April 05, 2007
Chariots of Fire: Best Picture, 1981
The 54th Annual Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson, and introduced the Best Makeup category (thanks to the outstanding work done on The Elephant Man the year before). Chariots of Fire was nominated for 7 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costumes, and Best Supporting Actor (Ian Holm). It lost Best Director to Warren Beatty for Reds. Reds was also nominated for Best Costumes, which is rather ironic. Chariots of Fire had a number of Edwardian costumes reserved for use after Reds (set during the same period) had finished with them. When Reds went over schedule, the costumes became unavailable and other arrangements had to be made. Chariots went on to win the award.
Meanwhile, Best Editing went to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Reds and Raiders were also both Best Picture nominees). Ian Holm lost to John Gielgud for his performance in Arthur. Interestingly, Gielgud also played a minor role in Chariots of Fire as a character who regards Ian Holm's character somewhat disdainfully. Chariots won its other nominations for a total of 4 awards.
The movie follows two very different men, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both ran and won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1924 World Olympics in Paris.
Abrahams is an Englishman of Jewish descent attending Cambridge. He is obsessively competitive and cannot conceive of losing. All his life he has felt that he has something to prove, seeing prejudice (real and imagined) against his race all around him. He believes that victory on the racetrack will not only cement his right to be called an Englishman, but that it will justify his very existence. "If I can't win, I won't run," he forcefully declares. But later, in a moment of doubt, he admits to a fellow athlete: "That is your secret, contentment; I am 24 and I've never know it. I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing."
Liddell is a Scottish Protestant whose parents are missionaries to China. He feels called to follow them there, but first he wishes to glorify God by racing in the Olympics. His sister, Jenny, worries that spending time racing instead of attending to his ministry will damage his commitment to the Lord. His response: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." He is truly not interested at all in personal glory. When he wins a race, he capitalizes on the gathering of people to reel off an impromptu sermon (and what a handy metaphor to go from!).
Abrahams finds his perviously unshakeable confidence faltering after he loses a race to Liddell, and recruits a coach to improve his form. As the big race nears, he finds himself intimidated. "I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win," he says. We see the elation of victory rush to his face as he crosses the finish line, but his success leaves him feeling strangely empty. Having achieved his purpose, he begins to feel keenly the void it left behind. Victory for self-glorification has failed to give him meaning.
Liddell faces a very different problem when he discovers that the heat for his race is to be held on Sunday. He will not run on Sunday, standing firm on that principle even when pressured by a small group of the nobility and the prince of Wales himself. He recalls not only the worries of his sister, but also his privileged position as a very public representative of his faith. And, most of all, he believes in the importance of following his convictions about God's law, even if no one is watching. People are watching, though, and soon his principled stand is receiving world-wide press.
His countrymen and his fellow Christians have every reason to be proud of him, but there is still the matter of his being able to run. This is solved when a fellow member of the British team offers Liddell his spot in a different race. Just before the race, one of the American runners hands Liddell a paper with 1st Samuel 2:30 scrawled on it: "He who honors Me, I will honor." Liddell goes on to win the race in his own strange way: head thrown back, mouth wide open, hand clutching the note. And then, elated but without missing a beat, he goes on to become a missionary to China. His entire life's focus is to glorify God, and there will always be ways to do that.
Abrahams lived until 1978, and stayed involved in athletics throughout his life. His funeral bookends the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the movie. Liddell died in a prison camp in China near the end of World War II. As Chariots of Fire informs us just before the credits, "All of Scotland mourned."
My one complaint would have to be directed at the music. Shocking, right? I mean, the opening theme of Chariots of Fire is legendary, and the score won an Oscar. There are parts of it, indeed, that are quite excellent, but overall I found it intrusive. More than anything else, the score grounds this movie solidly in the decade in which it was made. So much synthetic music; so very 1980s. If they had just done the same things with more conventional instruments, there wouldn't be such a jarring sense of anachronism. I have always felt that with a historical movie like this, the music playing over scenes should not be something that the characters would be confused or baffled if they heard. It ought to fit somehow with their time and place, either in style or instrumentation.
Nevertheless, this is a pretty good movie, made all the more excellent by its thematic elements. It manages to come across more as historical fiction/biopic material than as inspirational sports movie, which is all to the good. This may be the closest thing to a Christian movie that has won or ever will win an Oscar, with the possible exception of A Man for All Seasons (in fact, producer David Puttnam was searching for a story about conscience in the same vein as that film when he stumbled across the story of Eric Liddell in an Olympic trivia book). The lead actors get completely lost in their characters, and all of the performances are marvellous. Chariots of Fire also truly evokes its period setting, and I was particularly impressed by the difficulty of reproducing so convincingly the Olympic games of 80 years ago.
As for the other movies that came out that year, they're a pretty rum bunch (as you might expect from the early '80s). The only other truly great movie I've seen from this year is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is certainly a heavy contender, but perhaps not quite as worthy of the Best Picture award. That aside, I don't think anyone will argue with me when I say that Raiders should have won Best Original Score. The themes from that movie are even more popular than the still well-known Chariots theme, and John Williams never made the desperate mistake of abandoning the traditional symphony orchestra when scoring movies.
March 19, 2007
Tom Jones: Best Picture, 1963
What an incredibly strange batch got hauled in at the 37th Annual Academy Awards (hosted by Jack Lemmon). Tom Jones was nominated for 10 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Albert Finney), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Art Direction (Color), and 3 for Best Supporting Actress (Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman). It won the first 4. Ironically, the winners were not present for the first 3 of those 4 awards, and they were accepted by someone else.
As for the rest, Best Actor went to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas for Hud, Best Art Direction to Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and Best Supporting Actress to Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s (also starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). 1963 was one of those years where Oscar didn't pick many movies that people would remember favorably (if at all) . . . an off-year (awful year?) if you will.
Tom Jones is based (heavily or loosely, I do not know) on Henry Fielding's massive 18th century novel of the same title. Clocking in at just over 2 hours, the movie maintains a relentlessly frenetic pace as much for slapstick effect as to cover even just the bare bones of the original plot. Squire Allworthy, a bachelor living with his spinster sister, retires to his bedroom one evening and discovers an illegitimate infant boy occupying his bed. Blame for the child's existence quickly falls on Jenny Jones, a household servant, and she is promptly exiled along with the local barber accused of being the father. Squire Allworthy adopts the baby, dubbing him Tom Jones and raising him as his own (sort of).
Before long, the squire's sister marries and has a son of her own, Blifil, and the two boys grow up together. Tom is a rollicking, lusty lover of fun and sport, while Blifil is a model student and a prim, stuck-up prig. Both men love Sophie Western, but she only cares for Tom . . . this is unfortunate since he can't seem to keep his pants on around a large segment of the local female population. Blifil soon exposes Tom's wicked ways and he is exiled, leaving Blifil the logical choice to marry Sophie and unite the estates and fortunes of Squires Western and Allworthy. Sophie, horrified, runs away with her cousin, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and half the major characters follow in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Tom falls in with all sorts of entertaining people, and starts bed-hopping again. Everyone winds up in London for a long interlude of dancing around social conventions and whatnot. Tom carries on more affairs and gets in more trouble, and finally all sorts of revelations are made just in time for a climactic last-second rescue from the gallows and a happy ending for Tom.
Tom Jones is chaotic and unfocused, and its pacing is a disaster. It has definite flashes of genius, and a good deal of honest hilarity. However, by the time the ending rolls around, it is difficult not to feel that the film has long since worn out its welcome. Far too much screentime is taken up by material that is either boring or irritating.
Albert Finney is fantastic in the title role, charismatic and fun throughout. His performance here is certainly far better than the one that would get him his next acting nomination over 10 years later (as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). Finney inhabits and possesses his character completely, and it is difficult not to find at least a little enjoyment whenever he is on screen. Tom Jones is also blessed with some magnificent set pieces, including an enormous, rollicking and elaborately-staged fox hunt featuring some great aerial shots of the action and a rich and magnificent costume ball full of rich and fantastical outfits of all kinds.
The movie further benefits (occasionally) from a style that rarely takes itself seriously, lampooning older movie conventions along the way. Tom Jones opens like a silent film, complete with melodramatic music and title cards, and isn't above frequent slapstick and "Keystone-esque" sped-up chase scenes. Like much of the repertoire of Monty Python (which Tom Jones almost seems to foreshadow from time to time) some of this works extraordinarily well while some is just too silly or outrageous to elicit more than a groan . . . and it is often not clear why some things work and others don't.
Ultimately, though, it's all just too much. Tom Jones drags too often, and in all the wrong places. Perhaps if an additional half-hour of subplots had been shaved off, or if the characters weren't so constantly interacting at a fever pitch, it would be an easier movie to watch and enjoy. There are certainly plenty of glimmers of a much better movie showing through beneath its exhausting and campy tone.
I've only seen three of the movies involved in the 1963 awards (besides Tom Jones), but it seems to have been something of a year of "ultimates," particularly in terms of ensemble casting. The three I've seen are The Sword in the Stone, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and The Great Escape. And I've seen a handful of others that weren't noticed: Hitchcock's campy The Birds, Peter Sellers' hilarious The Pink Panther, and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant's magnificent pairing in the comedy/romance/thriller Charade.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World may not be the funniest comedy you've ever seen, but at 192 minutes, it's probably the longest. And it probably has the most epic all-star and comedic cast you're ever likely to find on a single screen: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Jim Backus, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, and the Three Stooges. I remember watching the final climactic scene (a masterpiece of juvenile slapstick) over and over and over again when I was younger. Mad World was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 1 (Best Sound Effects, now Best Sound Editing). It lost Best Original Score to Tom Jones.
Then there's The Great Escape, the ultimate prison camp movie. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, et al came together for a fantastic film with lasting appeal . . . and Oscar missed the boat altogether. The Great Escape was nominated only for Best Editing and lost to another ultimate: How the West Was Won. That film was nominated for 8 awards, including Best Picture, and won 3. It featured performances from Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Agnes Moorehead, and Spencer Tracy (as the narrator). And, of course, there's the infamous Cleopatra, widely considered to be one of the most ostentatious failures in movie history. However, it still racked up 9 nominations (including Best Picture) and 4 wins.
Selecting from an admittedly limited pool, my pick for best of 1963 would fall on either The Great Escape or Charade.
March 07, 2007
The Departed: Best Picture, 2006
The Departed was nominated for 5 Oscars at the 79th Annual Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mark Wahlberg). It lost only the last, to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. It is the 4th Martin Scorsese film that I have seen. I really thought Taxi Driver, an urban story of isolation and twisted virtue, was an excellent and amazing film. It was nominated for 4 Oscars and won none. Gangs of New York, a sprawling historical tale of rival Irish gangs and political corruption set against the backdrop of the Civil War, was pretty good, but perhaps overlong. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and also lost every single one. The Aviator, as I've mentioned recently, I disliked a great deal. A vast biopic of wealthy eccentric Howard Hughes, it was definitely overlong. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and took 5.
The Departed is the story of two men of Irish descent, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who join the Boston Police Department at around the same time and become involved in an investigation hoping to take down Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costigan is recruited by Dignam (Wahlberg) and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) to go undercover and get as close as possible to Costello. Meanwhile, Sullivan, befriended by Costello at a very young age, is busily feeding him information from inside the force. Naturally, it is only a matter of time before the two moles become aware of each other's existence and each is forced to attempt to be the first to discover the other's identity. Meanwhile, unbeknowst to them, they have both fallen in love with the same woman.
This is really an excellent and carefully-crafted set-up, with an equally great cast. It is truly surprising that Wahlberg was the sole acting nominee, because there is fantastic work here all around. Nicholson, as usual, is outstanding, as are both DiCaprio and Damon. In fact, I think this may be my favorite DiCaprio performance to date. I'm surprised Nicholson didn't get a nomination for his performance. Maybe they thought, with 12 previous nominations and 3 wins behind him, why bother? Then again, Meryl Streep got nominated. In any case, I found the characters very believable and compelling, and I was very caught up in what was going on. I didn't get bored or feel the need to check the time at all.
Of course, part of that strength lies as much with the screenplay as the performances. There is a lot to like here with the slow building of very palpable tension, several surprise twists scattered liberally throughout, and cat-and-mouse antics that are as original as I've seen in recent memory. The ultimate fate of the characters is unpredictable, not because the ending cheap-shots the audience out of nowhere (it doesn't, really) but because the movie appears willing to let the story play out naturally instead of contriving a particular ending.
Nevertheless, it has its failings. They are, perhaps, not very significant alone, but together they make this film far from perfect. As great as the story is, I got the very distinct feeling as it drew to a close that the manner in which things played out would fall apart if I were to watch the movie again. A few things didn't quite add up. I was never sure, for instance, how Costigan wound up seeing the same woman that Sullivan was dating. I'm willing to overlook the improbability of it because it added so much to the story, but it seemed much too convenient. I can't discuss other developments in detail for fear of giving away the movie, but there were a number of inconsistencies and one or two major events that didn't seem plausible to me. These occurred mostly in the last 20 minutes of the movie.
I'm not sure where fault for my larger complaint should lie: with the editing, the directing, or the screenplay. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. Gallagher walked in and joined us after the movie had been going for about half an hour, and he said at the end that he didn't feel like he had missed anything. In a movie where so much depends on character development and small details, being able to miss a good 20% of the runtime with no loss to understanding seems to me to indicate self-indulgence on someone's part. Leave more on the cutting room floor.
Actually, the movie had been playing for at least fifteen minutes already and we felt we were "in the thick of it" ourselves when suddenly the screen went black and "The Departed" flashed in front of us. Someone observed that that was one heck of an opening sequence. Waiting that long to announce the film's title is stupid, and I can think of no good reason for it. It breaks the flow. Really, thinking back, it's a testament to the movie's excellence in other areas that I wasn't more distracted throughout.
There were a number of weird, almost dreamlike breaks that cut in on the actual narrative here and there and disappeared just as quickly; things like Nicholson's character spraying cocaine through the air while a scantily-clad hooker looked on. These brief cuts were irrelevant to whatever was going on before, were gone as quickly as they appeared, and didn't seem to relate to anything that came after. Sloppy and surreal, a bad combination. They didn't happen often, but they shouldn't have happened at all.
That brings me to my final praise/complaint: the music. The music was great. It really was. The main theme was a haunting piece that came across as The Godfather with Celtic overtones, and a lot of the other music was fun Irish punk rock type stuff reminiscent of Flogging Molly. So, it sounded good and it fit very well with the mood and tone of the film. Props to the composer. But I have seldom heard music used so ineffectively and intrusively in a movie. At completely random times for no reason at all the music would fade out, grow suddenly louder, or cut off completely and abruptly (mid-note and mid-scene) for a few seconds before jumping back on at full volume. It was incredibly annoying and distracting, and I thought it was tacky and pretentious.
I would call The Departed a truly high-quality film experience that doesn't stand up well under very close scrutiny. Gallagher wondered aloud at the end how this movie stood up against Snatch and The Boondock Saints. At first I thought he was talking about general quality or something similar . . . he was actually talking about f-bombs. I guess there were quite a few. Randy and I didn't really notice after the first few, and I still don't have vivid memories of there being a great many, but there were. I guess that's a testament to how comfortable I am watching movies with everyone that was in the room (I only notice things like that if I feel like someone in the room is noticing . . . and disapproving).
Anyway, Gallagher was inspired to check, and discovered that there were 237 uses of the f-word and its various derivations. That's approximately one every 40 seconds for two and a half hours. In case you were wondering, The Boondock Saints has 246 f-words, or one every 28 seconds or so, while Snatch weighs in with a paltry 153 for an overall concentration comparable to that of The Departed. I was quick to point out that Gallagher has never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie. Pulp Fiction has 271 (1 every 34 seconds), and Reservoir Dogs has 252 (1 every 24 seconds).
Having since investigated the matter on the internets, I find Casino with 422 (1 every 25 seconds) and Twin Town with 320 (1 every 19 seconds). Both are blown completely out of the water by Nil by Mouth with 470 (1 every 16 seconds), which (incidentally) stars the guy who plays Nicholson's right-hand man in The Departed. I should point out, in closing, that 2005's documentary F*ck contains an astounding 857 f-words (no, I don't know if that is counting the title), cramming in 1 for every 7 seconds of runtime . . . but that's not really fair. As the word is the subject of the documentary, the uses can't be considered completely gratuitous. In any case, point taken. The Departed definitely holds the record number of f-words for a Best Picture winner, since Pulp Fiction lost to Forrest Gump in 1995. But really . . . who's counting?
As for the other serious contender for the Best Picture award, you may have noticed that I saw Babel last week. What a powerful and aptly-named film this is. In the midst of Morocco, a goatherd buys a high-powered rifle from a friend to help rid himself of a jackal problem, and sends his young sons out to tend the flock. Playing around with the weapon, one of them shoots an American tourist (Cate Blanchette) in a passing bus. Hours from civilization, her husband (Brad Pitt) rushes her to the nearest approximation to a doctor in a local village and starts frantically phoning his embassy.
Meanwhile, the couple's two children back in California are being cared for by their housekeeper of many years, and illegal immigrant from Mexico. Her son is going to be married back in Mexico, and with her employers' return delayed and no one to watch the children, she takes them with her to the wedding. On the other side of the world, in Japan, the deaf/mute daughter of a wealthy businessman has just lost her mother, and is searching desperately in all the wrong places for some kind of satisfying emotional connection to another human being. The international incident in Morocco, a tragic accident that is rapidly being blown out of proportion, will have a profound impact on the lives of the characters in Mexico and Japan.
Transpiring in at least 5 languages (counting sign language) and jumping rapidly between the dirty streets of Mexico, the techno-pop Japanese night life, and the primitive desert of Morocco, Babel is like a very concentrated shot of culture shock. The film poignantly illustrates the impossibility of communication across thick barriers of language and culture, and the tragedy of this breakdown in human connection, while at the same time hinting that there may be hope for those with the humility and the sensitivity to try to build relationships. It is a message that is both timely and timeless.
Babel only won Best Music (Score) out of its seven nominations, an award I still think should have gone to Pan's Labyrinth. However, as to the rest, I suspect that it split its own Best Supporting Actress vote, allowing Dreamgirls to walk off with it. Both Adriana Barraza (as the Mexican housekeeper) and Rinko Kikuchi (as the deaf/mute Japanese teen) did incredible work. Because of the masterful way in which it splices and weaves its four stories together into a unified whole, and jumps between them in a way that is both startling and artful, I don't understand why Babel lost Best Editing to The Departed . . . especially considering the flaws I already pointed out in the latter.
I feel that Babel is a genuinely important film with a positive and vital message that should speak to anyone anywhere in the world. The Departed is smart and well done . . . great filmmaking, to be sure. But ultimately I think The Departed is entertainment where Babel is art. Babel is highly original and worthy of imitation . . . The Departed is imitation; a nearly identical remake of Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs (2002) done over with a new location, an all-star cast and a less meaningful ending. What does that say about where Best Picture and Best Director should have gone? Well . . . there it is.
January 11, 2006
Myth and Myopia X: Whither Southern History?
While earlier authors had written to mold the South, to define it, to shock it, to glorify it, or to shame it, the men and women of the second generation also sought to explain the South, to capture its fading qualities, and to nudge it in the right direction. The chief concern of the first generation could perhaps be identified as an examination of the hierarchical struggle for dominance between Southern memory and Southern history (embodied in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!).
While this remained a concern during the second generation, the focus had somewhat shifted to the hierarchical struggle between the concern of maintaining established societal norms and the concern of allowing for basic individual rights and freedoms. This was, of course, a reflection of the struggle for desegregation; a final titanic effort by the entire nation to throw off the dead weight of generations of bitterness, poverty, and deprivation since the end of the Civil War. And, while the fight for equality was far from over by 1970, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s marked a watershed just as critical in Southern history as the Civil War had in the 1860s. By the 2060s, will the people of the South finally have learned just to be civil?
Positive changes which have transpired in the decades since 1970 have led many to maintain that the Garden of Eden descriptions of the colonial period and the New South myth of the early 20th century have finally fulfilled their promise in visions of the Sunbelt South. As has always been the case with such speculation, however, the South is not a paradise yet. Its problems are not over, they have simply changed. Nevertheless, the South has largely succeeded in leaving the term "Benighted" far behind.
Meanwhile, it is perhaps arbitrary at best, erroneous at worst, to place the end of the Southern Literary Renaissance in 1965. Its only significance in this respect is as the year when Flannery O’Connor’s final work of fiction was published posthumously. Many other dates have been suggested as well. A great many other authors of the Renaissance were dead by this time, but a great many more were still alive, and some continue to write today. Perhaps it is safest to assert merely that sometime between O’Connor’s death in 1964 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the second phase of the Renaissance came to an end.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a third generation of important Southern writers continued to produce regional material even as the South continued to change. Some have stated that the Renaissance is still going on, and will continue as long as the South remains a distinct region with something to say about itself.
However, in terms of a sudden flourishing of literature produced by a group of authors with more or less common concerns and experiences during a period of rapid change, the Renaissance period falls approximately between 1929 and 1965, representing a definite intellectual break from everything that had come before in the region. The thriving of Southern culture which began in earnest in 1929 may continue indefinitely, but its vital importance to a region at a critical turning point in its history has, for the moment, ended.
Meanwhile, for a very enlightening article about the current state of the South provided to me by my good friend Daniel Gallagher, click here.
January 10, 2006
Myth and Myopia IX: Good Southern Writers of the Second Generation
Naturally, many of the authors already discussed are very difficult to assign to specific, narrow periods, as many of them continued writing well into the 1970s and 1980s. However, those writers who became prominent literary figures during the Great Depression are generally regarded as the first generation of the Southern Literary Renaissance. Following the return to prosperity which took place during World War II, a second generation of Southern writers continued the legacy of the Renaissance before many in the first generation had left off.
Some of these authors have already been reviewed. But the South after World War II was beginning to change very rapidly. Finally able to begin shaking off the images of a Benighted South, the region was enjoying a new prosperity. Soon, though, the African-American crusade for civil rights would once again influence the national image of the South for the worse. Meanwhile, a whole new group of powerful Southern voices flooded the literary market with their works.
Among these authors were Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Smith, and Flannery O’Connor. Among the themes they addressed were the increasing struggle Southerners faced in joining the modern world, and the ever-pressing question of whether the South would be able to remain a "white man’s country" much longer.
At the heart of Eudora Welty’s writing there is a sense of the importance of the South as a setting, of the importance of the past, and of the importance of connections within family life. The best representative of her distinctly Southern fiction is probably Delta Wedding (1946), which portrays a large Southern family in the early 1920s gathered together to celebrate the wedding of a daughter.
Carson McCullers published her first (and possibly best) novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940. She became famous with the publication of The Member of the Wedding (1946). The book is an exploration of relationships and individuality as the main character experiences isolation from everyone around her. Much of her writing uses the South symbolically to represent the problems and the worries of all of America. McCullers also dealt sympathetically with both sides in the question of race during the early 1940s, but held out little hope for future change. Her attitude towards the South, unlike Welty’s, remained ambivalent, and her writing has even been classified as Southern Gothic by some.
Tennessee Williams, a playwright, wrote several popular plays and screenplays during the 1940s and 1950s. Like William Faulkner and Lillian Hellman, Williams helped to transform a number of his own works into movie form. With a penchant for the grotesque, Williams’s plays and films often depict a very decadent vision of the South as a region full of eccentricity and violated sexual taboos. However, they can also profoundly depict a South in the throes of transformation from old to new.
In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) two fallen aristocrats, Blanche and Stella, find themselves living in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Stella, symbolically making herself comfortable with the brutish and uneducated New South of the future, has married Stanley Kowalski, a low-class, often abusive man. Blanche, on the other hand, a sensitive former English teacher who has found herself unable to cope with the fall from wealth and society that life has dealt her, becomes increasingly unstable, entering a fantasy world rooted in the nonexistent past of moonlight and magnolias. Eventually it is revealed that not everything is as it seems in Blanche’s past. She too has behaved both immorally and opportunistically in order to survive in the New South, but her mind is too fragile to survive the effects of her actions.
A later play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), presents a family of lower-class whites risen to power and prestige, but now rapidly falling to pieces as the family patriarch nears death and his two sons and their wives squabble over the inheritance and attempt to come to terms with issues of their own. The title character, "Maggie the Cat," wife of the younger son, expects her only victory in life to be that of a "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," simply to stay where she is as long as she can.
However, the ending brings familial reconciliation with it. Maggie, addressing her husband Brick in the final scene, seems almost also to be addressing the Old South in the voice of the New when she says, "Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you, gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of, and I can!"
Lillian Smith became one of the strongest white Southern voices in favor of civil rights beginning in the mid-1940s. Her writing arose less from "a sense of personal guilt than [from] a feeling of shame for the behavior of [her] homeland." She wrote with a strong awareness of the close correlation between "white supremacy and white male supremacy." Her best known works are Strange Fruit (1944) and Killers of the Dream (1949, rev. 1961).
In the latter, which opens with the words "even its children know that the South is in trouble," she asserted that the burden of whites was their childhood, how they had been raised all their lives to believe and act. To Smith, the killers of the dream were "Southerners who honored and passed on a flawed Southern culture" to their children. Her book is a moving autobiographical examination of the development of Southern culture and its flaws. Smith charged that Southern whites had "segregated Southern money from [the poor white] and [. . .] segregated Southern mores from [the rich white] and [. . .] segregated Southern churches from Christianity and [. . .] segregated Southern minds from honest thinking and [. . .] segregated the Negro from everything." Unlike many Southern social critics of her day, who were advocating a gradual move towards true racial equality, Smith continued to call loudly for an immediate end to segregation until her death in 1966.
Undoubtedly the most important literary voice of the second generation, however, was Flannery O’Connor, who completed two novels and two collections of short stories between 1952 and her death in 1964. Additionally, her collected essays were published under the title Mystery and Manners in 1969. These essays attempt to explain both the Southerner and the Southern writer. O’Connor was often referred to as a Southern Gothic, but her use of the grotesque was very different from that of previous authors who had received that label.
"In the 1930s Erskine Caldwell had written about the grotesque inhabitants of Tobacco Road and attributed their condition to a social system that could be redeemed through political and economic reform. Two decades later, Flannery O’Connor wrote about more or less the same people and attributed the condition of each to an unfulfilled longing for God’s grace, which made social reform rather beside the point." O’Connor asserted that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted," and her fiction labors within this context.
Her stories are distinctly Southern in a variety of ways, most notably her use of humor and stereotypes. Among the themes she develops are: tension between city and country, anti-intellectualism, the centrality of family and community, the prominence of history and the past, parent-child relationships, racial tension, and self-knowledge and hypocrisy. However, dominating all of these ideas, or perhaps binding them together, is the presence of strong religious motifs and the overpowering force of God’s saving Grace. O’Connor’s characters inevitably find themselves confronted by a drastic, often violent, situation which leads to a moral epiphany.
January 09, 2006
Myth and Myopia VIII: The Old South Strikes Back (and Other Sundries)
By now, a counter-Gothic movement was beginning to rise within the South. Stark Young had already proven the success of positive portrayals of the Old South when a young Atlanta journalist (and former colleague of Erskine Caldwell) named Margaret Mitchell responded to the Gothic novelists with a historical romance of her own.
The book was Gone with the Wind, and it was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1936, selling a million copies in six months. Gone with the Wind became the smash-hit of the decade, and a movie version, which premiered in Atlanta in 1939, is still the highest grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). Cash calls the book "a new confession of the Southern faith" and the scene it prompted in Atlanta when the movie was released "one of the most remarkable which America has seen in our time." The publication of Gone with the Wind, which won the Pulitzer Prize, both demonstrated and revitalized the popularity of the South’s mythic past throughout the United States. A host of novels in the same vein followed closely in its wake.
The book itself follows Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled and selfish Southern belle, from her idyllic existence in the antebellum South, through the hardships of the Civil War, and into her opportunistic struggles during Reconstruction. However, although the movie version falls squarely into the fallacies of Southern myth, the novel is much more complex, striving for some level of historical accuracy while often portraying its characters as flawed.
Following directly in the footsteps of Margaret Mitchell was the African-American writer Frank Yerby. His first Southern historical romance, The Foxes of Harrow, was released in 1946. Yerby dominated the market for about two decades, writing (strangely) for an audience which was largely composed of white females. Although he won an award for his short fiction (which dealt with racial issues) in the early 1940s, many of his critics complained that he disregarded questions of race in his later works. To this, Yerby replied with his stated belief that a writer should not "inflict on the public his private ideas on politics, religion or race."
Two other Southerners, William Alexander Percy and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, asserted the value of their Southern heritage during the 1940s with autobiographical works. Both exhibit the typical Southern historical consciousness in their work and wrestle with assumptions which have been instilled in them all their lives about sectional and racial differences. Percy, with Lanterns on the Levee (1941), defended the region against liberal criticism from the North while reminiscing about his tranquil youth in the South. Speaking for the Southern aristocracy, he tried to rationalize and justify white supremacy.
Du Pre Lumpkin, on the other hand, took a quite different approach in The Making of a Southerner (1946). She struggles to overcome the generations of racism and acceptance of slavery which exist in her family history, ultimately recognizing the incompatibility of prejudice and Christianity and rejecting the attitudes of the past.
Shelby Foote published six novels during the late 1940s and early 1950s, most of which were set during the Civil War period. However, his tour de force, The Civil War: A Narrative, was a three-volume history which he began in 1954. His immersion in the period and intense familiarity with it earned him the admiration of a number of fellow authors and is indicative of a writer who sought to celebrate the South and its history without either worshipping or vilifying.
Throughout the Southern Literary Renaissance, authors appeared and disappeared, often completely independent of any group and with little in common save that they were all Southern natives. No two lists of the important voices of the period look exactly alike, partly because few examinations of the Renaissance are able to devote sufficient space for a comprehensive study and so some writers must go unmentioned. Almost inevitably, these are the ones who are not easily categorized, operating on the fringes of the Renaissance, or only publishing one important work in their entire careers.
Katherine Anne Porter, a Texas writer, examined universal themes about human mythmaking, often making use of the South and of Southern history. Beginning in 1930, she wrote stories and short novels almost exclusively, with the exception of one full-length novel, Ship of Fools (1962). Her style is deeply personal, opening itself up to the reader and allowing the reader to be drawn deeper into the story and the experiences of the characters.
Lillian Hellman, of Louisiana, wrote numerous plays and screenplays from the 1930s to the 1960s. Her best known work is The Little Foxes (1939), a story of family greed set in the post-Civil War South. Although Hellman moved to New York City at a young age, her family roots were buried deep in Southern soil. Truman Capote was another such writer. Born in New Orleans but moving to New York City as a child, Capote became instantly famous when he published his first novel in 1948. He continued to write prolifically, often about deeply Southern characters like the exiled Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). His crowning achievement came with the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965. It was the first non-fiction novel.
Capote’s childhood friend, Harper Lee, also achieved lasting fame with her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which combines a tender, nostalgic, coming-of-age story with themes of racism and injustice in small-town Alabama. And Walker Percy, orphaned as a child and raised by his father’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, used his Christian existentialist beliefs and Southern settings and characters to explore universal themes in novels like The Last Gentleman (1966).
During the Renaissance, African-American writers were also beginning to gain a significant voice. While their impact may have been less at the time than that of white authors (and less than it would be later), they still had much of importance to say about the region they had inhabited as a race almost as long as the Europeans, and in which they too had played a vital role. Many prominent black authors emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and produced literature equally important in the South.
The best examples of such writers are Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Hughes, although not a Southerner, borrowed heavily from the Southern black experience in his poetry. Hurston published several novels in the 1930s and 1940s which discussed the racial problems of the South in softer, less vindictive terms than other African-Americans. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), gained immense popularity after her death as a portrait of the strength of black women in the South. However, other black authors criticized her work, most notably Richard Wright.
Wright’s most important works, Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), portrayed a very violent picture of black life. His often amoral characters reflect the effects of their environment, and are plagued by the effects of poverty and prejudice. Ralph Ellison, yet another important black writer of this period, was inspired to become a writer as the result of a chance reading of “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot.
Moving to New York, he met and was heavily influenced by both Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. His most important work, Invisible Man, received the National Book Award when it was published in 1952. It chronicles the life of a black man who finds that he is socially invisible in the white man’s world. Meanwhile, poet and novelist Margaret Walker challenged the romanticized vision of the Old South in her works, particularly in her novel Jubilee (1966).
January 08, 2006
Myth and Myopia VII: The First Generation Looks Homeward
When Thomas Wolfe published Look Homeward, Angel and William Faulkner came out with Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury in 1929, people all over the United States began to notice that something unique was stirring in the South. Faulkner published three more major works during the next three years. In 1930, Katherine Anne Porter produced Flowering Judas, and in 1932 Erskine Caldwell delivered Tobacco Road and T. S. Stribling’s The Store won the Pulitzer Prize. And, of course, I’ll Take My Stand was released in 1930. The Southern Literary Renaissance had begun in earnest.
It would, perhaps, be best to begin with William Faulkner, who is called "the major writer to emerge from the Renaissance and the greatest American writer of the 20th century [. . .] a writer for the ages, a Shakespeare in Southern homespun." Faulkner, a native of Mississippi and the great-grandson of a Confederate officer, created a fictional county in his home state, which he called Yoknapatawpha, and where most of his novels are set. His works create a detailed history for Yoknapatawpha, and populate it with a cast of rich, Southern characters, which Faulkner then uses to examine important questions about the South, its history, and its predicament.
Faulkner’s novels are often full of horror, violence, and the grotesque, portraying bleak visions of a disintegrating Southern society where honor and valor have all but disappeared. His characters find themselves trapped in destructive, repeating cycles set in motion long before they were born, and which they are seldom able to break free of. Some reflect the sadness and nostalgia of fallen greatness, while others represent the worst of human nature: savage, corrupt, and selfish. His style was heavily influenced by James Joyce, and his greatest works are narrated using a complex stream-of-consciousness point of view that switches between various characters.
In As I Lay Dying (1930), for instance, Faulkner speaks in no fewer than sixteen voices as he tells the story of the Bundren clan’s struggles to transport the body of Addie Bundren to its final resting place far away from their home. Faulkner went on to alternately produce novels and Hollywood screenplays for over three decades until his death in 1962. Many critics, however, state that he had passed his creative peak by the mid- to late-1940s. Certainly his influence in the Renaissance is most strongly felt during the Depression years, after he had first burst upon the literary scene. Faulkner’s novels, in the words of one of his characters, "Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all."
Thomas Wolfe only managed to publish a few novels before his untimely death in 1938. Nevertheless, his impact during those years was undeniable. William Faulkner ranked him among the greatest writers in America. Wolfe’s writing was informed by his personal experiences in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, by his studies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, and by his travels in Europe. He realized that progress was slowly transforming the South, making it a part of modern America, but also that Southerners had by no means yet joined that world. He lived in an atmosphere of great change, of forward movement, and this movement is reflected in his writing.
Wolfe’s work was particularly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel; he attempted to account, as much as possible, for all of human experience, emphasizing the interconnected nature of history. "Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time," he declared in his first novel. Wolfe had a desire to tell the truth about the people of the South, and could be quite critical of them, particularly greedy, scrambling efforts to attract wealthy tourists. However, he could no more abandon his Southern roots than he could purge them from his writing (as much as he tried to speak for all of America). "His was the story of a man at odds with an environment that both bewildered and charmed him."
Erskine Caldwell, unlike either Faulkner or Wolfe, wrote in a very plain, stark style. Caldwell (who set his novels in his home state of Tennessee) wrote with a social agenda, decrying the dehumanizing effects of poverty on tenant farmers and of racial injustice on blacks in the South. His novels, like those of Faulkner, were sometimes full of violence and grotesque characters, but they lack the balance Faulkner’s nostalgia sometimes provided in his own works. Caldwell’s picture of the South, then, is also an extremely critical one. His South is full of lynchings, rape, and starvation. The atmosphere is oppressive, yet his characters impel a bleak sort of humor in the midst of their surroundings. The title of his most successful work, Tobacco Road, became a byword for rural poverty and [he] established a vogue of tenant literature for a decade."
T. S. Stribling, who began publishing novels a few years before any of the other three, portrayed Alabama in the same way the others were portraying Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Stribling’s historical trilogy, published in the early 1930s, ostensibly traced the economic development of northern Alabama from 1860 to 1920. However, Stribling wove themes of racial injustice and Southern narrow-mindedness into the story as well. While his work lacked the extremities of monstrosity sometimes achieved by Faulkner and Caldwell, he certainly didn’t whitewash the South either. For reasons which remain obscure Stribling published his last novel in 1938, even though he didn’t die until 1962.
In 1941, Cash observed that "if a few greeted such writers as Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, and Caldwell with tolerance [. . .] the prevailing attitude toward them was likely to be one of squeamish distaste and shock, of denial that they told the essential truth or any part of it [. . .] of bitter resentment against them on the ground that they had libeled and misrepresented the South with malicious intent." Yet, whether or not their opinions were popular among Southerners, the fact remained that the rest of the country was beginning to take notice.
To the audience of the 1930s, "long conditioned by attacks on the Benighted South and by liberation from gentility [. . . the literary] thrust seemed to be at best a liberal critique of contemporary error, at worst a sensational exposé of degradation." The works of such authors soon came to be known as "Southern Gothic," a label that would plague many other Southern writers for decades to come. Meanwhile, the South continued to suffer from the extreme poverty of the Great Depression, and events like the Scottsboro trial of the 1930s and Roosevelt’s statement in 1938 that the South was "the Nation’s No. I economic problem" ensured that the image of the Benighted South would remain entrenched for some decades longer.
Meanwhile, some authors chose to approach the subject of the Depression from a different, less Gothic angle, most notably James Agee of Tennessee. In 1936, Agee journeyed to the South with photographer Walker Evans to produce an article on sharecroppers for Fortune. The magazine ultimately rejected the article, and it grew steadily in size and scope until it was published in 1941 under the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Although little noticed at first, it was eventually hailed as “the most sensitive and effective evocation of tenant life.” Nor was it the only book released at the time which made use of photography to document Southern life during the Depression. Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White produced You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937, and other writer-photographer teams followed suit, combining social reportage with striking images.
January 07, 2006
Myth and Myopia VI: The Fugitive-Agrarians Take Their Stand
Aside from Glasgow’s novels, the first true rumblings of Renaissance began with the publication, in April of 1922, of the first issue of the Fugitive, a small literary magazine created by a group of academics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Fugitive Poets would soon become extremely important to the literary rejuvenation of the South. Despite the initial movement to reject and flee the region suggested by their name, they would eventually seek to speak for traditional Southern values.
Although more than a dozen people moved in and out of the group over the years, the four major forces in terms of literary contribution were Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. After the Fugitive ceased publication in 1925, the four of them, and others, continued to write about and discuss the South from a variety of viewpoints.
The shift in perspective which changed the Fugitives, fleeing the South, into Agrarians, defending what they believed to be its central values, most likely had its focal point in the image of the Benighted South, which reached a fever pitch during the Scopes trial in 1925 thanks to men like H. L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow.
In 1930, the four major Fugitive Poets, along with eight others, compiled and published I’ll Take My Stand as “12 Southerners.” The work was a manifesto, of sorts, with the Agrarians declaring their belief that Southern culture and identity depended on its agrarian heritage; a heritage that would be destroyed by industrialization. In addition to the major Fugitive Poets, Stark Young and Andrew Lytle were also important literary contributors to the manifesto.
The 12 Southerners’ aims as part of the movement (although some of them would later abandon the position) were truly ambitious, amounting to nothing less than to create a myth, "an aesthetic, religious humanism [. . .] intended to [. . .] subvert progressive, industrial, scientific values." Their values were, perhaps, a bit naïve, but they stood for (among other things) the inherent value of individual human beings. They “found the worship of the Old South and the hymns to the New South equally repellent,” and earnestly and openly sought a middle ground, embracing the best of both worlds without glorifying either.
At this point, proceeding chronologically rather than thematically becomes somewhat useless in a discussion of the works of a wide variety of authors.
Most of John Crowe Ransom’s major poetry was already published by the time I’ll Take My Stand was compiled, and Ransom’s poetry often showed only a tenuous connection with the South in any case. Quite the contrary, his initial goal, like that of the other Fugitives, was to revolt against and flee from that heritage. Nevertheless, his influence on the other Fugitives, and later Agrarians, was profound. Having already established himself as a poet and respected professor by the time the Fugitive began publication in 1922, he had become, and would remain, a central figure in the group.
The shift from Fugitives to Agrarians is most strongly evident in the writings of Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. Within a few years of the Scopes trial, Tate published the "Ode to the Confederate Dead," called "the centerpiece of modern Southern poetry." In it, he asked, "[. . .] Shall we take the act/To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave/In the house? The ravenous grave?" It is a moving reflection on the power of the past over the present, even as it questions the wisdom of granting too much power to the past.
While Davidson reflected nostalgically on the past, Tate maintained the perspective of modern man’s inability to regard history objectively. Both Tate and Donaldson wrote profusely during their lives, mostly in the form of poetry and essays. Between them they commented with eloquence and wisdom on the changes taking place in the South during the Renaissance.
Robert Penn Warren, a younger classmate of both Davidson and Tate, was the most gifted writer of the Agrarians. He is the only person to receive a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction (for All the King’s Men, 1946) and poetry (for Promises: Poems 1954-1956), and he received a third Pulitzer (for Now and Then) in 1978. His first novel, Night Rider, was published in the 1930s, but most of his major fiction was published after 1943. Often his novels operate (ostensibly) within the framework of actual history, but the circumstances are reworked freely for Warren’s purposes. His main themes largely revolve around the effects of Original Sin on characters whose idealism and certainty of laboring for an upright cause draw them into guilty involvement in activities which are less than morally upright. Sometimes they are able to find ultimate redemption, and sometimes they fall short.
Andrew Lytle’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand, like much of his fiction, revolved around the importance of the deteriorating yeoman farmer to the South, and lamented the resultant decline of folk culture. Another key aspect of Lytle’s fiction was the centrality of the family unit in Southern history. Many of his novels and nonfiction works are set during or near the Civil War, and Lytle carefully examined both positive and negative aspects of Southern history.
Caroline Gordon, the wife of Allen Tate, was one of the earliest and most prolific novelists among the Agrarians, although she did not contribute to I’ll Take My Stand. She was intimately familiar with Southern life, and each of her novels represented a successful experiment with a new form. Her 1937 novel, None Shall Look Back, has been called "possibly the best novel ever written about the Civil War experience."
Stark Young’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, the final piece in the book, was entitled "Not in Memoriam, But in Defense." In it he stated that "out of any epoch in civilization there may arise things worth while, that are the flowers of it. To abandon these, when another epoch arrives, is only stupid." Young’s fiction reflects his desire to identify and preserve the positive elements of life in the Old South. His historical novels often paint a very rosy picture of the past, particularly So Red the Rose (1934).
Near the end of that novel, one of the characters says, "Democracy, a good theory, a great human right, which works out none too well; slavery, a great human wrong, which works out none too badly." Many of the Fugitive-Agrarians "skirted perilously close to the line that separated their traditionalism from that of the plantation myth." Stark Young embraced that line.
January 06, 2006
Myth and Myopia V: The Foundations of Renaissance in History and Legend
Soon, mythic figures began to grow out of the twelve years of Reconstruction following the Civil War as well. Opportunistic and exploitative Yankees (or carpetbaggers), traitorous and collaborationist Southern whites (or scalawags), and ignorant, violent black freedmen became the bogeymen of Reconstruction.
The heroes of Reconstruction were honorable and decent, but greatly abused, former Confederates, who often fought back courageously in the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan against the oppressive military governments and disfranchisement imposed on them by Radical Republicans.
This view of the period, inaccurate as it was, rapidly entered the mythology of Southern history. It, too, remained popular well into the 20th century, embodied in novels such as The Clansman (1905), histories like The Tragic Era (1929), and movies like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
The Old South, the Lost Cause, and Reconstruction myths combined to create a colorful pageant of historical progression consisting of innocence, fall, and redemption. There is an undeniable appeal to this version of events, however untrue. And, though it was omnipresent in the South, it was not the only self-image in the Southern mind between 1877 and 1920.
As the former Confederate states struggled to rejoin the nation, preserve their distinct identity, and industrialize and revitalize their economy, the myth of a New South began to appear. Unlike the Antebellum, Confederate, or Reconstruction South, the New South does not refer to a period of Southern history per se. It represents an optimistic goal, often declared to be just around the corner throughout the years from 1880 to 1920, but never quite arriving.
It dangled, like a carrot on a stick, in front of hopeful businessmen, politicians, philanthropists, and so forth as an imminent regional transformation which would result in a South free of the burdens of conflict, poverty, and backwardness. "By 1890, the myth of the New South as a land that was rich, just, and triumphant was perceived as reality by many Southerners." Despite continued wishful thinking, hopes for true prosperity and equality would continue to be frustrated until almost 1970.
The historical reality of life in the South before 1920 was much different. Although the region did indeed industrialize rapidly, out-producing the rest of the nation in textiles by 1915, the cost was high. Exploitation was the norm in business practice, and this made poverty worse rather than alleviating it. The plight of blacks in the South between Reconstruction and the First World War was worse than it had ever been before or would ever be again.
Sharecropping bound most blacks to the land, disfranchisement stripped their voices from them, and, beginning in the 1890s, Jim Crow laws formed a rigidly segregated society. Conditions conspired to keep African-Americans in their former place so that, by the time the South began to experience some prosperity decades later, the systems of segregation had become deeply entrenched through multiple generations.
This destitute, violent, low-culture environment produced rumblings of a new image of the South by the end of World War I. This South came to be known as the "Benighted South," a savage, barbaric region of the country. The image was fed throughout the 1920s by events such as the infamous Scopes trial in 1925, the violent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, nightriding, and periods of race rioting such as the outbreak of 1919.
In late 1917, opinionated Northern journalist H. L. Mencken published an infamous essay entitled "The Sahara of the Bozart." Republished in 1920, the essay attacked the cultural and intellectual stagnation of the South. Mencken stridently declared that "[the South] is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac; there are probably single square miles in America [. . .] It would be impossible in all history to match so complete a drying-up of a civilization."
The response from the South was, predictably, immediate and violent, with loud protestations from all quarters. Not long after the clamor had begun to die down, however, the beginnings of a new flowering of Southern literature began to be seen in the region. Some people, including Mencken himself, believe that the "Sahara of the Bozart" essay played a role in causing this sudden burst of cultural activity. However, while there may have been some slight catalytic effect from this cause, the movement was really a product of much more complex forces (already described here). The works of Ellen Glasgow had been laying the creative foundations for decades, and the consistent failure of the South to achieve its ideals was becoming a burden to a new generation.
The writers of the 1920s and 1930s were members of the first generation to emerge free of direct experience of both the nostalgia of a lost, antebellum Eden and the bitterness of Radical Reconstruction. The sudden flaring up of Southern introspection is both understandable and impossible to account for in light of the "Benighted South" image alone.
December 21, 2005
Myth and Myopia IV: The War That Never Ended
The hardening of the Southern mind and deepening of sectional differences built for decades towards the seminal conflict of Southern, as well as American, history: the Civil War. Throughout the decade following the Compromise of 1850, events such as the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and Bloody Kansas, the Dred Scott decision (1857), John Brown’s raid (1859), and the election of 1860 served to widen the rift steadily until South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20th, 1860.
Through all this, the South felt its way of life definitely threatened by two movements. First, the United States was ceasing to be a collection of sovereign states, becoming instead a single nation. Second, the protests of abolitionists were steadily gaining in power and volume. Cash asserts that the fundamental cause behind the Civil War finally boils down to the simple fact that "it is not the nature of the human animal in the mass willingly to suffer difference."
The full range of causes behind the American Civil War, an explanation of the events that preceded it, and a description of how it was waged are far beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that, after four long years of a bloody conflict which exacted a greater toll of American lives than any other war before or since, the eleven Confederate States of America were soundly defeated and occupied by the United States of America and were forcibly returned to the national fold during the period of Reconstruction which followed.
It is difficult to overstress the significance of this conflict and defeat to the South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever its other effects may have been, the trauma of these years of war and rebuilding ensured a Southern mindset immovably different from the rest of the nation for at least the next century. This new Southern cultural nationalism manifested itself in a variety of ways. It resulted primarily in regional isolation (from the rest of the nation), unity (within the South), degradation, and in the creation of new myths which quickly took hold in the Southern imagination.
In American history, losing a war and facing occupation by the victors is unique to the South. This experience of defeat in the midst of the American legend of unbroken success and victory is part of what Woodward calls "the irony of Southern history," and in many ways it culturally cut the South off from the rest of the country. The combined humiliation and defeat of the Civil War and Reconstruction helped fashion a unique "self-conscious white Southern identity" through "fear, grievance, defensiveness, and the memory of hardship and bitterness." The effects of this on the Southern mind lasted for generations.
Cash refers to the effects of Reconstruction on the South as "the frontier the Yankee made," saying that "its people were once more without mastery of their environment and must begin again [. . .] to build up social and economic order out of [. . .] chaos." While the North entered modern, industrialized society, the South reverted to "primitive, violent, individualistic, provincial life."
The memory of Radical Reconstruction became an enormously divisive force between blacks and whites. Whites remembered it as a time when the Yankee attempted to reverse their former hierarchy and set the black man to rule over the white. Blacks remembered a time of nightriders and white brutality. Whites emerged with the fixed idea of preserving racial purity, and blacks knew just what lengths they would go to in order to maintain it.
After the Civil War, the white Southern mind was dominated by romantic myths, some from its antebellum days, some new following the "War Between the States" and Reconstruction. During the final decades of the 19th century, the Southern predilection for history grew stronger than ever, and its people’s view of that history gained the status almost of a civil religion. The old ideas of lost, bygone days (“moonlight-and-magnolias” and the myth of the Cavalier) were as important as ever, and to these were added the Southern perspective of events following 1860.
It was during the post-Civil War period, Cash declares, that the South began finally to have a literature of its own, at least of sorts. However, he qualifies this statement by observing that the outburst was decisively prompted by patriotic sentiment and had the purpose of defending, justifying, and showing pride in the South. "What we really have in the literature of the Reconstruction era is [. . .] propaganda."
Southern authors devoted themselves to the glorification of the Old South; not that this purpose is the only significant thing about it, of course. Much of it did contain some literary value, even the most propagandistic works of authors like Thomas Nelson Page. Nevertheless, a purely artistic literary portrayal of the South would not arrive until the turn of the century with the works of Ellen Glasgow.
Meanwhile, in 1866, Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard published a book entitled The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. The immense popularity of this work gave the Southern revisionist view of the Civil War its name: The Lost Cause myth. The belief that the people of the South had entered a righteous war to preserve their way of life, but (despite acquitting themselves bravely in battle) were ultimately doomed to defeat due to superior Northern resources, took hold in the Southern imagination.
Politically, the myth was extremely useful as a rallying point during Reconstruction, and it continued to hold a prominent place in popular views of the Civil War throughout the 20th century. Belief in, and celebration of, the Lost Cause became a coping mechanism for a region that had suffered a terrible blow to its pride. To add the suggestion that the South had waged an unjust war to the humiliating fact of its defeat by the North would have been intolerable. While the Southern memory of the Civil War may largely be based upon a myth, "for many Southerners the Lost Cause has been a myth believed and acted upon."
December 19, 2005
Myth and Myopia III: Deepening Sectionalism in the Antebellum South
Cash strongly refutes the myth of an old and established Southern aristocracy, arguing that only a single generation at most (1820-1860) separated most of the South from its rough, uncivilized, and embattled frontier days and the Civil War. Nevertheless, those intervening decades are the setting for the plantation myth, possibly the most lasting and dominant picture of an idyllic South among later generations.
Central to what began as an outgrowth of the Southern need to distinguish itself from the North is, of course, its vision of Southern plantations as epitomizing the highest principles of the Old South. The plantation was the foundation of the agrarian social order, the stately center of civilized life, dominated by a patriarchal family unit which benignly governed its community of black slaves. Ruled by a complex system of honor, manners, and a hierarchical social order, this dignified aristocracy maintained an ideal way of life. This mythic view of antebellum Southern life is also called “moonlight-and-magnolias” after the image presented by the maudlin novels of Thomas Nelson Page and others, published during the final decades of the 19th century.
The Cavalier myth stood hand in hand with the plantation myth. Its imagery embodies the idealized Southern male, whose every action was characterized by an adherence to the code of Southern virtue. Cavaliers were the courtly sons of wealthy planters, and, later, the brave and tragic defenders of the Confederacy.
The strong appeal of the Cavalier image lies in its combination of four qualities: wealth (in both currency and land), class (as heir to the highest tier of Southern social life), heritage (as heir, also, to a long and hallowed lineage of Southern aristocracy), and honor (virtuous nobility, generosity, and magnanimity in dealing with friends, implacable courage, strength, and skill in the protection of women, family name, and home).
Acceptance of the Cavalier image is akin to belief that Arthurian ideals of chivalry and nobility were universal among the aristocracy of medieval Britain. Nevertheless, the Cavalier and plantation myths became two of the defining ideas that separated North and South, and would grow into cherished recollections of a legendary past following the Civil War.
Also during the antebellum years, the Southern mind continued to develop apart from the North along four distinct paths: First, politically, the attitudes of Southern sectionalism deepened steadily as a result of events like the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the nullification crisis of the early 1830s. In this and in other important legislative events, John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina and the most influential Southern politician during the first half of the 19th century, became the spokesperson for Southern interests.
Serving in various roles in government throughout his life, Calhoun was chiefly concerned with threats to the “peculiar institution” (slavery) and agrarian interests of the South. Hints of unrest among the slave population surfaced occasionally, and even flared into revolts, as with the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, and this, too, drew Southerners together.
Second, intellectually, the South began to seriously develop its unique historical consciousness. It is perhaps a mistake to speak of the Southern mind at this time in intellectual terms. As Henry Adams wrote in 1905 about his experiences in 1854, "Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two."
In any case, between 1830 and 1850, a multitude of historical societies sprang up in the region, and the Southern view of history began to shift from national to regional. Aspects of Southern life common to the whole region were stressed and differences downplayed on the one hand, while, on the other, differences between South and North were emphasized over similarities between the regions. Southerners celebrated the heroes of the past and attached annual importance to the dates of historic events.
However, despite an increased awareness of their history, Southerners were not engaging in any meaningful analysis of it. As Cash puts it, "Analysis is largely the outcome of two things: the need to understand a complex environment [. . .] and social dissatisfaction." Without either of these ingredients, the South produced no thoughtful examinations of their history or of their society. Mythological elements began entering historical perspectives almost immediately.
Third, religiously, the antebellum decades saw a movement of faith described as a "triumph of the evangelical sects." Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians; these and denominations like them began to dominate Southern religion, marginalizing the Anglican Church. The Southern religious experience came to be characterized by passion and emotion, a strict view of morality, intolerance, and a focus on the frightening images of hellfire and damnation; in short, a Southern interpretation of the legacy of the Puritans, and a foreshadowing of the fundamentalism of later generations.
The extremes of chivalry aspired to by the Southern male were also related to this aspect of Southern life, if only tangentially. This led ultimately to what Cash calls "downright gyneolatry." He explains the worship of Southern woman as a reaction to the shame felt by Southern males regarding adultery with black slaves and the resultant necessity of maintaining a fiction of marital fidelity. This fiction needed to be sustained not only in order to preserve the stability of familial bonds, but also in the face of the intolerable attentions directed by the North at so-called "Southern lechery and decadence."
Without such a fiction, the South would lose both the moral high ground and the very foundations of its society; hence, the intense veneration of Southern Womanhood. Cash concludes that, "At the last, I verily believe, the ranks of the Confederacy went rolling into battle in the misty conviction that it was wholly for her that they fought."
Fourth, socially, the quintessential Southerner of the antebellum South, what Cash calls "the man at the center," far from an aristocratic Cavalier, is a simple yeoman farmer of the frontier. As such, it is important to note the appeal of Jacksonian-era democracy to the Southern mind. Andrew Jackson, the first president from outside of the clique of the American Revolutionaries, departed significantly from the earlier democratic ideas of the founding fathers (whose intellectual roots lay in the Enlightenment).
Jackson’s idea of a democracy was one where all free, white men had a vote, not merely the intellectual, landed gentry. Rather than connecting freedom to knowledge and opportunity, Jacksonians viewed freedom as economical, social, and inherent. In the South, Jacksonians saw slavery as protecting independent white farmers from becoming subservient to the plantation owners. Slavery was a way to preserve the equality of whites, particularly those Southern whites who were conquering the frontier with their visions of joining the world of plantations and Cavaliers.
This highly romanticized vision of the Old South was not unique to Southerners, either. The North (and Europe with them) also bought into the myth wholeheartedly. The New England mind, long accustomed to acquiring its perception of the region from its nearest neighbor, Virginia, had no trouble envisioning the South as a land of majestic plantations governed by hospitable aristocrats.
Additionally, these pre-Civil War decades were the years of the Romantic Movement in art and literature, whose adherents sounded the call to return to nature, in all its common simplicity, for inspiration. Nothing could be more natural than for some of this sentiment to direct itself towards one of the last purely agrarian regions in Western culture.
The prevalence of the Cavalier myth is strikingly illustrated by the most influential anti-slavery novel of the 19th century: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852. The chief villain of Stowe’s novel is not a Southerner at all, but a Yankee overseer.
December 17, 2005
Myth and Myopia II: Emerging Regional Identity in the Colonial South
Spanish explorers were crawling all over the Americas by the early 16th century, and in 1565, in Florida, they established the first successful settlement in the South (and in North America), St. Augustine. The Spanish also kept a tight grip on Texas from an early date.
After the abortive attempt at Roanoke in 1587, English colonists, too, established a beachhead in the New World, at Jamestown (also in the South) in 1607. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the English had expanded south through both Carolinas as well as Georgia, occupying the whole of the South east of the Appalachians.
The French were involved in Europe’s early exploration and population of the South, as well, with inhabitants scattered around the mouth of the Mississippi by the late 17th century. New Orleans, the capital of the Louisiana colony, was founded in 1718, and that enormous territory also included Arkansas and portions of Texas.
The competition between nations which fueled exploration and colonization provides the first clue to a distinct identity for the American South. In this region were combined a mix of influences from four (including the important Native American element) distinct cultures and national histories. By 1700, slaves from Africa (the first having been brought in 1619) were beginning to arrive on American soil in significant numbers, adding a fifth culture to the blend.
Related to this, and also integral to the developing identity, was the Southern experience on the frontier, largely realized by Scotch-Irish settlers. The Scotch-Irish settlers were unique; quite different from the English settlers. They were wild, violent, and ruggedly individualistic, but also fiercely loyal to family and susceptible to religious influence. Many of these prominent features would eventually manifest themselves in the distinctly Southern personality.
A second clue to emerging regional identity lies in the differing motives of settlement between North and South, and in the differing perspectives of settlers regarding the land they inhabited. "If the Puritans established New England to be a City on a Hill, the early Southerners portrayed their area as a new Garden of Eden."
While the colonizing of the North owes a debt to the search for religious freedom, the colonization of the South was (ironically, considering later developments) a purely materialistic venture. The Southern colonies were consistently described as an earthly paradise, infinitely rich and fertile, by everyone from John Smith in the early 1600s to William Byrd II in the mid-1700s.
The third important clue to the divergence of the South as a region lies in the early development of social castes, already firmly in place by 1776. The Southern class-system, standard in this as in other respects, resembled a pyramid in structure, with the smallest group occupying the highest position. These elites were the large planters, a Southern aristocracy existing almost exclusively in the coastal colonies, particularly Virginia and South Carolina.
Beneath them was the upwardly mobile middle-class, aspiring to ever-greater heights of social prestige, and beneath them were the lowly “poor whites,” commonly viewed as illiterate, diseased, and shiftless. And, of course, at the absolute bottom of the pyramid lay the foundation of black Southerners, lowliest of the classes, largely fated to an enslaved existence on the plantations.
Above all else, white Southerners adhered to a moral code that may be summarized as the rule of honor [. . .] The sources of the ethic lay deep in mythology, literature, history, and civilization. It long preceded the slave system in America. Since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement, defense of family blood and community needs. All these exigencies required the rejection of the lowly, the alien, and the shamed. Such unhappy creatures belonged outside the circle of honor. Fate had so decreed.
It is both significant and interesting to note that, despite this foreshadowing of a separate identity, the colonial South had not yet achieved the recognizable degree of homogeny that would later characterize it. Additionally, Southerners had not yet acquired the all-important attachment to the past which would eventually become so prominent. On the contrary, the vision of the South was focused chiefly on the future, on prosperity to come. It might be speculated that this was less a distinction between earlier and later Southern personality, and more related to the lack of a revered history to obsess over, but such conjecture could only be investigated and confirmed by pursuing lines of inquiry beyond the scope of this paper.
Historians disagree as to the exact date when the South finally emerged as a region apart. During the greater part of the 18th century, at least four different societies existed within the Southern states. However, as unifying, nationalistic sentiments swelled during the American Revolution and after, the South achieved a new unity within itself and came to be considered in different terms from the North.
It is natural that this should be so. The South could hardly be considered separately as a region within a national context until the formation of the nation. Only as the principles that would govern the United States began to take shape could the unique interests of the South emerge in opposition to those of the North.
The more traditional historical view places the flowering of this identity in the 1820s, but John Richard Alden argues for an earlier date. This South, which he calls the “First South” was distinct from the "Old South" of the antebellum period, and was undoubtedly already recognizable by the Revolutionary period, possibly
"as early as 1778."
Certainly the most momentous development in the life of this First South was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. This proved to be of prime importance. The increase in efficiency "release[d] the plantation from the narrow confines of the coastlands and the tobacco belt, and stamp[ed] it as the reigning pattern in all the country" although "it was actually 1820 before the plantation was fully on the march, striding over the hills of Carolina to Mississippi."
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became the foremost "intellectual force in the South during the years from the Revolution to the 1820s." The atmosphere during this time was much freer and more open than it would later become. In fact, prior to 1820, more antislavery organizations existed in the South than the North.
December 15, 2005
Myth and Myopia I: A Brief Introduction to Southern Intellectual History
It began as a requirement to research and write a 20-25 page paper on some topic relating to the intellectual history of the United States and my own vague idea of doing something related to the writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. It became a 33-page survey of Southern intellectual history up to about 1970 focusing on the importance of the Southern Literary Renaissance between 1929 and (approximately) 1965. In fact, the full title is "Exorcising the Demons of Myth and Myopia: The Southern Literary Renaissance, 1929-1965."
This paper was obviously the major thrust of my efforts during the entire last half of the semester. I consulted (in varying degrees of depth) around fifty sources, both primary and secondary, and poured virtually all of my creative drive during that month and more into crafting something I could be proud of. Naturally I wanted it on here in some form, even if no one reads it. And, also naturally, there's no way I'm going to display it within a single post . . . that would be nightmarish and would virtually guarantee that no one would read any of it.
The prospect of serializing this paper, added to my ten-part "Top Fifty" list which spanned the last month, led me to create a new category in the sidebar: Serials. I have no plans for any such serials aside from these two things in the immediate future, but you never know what may crop up. In the meanwhile, I'll be publishing the Southern history and literature paper in bite-size, topical chunks until it's all up here . . . hopefully no more than nine or ten parts. We'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I shall begin by introducing the topic as I see it and trotting out my thesis as quickly as I reasonably can.
In 1928, historian Ulrich B. Phillips stated that the central theme of Southern history was that the South should be and remain "a white man’s country." Less than forty years later, this no longer seemed like a possibility for the South of the future. A key flow of changing thoughts and attitudes during these pivotal decades took place within the Southern Literary Renaissance: a flowering of literary production by Southern authors which was impressive in terms of volume, national popularity, and as a reflection of, and force for, cultural metamorphosis.
William Faulkner, the literary giant of the period, and the legions of Southern writers surrounding him, revolted against generations-old assumptions about their society and its history and criticized Southern mores even as they recorded, and sometimes celebrated, a way of life and a significant American worldview which became suddenly marginalized over the course of just a few generations. Writers during the Renaissance took the first steps in Southern history towards uprooting deeply dishonest ideas about Southern society and the past by honestly examining and openly questioning the validity of them.
Of course, a truly holistic approach to the subject, while ideal, would not be complete without four things:
-First, a plenary picture of the entirety of Southern history, tracing the development of the region, its people, and their identity from the colonial foundation, through the all-important Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and finally to the first rumbles of Renaissance which began in the modernist milieu of post-World War I America.
-Second, an exhaustive survey of each of the dozens of literary voices, major and minor, storyteller and poet, historian and critic, who carried the Renaissance forward, along with an examination of important themes and ideas in their writings and the response of their society.
-Third, representative excerpts from their work to demonstrate the widely varying styles employed and subjects addressed by the writers of the Renaissance.
-Fourth, a discussion of the impact of the Renaissance on Southern, American, and literary history both during and since the middle of the twentieth century, including a historiographical review of differing viewpoints on its effects, to firmly place and understand the movement in its complete context.
Needless to say, this paper will not attempt to take a truly holistic approach to its subject, lest it become instead a stack of volumes. Rather, it will simply attempt to briefly account for the intellectual history and attitudes of the South until the 1920s in order to illustrate the significance of the development of the twentieth century intellectual movement known as the Southern Literary Renaissance. Even such a short and incomplete treatment of the subject, however, requires some inclusion of each of the elements already discussed (save, perhaps, the third), beginning with an outline of Southern history.
Every aspect of Southern life is so closely tied to memory of the past, whether truth or fantasy, personal or transmitted through the traditions of family and community, that there can be no hope of understanding the Southerner without some sense of this heritage. This principle applies equally to the minds and personalities of the South, its social structure, behavior, and hopes and expectations for the future. It is precisely that peculiar consciousness of, and concern with, history which sets the literature of the South apart from that of any other region in America.
December 09, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part X
The Man Who Was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton) - There are seven members of the radical Central Anarchist Council who, for security purposes, name themselves after the days of the week - Sunday, Monday, etc. However, the turn of events soon cast doubt upon their true identities, for the man who was Thursday is not the impassioned young poet he pretends to be, but rather a member of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad of secret detectives. Who and what are the true identities of the other days of the week? Chesterton unwinds the mysterious entanglements in his own inventive and lively way and then escalates the mounting nightmare of paradox and surprise, culminating in a shocking revelation. He probes the mysteries of behavior and belief in an all too human world.
Chesterton wrote a whole lot of great stuff. I adore the Father Brown Mysteries. and Wilson's got his own little (very little, I guess) Orthodoxy cult going on. Last Christmas break, I camped out in Barnes & Noble over the course of a few days and read (among other things) The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday. They were both good, but the latter was magnificent . . . a thrilling, convoluted, suspenseful, and shocking story of intrigue on a global scale. Chesterton piles on the plot twists until the reader doesn't know what to believe anymore, finally taking the whole plot in a wholly unexpected direction, full of powerful Christian symbolism, at the very end.
The Inimitable Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse) - Bertie Wooster's friend Bingo falls in love with every woman he meets, from Mabel, the waitress at the bun shop, to the Amazonian Honoria Glossop (whom Aunt Agatha has earmarked for Bertie). Naturally there are obstacles to be overcome - the matter of allowances, class prejudices and a lack of revolutionary tendencies. Rely on Jeeves, the consumate gentleman's gentleman, to apply his superb brain-power in emancipating Bertie and Bingo from the tightest of corners in plenty of time for tea.
I don't remember when I first heard of P. G. Wodehouse, but Watson and his three shelves of Wodehouse books probably had something to do with it. I got a collection of three Jeeves books for Christmas a year or two back, and worked my way through them at my leisure. I distinctly recall needing to read them alone because I created a significant disturbance whenever there were other people around. The adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are so funny, I just couldn't help it. This particular book had a great overarching plot with loads of deliciously humorous supporting stories that built towards its conclusion. Wodehouse is definitely one of the more fun (and funny) reads I've experienced in recent years.
Everything That Rises Must Converge (Flannery O'Connor) - Collection of nine short stories by Flannery O'connor, published posthumously in 1965. The flawed characters of each story are fully revealed in apocalyptic moments of conflict and violence that are presented with comic detachment. The title story is a tragicomedy about social pride, racial bigotry, generational conflict, false liberalism, and filial dependence. Similarly, "The Comforts of Home" is about an intellectual son with an Oedipus complex. Driven by the voice of his dead father, the son accidentally kills his sentimental mother in an attempt to murder a harlot. The other stories are "A View of the Woods," "Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," "Greenleaf," "The Lame Shall Enter First," "Revelation," and "Judgment Day."
I like Flannery O'Connor so much that it makes Rachel jealous. She gets tired of hearing "Flannery O'Connor this" and "Flannery O'Connor that" . . . is it my fault that O'Connor is handy when you need paper or presentation topics in a pinch? Well, maybe I have been a tad bit insufferable since I got a copy of her Collected Works. I have read (and probably raved about) all of the short stories and essays already, but I have not yet ventured into the novels. Maybe this Christmas Break . . .
Anyway, I love all of her short stories, and it was difficult to choose between A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Both are excellent. However, ultimately I decided that the latter was the superior collection. Her earlier stories are a bit more heavy-handed in their symbolism, a bit more obviously grotesque in their technique. The later stories, on the other hand, are much more subtle and less fantastical and seem largely to possess greater depth as a result.
I have read that O'Connor obsessively groomed, touched-up, and edited her stories until she thought they were perfect . . . and it shows. And, of course, the powerful Christian themes she addresses have lost none of their spiritual relevance in the forty years since she died. She is one of the supreme masters of her craft.
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) - Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual adrift in America, haunted by memories of a lost adolescent love. When he meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, he constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her, but first he must get rid of her mother. In spite of his diabolical wit, reality proves to be more slippery than Humbert's feverish fantasies, and Lolita refuses to conform to his image of the perfect lover.
Surprised? You probably should have seen this coming when I praised Nabokov's prose so highly while talking about Mervyn Peake. I've read Lolita twice now, seen the movie version twice, and written two sizable (roughly ten-page) papers. Nabokov's grasp of the English language, and the ease with which he manipulates and shapes it, astounds me. Nabokov is a true literary artist, and Lolita is a true work of literary art. The prose is as exquisite as it is impenetrable, with its maze of hints, riddles, and allusions. This, however, only serves to make the work a good deal richer with each successive reading. The plot is tense, the characters are tragic, and the moral and emotional impact (at least for me) is high. Lolita is certainly not for everyone, but then . . . few books are.
As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) - At the heart of this 1930 novel is the Bundren family's bizarre journey to Jefferson to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Speaking in no less than sixteen distinct voices, Faulkner lets each family member, including Addie, and others along the way tell their private responses to Addie's life through the brilliant flow of stream-of-consciousness prose.
I just read this about halfway through the semester. It is only the second book I have read by Faulkner, but I was floored by it. As I Lay Dying is a good deal more accessible than The Sound and the Fury, but it still doesn't hand everything to the reader on a plate. Faulkner masterfully and believeably weaves together over a dozen totally different voices to create a story which could only be set in the deep South. I decided not long after finishing The Sound and the Fury that I was a definite fan of stream-of-consciousness. I enjoy the unique challenge it presents to the reader and the writing skill required on the part of the author (when, as with Faulkner, it is well-done).
In this book, the characters are very alive and very real, and their situation inspires a great deal of empathy on the part of the reader, partly because they are so movingly described and their struggles so memorably portrayed. It is not a long book, but, as the narrative slowly unwound and drew to a close, I felt as if I had been with the characters for quite some time.
And so ends my "Top Fifty" list, at last. I started it nearly a month ago believing that it was practically ready to post. Little did I suspect how much more time it would take me to put it together properly . . . or how little time I would have to do so. Now that it's over, I will return to regular posting . . . in fact, I've almost got a bit of a pile-up already what with all sorts of eventfulness going on here and there. Before I bring this whole thing to a close, though, I'm going to go ahead and toss out a quick list (in no particular order) of two dozen books that were in the running for the "Top Fifty," but didn't quite make the cut . . . just for kicks and giggles. Some of these were very difficult to remove, some not nearly so much . . .
By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Firm by John Grisham
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
The Twenty-One Balloons by William Péne DuBois
God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voight
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
Escape from Warsaw Ian Seraillier
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
December 08, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part IX
Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian) - This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against the thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle.
Fry loaned me this book when I went back to Guatemala for Christmas two years ago, and I read it over the break. I had already seen the movie by this point, it had met with my approval, but little did I suspect the vast depth the books add to the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In addition to the dazzlingly captivating characters in the book, I was drawn in by a narrative style that reminded me very much of Jane Austen (as both the second and third books in the series have continued to do). Master and Commander is a supremely magnificent historical read. Aubrey, master tactician on the water, and Maturin, master spy on the land, are a literary pair on a level with the likes of Holmes and Watson, and certainly worthy of an entire series to chronicle their adventures.
The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde) - Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend—the "rivals" to fight for Ernest’s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds—pandemonium breaks loose.
Few plays, if any, are more fun to read (particularly in a theatrical setting) than this one. The SC Players have done it twice in the past, and both times I played my favorite character, Algernon. I have also read through the play on my own a few times. I remember once in British Lit II when I, sitting in the back of the room, randomly opened to it in our textbook and began to read, only just managing to stifle my laughter (which is so much more difficult the harder you try).
Wilde in this play is simply so recklessly frivolous and trivial, and it seems as though every singly line of dialogue states the facts of life in a manner which is both precisely the opposite of the truth and (at the same time) more true than we might care to believe. In this case, as well, I happen to own the movie version (which I believe I actually saw before I had ever read the play) and I haul it out and watch it every so often as well. The play is a short, light read with gut-bustingly hilarious dialogue and a wickedly convoluted (but easy to follow) plot which provides the audience with a shocking twist and an excruciating pun all rolled into one at play's end.
The Gormenghast Novels (Mervyn Peake) - A doomed lord, an emergent hero, and a dazzling array of bizarre creatures inhabit the magical world of these novels. At the center of it all is the darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the life of Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave. He stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle and its kingdom, where all events are predetermined by a complex ritual whose origins are lost in history, understood only by Sourdust, Lord of the Library. Titus will one day rule as the seventy-seventh Earl unless the conniving Steerpike, who is determined to rise above his menial position and control the House of Groan, has his way. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis where all is like a dream--lush, fantastical, and vivid.
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Novels astound me on two levels. First, they are unbelievably good. Peake's prose remains virtually unmatched in my mind by anyone except perhaps Vladimir Nabokov. His story, characters, and world are deep, rich, and full of surprises and symbolism. He defies classification . . . the books are generally classified as fantasy for sheer convenience, for they do not fall into any known category. Second, at times it seems as though no one has ever heard of Gormenghast, much less read the books. How can writing and storytelling of this caliber fly practically under the radar for over half a century?
The first two books are totally enthralling and nearly flawless, the third less so. Peake envisioned a truly epic series which would follow his hero, Titus Groan, from birth to old age. The pace he expected to maintain is evident when we have reached page 100 or so of Titus Groan and our hero has only just emerged from the wound. Sadly, Peake became mentally diseased after beginning the third book, during which Titus is supposed to be in his early twenties, more or less, and died just a few scribbled pages into book four. Titus Alone, while still brilliant in a unique way, shows the sad effects of Peake's decline. The story is often confusing and disjointed and lacks some of the perfection of the earlier works. Nevertheless, it is an excellent read, and the first two books stand alone very effectively.
As a brief preview of coming attractions, I've been absolutely itching to begin producing a body of literary analysis of the works from a variety of perspectives (there are certainly plenty of angles of approach). Soon, my friends, soon . . .
Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw) - John Tanner is horrified to discover that he is the object of Ann Whitefield's ambitions in her search for a satisfactory husband. For Tanner, political pamphleteer and independent mind, escape is the only option. But Ann is grimly resigned to society's expectations and ready for the chase. A protracted, allegorical detour through Hell in the third act features a mind-numbing, but fascinating debate between supernatural figures and reveals the startling philosophical thesis of the play before the final denoument. In this caustic satire on romantic conventions, Shaw casts his net wide across European culture to draw on works by Mozart, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle for his re-telling of the Don Juan myth. Haled as "the first great twentieth-century English play," this remains a classic exposé of the eternal struggle between the sexes.
I believe this is the third and final playwright to make my list. Shaw, much like his character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, is not in the least afraid of offending everyone equally. His plays are radically and courageously anti-establishment in a way that I find it difficult not to admire. In addition to his pointed and often disturbing philosophical agendas, Shaw has a devastating and hilarious wit which he employs to brilliant effect in his plays. This is my favorite of his plays due in large part to a ponderous third act (of four) which outlines a starkly pragmatic philosophy of life (the "Life-Force" Philosophy, in fact) from within a wicked vision of the afterlife that (in his day) only Shaw would dare to dream up and put on the stage.
Besides this third act, which is a dream sequence that lasts longer than the other three acts combined and contributes next to nothing to the plot while slipping in nearly everything regarding the point that Shaw is attempting to put across, Man and Superman is a cute and funny romantic comedy filled with quite a number of truly humorous characters and situations.
A Room With a View (E. M. Forster) - This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England. A charming young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson--who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist--Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor, and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.
The process by which E. M. Forster has become one of my favorite authors is singularly bizarre . . . no less so as this is the only book of his which I have read. I first encountered him in British Literature II during the spring of my sophomore year, in which we read a chapter of A Passage to India and watched the 1984 movie version. The movie instantly became one of my favorites and I have since watched it at least three times. Sometime during the following fall semester I got the movie versions of both Howard's End (featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and A Room With a View (with Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith) from the library and loved them both. By now I had enjoyed three movies based on the works of Forster without once having read one of his books. Unacceptable.
Returning to the library, I arbitrarily settled on A Room With a View as Christmas Break reading and loved it. The book is hilarious, a fantastic read from its period. It skewers both Romantics and Aesthetics, and generally has a great deal of fun at the expense of the British upper-middle class. I'm already planning to squeeze A Passage to India in sometime this Christmas Break. We shall see.
To be continued . . .
December 06, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part VIII
Paradise Lost (John Milton) - This is the quintessential epic English poem. Penned by Milton in the 1600s, it relates the story of Lucifer's revenge on God after he has been cast out of Heaven. Bursting from the confines of Hell he blazes a trail to Earth, bent on corrupting God's pristine masterwork in any way he can. Little does he know that even his success in destroying Man's innocence and introducing Sin into the world will lead to God's ultimate victory with mankind's redemption and salvation. In the poem's final section, an angel reveals God's plan for mankind's history to Adam in its entirety, giving him hope for the future even as he is cast forth from the Garden of Eden forever. Beautifully written and vividly described, the real strength of Paradise Lost lies in its characters and in its source material: The Bible.
Oh, look at me! I'm such a poser (again)! I have Milton and Shakespeare on my list! Well, this is a book which I have written about before, it just so happens. I stayed up all night to finish Paradise Lost one Christmas break because I couldn't put it down, and I was so excited about it that I got up and started writing a post that shows definite effects of sleepiness. That aside, I guess Milton probably isn't for everyone, and I've heard a lot of complaints about his theology (however relevant that may be to a literary work). But whether he gets it right or wrong in the end, Milton did give me a startling new perspective on the story of Creation and Fall which, while it probably didn't shed much valuable light on the story itself, gave me a lot to think about with respect to almost everything else. And, in the end, isn't that the essential point of a retelling anyway?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling) - The pivotal fourth novel in the seven part tale of Harry Potter's training as a wizard and his coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Harry gets away from the pernicious Dursleys and goes to the Quidditch World Cup with Hermione, Ron, and the Weasleys. He then begins his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy where he is mysteriously entered in an unusual contest that challenges his wizarding skills, friendships and character. The event involves two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened in a hundred years. Amid signs that an old enemy is growing stronger, all he wants is to be a normal, fourteen year old wizard. Unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal - even by wizarding standards.
The Harry Potter series (idiot controversy aside) is one of the supreme children's literature creations of all time. Sadly, as of this writing, it is still one book shy of completion. Nevertheless, the series thus far is an incredible joy to read. My personal favorite thus far (by a nose) is Goblet of Fire, as the central book on which everything else hinges. This is, of course, yet another case of a book in a series that might not be on the list without the support of other books which are not.
Despite the publication of the first book in 1997, I was not allowed to begin reading the series while still living at home. This was a subject of much contention for years (you may find my definitive final word on the subject here), and ultimately I did not begin the first book until I moved out of the house during the summer after I graduated from high school (2002). It was probably, in fact, one of the first things I did. At the time, the fourth book was just coming out in paperback, but I only bought the first one to read and discover what all the fuss was about to see if I would want to continue the series.
To make a long story short, I did, and I rapidly acquired the remaining three. I read most of book two during the trip from Lubbock to Longview when I moved in at LeTourneau my freshman year. I read book three during Thanksgiving Break my freshman year. And I read book four during Spring Break my freshman year (at least the final half of it one sitting). Book five came out that summer, and a generous aunt (one of the few relatives I have who will tolerate the series . . . and, incidentally, who has actually bothered to read it) loaned me a copy. I finished it in three sittings while on vacation travelling about the state with my family. And, of course, book six came out just this summer, and just as I was casting about for the means to get my hands on it, my wonderful girlfriend informed me that she had bought it as my early birthday present. When it arrived I finished it in two sittings.
All that I need add to complete this brief history of myself and the Harry Potter series is that I have arrived on opening night to showings of the last two HP movies (the third was the best of the series, the fourth perhaps the worst). Trust me, people should be reading these books, but if they don't or won't . . . well, their loss.
The Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton) - Lavish wealth and appalling poverty - and Edward Pierce easily navigates both worlds. Rich, handsome, and ingenious, he charms the city's most prominent citizens even as he plots the crime of the century - the daring theft of a fortune of gold. But even Pierce could not predict the consequences of an extraordinary robbery that targets the pride of England's industrial era: the mighty steam locomotive.
To the best of my recollection, I read this book in its entirety during one night in the lounge of Andy's suite at John Brown University. I had finished my first spring semester at LeTourneau, and I was spending a week at JBU with Andy while he took his finals in order to return to Colorado Springs with him. I got a lot read that week . . .
It is not uncommon for me to read large portions of Michael Crichton books at a single go. I recall reading hundreds of pages of Sphere without moving a muscle, and when I finally finished the book, one of my arms and both of my legs were asleep. The Great Train Robbery is quite simply the best "caper" story I've ever encountered, and it paints a very vivid and memorable picture of the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. I can't say for certain how much of the story is actual historical fact, but I know that a great deal of it is, and while I was reading it I certainly felt as though every word was true.
Arthur (Stephen R. Lawhead) - They called him unfit to rule, a lowborn, callow boy, Uther's bastard. But his coming bad been foretold in the songs of the bard Taliesin. And be had learned powerful secrets at the knee of the mystical sage Merlin. He was Arthur -- Pendragon of the Island of the Mighty -- who would rise to legendary greatness in a Britain torn by violence, greed, and war; who would usher in a glorious reign of peace and prosperity; and who would fall in a desperate attempt to save the one he loved more than life.
Well, well, another version of the Arthur legend has appeared on my list. Now there's a shock. I felt that Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle (an attempt at a more or less historically based retelling of the myth) got off to rather a slow start with Taliesin, the story of Merlin's father. The second book, Merlin, was considerably better, but still not perfect. The third book, though, totally blew me away. It's use of multiple first-person narrators to tell the story of Arthur's exciting reign is quite riveting. You might think that, with that opinion of book three I might have moved on to book four, Pendragon, by now. But I haven't due to a busy reading schedule. Also, I've heard that it's not as good as the others in the series . . . maybe I'm afraid that's true.
Many Dimensions (Charles Williams) - The book turns on the discovery of the magical Stone of Solomon, infinitely divisible, and through which one can move at will through space, time, and thought. Those who think they can manipulate the stone to serve their own ends, however, find to their horror that, as Jesus once ironically said, "they have their reward." While the story clearly deals with the extraordinary, through his humorous and loving depiction of his British characters Williams more deeply shows us the spiritual reality that lies inside the ordinary.
Charles Williams is the third and final Inkling on my list, and only with great difficulty would I be able to convince myself that he isn't the best. I feel that both Lewis and Tolkien themselves would agree with that assessment. I was introduced to Williams in the Inklings Only class I took during the fall semester of my sophomore year. We bought a collection of three of his novels in a single volume and were required to choose two to read. Of course, many of us read all three. Of those three, while I know that Wilson prefers the depth and profundity of Descent into Hell and perhaps others might prefer the epic good vs. evil themes of War in Heaven, my favorite is Many Dimensions, with a little of both of the above and an extremely exciting concept to boot.
To be continued . . .
December 05, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part VII
The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov) - Asimov's epic of Empire and the ebb and flow of history covers a span of several hundred years in the history of an ideal universal ruling organization. When the Galactic Empire began to decay and crumble, Hari Seldon and his band of psychohistorians planted a colony, the Foundation, on a remote border planet. The Foundation would incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire, thus shortening the Dark Age between empires from 10,000 years to only 1,000. The first section, Foundation traces the Foundation's embryonic development and the beginnings of its rise to power. In Foundation and Empire, a period of disruption transpires amid the death throes of the Galactic Empire, followed almost immediately by the sudden appearance of a powerful mutant force, known as "The Mule," that not even Hari Seldon could have predicted. Second Foundation describes the climactic search for Seldon's hidden Second Foundation undertaken separately by both The Mule and the desperate, reeling First Foundation.
I graduated from fantasy to science fiction, and hence to Asimov, somewhat late considering my predilection for the former. It was probably Star Wars that did it when I saw the trilogy for the first time in 1997, but I no longer remember. In any case, Asimov is certainly one of my favorite authors, and one of my most read. There is not a great deal of action in his novels . . . in fact, almost nothing seems to happen in some of them, despite their length. Nevertheless, I was always fascinated by them from start to finish.
Asimov is a master of plotting on a grand scale, and many of his books demonstrate this on three levels. Each book contains elements that are part of itself (obviously), elements which connect with the larger series (often trilogy) of which they are a part, and elements which fit into the grand scheme of "Asimov time" which spans something like 20,000 years of human history. His Foundation trilogy is a perfect example of this, and it employs a classic Asimov device. Each part is neatly divided into sub-parts so that really the entire massive saga seems like a collection of novellas more than anything else.
My favorite part of the trilogy is probably the third book, but it could hardly be a favorite without the context of the preceding two. That, plus the facts that the previous two are excellent books and the trilogy is available in a single-volume form made it a necessity to add to the list. The Foundation trilogy is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of sci-fi literature (although if you find that term to be an oxymoron, you might want to avoid it).
A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare) - Three members of a love triangle (and a fourth who wants in) along with a troupe of rustic tradesmen with thespian delusions stumble into an enchanted forest on the eve of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and become the playthings of a group of mischievous, feuding fairies. Of course, love conquers all by the end, but some very strange events transpire along the way.
Shakespeare is another of my most read authors, and that made it extremely difficult to decide which of his plays ought to go on his list. I feel like such a poser to begin with by putting anything by Shakespeare at all, but I assure you that I do genuinely love the works of Shakespeare. I have read 25 of his plays, and over a dozen of those at least twice, and I'm looking earnestly for the time to complete the remaining 13.
My immediate problem was really whether to choose a comedy or a tragedy. Both are so different from each other that I had legitimate favorites in both camps that almost defied comparison. In the end, however, I decided that none of Shakespeare's plays has given me more joy than A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've probably read it at least five times, more than one of those aloud in a "reader's theater" setting. I also own the charming recent movie version, and have watched and enjoyed it several times (one of the few instances where a drastic change from Shakespeare's original setting, from Ancient Greece to 19th century Italy, genuinely works).
My favorite character to act, incidentally, is undoubtedly Bottom the Weaver, whose flamboyant, good-natured chutzpah make him one of the most endearing characters in all Shakespeare. On the one hand, he is obnoxiously proud and self-centered, but on the other, he is so charitable and guileless about it (not to mention comical) that he is almost impossible not to like.
The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan) - The peaceful villagers of Emond's Field pay little heed to rumors of war in the western lands until a savage attack by troll-like minions of the Dark One forces three young men to flee their home in the company of an Aes Sedai (a powerful female mage) as the Dark One's evil armies pursue. While a series of life-threatening encounters keep them constantly on the move, they are visited by terrible dreams that hint that they must soon confront a destiny which has its origins in the time known as The Breaking of the World.
Some may think this a strange choice, being disgusted with the the way Jordan has stretched out his saga to cover eleven massive books without yet being done. Personally, I am currently stalled out on book six, searching for a chance to proceed, and still enjoying the series for what it is. In any case, regardless of what some people may think about this series, they probably only think it because they liked it enough at the beginning to keep reading later. After all, if the first book had sucked, why would they have picked up the second? No matter how much later portions of the series may have jumped the shark (and I'm still enjoying it immensely at book six, personally), book one is an excellent read.
I'm noticing that I have given fantasy a great deal of space on this list, which should indicate how fond of it I have been in the past. The Eye of the World provides solid high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, and Jordan's world is enormous. I found his writing to contain an excellent mix of borrowed elements common to all fantasy and his own highly-original ideas. This series contains some fascinating elements which lead to exciting developments from the beginning of the first book. The Eye of the World, despite its length, is a very absorbing read, full of suspense, action, and some very unexpected twists. It is both satisfying by itself and an excellent primer for the later books.
City Boy (Herman Wouk) - This work about a "Bronx Tom Sawyer" spins the hilarious and often touching tale of Herbie Bookbinder, an urban kid, and his adventures, misadventures and wild escapades on the street, in school, in the countryside, always in pursuit of Lucille, a heartless redhead personifying all the girls who torment and fascinate pubescent lads of eleven.
I read City Boy twice in a single summer, directly after I had graduated from high school, and was highly entertained both times. Herbie's story is by turns nostalgically poignant, side-splittingly hilarious, and painfully suspenseful. And through it all, I was captivated by the rise and fall of Herbie's fortunes, participating vicariously in his adventures and misadventures. It's no wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize. The grand money-making scheme he devises while at summer camp, the manner in which he carries it out (which occupies a significant portion of the story), and the ultimate result of the whole experience had me in stitches and on pins and needles at the same time. That may not sound very pleasant, but I assure you it was.
The Princess Bride (William Goldman) - Westley, handsome farm boy who risks death and much, much worse for the woman he loves; Inigo, the Spanish swordsman who lives only to avenge his father's death; Fezzik, the Turk, the gentlest giant ever to have uprooted a tree with his bare hands; Vizzini, the evil Sicilian, with a mind so keen he's foiled by his own perfect logic; Prince Humperdinck, the eviler ruler of Guilder, who has an insatiable thirst for war; Count Rugen, the evilest man of all, who thrives on the excruciating pain of others; Miracle Max, who can raise the dead (kind of); The Dread Pirate Roberts, supreme looter and plunderer of the high seas; and, of course, Buttercup, the princess bride, the most perfect, beautiful woman in the history of the world. From the Cliffs of Insanity through the Fire Swamp and down into the Zoo of Death, this incredible journey and brilliant tale is peppered with strange beasties monstrous and gentle, and memorable surprises both terrible and sublime.
Everyone's seen the movie, not so many have read the book. Yet I can assure everyone that the book is every bit as worthwhile (and in some ways more so) as its cinematic counterpart. The characters and situations of The Princess Bride are unforgettable, and hardly need explaining here. However, the most amazing aspect of the book is the way in which it operates as both the ultimate fairy tale and as a satire on all other fairy tales.
The author, William Goldman, pretends that the book is a condensation, a "good-parts version," of a much longer work by a fictional author named S. Morgenstern. Goldman constructs a very elaborate autobiographical portrait of the books impact on his own life (in much the same way I have done with some of these books, but longer and more developed) and maintains his fiction so thoroughly that I was completely taken in until I had finished the entire thing. The story is written in a charmingly tongue-in-cheek style, and Goldman interjects frequently with explanations and justifications regarding what portions of the unabridged version of the story he has removed and why he chose to remove them (interrupting the flow much as the grandfather and grandson do in the movie version). The total effect produces one of the most original and memorable reading experiences that I have run across.
To be continued . . .
December 03, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part VI
Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - This is the timeless tale of two mortal princesses — one beautiful and one unattractive — and of the struggle between sacred and profane love. A reworking of the classical Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is the story of Orual, Psyche's embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual's frustrations, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development. Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, Orual's struggles are illuminated as she learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods "till we have faces" and sincerity in our souls and selves.
C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of great books, and of course The Chronicles of Narnia were the favorites of my younger days and still rank very highly. Nevertheless, I consider this to be the best book Lewis ever wrote. It has a level of depth and maturity that his other fiction doesn't, and there is the added bonus of an extremely absorbing narrative which is naturally absent from his nonfiction theological works.
I've read this book three times now, always for a class, but always with great pleasure: first in about 9th grade (I think), second for the Inklings course I took during the fall of my sophomore year at LeTourneau, and most recently for a presentation and paper for my C. S. Lewis class. Each reading has provided me with a new angle of approach, and I am sure that they are many left to discover. Orual's story in part one is as exciting and suspenseful as anyone could wish for, and her epiphany in part two is one of Lewis's most emotionally and spiritually impacting passages, no matter how many times you've already read it.
Mila 18 (Leon Uris) - It was a time of crisis, a time of tragedy--and a time of transcendent courage and determination. This novel is set in the midst of the uprising that defied Nazi tyranny, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto boldly met Wehrmacht tanks with homemade weapons and bare fists in a heroic effort to counter continued deportations to death camps.
I first discovered Leon Uris when I read Exodus, his novel of the tumultuous founding of the nation of Israel. After that I couldn't get enough of his historical fiction for awhile. I read Armageddon (The Berlin Airlift), Mitla Pass (The Six-Day War), QB VII (A British court case related to Nazi war crimes), and Mila 18 (The Warsaw Ghetto during World War II). Uris has a fascinating manner of making his fictional characters completely genuine by not only developing their personalities and personal histories, but giving them a fleshed-out past that goes back for generations. It is not uncommon for the story to digress for 50 to 100 pages while we get a fascinating and compelling account of the lives of the main characters' parents and grandparents. This is particularly important because his best work is centered around the Jews, where heritage is crucial. Leon Uris, even before Fiddler on the Roof introduced me to Jewish life in tsarist Russia, pogroms and all.
Mila 18 is an astoundingly moving read, where we know from the outset that most or all of the characters are doomed. It may be morbid of me (although I don't think that's it), but I never get tired of stories which treat on the contrasting depravity of Nazi Germany and the courage and fortitude of their victims during the Holocaust.
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - In these connected, chronological short stories are recorded the chronicles of Earth's settlement of the fourth world from the sun. Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars . . . and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.
Who cares if Bradbury writes of breathable air on Mars, an enormous and ancient telepathic civilization, or colonizing another planet beginning before the year 2000? That The Martian Chronicles has left the realm of science fiction and entered the realm of pure fantasy after several decades does not detract from the rich, deep quality of Bradbury's prose, or the power and fascination of his short stories. Fahrenheit 451 is the Bradbury book that everyone reads, but his best work, I think, is in his collections of short stories, most notably this one, The October Country and The Illustrated Man (not to ignore his beautiful novel Something Wicked This Way Comes).
Anyway, returning to the work at hand, the stories in this book embrace a broad range. There are funny stories, tragic stories, mystery and suspense stories, just plain weird stories . . . etc. The total effect produces a very satisfying and memorable experience, and I have revisited and even retold individual favorites from the collection a number of times.
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin) - Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. Sparrowhawk becomes apprentice to a Master Wizard; but impatience to learn faster takes him far from home to Roke Island, where he enters the School for Wizards. As a student of magic, Sparrowhawk exceeds his years in accomplishment, but pride and jealousy drive the boy to try certain dangerous powers too soon. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.
I am quoted as having once said: "There are women who can write [high fantasy] and I'm sure I can think of one if I sit here long enough." The quote arose from a discussion of a particularly horrible fantasy short story I had been reading, by a female author, in which the main character (among other things) wandered around firing a longbow "from the hip." That's still one of the most asinine things I've ever seen in print, but it doesn't forgive the fact that I sat there for quite some time and didn't immediately come up with Ursula K. LeGuin, a shining beacon of the genre.
I snagged A Wizard of Earthsea on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in Antigua, Guatemala for Q19 (slightly less than $3 at the time), and proceeded to devour it that afternoon. The style and flow of LeGuin's writing is indescribably serene and beautiful. The world of her Earthsea series is a fascinating one, consisting of the Archipelago, hundreds of islands of all sizes scattered across thousands of miles and populated by all manner of peoples and cultures (and some dragons). There are no epic journeys by land in Earthsea, for there are no land masses large enough. Virtually all travel is by sea.
The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea also captivated me. I was often frustrated during The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings because Gandalf appears out of nowhere with no background or history, and often wanders away on dark and mysterious errands which the reader isn't allowed to know about. LeGuin's book is the exact opposite of this. The entire story follows the wizard character through his early life and training and on to his first great quest: to track and defeat the shadow he himself unleashed.
And this is only the first of six Earthsea books (although two had not yet been published when I discovered the series). LeGuin's other work is worth checking out as well, although I haven't read nearly all of it. Some of her books can be a bit hard to find, and others I just haven't gotten around to reading yet. Her science fiction is excellent, and her book Rocannon's World is a close second behind A Wizard of Earthsea.
The Icarus Hunt (Timothy Zahn) - Independent space shipper (smuggler) Jordan McKell accepts a contract to deliver a sealed cargo to Earth aboard a ship of unknown origin and dubious quality. After the suspicious death of a crew member and several attempts to "acquire" his cargo, McKell realizes that he has become the center of a conspiracy that pits him against the powerful race of aliens who control galactic trade and aspire to much more. With everyone in the galaxy looking for the Icarus, and an unknown saboteur amongst the crew, McKell begins to suspect that whatever he is caring may have the power to change the course of human history.
The Icarus Hunt is my self-indulgent (okay, who am I kidding? the whole list is self-indulgent) nod in the direction of pulpy, action-packed, contemporary science fiction. I read it during the first summer (of two) that I spent in Colorado Springs with my good friend Andy Winger . . . in fact, we read it concurrently, a chunk at a time, and had a grand time trying to figure out all of its twists and turns along the way.
Timothy Zahn is a fantastic author, and I first discovered him through the Star Wars books he had written (five at the time, if memory serves). I have since read eight or nine of his non-Star Wars books, with a few more waiting in the wings. No other sci-fi author that I have encountered has come up with more different original ideas than Zahn has. Almost every one of his books begins from scratch with a new vision of the galaxy. Once it was a world where all humans had extraordinary telekinetic powers . . . until the age of 12. Another time it was a black hole which emitted quantum particles that compel people to act ethically. A third book has humans as the late-comers to interstellar travel relegated to colonizing the few low-resource planets left . . . only to find themselves in possession of one that contains priceless ancient technologies buried beneath its surface.
But I digress. The Icarus Hunt is by far my favorite of Zahn's books, obviously, and I've made a number of people read it since I first completed it. Intricate plot twists fly successively thicker and faster as the story builds to a fever pitch, culminating in a climax which does not disappoint. With all this going for it, plus excellent characters and fun writing, this book was a must for my list.
To be continued . . .
December 01, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part V
Cheaper by the Dozen (Ernestine G. Carey & Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.) - No growing pains have ever been more hilarious than those suffered loudly by the riotous Gilbreth clan. First, there are a dozen red-haired, freckle-faced kids to contend with. Then there's Dad, a famous efficiency expert who believes a family can be run just like a factory. And there's Mother, his partner in everything except discipline. How they all survive such escapades as forgetting Frank, Jr., in a roadside restaurant, going on a first date with Dad in the backseat, or having their tonsils removed en masse will keep you in stitches.
Seriously, this book will make you laugh. It's hilarious. Before there was the crappy movie starring Steve Martin and Hillary Duff and a crappy sequel to said crappy movie, there was the great original. This book provides another example of my affinity for anecdotal-type stories . . . especially true ones (although so long as its a good story, I don't really care about veracity so much). I honestly can't say whether members of large families would find it humorous or not, but I know that I (not having an enormous family, but being familiar with several) do. And, to the best of my knowledge this is an accurate portrayal of the environment surrounding such . . . ummm . . . units. I'm trying to be tactful here, because I am marrying into a large family. Suffice to say, some of the stories in this book are reminiscent of stories my fiancée has related from her youth. However, let me assure the world that it is no insult to anyone to be compared to the charming Gilbreths.
The Flames of Rome (Paul L. Maier) - The sensuality and excesses of first-century Rome, the treacherous and deadly ploys of imperial politics, the shocking persecution of early Christians by a power-mad emperor - Maier faithfully reconstructs the dramatic conflicts preceding and following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 through the experiences of a family of Roman nobility caught up in the political and religious clashes of the world's capital. The family of Flavius Sabinus, mayor of Rome under Nero, was among the first crucial converts to Christianity, and this novel recounts "the rest of the story" following the book of Acts.
This is probably the only book on my list that might fall into the category of "contemporary Christian fiction," and I am hesitant to call it that because of all of the negative connotations associated with that genre. In other words, I don't like to say that that is what this is, because this actually doesn't suck. I really need to go back and reread it in light of some of my Bible classes (most notably "Social Backgrounds of the New Testament") and in light of Historiography, but to the best of my rememberance it does not fall prey to any of the glaring fallacies often common to religious historical fiction.
Even if it does, and I just don't remember, it is so compellingly written that it easily falls into the realm of perennial classics like Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis . . . and I actually prefer it to both of those, personally. This was probably the book that first truly interested me in the history of the Roman Empire, and it gave me a solid grasp on the details of Nero's reign. It is both exciting and moving, and I highly recommend it.
Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) - An epic, romanticized story about the American Civil War from the point of view of the Confederacy. In particular it is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a headstrong Southern belle who survives the hardships of the war and afterwards manages to establish a successful business by capitalizing on the struggle to rebuild the South. Throughout the book she is motivated by her unfulfilled love for Ashley Wilkes, an honorable man who is happily married. More than this, though, it is a sweeping story of tangled passions and the rare courage of a group of people in Atlanta during and after the Civil War.
Speaking of Historiography, Gone With the Wind is not a book that I enjoy because it's good or accurate history (it's not), but because it's a good story, well-written, and a cultural icon. Gone With the Wind may not be solid history, but it is very solid myth. Granted, I didn't realize this when I first read it, but I think it was for that reason that it resonated with me. I would probably hesitate to call it literature per se, but it is definitely a classic work of the South and well worth reading by any who enjoy things from that region.
For me, Gone With the Wind (more than any of the other highly romanticized Southern works of its type) transcends the petty prejudices and jaundiced perspectives of history that skew lesser works beyond the tolerance of a modern audience. This is because it is about a particular character that can be identified with universally. Scarlett O'Hara is not a lost vision of perfection from the past, but strong survivor in the present who maintains a hope for the future right up until the final lines of the book. For that reason, I think the novel has survived and will continue to survive as a classic favorite in a way that a work like, say, The Clansman could never hope to match.
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) - Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre none the less emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. How she takes up the post of governess at Thornfield Hall, meets and loves Mr Rochester and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage are elements in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than that traditionally accorded to her sex in Victorian society.
Almost the only kind of romance novel (of the love story type) that I read and enjoy is the kind which has the word "Gothic" in front of it as a modifier. Jane Eyre is enthralling and creepy in a way peculiar to the great Victorian authors, with their familiarity with death, insanity, and cruelty. Sometimes they seem melancholy even when they and their characters are most happy and at peace. Jane herself is among the most endearing narrators in literature, and her story is almost impossible to stop reading. I read both this and the next book for school during the same year, and I remember both of them providing me with hours of quiet bliss over the course of entire afternoons and evenings during which I barely shifted from my bed or the couch.
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens) - Fervently embraces the comic delights, tender warmth, and tragic horrors of childhood, it is a classic tale of growing up, the enchanting story of an orphan discovering life and love in an indifferent adult world. Persecuted by his wrathful stepfather, Mr. Murdstone; deceived by his boyhood idol, the callous, charming Steerforth; driven into mortal combat with the sniveling clerk Uriah Heep; and hurled, pell-mell, into a blizzard of infatuation with the adorably dim-witted Dora, he survives the worst--and the best--with inimitable style, his bafflement turning to self-awareness and his heart growing ever more disciplined and true.
Speaking of great Victorian works and endearing narrators, David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens book. It is very long, and I very much wished (when I read it) that it was a good deal longer. I was completely drawn in by the experiences of the main character . . . indeed by all of the characters. Dickens, of course, has a special flair for creating iconic and memorable personalities to populate his thick novels. Like Jane Eyre, and a few of the other books I have discussed, I have a soft spot for David Copperfield partially because it is a coming-of-age story. And its length makes it something I can really sink my teeth into (as with three of the other four books I just discussed). Long can be bad . . . but often it's really good.
To be continued . . .
November 28, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part IV
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - Meet the March sisters: talented and tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, shy Beth, and temperamental Amy . . . This book presents a lively portrait of their joys, hardships, and adventures as they grow up in Civil War New England, separated by the war from their father and beloved mother, "Marmee." Jo searches for her writer's voice . . . Meg prepares for marriage and a family . . . Beth reaches out to the less fortunate, tragically . . . and Amy travels to Europe to become a painter.
Yeah, yeah . . . I know what you're probably thinking. At least, I know what certain other people have said when I have mentioned off-hand that this is one of my favorite books. It's been quite some time since I last read it, and I daresay it's probably very sappy indeed in some way. But that doesn't change the fact that I enjoyed the book, its characters, its anecdotal nature, and overarching plot . . . And the autobiographical element of the thing always fascinated me. It's a good, long, uplifting sort of a read. And it's not as though I put up with things that attempt to shove gratuitous warm fuzzies off on one. This is a good book, regardless.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) - There are 60 mysteries starring the legendary Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world's best-known detective, all chronicled by the unassuming Dr. John Watson, former military surgeon. Watson is introduced to Holmes's eccentricities as well as his uncanny ability to deduce information about his fellow beings and a lifelong literary friendship is born. Residing together at 221B Baker Street, they collaborate in solving and recording mystery after mystery in Victorian London.
I hardly know where to begin with Sherlock Holmes . . . absolutely one of my favorite literary idols of all time. I vividly remember the first Holmes story I ever heard: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which was read aloud to me in 4th grade at CAG by Mr. Ulrich. That story stills sends chills up and down my spine. It was sometime later, after I had read several more of his adventures here and there, that I stumbled across an enormous red tome in the CAG library, with a faded "Complete Sherlock Holmes" inscribed on the tattered spine. I took it home with me and stayed up most of the night reading A Study in Scarlet, but it was the short stories I liked (and still like) best.
I can remember lots of them . . . and there are many more I can't remember. That's grand, as far as I'm concerned, since it means that I can go back and reread them someday. Most of my favorites are in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, where so many unique things happen: vampires, a case told in the third-person, and the only case related by Holmes himself. But His Last Bow, with Holmes as a spy during World War I, is grand as well. And, of course, I still love all of the earlier collections that set up the character, kill him off, and bring him back again: The Adventures, The Memoirs (with the climactic "Final Problem"), and The Return.
It would be impossible to pick a single Sherlock Holmes story or collection . . . it has to be the whole thing: every word ever written about the character by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a magnificent body of work.
The Once and Future King (T. H. White) - The Once and Future King defies classification, encompassing poetry and farce, comedy and tragedy -and sudden flights of schoolboy humor. White's "footnote to Malory" (his own phrase) resulted in the last major retelling of the Arthurian cycle of legends. This is the magical epic of King Arthur and his shining Camelot, of Merlyn and Guinevere, of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war. It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad.
I was initially sucked into the work by the laugh-out-loud look at medieval Britain in The Sword in the Stone, quite on par with, or better than, Connecticut Yankee. But, more than just the humor, the really captivating element of what I consider to be the quintessential version of the Arthur legend (this is it for me), is the tragic, bittersweet failure of Arthur's dream. The Once and Future King, despite its often tongue-in-cheek style captures the humanity of its characters in a way the dry prose of Malory, or high, cold verse of Tennyson never could. What makes the tragedy of Arthur's fate (along with Guinevere, Lancelot, and the rest) is that the story didn't have to turn out that way but for a series of very slight, very understandable, very human errors. And we sit and read and watch disaster unfold before us . . . but not without the hope of ultimate redemption, too. It is masterfully, beautifully done.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) - From 1902 until 1919 the Nolans live in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.
I guess I'm just a sucker for coming-of-age stories . . . in fact, I know I am. Here's another book that I remember reading largely in the space of a long night (or perhaps two). I remember just enough about it to want to read it again to refresh my memory. Francie Nolan, as I recall, is a hero the reader can really root for with no trouble, and her story (and that of her family) fascinated me. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides one of those rare, very clear glimpses into a world that is completely different from any that I've experienced, and it also provided me with an early glimpse of what it is like to look back on childhood at the cusp of adulthood. For that reason alone, I ought to reread it very soon.
The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) -
"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone."
With these mysterious words, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is no mere boy. He is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to battle the powers of evil that trouble the land. His task is monumental: he must find and guard the six great Signs of the Light, which, when joined, will create a force strong enough to match and perhaps overcome that of the Dark. Embarking on this endeavor is dangerous as well as deeply rewarding; Will must work within a continuum of time and space much broader than he ever imagined.
The Dark is Rising is actuall book two of a five-book series, but it mostly stands alone. It introduces a completely different set of characters from book one, and the two sets join forces in book three and proceed from there. The series draws very heavily on Welsh and Celtic elements, and takes place almost entirely in that small area of Great Britain. This was, obviously, my favorite of the five (but they're all pretty good). The material Cooper draws on is rich and satisfying, and she knows how to spin a real nail-biter . . . excellent writing. I'll admit that the book loses a little if one doesn't read the others in the series, but rules are rules, and I could only pick one of them. It's still a compelling read.
To be continued . . .
November 22, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part III
Watership Down (Richard Adams) - Set in the once idyllic rural landscape of the south of England, this is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival. An epic tale of a hardy band of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community. Led by the doughty Hazel and his oracular friend Fiver, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing dangers posed by predators, hostile warrens, and worse, to a mysterious promised land known to them only as Watership Down. From their travails, they forge a more perfect society, made stronger by the vision that drives them.
When I was (I think) 13, almost 14, I heard of this book and decided to read it, but didn't find a copy handy right away. That summer we visited an old lady friend of my parents' who lived in Waco, and stayed in her large, ancient house. It was rather a creepy house, deathly silent but for the creaking noises made by the wooden floor when we walked around in it. It was the sort of house I could spend a great deal of time carefully exploring, and still be certain of missing some secret panel or passageway, but the almost total lack of air conditioning made one too lethargic for exploring.
In one of the guest bedrooms, however, I discovered a copy of Watership Down: a bulky, hardcover version without the dust jacket. Everyone thought I was reading a book about submarines as I carted it around with me to restaurants, church potlucks, and the like. My parents always have a lot of visiting to get done in Waco, and it has always been my philosophy to bring along a hefty chunk of "boredom insurance" in the hopes of finding a quiet corner to tuck myself into.
Well, as immersed as I was in the story of Watership Down (which offers an unforgettable portrait of Adams's made-up rabbit culture, including a language and complex folklore, in addition to page-turning excitement), between one thing and another I didn't quite finish the book before we had to leave. I was terribly disappointed, but I received a shiny new paperback copy for my birthday not long after, and all was well. When the sequel, an anthology entitled Tales from Watership Down, came out a few years later, I snapped it up and devoured it, too. These books are not to be missed.
The Rescuers (Margery Sharp) - The Prisoners' Aid Society, run entirely by mice, strives to help cheer and aid a variety of human prisoners held around the world. When the society learns that a Norwegian poet has been wrongly imprisoned in the legendary (and much feared) Black Castle, home to a number of terrible dangers (including the dreaded Mameluke, a monstrous cat belonging to the prison warden), the mice waste no time in formulating a plan for his release. Bernard, a stolid brown mouse, is dispatched to enlist the aid of Miss Bianca, a white mouse who has always lived in the lap of luxury. If Bernard can convince Miss Bianca to locate a brave Norwegian rodent for their cause, the prisoner may stand a chance. Being a bit of a spoiled pet, Miss Bianca initially shies away from Bernard's pleas, but his good heart and her better nature prevail and soon she too is involved in the world of intrigue and heroic rescues.
The Rescuers and its eight sequels are, much to my dismay, long out of print, and I had a heck of a time even finding a picture of the cover. For all I know, they may have already been out of print when I first checked them out from the CAG library and read them years ago. This is a shame because any one of the first three (which are the only ones our library had, and are still the only ones I've read) could eviscerate either Disney animated version in a fair fight. The first book remains my favorite for a variety of reasons. The mission undertaken by Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Nils is just so ridiculously impossible at the outset that their ultimate success is all the more exhilerating in the end.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain) - Vibrates with slapstick comedy and serious social commentary. While Hank Morgan, Twain's time-displaced Yankee traveler, keeps up a steady stream of flippancies, founding the first tabloid, the Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano, and organizing a game of baseball between armor-clad knights, he also keeps up a steady commentary on the social mores of King Arthur's court, criticizing the hereditary social classes and state church still strong in the Victorian England of Twain's own day, and championing women's suffrage and union labor organization.
This may seem like a bit of an odd pick to some, considering Twain's other great works. Huck Finn is, of course, widely regarded as his best (and by some as the best) novel. Personally, my difficulty was more in deciding between this one and Tom Sawyer, and in the end I may not be able to adequately justify why, with my love of the South and Southern literature, I picked a book about a Yankee set in legendary Arthurian Britain. My fascination with Arthurian legend aside, it probably boils down to the fact that my favorite element of Twain is his humor, and this is (in my opinion) by far his funniest book. Connecticut Yankee made me laugh. A lot. And at this point I'd probably have to re-read it in order to make my analysis any deeper than that.
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) - Ten complete strangers, apparently with nothing in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon. Once there, all of them are accused of murder and sentenced to die. One by one the members of the party are killed off, and tension mounts as, cut off from the mainland, the dwindling survivors realize that the killer must be one of them.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've actually read more books by Agatha Christie than by any other single author (a fact which quite surprised me when I discovered it). I never got into any of her detectives except Hercule Poirot, and I read everyone of his mysteries I could lay my hands on. I remember burrowing my way through a thick tome of five Poirot mysteries at a fairly young age, lugging it around everywhere I went.
Christie has the uncanny ability of throwing me so totally off the scent in her mysteries that, not only is the killer not the most likely suspect, they are not even the least likely suspect. With almost no exceptions, Christie reveals the killer to have been the one character who was not a suspect at all, who hadn't even entered into your reckoning when you formed your list. I remember one mystery where the murderer was the policeman investigating the case, and another where the murderer was the person narrating the story.
Neither of those refers to this particular book, which is one of perhaps three non-Poirot Christie's that I have read. It does not feature any of her regular detective characters, or any detective at all for that matter. Relying more on suspense than investigation to keep the reader glued, the ending is, of course, a complete surprise. I've seen a couple of movie versions and have been thoroughly disgusted both times with the adaptation. Moviemakers can be such weenies sometimes, and in this case seem thoroughly incapable of following the original plot through to reach Christie's brilliant, dark ending.
King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard) - Three men trek to the remote African interior in search of a lost friend. At the end of a perilous journey they reach an unknown land cut off from the world and inhabited by a lost civilization which stands on the brink of savage civil war, where terrible dangers threaten anyone who dares to venture near the spectacular diamond mines of King Solomon.
King Solomon's Mines stands out in my mind as the most action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, rip-roaring adventure novel I have ever read. I bought it on a whim from a tiny bookstore in a mall in Guatemala and devoured it shortly thereafter. This is the quintessential African adventure of the British Imperialist period. It has pretty much everything: danger, suspense, men being ripped in half by stampeding elephants, bizarre encounters with the natives, an epic, day-long battle with tens of thousands of warriors savaging each other in hand-to-hand combat, our mighty, larger-than-life heroes emerging victorious, bathed in blood, wealth beyond measure surrounded by booby-traps . . . I'm telling you, it's all in here. Just thinking about that battle scene makes me want to go read the whole thing again.
To be continued . . .
November 19, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part II
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O'Brian) - There's something very strange about the rats living under the rosebush at the Fitzgibbon farm. But Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with a sick child, is in dire straits and must turn to these exceptional creatures for assistance. Soon she finds herself flying on the back of a crow, slipping sleeping powder into a ferocious cat's dinner dish, and helping 108 brilliant, laboratory-enhanced rats escape to a utopian civilization of their own design, no longer to live "on the edge of somebody else's, like fleas on a dog's back."
Genius lab rats who plot and scheme and build utopias . . . this concept is so much fun! This was one of the first books I read where the story kept intriguing details hidden from the reader for a time while dropping tantalizing hints about them. Sometimes the revelation doesn't happen (a nearly unforgivable sin, if done improperly), and sometimes it's just underwhelming (which is even worse). In this case, though, I loved the backstory of the rats of NIMH. The rest of the book generated a good deal of tension and suspense as well, and I remember it being a very exciting read. My most vivid memory is of an escape through air ducts, and of the horror of uncertainty as to the fate of those who were swept away by the rush of blowing air. Air ducts . . . brrr . . .
Matilda (Roald Dahl) - At age five-and-a-half, Matilda is knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Once she begins school, her classmates love her even though she's a super-nerd and the teacher's pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda's world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there's the school principal, Mrs. ("The") Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing monster of a woman who now flings children instead. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.
To my thinking, it would simply be a crime not to have a book by Roald Dahl on this list. All of his books are an absolute joy to read. I have fond memories, for instance, of the time when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to my brothers in a single sitting because they didn't want me to stop. There was a bit of a struggle as to which one to pick . . . I love so many of his (especially the second half of his autobiography, entitled Going Solo).
In the end, though, I picked the book about a bookworm who scores some sweet, sweet revenge on the Philistines in her life. It just doesn't get any better than that. I received this book as a present for my 13th birthday, a very memorable occasion which also netted me a week-long trip State-side (beginning and ending the journey with a plane ride was only part of the joy of the experience, at the time). There are lots of memorable parts in Matilda, most involving The Trunchbull and her punishment system. I recall a small girl whirled about by her hair and flung a few hundred yards . . . A small boy forced to eat an entire enormous chocolate cake in front of the whole school until he nearly splits open . . . And, of course, the hilarity that results from a pitcher of water, telekinesis, and a common garden newt.
The Land I Lost (Huynh Quang Nhuong) - "The land I love was lost to me forever. These stories are my memories." Huynh Quang Nhuong grew up in the highlands of Vietnam, next to the jungle teeming with wildlife. Encounters with tigers, wild hogs, and deadly snakes were as much a part of his life as tending the rice fields while on the back of his pet water buffalo, Tank. Here are fifteen tales that will transport you into a world of lush beauty and terrible danger -- and a way of life that is gone forever.
I can't for the life of me remember why this book affected me as much as it did. The stories are fascinating, often involving strange and dangerous encounters with the jungle. Some are funny, some are intense, some are tragic, but all are quite poignant. The cumulative effect is both moving and lasting. I can only clearly remember fragments about snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, and water buffalo, as well as snatches about the devastating effects of war. As I consider further, I think it was the bittersweet quality of the book which touched me the most. It is an excellent read, all the more so because the stories are true.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) - An enrapturing coming-of-age story told from the point of view of six-year-old Scout Finch. Growing up in pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama, Scout and her older brother, Jem, witness the transformations that take place in their small town during a controversial trial in which her lawyer father, Atticus, agrees to defend a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century, and so much of what makes up a Southern childhood, without over-glorifying them.
This is one of those few books that I can (and do) pick up at random and read from cover to cover just because I happen to spot it sitting on the shelf. If I had to pick a single favorite, it would be a very strong contender. I think I first read it in sixth grade, and I've re-read it in whole or in part several dozen times since then (one of very few books I've re-read at all). I have also, through sheer force of will, browbeaten several people into picking it up and reading it.
Because it has been so ubiquitous for several years, I'd have a hard time attaching specific memories to it. And almost every scene in the book is memorable . . . I couldn't pick just a few. I am, however, fairly certain of one thing: To Kill a Mockingbird is the most prominent factor in my affinity for Southern history, literature, and culture. That makes it also responsible for my paper topic in Intellectual History and for my specially requested independent study in Southern History next semester. It is responsible for a few other books on this list, as well. And, in all likelihood, it will one day have been responsible for what I study in graduate school. How's that for influential?
The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) - When shy Mole climbs out of his hole and into the fresh spring air, he meets Ratty. The two set off for a day on the river, and thus begins this classic tale of deep friendship and adventure as Mole, Rat, and Badger try to reform their rather wild friend, Mr. Toad (of Toad Hall). When Toad's obssession with motor cars and reckless driving land him in prison, Toad Hall is taken over by fiendish weasels and the four friends face the complications of a daring prison break and a climactic battle for the mansion in the most thrilling adventure of all.
The Wind in the Willows glows with a special luminescence all its own. Its characters are sheer magic, and their various adventures are enchanting as well as entertaining. I have many emotions connected to specific scenes: the relief of Mole stumbling into Badger's den when he is lost in the forest, the excitement of Toad's wild escape from prison, the serenity of a day on the river with Rat, and the sheer exhiliration of the storming of Toad Hall. None of these scenes, however, equal the transcendent awe of Mole and Rat's unexplained encounter with the pipe-playing, God-like being they meet one night. This powerful scene, perhaps even more than anything in C. S. Lewis, is the strongest and most lasting image I possess of an encounter with Deity. I have re-read that one portion of the book more times than I remember.
To be continued . . .
November 16, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part I
The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien) - In ancient times Sauron, The Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was lost, and fell, by chance, into the hands of the hobbit, Frodo Baggins. The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard, Merry, Pippin, and Sam, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, Boromir of Gondor, and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider. Together they will journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom
I discovered the trilogy as a 4th grader in late '93. Already a fan of Narnia since '88 or '89, I reached Fellowship through The Hobbit, based on the awed recommendations of a few classmates. The latter I re-read over a dozen times (several of them nearly consecutively), to the point where my mother asked whether I shouldn't try something new for a change. It was, in some small part, that encouragement not to re-read the same few books over and over again that prompted me to begin keeping a record, and I do not often re-read entire books these days.
As for the trilogy, its impact on me was profound for many years, as it fueled and drove my search for fantasy and science fiction that could equal the joy I derived from reading it. Narnia alone probably could not have sustained my interest in fantasy, but the discovery of Middle Earth made my continued interest a certainty. I have very vivid memories of reading those frightening opening chapters aloud to my younger brothers by the dim glow of a flickering nightlight as we shivered in the bottom bunk, cut off from the rest of the room by walls of blankets draped over the top bunk. I remember reading an enormous chunk of the trilogy perched in various trees, and ignoring cries of "Un mono! (A monkey!)" from below. Additionally, the first time I read The Return of the King, I listened to a George Gershwin CD over and over and over. "Rhapsody in Blue" now forever brings to mind the spectacle of Frodo and Sam toiling wearily up the slopes of Mount Doom.
When word of a new movie version began to circulate, I was, of course, very excited. But by then the full peak of my Hobbitmania had come and gone, and it was my younger brother Micah who got caught up in the magic of the thing most violently. I have experiencing vicariously his enthusiasm for the subject in addition to my own. I am quite pleased that Lord of the Rings was the first of these that appears on my Booklist, because this gives me the chance to get it out of the way up front. Yes, it is on my list. Moving on . . .
The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) - This ingenious fantasy centers around Milo, a chronically bored ten-year-old who comes home one afternoon to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. Driving through the tollbooth's gates in his toy car, Milo journeys into The Lands Beyond with the companions he finds along the way: the watchdog, Tock, and the foolish but lovable Humbug. Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked "Which," gives Milo the impossible mission of rescuing the lost princesses, Rhyme and Reason, from the Castle in the Air in the midst of the dreaded Mountains of Ignorance and restoring them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. With his faithful companions in tow, he sets out to accomplish the task, visiting places like the Word Market in Dictionopolis, and encountering colorful characters like King Azaz the Unabridged along the way.
For sheer fun and frivolity, Tollbooth is hard to beat. This book was not directly responsible for my love of learning, perhaps, but it certainly shows how much cooler knowledge is than ignorance, low culture theory notwithstanding. Tollbooth is a surefire cure for boredom, and contains quite a few good laughs as well. The characters and situations are unforgettable (my favorite scene was always Milo's encounter with the Mathemagician, but really, it's all pretty great). Everyone should have this read once before they hit middle school, again before high school, before college, and at least once after.
A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L'Engle) - World-renowned physicist Dr. Murray is experimenting with tesseracts (fifth-dimension travel) when he mysteriously disappears without a trace. Several months later, his children - warm, awkward Meg and gifted, eccentric Charles Wallace - have still had no news of their father. Then, quite suddenly, they and their neighbor, Calvin O`Keefe, embark on a perilous quest to other worlds to find their father. Guided by three celestial beings - Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - they must survive a myriad of unexpected dangers to reunite their family.
A bit of an oddity, this one. It baffled and intrigued me when I was younger, trying to wrap my brain around fifth dimensions and travel by tesseract. This book may well have laid a few foundations of my anti-Utopian cynicism. Or maybe not. The story isn't strictly science fiction, but it is not fantasy either. This particular blend of the two is unique (as far as I know) to L'Engle and Ursula K. Leguin. However, what really stand out in my memory are the characters: Mrs. Whatsit, Charles Wallace, Meg . . . very special, and with a life of their own.
I remember especially images of a planet where everyone is identical, performing the same actions at the same time . . . children bouncing balls in unison, mothers making identical dinners, etc. I also remember the frustrating sensation of feeling so very close to knowing just how tesseracts work, but not quite getting it. Wrinkle is the first in a series of four stand-alones: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly-Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. That last stars the least developed characters in the series, the blonde Murray twins, rather than the usual cast, as they wind up in the days of the antedeluvian patriarchs after messing with one of their mother's experiments.
The Gammage Cup (Carol Kendall) - Muggles is an ordinary Minnipin living in Slipper-on-the-Water as generations of Minnipins have ever since their great leader Gammage led them to this valley. But one morning, Muggles awakes to fires on the distant mountains and knows that her life is about to change dramatically. The only people who believe Muggles' story are Gummy the poet, Walter the Earl, Curley Green and Mingy, all outcasts themselves. They are not like other Minnipins--they speak their mind, they wear different colors, and they question rules. When they try to convince the rest of the town that danger is lurking, they are banished from the village. In a peaceful knoll up the river, the unlikely friends rejoice in their newfound freedom and begin a new life. But the presence of the ancient enemy of Minnipins cannot be ignored, and this group of exiles must fight to protect the very people who cast them out.
In addition to feeding the aforementioned appetite for good fantasy with a fun plot, great characters and situations, plenty of action, and a very satisfying conclusion, The Gammage Cup undoubtedly appealed to my disgust with conformity to mindless societal conventions. Like the heroes of the story, I prefer to express myself however I please, and I hate falling in line just because "it's the way things work." If something doesn't make sense to me, I openly disagree, or just try to ignore it. Of course, ridicule is usually the best outcome I can hope for in such cases. All that aside, this is a fantastic book.
There are almost too many memories to describe: the fun use of colors, the pretentious town leaders who share a common ancestry with a ridiculously lucky buffoon, the nail-biting, eerie tension of the climax, and the exhiliration of restoration to a better community . . . The only tangible memory, however, that I seem to be able to call forth in relation to my reading of it, is an auditory one: "WEEK WEEK WEEK!" (as a cry of fear and retreat).
The Second Mrs. Giaconda (E.L. Konigsburg) - Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest artist of his time . . . Salai, a wayward apprentice with a larcenous heart and an aversion to the truth . . . Beatrice d'Este, the young wife of the Duke of Milan, whose plain face belies her beautiful soul; could the complex ways these three lives intertwine hold the clue to the most famous -- and puzzling -- painting of all time? Why did da Vinci lavish three years on a painting of the second wife of an unimportant merchant when all the nobles of Europe were begging for a portrait by his hand?
I love historical fiction . . . probably more than I love actual history. And this story about (partially) the life of Leonardo da Vinci affected me very deeply for some reason. I was moved by it, and I'm really not sure why. It wasn't the first book to have done so by any means. Black Beauty caused me to weep at the tender age of . . . probably seven or so. Where the Red Fern Grows has brought me to tears on multiple occasions (blasted animal stories . . . they always suffer and die in the end, you know). Anyway, Mrs. Giaconda inspired me to a brief fascination with da Vinci, although an actual biography which I read shortly thereafter bored me terribly after the inspiration of this (partially) fictional work.
I prescribe this book as the cure for anyone who has been subjected to How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci . . . because, really you shouldn't be hating the great Leonardo. He really was an incredible genius, you know. This book is the first, but not the last, of these that I read as part of a school assignment. That was during the glorious days of Sonlight homeschool curriculum, which I used for 7th through 10th grade (beginning shortly after I began the Booklist). Sonlight is a literature-based curriculum, and it had me reading upwards of 70 books a year (most of the highest caliber) as I studied literature and history. Their catalogue, which I devoured every year as it came out, read almost like a glowing combination of my favorites and my to-reads.
To be continued . . .