Saturday, August 11, 2012

F. M. Ford's Parade's End

With the wisdom of hindsight I should have read Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy when I was in graduate school so-and-so many years ago. It was Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (a brilliant study of the Great War poets and their cultural, literary, and historical context) that launched me on my topic for my master's thesis, but I quickly narrowed my focus to British women novelists writing about the war -- Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf. At the time, I felt I needed to take a different angle on the literature of the period, there being so much attention paid to the great poets and memoir-writers, particularly Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who I read and loved. So, in devouring all the primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, I knew I couldn't include 900+ pages of a novel that wouldn't figure into my focus.

Oh, how wrong I was! So many of the themes and imagery that I traced in my work I found brilliantly illustrated in the pages of the four novels that make up Parade's End. Set roughly in the time period before the war from about 1912 through the war years (the Armistice was in November 1918), and coming to an end in the years after the war, the sequence follows the progress of the "last Tory," Christopher Tietjens of Groby Hall. A youngest son of an old Yorkshire family of wealth and position, Christopher's unhappy marriage to a woman who makes it her obsession to torment and ruin him is set against the tumultuous upheaval of the Great War.

Christopher's wife Sylvia may be one of the most hiss-able villains that I've ever encountered, and yet Ford doesn't make her a flat, one-dimensional character. She is a contradictory, deeply flawed, thoroughly dysfunctional woman, obsessed with getting the attention, if not the affection, of her saintly husband. To me, she embodies the idea of the monstrous female -- an image that cropped up again and again in the literature of the period of the Great War. The Woman Suffrage movement that was in full, militant swing before hostilities began and the deep psychological divide between soldiers and non-combatant women on the home front often resulted in an undercurrent of guilt felt by women who swept into the absent men's roles, attaining a freedom that they never had experienced before, and bitter resentment on the part of the men fighting in the trenches, who felt they were being sacrificed both by the old men in the corridors of power and gleeful, "patriotic" women. Christopher's long-suffering, Christ-like qualities are obvious throughout the four novels. Sylvia several times makes the comparison explicit:
"And I daresay if... Oh Christ!'re shot in the trenches you'll say it...oh, between the saddle and the ground! that you never did a dishonourable action....And, mind you, I believe that no other man save one has ever had more right to say it than you..."

Tietjens said:
"You believe that!"

"As I hope to stand before my Redeemer," Sylvia said, "I believe it....But, in the name of the Almighty, how could any woman live beside you...and be forever forgiven?"
(Some Do Not Part II, p.186, Everyman's Library Hardcover edition)
And Christopher's ruminations while he is serving in the front line trenches make it clear that soldiers often felt more affinity for even the enemy than they did their own countrymen (and women):
And it was curious to consider how the hatred that one felt for the inhabitants of those regions seemed to skip in a wide trajectory over the embattled ground. It was the civilian populations and their rulers that one hated with real hatred.
(A Man Could Stand Up Part II, p.679)
Christopher has more than enough reason to feel that sort of hatred toward the home front -- a place where his own wife constantly works against him. It is, in fact, due to her machinations that despite his already-damaged lungs, he is once more in the most dangerous position on the Western Front with men under his command dying horrifically all around him. What others describe as his big, lumpish body, and what he deprecates himself as a "collection of meal sacks" in war becomes valuable. He has the physical strength to save his soldiers from being buried alive in a shell explosion and carry them to safety. And while his own privileged class -- even his own family -- believe all the lies told about him and discount his worth, the men he commands, mothers, and tries to keep alive seem to be the only ones who understand his true worth. To them he is capable, heroic, fair, and courageous. Christopher, a throw-back to another age and clinging to an 18th-century code of honor, watches everything about his old way of viewing the world coming apart at the seams.
...All these men given into the hands of the most cynically care-free intriguers in long corridors who made plots that harrowed the hearts of the world. All these men toys, all these agonies mere occasions for picturesque phrases to be put into politicians' speeches without heart or even intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-browniness of God, exactly as if they were nuts wilfully picked up and thrown over the shoulder by magpies....But men. Not just populations. Men you worried over there. Each man a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a green grocer's business, a milk walk, a paper stall, brats, a slut of a wife....The Men: the Other Ranks! And the poor - little officers. God help them.
(No More Parades Part I,  p.319)

But it is by witnessing the demolition of all that has come before that allows him to break from the feudal past of his ancestors -- to give up his family's money and estate -- and thus, break from his wife, to live openly with the woman that he does love -- the young Suffragette and Pacifist, Valentine Wannop.

The Good Soldier is considered usually to be Ford's masterpiece, but I think Parade's End is even more deserving of that honor. It exemplifies the Modernist techniques of using non-linear time shifts, varying viewpoints, and stream-of-consciousness narrative. Of the latter, my favorite example is the long passage at the end of A Man Could Stand Up where Christopher has become acting C.O. of his battalion expecting a German offensive; he inspects his men, thinks about Valentine, and considers his future, if he is to have a future at all. It's breathtakingly beautiful and sad, and often even funny. Ford has a great sense of the comic, and for all Christopher's sufferings, he is rather a sad sack. In the final novel, The Last Post, his brother Mark, who is dying, describes the lot of the Tietjenses, particularly Christopher:
A luckless sort of beggar, Christopher!...If you took the whole conglobulation at its worst -- the father suiciding, the son living with his sister in open sin, the son's son not his son and Groby going over to Papist hands....That was the sort of thing that would happen to a Tietjens of the Christopher variety: to any Tietjens who would not get out or get under as he, Mark, had done. Tietjenses took what they damn well got for doing what they damn well wanted to. Well, it landed them in that sort of post.
(The Last Post, p.821
That passage made me laugh out loud when I read it, but you probably have to be there -- to have taken that long journey through all the humiliations, pains, block-headedness, and misunderstanding that finally lead to Christopher's imperfect, but at least more hopeful, post-war life.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

China Mieville: Embassytown

My first experience reading China Mieville was his noirish "crime" novel, The City and the City -- still one of my favorite books of recent years. Calling it a crime novel is, of course, deceptive. The premise is startlingly complex -- a police procedural that unwinds itself between two cities that are really one. The cities have different names, governments, cultures, but rather than occupying distinct physical spaces they are overlapping, really the same place, but its citizens are adept at "unseeing" anything that doesn't belong to their own city. And there are fearsome penalties for anyone who makes the mistake of  "seeing" what is forbidden, for moving across borders in any but the prescribed fashion -- a transgression that is known as "breaching." It's a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but once you've suspended disbelief, the story is addictive.

Embassytown is Mieville's foray into science fiction -- there are aliens, exotic planets, advanced technology, and intrigue, but again, calling it simply sci-fi doesn't begin to describe the full range of its concerns. Primarily, the novel is about the nature of language -- its power, how it transforms the world, or limits it -- how it corrupts and how it can heal. Embassytown is a distant outpost of humans from the ruling country of Bremen on the planet of Arieka, whose natives are simply called the Hosts. They are large, hooved, winged creatures, with multiple appendages, eyes on stalks, two mouths -- thoroughly alien to their colonizers (see this blog for one person's artistic rendering, based on Mieville's description) but existing in a peaceable state of long-standing compromise and trade (although it's never clear to me what the Ariekei really get from the humans of Embassytown, other than the curiosity factor). The planet's atmosphere isn't adapted to humans so they are somewhat confined to their ghetto adjoining the Host City, thanks to a bio-rigged bubble that allows them to breathe without additional equipment in Embassytown.

Mieville drops you into a world that is thoroughly disorienting -- he doesn't do a lot of exposition, so you just have to go with the flow, even if it means you are thoroughly lost for 40 or 50 pages while the new-coined words and bizarre culture eventually begins to make sense in context. The protagonist is a woman, Avice Benner Cho, born in Embassytown, educated to become an "immerser" -- a space traveller, a sort of trader, adventurer, and minor functionary of the Bremen government. After many years in the "out" she returns with her new husband, a linguist, who is fascinated with the Hosts' unique language. Here is the crux of the story, and without getting into all the nuances, the idea is this: The Hosts speak a language that the humans have learned to understand and mimic to an extent. However, since the Hosts speak with two mouths, simultaneously, and from the perspective of a single mind, humans can not duplicate it in a way that Hosts understand. A human speaking the duality of Host Language is mere noise, the equivalent of scrambled static.

Hosts' minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue. They couldn't learn other languages, couldn't conceive of their existence, or that noises we made to each other were words at all. A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words.
 The only way humans have found to communicate "in Language" to the hosts is through an elite caste of Ambassadors, not just twins, but identical clones, bred so as to share a natural empathy with one another and enhanced by an embedded link that enables them to speak Language, from a single mind, even though to other humans they are separate people. They are known by a single name, such as CalVin, MagDa, CharLotte, fused forever. The other complexity of Host language is that they can only speak what is essentially a truth claim. There are no metaphors, no abstractions, no imagination. No word exists without a referent. Nothing "signifies." This is where your old linguistics class might come in handy. The Hosts are unable to lie. The entire plot of political intrigue, dysfunctional relationships, planet-wide catastrophe, addiction, and war is powered by this fundamental limitation of Host Language and the humans who must try to communicate with them.

To say more won't really clarify the plot -- it is a story you have to experience, and you have to be willing to play with ideas and be a little perplexed on the journey. I found the payoff to be worth it -- unexpectedly powerful and beautiful, and unlike anything I've ever read.

If you've read other Mieville novels, let me know what you think of this writer. I'm reading backwards through his oeuvre at this point, having read only the two most recent ones, but I'm certainly planning to work my way through the preceding books. It might take awhile to get there because they do take a bit of brainspace (speaking for myself).

Monday, June 18, 2012

The death of Anne Boleyn

I finally settled down to Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, which I had been eagerly awaiting. The first novel introduced Thomas Cromwell, the rough-and-ready blacksmith's son who rises from acolyte to Cardinal Wolsey, to trusted councilor of King Henry VIII. Cromwell smooths the path for Henry to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon, to become head of his own Church and throw off Rome, and to marry Anne Boleyn in hopes of  a male heir. But, as the title foreshadows, by the end of the first installment, even in his triumph, Henry's eye falls on Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall, and as his enthrallment with Anne fades, the stage is set for Bring Up the Bodies, which picks up just where Wolf Hall ends.

True to his philosophy of "pick your prince," Cromwell realizes that, for better or worse, his best interests lie in aligning himself with Henry's interests -- in this case, Jane Seymour. Of course, there is always a faction angling for power, and Cromwell falls in with Anne's enemies as he plots her ouster and Jane's installment as queen. Cromwell has lost his wife and young daughters; grief has stripped away any moral ambivalence he might feel as he manipulates events to remove Anne. He doesn't hate the Queen, but she is an obstacle that must be removed. If she would consent to be put away quietly in a convent, Cromwell would be satisfied, but he knows she will not. It is to be a fight, literally, to the death, and he is equal to the task. Mantel's great power lies in her ability to shade the character of Cromwell. His ruthlessness is monstrous, but also merely practical; he feels sympathy for his enemies, but understands his neck will be on the block in their stead if he does not prevail. He knows how unlikely it is that he will retire quietly to the country after faithful service to the king, but he is willing to play the game out to the end.

The four interviews he holds with Anne's accused lovers are marvelous. Each man's guilt, in Cromwell's eyes, isn't so much about what they may or may not have done with Anne, or how they may have been treasonous to the king, but the extent to which they had a hand in the downfall of his mentor Wolsey. If they are to be executed for crimes which they may not actually have committed, they will at least pay for something: "He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged."

 As for Anne, Cromwell believes she is the author of her own fate -- up to a point. She has only the the poor weapons that women can wield, and they are not enough to vanquish her enemies. Until the end, she believes Henry will rescue her, but she is already dead to him before the sword falls -- this is something that Cromwell understands.
The queen is alone now, as alone as he has ever been in her life. She says, Christ have mercy, Jesus have mercy, Christ receive my soul. She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God's sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if -- the executioner calls out sharply, 'Get me the sword.' The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole...
Again, at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell's will has carried the day. The executions are accomplished and Jane Seymour will ascend, but this is not an end as Mantel makes clear in the final words of the novel: "There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one."

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Eudora Welty

Just after vacation, I read both The Robber Bridegroom and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. Welty is one of those authors lodged permanently in the canon of literature, and in particular, Southern literature, read by every school child (is that still the case?) and in every survey of American lit. Her wonderful short stories are classics. I'm sure I read "The Worn Path," "Why I Live at the P.O.," and "The Petrified Man," and probably more that I've forgotten. But I never had read any of her longer fiction. Coming back to her after so many years, I was completely charmed by both novels, really, by every word. There is a great warmth and humor, and such grace in the flow of her language, pulling the reader along as powerfully as the Mississippi current .

The Robber Bridegroom is told in the fantastical style of a Southern fairy tale, with a decided Grimm Brothers' darkness. There's a horrible little goblin-like being who talks to his brother's severed head in a box (and the head talks back), a wicked stepmother, a beautiful maiden (but not maid for long), an anti-hero bandit/kidnapper, and all sorts of bizarre characters existing at various points on the continuum of villainy. For the most part, everyone gets their just deserts, but the getting there is funny and quirky and quintessentially southern in its mythic qualities.

Delta Wedding  is a title that puts in a nutshell exactly what the novel is about at its most basic level. The novel is set in 1923 and opens with nine-year-old Laura McRaven traveling by the Yellow Dog train alone from Jackson to the Delta, along the Yazoo River, to attend the wedding of her cousin Dabney Fairchild. The sprawling Fairchild clan, at their ancestral plantation of Shellmound, are preparing for the wedding -- an event not universally approved, but grudgingly accepted by the family. Dabney is marrying the Fairchild overseer, a step down in they eyes of many, who revere their storied ancestors with no less zeal than the ancient Romans did their household gods. The prolific Fairchild patriarch Battle and his Virginia-born wife Ellen preside over the place and their eight children (and yet another on the way), two Civil-War widowed aunts, a mentally disabled child of Battle's sister, a household of black servants (in addition to those who work on the plantation), and an array of other Fairchilds and wedding guests who show up in the course of the story.

This gathering of generations around a particular time and event is Welty's opportunity to explore the complexities of families, foremost, but also of privilege, nostalgia, and how families can build their own mythical backgrounds. Welty makes use of the modernistic device of shifting viewpoints and voices to create a densely layered portrait of a family almost claustrophobic in their closeness and their shared history, but at the same time, she manages to get at that conundrum that even people so tightly bound together and intertwined can still be mysteries to one another. This is something I've pondered myself about my own family. They are at one and the same time, both completely known and unknowable, and the mystery only deepens when they leave home and return with outsiders who know them in completely different ways.

Here is only a short sample of her beautiful, descriptive prose. The scene is of young Dabney taking a last, solitary morning ride at Shellmound on the morning of her wedding.
Flocks of birds flew up from the fields, the little filly went delightedly through the wet paths, breasting and breaking the dewy nets of spider webs. Opening morning-glories were turned like eyes on her pretty feet. The occasional fences smelled sweet, their darkened wood swollen with night dew like sap, and following her progress the bayou rushed within, ticked and cried. The sky was softly blue all over, the last rim of sunrise cloud melting into it like the foam on fresh milk.

...How sweet life was, and how well she could hold it, pluck it, eat it, lay her cheek to it -- oh, no one else knew. The juice of life and the hot, delighting taste and the fragrance and warmth to the cheek, the mouth. (p208-209, Library of America, Complete Novels)

Monday, June 04, 2012

Beach reading 2012

I've been known to take a stack of books to the beach, and even though I don't do more than lie under an umbrella for three or four days, sipping a frosty drink, I still don't have time to read all of them. For one thing, I'm easily amused -- by gulls and their endless patient stalking for a treat, the silvery roll of a finned back out in the Gulf, stiff-winged cormorants or big, gliding Brown Pelicans making a sudden dive and splash. All of this takes hours...and so I don't have time to read all those books!

This year, I packed light -- Breakfast at Tiffany's and Colette's Chéri, both of them rather slim. I still had to finish Chéri at home, too. I must finally get to In Cold Blood -- I love Capote's style, whether it's the heart-wringing A Christmas Story -- sweet, sentimental, funny, sad -- or in BaT, where he is clever and affectionate, but he doesn't let anyone off the hook. Holly is far more dark and exasperating than Audrey Hepburn's charming portrayal, but Capote writes her very sympathetically. I wonder how much of himself he saw in her -- she could be thoughtless, cruel, but also completely delightful, wrapping everyone into her fantasy, even when they knew better.

Chéri was, of course, beautifully written -- can anyone match Colette for the sensuous description? -- the curve of a settee, the play of rosy light on fluttering curtains, the arrangement of limbs, the sugared crust of a pastry eaten in bed. The story's protagonist is the beautiful and aging Parisian courtesan Léa, who is dealing with the letting go of her young lover, nicknamed Chéri, the son of one of her own friends (although I think "frenemy" is the most accurate modern description of their relationship). Chéri's marriage to a young girl has been arranged by their fractious mothers, but the young man is vain, petty, beautiful, and spoiled. He expects to have an obedient wife who lets him go his old ways as well as his mistress. Léa is worldly and wise, but still shaken by Cheri's marriage -- it becomes the looking glass of her vanishing youth. So many times, as she was observing the inevitable march of time in her actual mirror -- trying to apply the little arts to mask the effects on her skin, her hair, her morphing silhouette -- I was silently commiserating, "Tell me about it, girlfriend!" I rather keenly felt the poignancy of that very particular loss -- portrayed more seriously and more intimately than it usually is.

So, I expect there will be more Colette to come -- I haven't read any of the Claudine novels, although I did read a lesser known one several years ago (at the beach!) called The Pure and the Impure. It sounds much racier than it was. She reminds me of a randier Jane Austen -- a great observer of the ways of society, a sophisticated wit, and possessing a wonderful ability to lay bare (ahem!) the weaknesses and foibles of her characters.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Young men and their disappointments

After reading the Keats Brothers biography I looked around for something different, maybe a little lighter. I've read three books since then, all of them loosely dealing with young men confronting some live-altering challenges.

The first is a book that I borrowed from my Mom -- an Ivan Doig novel called The Whistling Season, set in Maria's Coulee, Montana (near Great Falls) in the year 1910. Doig is a well-known Montana writer that I've been meaning to read for years. His best known novels are Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, covering the years when Montana first became a state.

Young Paul Milliron is 14 with two younger brothers, the sons of a dry-dirt farmer who is recently widowed. When Mr. Milliron answers a newspaper ad for a Minnesota woman advertising herself as a housekeeper, he engages her to come West, and that is where the story really starts. It's a charming novel, nostalgic in tone, as it is an older Paul who tells the story of his coming-of-age during this time. Much of the story centers around the mysterious, widowed Rose who comes to keep house for them with her dandified brother, Morrie, in tow. Morrie stumbles into the post of teacher for the one-room schoolhouse -- a little community in itself, divided by age and the immigrant backgrounds of the children, as well as schoolyard rivalries. As is usual in the bildungsroman, Paul is beginning to mature, to enter into the world of adults with its full range of intricacies, secrets, and consequences. He has to shoulder new responsibilities, forge new relationships, and make difficult decisions. The "secret" at the heart of the story is discovered in the end, and it is primarily Paul who decides how it will play out in the lives of the other characters.

Next, was Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, which definitely seemed like a precursor to The Heart of Darkness -- it introduces Marlowe, the story-telling narrator who pops up again in HofD. There is also a remote and mysterious foreign world, reached by traveling down a river beset with dangers, a white man who enters and who does not leave. Sound familiar?

Here the young man is Jim, the son of an English country clergyman, who goes to sea. Embarking on his career, Jim has romantic ideals about how he will respond in circumstances where heroics are called for, but in one of his first posts, having worked up to chief-mate on board a poorly crewed and led ship called the Patna, everything goes disastrously wrong. The ship is carrying hundreds of Muslim pilgrim families bound from an Asian port to the Middle East. Somewhere in the middle of the night, the ship hits an unseen object that severely damages it, and Jim and the rest of the crew believe they are doomed to sink and drown. The captain and crew clearly intend to abandon the ship in a lifeboat, saving themselves and leaving the rest to their fates. Jim, in the confusion, makes the dishonorable decision to flee as well, but the ship does not sink and the tale of the crew's infamy spreads everywhere. While the rest slink away, only Jim remains to face the formal inquiry that strips him of his reputation and former career. This is where Marlowe meets Jim and tells the story of his subsequent struggle to live down his shame. Let's just say, it doesn't end well.

The thing I like about Conrad is his beautiful language, but even though his stories are compelling, I always feel like I'm kept at such a remove from his protagonists that it is hard to really feel an emotional interest in them. Jim's struggle is the center of the novel, but everything about him is filtered through Marlowe's limited knowledge of Jim's thoughts and history -- sometimes the gaps are filled in by random people that he meets who know only small parts of Jim's story, some bits are told by snippets of letters, but Jim himself remains a cipher, and perhaps a symbol -- the issue of personal honor and what it means to lose it. It's hard to get cozy with ciphers and symbols, as much as I might admire the art.

 I've gone skipping through the genres from coming-of-age, to seafaring adventure, now to science fiction and alternate history. Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio follows the story of the young Peter Force, arriving in New York City in 1900 to find work digging the tunnels that will become the subway system. As young men will do, he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman who may or may not be crazy. She claims to have traveled in time, seven years into the future -- but a future that doesn't seemed linked to her past, as a princess of sorts, belonging to the royal house of Toledo in the Kingdom of Ohio, which has remained a separate principality within the United States. Alrighty then, young Peter thinks, falling under the "crazy" woman's spell, even as he doesn't believe a word she says. What ensues is part thriller, part historical fiction (John Pierpont Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla are some of the main characters), and part alternate-history mind-bender. It even pulls in the lore of the Lost Colony for good measure. All in all, it was a very entertaining story that will have you Googling everything from Tesla, to the history of the NYC subway, to Croatoan -- trying to sort out the author's tricky allusions and figuring out which pieces are fact, myth, or just pure fantasy that Flaming made up himself. Good fun.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

George Keats in Louisville

Not only did I appreciate Denise Gigante's biography of The Keats Brothers for its literary history, it also provided a nice glimpse of Louisville's early days, especially as they concerned George Keats, who returned from his last trip to England with stake money to get his steam-powered sawmill near Beargrass Creek off the ground -- the enterprise that finally succeeded in making him a prosperous citizen.

When George and his wife Georgiana first arrived in Louisville about 1818, the river town had a population of around 5,000 and was an important stopping place for boats going down the Ohio to the Mississippi. The Falls of the Ohio interrupted the journey and because of the hazards of negotiating the narrow channels, all vessels had to stop at Louisville or Jeffersonville to unload cargo and pick up a pilot to see them through to the wharves of Shippingport Island, where they were reloaded and the pilots dropped off. Shippingport was the home of Nicholas Berthoud (Marquis de Ste. Pié) who escaped France during the Revolution with his wife Marie-Anne Julia, a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette.

According to Gigante's descriptions of early Louisville (much of her research was done at the Filson Historical Society), it was a pretty rough place. Treeless and unornamented in any way, the town boasted muddy streets and a generally unhealthy atmosphere because of how it sat on the river: "typhus, pneumonia, rheumatism, scrofula, consumption, dysentery, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and other diseases were was clear that the large pools of standing water that accumulated during the wet season in and around Louisville were pestilent." [Gigante, p.344] Had poor John decided to emigrate along with George, the climate would have killed him even quicker, no doubt. (Let's all be thankful, I suppose, that our main health concern these days is allergies!)

Entertainment in Louisville centered around the taverns lining Main Street and the whiskey and billiards on offer (not much of a change there, eh?). As the city grew, a little more sophistication would spring to life -- George had a personal library of over 300 volumes, he hosted meetings of a Philosophical Society, was one of the original subscribers of the First Episcopalian Christ Church (though he later became a Unitarian), and he certainly cultivated a more elegant atmosphere in his white-columned mansion, which once sat on Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali) between Third and Fourth Streets. Louisville residents called it the "Englishman's Palace" -- respectful, perhaps, but also an indication that the Keatses were never fully assimilated into life as Kentuckians.

George spent the rest of his life and raised a large family in Louisville, but never really fit in. He had always meant to make his fortune and return to England, but by the time he became wealthy, there was no longer any particular reason to go back: his brothers were dead and his young sister was estranged from him. He was concerned about the place's influence on his eight children, especially the six daughters. Gigante quotes him as referring to Louisville in a letter as a "vortex of petty meannesses and low vices." Ouch. And in the end, George lost everything in the Crash of 1837, shortly before his death. Consumption claimed him as well at the age of 44 in 1841. His widow remarried a man 20 years her junior, John Jeffrey, who was an engineer in the gasworks of Louisville.

Some of the girls married (daughter Emma married Philip Speed), but one died as a child and another died at 18 in a bizarre incident with a gun in the Keats' home when she either accidentally or purposefully shot herself in the parlor some time after George's death. The two sons, Clarence and John Henry, both died without having children, so that was the end of the Keats line in America.

I highly recommend this book, whether you're just a literary nerd of the Keatsian persuasion or you're interested in the history of the American frontier in the early 1800s. Louisvillians will find it particularly interesting for points of local history and lore, which I've only touched on here.

(The portrait of George Keats above is the work of Joseph Severn, the artist and devoted friend of John Keats, who nursed him in his last days.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Keats Brothers

My book for most of March was Denise Gigante's recent dual biography of John and George Keats. Of the the Romantic poets, John died the youngest at 25 years, followed closely by Shelley, then Byron. By contrast, their predecessor, William Wordsworth lived to be an old man (80 years). I've always been fascinated by these poets (not to leave out Coleridge) and it's always been a teasing question for me and many others: what would John Keats have produced if he had lived as long as Wordsworth or even reached Byron's age of 36? Much of his most treasured output was written within a single, astonishing year from 1818 to 1819 -- six great odes, including "On a Grecian Urn" and "To a Nightingale," plus "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Hyperion," and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." All of this he wrote after he witnessed his youngest brother Tom die horribly of consumption at age 19 and watched another brother, George, emigrate to the backwoods of America in an effort to make the family's fortune.

In the early 1800s many English did as George did, hearing of the great promise of the new country and bountiful tracts of unclaimed land. George's initial plan was to follow on to the so-called "English Prairie" in the footsteps of pioneering Englishman Morris Birkbeck. This "promised land" was roughly Indiana and the Illinois Territory (what is now Illinois and parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan), larger than England and Wales together and bounded on the south by the Ohio River.

Gigante's focus is on the relationship between George and John (who was the oldest) until they parted ways, and then she follows their paths separately as George tried to make his way in a new country with a young wife (and child on the way) and John spiraled quickly toward a death that he knew was coming. The brushstrokes of John's story were known to me, but ever since I realized George Keats was one of the foremost citizens of my adopted hometown of Louisville, KY, I've wanted to know more about how that came to be. I knew there was a Keats Ave. in my neighborhood, that George Keats was a prosperous mill owner and businessman, and that he was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. That was about it.

George's story is one of good intentions and really terrible timing -- at least for the good of the other Keats siblings. (They had one sister Fanny, the youngest, who lived with their guardian, a tea merchant named Richard Abbey. Both the Keats' parents and grandparents were dead.) When he left England in 1818, a starry-eyed Londoner headed for frontier America across the Allegheny Mountains, Tom was sick and dying, they were all short on money, and John -- God bless him -- was trying to make a living as a poet. His first published poems were ill-received by critics, with Byron going so far as to say that a harsh review led to his early demise. But George was, in Gigante's characterization, "the man of power" as John was "the man of genius." Though younger, he was also the social, enterprising, strong "money-brother." However, the first thing George realized after sailing down the Ohio from Pittsburgh and getting his first reconnoiter with the "promised land" of Indiana, was that he was not cut out for clearing wilderness and living in a rough cabin.

The fledgling settlement of Louisville on the Kentucky side of the Ohio started looking a lot more enticing for a man of business. He made friends with John James Audubon who was living in Red Banks, KY, and who eventually helped bankrupt him the first time on a steamboat venture that ruined them both. Now George was in a pickle and had to go back to England on a short and desperate money-raising trip in 1820. He saw John briefly; they felt estranged, and when he left, John was in debt and had no money to draw from, even though he was already dangerously ill. To John's friends, George was a villain for leaving his brother in such a condition. Gigante makes a case for George -- that he felt he had no choice, that he was trying to make money to right the family's fortunes and help provide relief for John as well as support his wife and child. For John, his wealth would arrive far too late. He was dead and buried in Italy by the end of February 1821 and George had raised no money to send him. I'll leave off with a poem by John, and write more about how things turned out for George in Louisville in another post.

When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be
by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Living on the Wind

I just finished Scott Weidensaul's book from several years go about migratory birds. He is one of my favorite writers and naturalists. I've been particularly interested in hawks this winter, as there have been several hanging out in my neighborhood. Both Cooper's and Red-Shouldered hawks have been hunting in the area, sometimes lighting very close -- on the power line in front of the house or in the highest branches of the trees above our house. Just this evening, I heard a commotion and looked out to find a pair of Red Shoulders sitting together on a bare Elm branch; one of them was methodically taking apart a little mouse or vole that it had just nabbed from my front yard. Natural pest control! I don't think I've ever seen a pair so close together before.

Weidensaul's book is an amazingly detailed and lively account of the wonders of migration, spanning the entire Western hemisphere from sea bird breeding grounds off the Bering Strait to the wintering grounds of hawks and other birds on the pampas of Argentina. He follows the tiniest songbirds on their trips from North America, winging their way across the Gulf to the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and points further south. What makes the book so engaging is that Weidensaul, a federally recognized bird bander, describes first hand all the sights and sounds of the far-flung locales -- from near the Arctic Circle, where Eiders and hoary redpolls live (alongside polar bears and arctic foxes), to Veracruz in Mexico along the flightpath for hundreds of thousands of migrants, to the Platte River where Sandhill Cranes gather before finishing their migration north to Alaska and Canada.

Understanding why these birds make their dangerous journeys and how the odds are increasingly stacked against them is pretty depressing. Most of it has to do with the loss of habitat, especially contiguous forest, but also over-developed wetlands. We are probably going to lose many species, which makes me appreciate this last chance, perhaps, to live with them -- even the ones that I never get to see. It's what makes me happy to feed the birds each winter and every now and then spot a few migrants on their way north or south --cedar waxwings and golden-crowned kinglets in the fall. Most of the birds at my feeders are year-round residents, but my little white-throated sparrows arrive each winter to stay a few months before going back to New England and Canada to breed. I saw three or four this weekend, but I expect they'll be moving north soon on their journey, so I'm helping to fatten them up before they go.

Weidensaul, recognizing the fragility of so many migrating birds, ends his book with this lovely meditation on the redstart he has spotted in his woods:
What I cannot see, no matter how closely I look, is what drives this small creature, barely heavier than air, to make the journeys that it must make. I may have seen this same redstart in an acacia forest in Jamaica, among the ruins of a Maya city in Belize, or in a half-dozen other places in the tropics. I can only imagine what has happened to it in its life -- what near brushes with predators it has escaped, what storms have tried to rake it from the sky, what females have taken it as a mate, what dynasties of redstarts it has founded. What thousands of miles have passed beneath it's stubby wings, which seem so ill-suited to the task but which have carried it back here again , to this mountain, this stream, this willow thicket. Its secrets are locked in that tiny packet of a brain and muscle and instinct, a few feet away but separated from me by an immense, uncrossable distance. It knows, and I do not.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Downton Abbey and the Great War

I'm a long-time Masterpiece Theater watcher -- when you grow up with no cable and only two of the three major networks reliably penetrate the mountain gaps, PBS becomes doubly important as a source of entertainment. Since moving away from home, I probably don't tune in quite as often, which is why I was late catching up to Downton Abbey. I saw enough of last season to get the gist of the main story lines, then tuned in for the premiere last Sunday night. I was even more interested since the story had advanced into the war years, and I have read and studied so much about the literature and history of that era. So while I still enjoyed the soap opera of it, the clothes, and Maggie Smith's one-liners, I did feel a guilty twinge at seeing the Great War trotted out as mere plot device and background scenery.

While I don't expect a popular TV show to turn into a documentary all of a sudden, I do wish the war aspects were handled more subtly and given a bit more gravitas, particularly since this is a British production and not a Hollywood hack job. It probably would have been better to dispense altogether with the trench and Somme battle scenes and not to have stuffed every single Great War cliche into two hours -- while giving nothing its due. The Womens Auxiliary Corps, Land Girls, the White Feather Campaign, Doing Your Bit, Getting a Blighty, Gas Blindness, Shell Shock, the Lost's as if every topic from Great War 101 was dutifully introduced and bum-rushed off the stage. If there isn't a soldier-poet's untimely death introduced in the next episode or two I will be astonished!

Well, there I am just being crotchety. So to appease my conscience and balance out all the fluff and nonsense, below is a photo from the Imperial War Museum of London, showing a soldier from the actual Somme battlefield, where there was absolutely nothing romantic or glamorous happening.

The poem below is from Siegfried Sassoon, one of my favorite poets, who survived the war and died the year I was born.

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You snug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

- Siegfried Sassoon, Counter-Attack, 1918

[Note: I reproduced the poem above faithfully from my 1918 edition, which may have included original typos -- "snug"/smug, "crumps"/cramps.]

Sunday, January 01, 2012

2012 omen for the New Year?

Every fall and winter I keep my bird feeders full and spend a lot of time on weekends spying on the little visitors -- and squirrels -- and count the birds for Cornell's Project Feeder Watch. This is one of the ways I entertain myself when everything is cold, drab, and brown. But today, sitting on the sofa in the front room of the house, my husband alerted me to an unusual sight -- a hawk settled down on the power line right by our porch at just about eye level. Any time a hawk is in the neighborhood, soaring way overhead, everything heads for cover, no birds, no squirrels, all is quiet. So this young fellow settles down right over our dogwood tree, and we wondered what kind of New Year's omen that could be? He sat for long enough that I scooted away and brought back the camera for the hubby to snap a few pictures.

I am choosing to believe that our hawk visit is something promising for the coming year -- a wild and beautiful creature, momentarily serene and wavering delicately on a wire right before our eyes. Yep, let's go with that.

Here is the Downy Woodpecker who has been hanging out with us lately. And while I'm at it, I might as well add Harry Cat, arch-enemy to birds everywhere, especially tasty nuthatches. (Oh, bad kitty!) Harry lives at my parents' house, so my birds are at least safe from that predator.