to make extravagant nautilus shell cups, such as the Burghley Nef, mainly intended as decorations rather than for use. Small natural history collections were common in mid-19th-century Victorian homes, and chambered nautilus shells were popular decorations.

Here is a cutaway view showing the configuration of the shell’s chambers:

In his eponymous poem, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrests a deeper meaning from this curious artifact:

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
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Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
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Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
**************
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—
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Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
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To return to Wikipedia, the above entry led me in turn to an entry on goldsmiths. On that page, I found this image, which greatly appealed:
Entitled The Bagdadi Goldsmith, it is a creation of Kamal-ol-molk, This  artist was from Iran; he lived from 1848 to 1940.
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This encounter brought to mind a haunting work by the great Russian composer Alexander Borodin. It is called In the Steppes of Central Asia. (The quality of this video is not great, but the visuals are arresting and the music…well, just listen:
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Reading To Save My Mind

May 27, 2020 at 10:50 pm (Book review, books)

As of the start of Lock Down – March 10 here in Maryland, if memory serves – we all knew we were going to have to develop strategies for staying sane. Mine, unsurprisingly, was to disappear into books.

Below are the results:

BOOKS READ SINCE 3/10

Contemporary Crime Fiction

Children of the Street and Murder at Cape Three Points by Kwei Quartey. I’m currently reading the next title in the Darko Dawson series, Gold of Our Fathers. There’s only one more entry; then Dr. Quartey switches to what I assume will be another series featuring a female private detective, Emma Djian. The first entry, called The Missing American, is truly excellent – but I still want more Darko Dawson!

Wolf Pack and The Bitterroots by C.J Box. Set in Wyoming, Wolf Pack is the twentieth entry in the Joe Pickett series: The Bitterroots takes place in Montana and features Cassie Dewell as a sheriff’s investigator. (I have a soft spot for the Wyoming novels, as my son and daughter-in-law got married in that gorgeous place in 2008.)

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. This book just won the 2020 Edgar Award for Best Novel. I read it; it’s sort of an old fashioned British crime story of the type that I frankly love. The writing was excellent, and the plot was riveting – I had trouble putting it down. But I have to say that the ending – the solution ,to the mystery, arrived at rather suddenly – didn’t completely satisfy me. I was left feeling rather empty. Nevertheless – recommended. (You may have a completely different reaction that I did.) Oh, and the version I downloaded includes an excellent discussion guide.

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

An Honorable Man and The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer. I had  the privilege of meeting Mr. Meyer at Crimefest in England in 2011. He was an excellent speaker and a pleasure to talk to. In preparation for that excursion, I read the suspenseful and absorbing Thirteen Hours; The Last Hunt was even better. One reviewer opined that this new novel should gain Meyer the following he deserves. I certainly hope so.

Classic crime fiction

Signed, Picpus by Georges Simenon. It is my custom to turn to Simenon’s Maigret novels whenever I’m stressed. They always help. This one did the trick, as expected.

Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. Lorac. The British Library Crime Classics series continues apace, with its wonderful cover art and delightful period pieces. This is one of my favorites.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie. Being as I’ve been immersed in the lore and history of ancient Egypt lately – a Life Long Learning class in the Art of Ancient Egypt, plus viewing a Great Courses lecture series on the subject with the marvelous Bob Brier – it seemed the right time to read this; it’s Agatha Christie’s sole work of historical fiction.

Birthday Party by C.H.B. Kitchin

The House of the Arrow by A.E.W. Mason

Historical fiction

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel. A fitting conclusion to Dame Hilary’s monumental Wolf Hall trilogy.

Fiction

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin. When I first joined the Fiction/AV staff of the library in 1982, one of the first books that my colleagues urged me to read was the new novel by Gail Godwin (of whom I’d never heard), A Mother and Two Daughters. I’ve  been enjoying this author’s thoughtful, gracefully written works ever since  then. When I saw that she had a new book out this year, I downloaded it at once. That, and  the Hilary Mantel, have  definitely been sanity saviors!

Nonfiction

Van Gogh: A Power Seething by Julian Bell

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Life of Emily Dickinson, by Martha Ackmann

Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Achorn

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag
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So, what am I reading now? In addition to  Gold of Our Fathers,  the mystery mentioned above, several other items.

An analysis – at times, a psychoanalysis – of the Snow White story and its different meanings and iterations in a variety of  cultures:

 

This novel is a bit staid and slow moving, but I love the re-imagining of ancient Rome:

I am so loving Bob Brier’s Egypt lectures!! This is rather arcane subject matter, but Professor Brier brings it to life rather nicely:

Okay, well this is about the incredibly destructive, fast moving, and horrifying Camp Fire that occurred in California in 2018 and decimated this most ironically named small city. It’s a slightly odd thing to be reading right now, but all the same, it’s riveting.

This post came about as a result of a reading list I’m compiling for a program of book talks that I’m scheduled to present in July.

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Dear Diary…

May 24, 2020 at 1:32 am (Book review, books)

Dear Diary,

Brain feeling like mush. But I don’t like to absent myself from this space for too long, so here goes.

Went out to  get the paper this morning, greeted by a picture perfect day: warm, but with a hint of cool, and intensely green,  with a cloudless blue sky. Surely if this is, in fact, the real, the actual world, we cannot be facing an apocalypse?

However, the paper, once gotten inside, and freed of its plastic covering and my hands happy-birthday cleansed, tells a different and altogether grimmer story.

Anyway, I’ve been reading. Boy, have I been reading:

 

I have now confirmed my suspicion that I am not the ideal reader of philosophical texts. To wit:

In many cases, James suggested we can falsify ideas, make relatively accurate predictions, answer questions, and reach agreement, by simply being faithful to the facts—realities that repel or reinforce our ideas. Ignoring these realities, or dismissing their interpretation as “fake news,” is to give up on the pragmatic method altogether. Truth happens to ideas only through the ongoing and collective conversation with sensations, moments in the stream of consciousness that either sustain them, wash them clean, or wash them away. In James’s words, “[S]ensations are the motherearth, the anchorage, the stable rock, the first and last limits, the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of the mind. To find sensational termini should be our aim with all our higher thought.”

Umm…. Okay….

Now, I read another book by John Kaag several years ago. In American Philosophy: A Love Story, he describes how, as a newly minted philosophy professor,  he undertook a project to save the precious remnants of the library of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), who in years past was a distinguished Harvard-based philosopher. In the course of this endeavor, Kaag acquires a research assistant. She shares his enthusiasm for the undertaking, then develops an enthusiasm for him, which he joyfully reciprocates. Long story short, after navigating past some obstacles, they get married.

That book came out in 2016. This past February, I encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Kaag. Entitled “William James, Yoga and the Secret of Happiness,” it is adapted from his forthcoming book on that august personage. Possessed of pleasant memories of American Philosophy: A Love Story, I’m happily reading along until I encounter this sentence:

This winter—as I slogged through a second divorce at the tender age of 40, recovered from a second heart attack and lamented the state of the world—I reread James’s “Principles.”

WHAT?? Oh no! (I think I voiced my dismay aloud; in fact, I know I did, as Ron called over to ask what the problem was.)

But John, you told such a sweet love story in American Philosophy! I was counting on – nay, assuming – that a Happily Ever After ending would rightly follow. Nope – not this time. Notice I failed to get worked up over the poor man’s health – I mean, two heart attacks at such a young age is quite serious. But the breakup of that marriage seemed to me like the worst possible news. I admit – I took it personally. But I’m sure, not as personally as John and Carol took it.

(This was a  second marriage for both of them, plus by the time of the breakup. they’d had a daughter. John briefly mentions the misery of co-parenting with an ex-spouse; having been there, I know of what he speaks, and I sympathized.)

So, you may rightly ask, is Sick Souls, Healthy Minds about the wreckage of John Kaag’s domestic life or the life and philosophy of William James? As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is, some of both, although it’s really much more about James’s philosophical and intellectual endeavors. Much of that material is simply too complex and abstract for me to fully comprehend. I plowed through those sections dutifully, although at many points I felt like crying out, “Enough already! Stop doing all this excessive thinking and theorizing about things that can never be proven anyway and just live your life!”

Is this supposed to be the road to true self-knowledge, even to real happiness? I admit, it just doesn’t work for me.

Kaag gives us a brief summary of the life of William James. It’s clear he was a deep thinker, and this mental habit reinforced a tendency toward melancholy, even depression. And yet, in 1876, he was lucky enough to find just the right woman. Her name was Alice Howe Gibben; they were married in 1878.

James and Alice eventually had five children although they lost a son, Herman, when a case of whooping cough gave rise to a severe bout of pneumonia. James had nicknamed this youngster ‘Humster’ and wrote that he was “the flower of their flock.” Earlier in the book, Kaag says that James  was glad to leave all the details of domesticity, including child rearing, in Alice’s capable hands. I found myself curious about just what kind of husband and father William James was. So I guess I’m looking for a good biography of the man. Suggestions welcome.

William James 1842-1910. He fascinates me, both in his own right and because he is the older brother of that other enigma, the novelist Henry James.

 

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Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade

May 16, 2020 at 7:49 pm (Anglophilia, books)

  From the last section of Square Haunting:

In a sketch titled “London in War,” [Virginia Woolf] commented on the eeriness and disorientation of living in the city under siege: “Everybody is feeling the same thing: therefore no one is feeling anything in particular. The individual is merged in the mob.”

Now, walking the streets was a continual danger, maintaining the house a draining responsibility, the city ruled by an atmosphere of silence and suspicion. London, she wrote, “has become merely a congeries of houses lived in by people who work. There is no society, no luxury no splendour no gadding & flitting. All is serious & concentrated. It is as if the song had stopped—the melody, the necessary the voluntary. Odd if this should be the end of town life.”
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Woolf wrote movingly in her diary of the surreal quality of the blacked-out city, which seemed “a reversion to the middle ages with all the space & the silence of the country set in this forest of black houses”: “Nature prevails. I suppose badgers & foxes wd come back if this went on, & owls & nightingales…”

And nowadays, Kashmiri goats, too…

Anyway, I wanted to begin this review by quoting the above passages (and sharing that video) because I thought they seemed strangely relevant to the present moment.
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What a wonderful book this is! A delight for both the sense and the intellect, Square Haunting tells the story of five women as they struggle to find their place in the realms of academia, publishing, and public life in general. This endeavor has as its chief backdrop the tumultuous era between the two world wars. The author’s delineation of this fraught period is one of the book’s great strengths.

Here are the five women. in the order in which their stories are told:

Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D., 1886-1961, poet and novelist

Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, 1893-1957; she was also scholar of religion and French and Italian literature. She wanted very much to be known for these latter accomplishments, especially her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Jane Ellen Harrison, linguist and classicist, 1850-1928

Historian Eileen Power, 1889-1940

 

Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941. This my favorite image of her.

At one time or another, each of these women lived in Mecklenburgh Square, an area of London located within the Bloomsbury District in London’s West End. It is this happenstance that caused Francesca Wade to group them together in this  book. Although there was little, if any, interaction among them, they faced many of the same challenges, both in their professional and personal lives.

Also, they all produced trenchant and insightful prose.. Here is H.D. upon entering her war-damaged apartment:

“We came home and simply waded through glass,” she recalled, “while wind from now unshuttered windows made the house a barn, an unprotected dug-out. What does that sort of shock do to the mind, the imagination—not solely of myself, but of an epoch?”

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Wade gives us this description of Dorothy L. Sayers’s experience at Oxford:

Sayers’s contemporaries remembered tepid water, unpleasant food, and a general atmosphere of restriction, since their academic and social behavior was under constant scrutiny from opponents eager to cite the slightest misdemeanor as ammunition to demand a revocation of women’s place at Oxford. A female student recalled a don who began his classes “Gentlemen—and others who attend my lectures,” and another who insisted that the women sit behind him so he didn’t have to see them as he declaimed. Articles in the press constantly feigned concern that women were overworking, and that their minds and constitutions were not geared to such intensive toil.

This was the battle – or, one of the battles – Sayers was fighting when she wrote Gaudy Night, the culminating novel in the Wimsey/Vane series. These are the thoughts entertained by Harriet Vane, as she approaches the precincts of Shrewsbury College, Oxford, her alma mater:

They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

Indeed, so.

Meanwhile, of course, she’s trying to reconcile her life as a writer and scholar with her life as a possible wife – and to a Lord, no less:

(I recommend Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the series.)

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Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of Jane Ellen Harrison. She is a person well worth getting to know – a path breaker, a brilliant academician, and a fearless crusader for the right of women to nourish their legitimate intellectual hunger.

In her essay “Scientiae Sacra Fames,” Harrison wrote of the “delight of learning for learning’s sake a ‘dead’ language for sheer love of the beauty of its words and the delicacy of its syntactical relations…the rapture of reconstructing for the first time in imagination a bit of the historical past.” Women’s education had so long been constructed around its practical application to the life of a wife and mother that choosing a subject for pure stimulation felt like an act of delicious daring. Harrison considered “freedom to know” to be the “birthright of every human being”; she was furious when it was implied that any realm of knowledge should be considered “unwomanly.”

Among here many accomplishments, Jane Harrison mastered the Russian language and encouraged the translation and appreciation of Russian literature. This of course immediately endeared her to this Russophile – Спасибо вам большое, Jane Harrison! (Thank you so much, or literally, ‘a big thanks to you’).
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As with Jane Ellen Harrison, so with Eileen Power. Like Harrison, Power made her contributions to historical scholarship in the context of academia, in this case, Girton College, Cambridge. Power’s specialty was the Middle Ages, especially the lives of ordinary people during that era.

Eileen Power’s life is the story of her attempt to forge a new image for a woman intellectual, and create a way of living for which there was little precedent: not as the stereotype of a dowdy bluestocking, but as a professional who could entertain an international reputation while also enjoying fashion and frivolity, whose public status was defined not by her family but by her work.

Medieval People, an early work by Power, is available as a Kindle e-reader. I’ve only looked at the first few pages but it appears to be eminently readable.
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Perhaps mindful that so much has already been written about Virginia Woolf, Wade concentrates most particularly on her experience of the early days of World War Two, both in her and Leonard’s London flat and at Monk’s House, their home in the countryside. I’ve quoted some of that material at the beginning of this post. It comes from her journals, letters, and various writings; it is vivid and compelling. And I was pleasantly surprised by it, as I’ve never been able to get through any of her novels. I did, however, read A Room of One’s Own. Wikipedia says of that work:

An important feminist text, the essay is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women’s writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

Woolf was bitter about the effort and expense involved in sending her brothers to boarding school and then to Cambridge, while she and her sister Vanessa received virtually no formal education. (Vanessa became a painter of great distinction. She was married to the at critic Clive Bell. One of their sons was  the writer and art critic Quentin Bell; his son is Julian Bell, artist and writer and author of the biography of Vincent Van Gogh that I recently read and greatly enjoyed.)

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A poignant final note about Virginia Woolf and Eileen Power. It is fairly well known that Virginia Woolf battled what was probably bipolar illness and other conditions causing emotional anguish and mental instability for much of her adult life. She committed suicide in 1941, leaving this note for husband:

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

She was 59 years old.
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As for Eileen Power, she married Michael Postan, a Russian emigre who was both her colleague and her student. She was 37; he was ten years younger. They were deeply in love but their time together was cut tragically short by her untimely death. Her last letter to him is eerily reminiscent of Vieginia Woolf’s final missive to Leonard:

“Thank you my own darling…for making me as happy as a human being can be made and if I never see you again remember that no one could love you more.”

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Please know that there is so much more in this book than what I have herein covered. Give yourself a rare treat and read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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