Monday, September 02, 2013

Manifest Destiny, Philipp Meyer, and the way the West was won

New Mexico butte (Public Domain)
I've always loved a good Western. My brothers and I would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch John Wayne movies and after school, it was often Bonanza, Gun Smoke, and even The Big Valley, where the hair was teased and all the women were impossibly fashionable. From My Darling Clementine to Unforgiven and Deadwood, I'm still stuck on the genre. As a kid, who doesn't romanticize the cowboys and Indians, the non-stop action of shootouts, and galloping horses across vast plains? All that messy American history hasn't yet dimmed the glory of the Wild West.

Of course, a more sophisticated understanding of the history of settling the west brings with it all sorts of moral conundrums, and the best of the Western genre, whether in film or books, gets the deep ambivalence at the heart of it. The lines between "bad" guys and "good" guys blur; one minute you're cheering for the intrepid pioneers circling their wagons and the next, you're admiring the courage of the Sioux or Apache warriors attacking the wagons. It's the heyday of the anti-hero: Billy the Kid and Jesse James sticking it to the Man. Occupy Dodge City!
Dodge City Peace Commissioners: Wyatt Earp, front center (Public Domain)
At some point ambivalence turns to downright disillusion. Wounded Knee, Powder River, and Border Wars pile up the bodies on the ever-expanding frontier in the history books. Rivers of blood and displacement accompany the march westward, and yet the fascination lingers. The very lostness of the myth compels the imagination, a sad enchantment takes over. You start with Wyatt Earp and are left with the hideous Judge Holden in McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

All that was taken belonged to someone else first. And that is what brings me to Philipp Meyer's newest novel, The Son. It is an oft-repeated phrase in the lives of three generations of the McCullough family of Texas, whose history spans a period from the 1800s through 2012. The first McCullough we hear from is the formidable Eli, known as The Colonel, his story set as a WPA recording in 1936. Occupying a homestead beyond the settlement line in 1846 near Pedernales, thirteen-year-old Eli recounts the brutal murders of his family by raiding Comanches while his father is absent. He is kidnapped and taken west by the Comanche band, giving us the most thrilling parts of the novel. After his slow assimilation into the tribe and eventual return to his white roots, Eli builds the McCullough holdings, section by section, and passes it to his ancestors.

The story then alternates between Eli's remembrances, his son Peter's journals, and a great-granddaughter, Jeannie, who brings us into the present day. Along the way, history unfolds from the final surrender of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, through the Border Wars with Mexico and two world wars, to the age of the oil barons.

Meyer's novel is masterful, an old-style epic of an American family that confronts the moral quagmire of what Manifest Destiny really entails -- wiping out all that is "other" in the quest to remake a continent into an American ideal. It's a story of decline and fall in the Edward Gibbon line: of a family, of the Native Americans, of Mexican territorial ambitions, and of the land itself, stripped and denuded, first for cattle and then for oil.

What keeps the novel from becoming a strident and oversimplified critique of evil American empire-building is that the characters themselves mourn the losses that will bring them ever greater wealth and power, a quintessentially American dilemma. Eli grieves more for his Comanche family than his white one, misses the empty plains and thigh-high grasses of his boyhood. For Peter, the debilitating guilt that springs from his family's raid on their Mexican neighbors blights his life; even the hard-nosed Jeannie mourns the disappearance of the old ranching lifestyle that makes possible her oil fortune and hard-won entry into the male-dominated world of business. Everything is bought at a price and sometimes the price makes all the rest, if not quite worthless, terribly fractured.

On the craftsman's level, Meyer's meticulous detailing of the Comanche lifestyle through the voice of Eli often reminded me of Melville's descriptions of the whaling life in Moby Dick. Eli takes the reader through the process of killing the buffalo -- in what manner the animal was dispatched, who performed the various tasks of disassembly, who was allowed the chief delicacies, and the further uses of each and every part in stomach-churning specificity. Similarly, the making of lariats, bows and arrows, and tipis is lovingly rendered -- all the more lovely because even in Eli's days, these things become meaningless anachronisms.

Meyer's writing is very finely nuanced; he balances the weight of history with the storytelling, and most impressive of all, he pulls off an ending that is both practically satisfying and wonderfully symbolic -- two things that don't often go hand-in-hand.

From The Son, by Philipp Meyer, Chapter Nineteen:

All in all, it was the greatest summer I had ever had.... I might be killed any day, by whites or hostile Indians, I might be run down by a grizzly or a pack of buffalo wolves, but I rarely did anything I didn't feel like doing, and maybe this was the main difference between the whites and the Comanches, which was the whites were willing to trade all their freedom to live longer and eat better, and the Comanches were not willing to trade any of it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Eustace Diamonds
The Eustace Diamonds is the third in Anthony Trollope's series of six books known as the Palliser novels. They are stand-alone stories, but share a set of characters, some of whom emerge as the main players in their own dramas but may be only on the periphery of others. They interconnect to form a richly peopled and detailed Victorian world that chiefly deals with the political set -- both the aristocrats and ambitious climbers who are trying either to make their way or keep their place in a highly stratified world that is just beginning to adjust to the winds of change.

Trollope's cozy, familiar, gossipy voice addresses the reader directly as he alternately sympathizes with or skewers the foibles of his heroes and heroines. In The Eustace Diamonds, he makes a case for his heroine being the very good and rather prosaic Lucy Morris, a poor young governess who is in love with an ambitious young man, a barrister and member of Parliament, Frank Greystock. But as one may guess from the title, the real "heroine" is Lizzie Eustace, a very beautiful and clever young woman, widowed fortuitously by Sir Florian Eustace, who makes her a very generous will.

Lizzie is grasping, duplicitous, mean-spirited, and narcissistic, but she gets a lot further than others would because she is also rich, young, and beautiful. The diamonds of the title are the crown jewels of the Eustace family, and when Sir Florian dies, rather than give them back up to the family to be kept in trust for her own son, Lizzie refuses, claiming that her husband gave them to her as a personal gift, which is only one of the many lies she tells. This gets the solicitors to planning lawsuits, which makes Lizzie even more obstinate and leads to a great many ridiculous measures to keep them out of anyone's hands but her own.

The plot turns on the battle between Lizzie and nearly everyone else -- her alienated family, the lawyers, and even her betrothed, the weak-willed Lord Fawn. She is a deliciously terrible creation, what these days we would simply call a sociopath. Lying is as natural to her as breathing. She feels very ill-used while amorally pursuing her own desires. I've often wondered how some people can go so blithely through life exactly as Lizzie does with no sense of conscience. Trollope offers a window into these types -- creatures so entirely consumed with themselves that they have no thoughts left over to empathize with others. He sympathizes, tongue in cheek, with his heroine:
Poor Lizzie! The world, in judging people who are false and bad and selfish and prosperous to outward appearances, is apt to be hard upon them, and to forget the punishments which generally accompany such faults. Lizzie Eustace was very false and bad and selfish -- and, we may say, very prosperous also; but in the midst of all she was thoroughly uncomfortable. She was never at ease. There was no green spot in her life with which she could be contented. ["Ianthe's Soul," The Eustace Diamonds]
As always, Trollope's cavalcade of characters are well-developed and his prose is always light and witty. The one point of discomfort is the rather startling anti-semitic descriptions of all the Jewish characters, who are all dispatched in the broadest negative and corrosive stereotypes. I haven't read anything about his views, but judging from this example, he was no progressive, contrasting starkly with fellow Victorian, George Eliot, who was far more fair and sympathetic.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

From hell's heart I stab at thee: Re-reading Moby Dick

I spent much of March and April returning to Moby Dick by Herman Melville. There are certain books that are likely to speak to the reader differently, depending on where your head is at the time. I first read Moby Dick during a quiet summer without much thought, liking it enough to stick with it, but gliding rather inattentively over long sections of description. The second time, I appreciated the humor of it and the meticulous build-up to the ultimate scene of the Pequod's destruction.

Where before I was but little interested in the natural history of the sperm whale or the detailed rendering of every aspect of the whaling industry and the men who partook in it, this time I found it to be fascinating reading. I am much more curious about the natural world than I used to be, so even after putting aside the story, I found myself looking up pictures of the sperm whale, its skeletal framework, and the random Wikipedia articles about ambergris. I also had the added spur of planning a trip to Boston at the same time, where I knew I would at least be in the same general region of New Bedford and the early scenes of the novel (the picture here is taken from Marblehead, near Salem, which is well north of New Bedford, where the Whaling Museum is located).

Reading the novel for the second time, I didn't need to rely on its reputation as an American classic, I felt it on my own -- original, vivid, and deeply convincing in its very American-ness. The Pequod is a melting pot of New England characters -- black, white, and native -- foreigners and adventurers, young and old. They are deeply religious, pagan, opportunistic, competent, brave, witty, foolhardy, naive, mad, obsessed...a microcosm of the contradictory and mystifying American "character."

Melville wrote a masterpiece -- a novel that he described in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, as a very "wicked book."  There are many things he could have meant by that word, "wicked." He subverts stereotypes about race and otherness, takes on religion and the idea of God, pokes fun, and weaves in an extraordinary amount of sexually-charged language and sly innuendo. No doubt, he awaited Hawthorne's response to it with a fair amount of trepidation. In his rambling, elated letter, Melville is grateful to his friend: "But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book -- and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul." Unfortunately, the letter from Hawthorne to Melville is lost to us.

For pure majesty of language, Melville is hard to match. I'll end with the excerpt from Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale":
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Melville redux

I've been a little immersed in 19th century literature lately. I just read a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne -- one of those writers whose presence haunts all of American literature. The Scarlet Letter always draws me in. If I pick it up again and begin reading -- somewhere at random, or from the beginning, I fall back into its spell -- the secret sin of the pastor, the female outsider who endures, and the wronged husband -- all the buried emotion and twisted obsessions that motivate the characters -- Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth. It is Hawthorne at his most assured, in beautiful, crystalline prose that for all its coolness, also burns and thrills, or so it seems to me.

And of course, that other novel that dominates American literature is Moby Dick, by Hawthorne's contemporary and passionate admirer, Herman Melville. I read Moby Dick years ago, one quiet summer while working in a university English department as an office admin and going to graduate school at night. It was the same summer that I put together one of those huge DIY office desks. Just me, Melville, and a power screw driver. It was one of the times in my life, when I was most solitary -- single, living in a town where I had no family and no close friends. Call me Ishmael. I, too, could choose a name, start a new story.

Melville has always been an interesting figure to me, both because of his writing (I always loved the perfectly weird short story, Bartleby the Scrivener) and snippets of his personal life that I've encountered here and there. His later life was rather sad, after his early success and fame. His finances collapsed and his home life disintegrated. He appears as a forlorn and broken man in Frederick Busch's darkly beautiful novel, The Night Inspector, when he has taken a job as a customs inspector for the city of New York and his oldest son, has shot and killed himself -- unclear whether by accident or suicide. Melville is buried in a cemetery in the Bronx.

Lately, I've been contemplating the value of re-reading old books as opposed to consuming new ones. Philip Roth, who announced his retirement from fiction recently, said that he was re-reading writers that he hadn't returned to for 50 years -- Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Faulkner, and Hemingway. It made sense to me, and after encountering Melville in the Hawthone biography, it made me think about that summer and how I was surprised and enamored by a book, that frankly, I thought might be a bit of a drag. So I've decided to re-read Moby Dick. I expect it will be quite a different experience nearly 20 years later, and living quite a different life. Maybe I'll identify more with Ahab this time. Who knows?

What books have you re-read? Mine is a short list: The Scarlett Letter, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Little Men. There may be a few more of far less stature, and maybe something else I've forgotten.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

If hard pressed to name a favorite novel, on most days my choice comes down between George Eliot's Middlemarch and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. It neatly balances English and American, female and male, feeling and detachment. I've read most, if not all, the production of both -- certainly the major works -- including Eliot's letters and multiple biographies. But of Hawthorne, I haven't read that much about the man, until the biography I just finished, James Mellow's Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times, which won the National Book Award in 1993. It is a great biography -- meticulously researched, even-handed, and elegantly written. It doesn't make great leaps in speculation or psychological diagnosis -- it just presents a portrait that emerges from Hawthorne's own writings, notebooks, and letters and contemporary accounts.

One reason I love to read biographies of literary people is that the best ones take in so much more of the general history and culture of their lives. Hawthorne didn't go in for most of the transcendental philosophy of his friends, neighbors, and colleagues -- Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Alcott. He visited the Shaker communities (with some withering commentary) and was a resident at Brook Farm, one of the Utopian experimental communities, but he remained skeptical and conservative -- the original stiff-necked New Englander. He regarded radical abolitionists rather severely and seemed largely unmoved by the plight of slaves in the South (of whom he had no personal knowledge and seemingly little curiosity, much to the chagrin of Emerson and his own sister-in-law, Elizabeth Peabody). He wasn't so much skeptical of mesmerism and spiritualism, as he was leery of them. There might be something there, but he thought it was too dangerous to pursue.

He was thoroughly unsentimental (excepting, perhaps,  regarding his devoted wife, Sophia, who all her life, likened him to a demi-god or angel, dropped straight out of heaven), did not like to be touched, and was just this side of anti-social. He was notoriously hard to get to know, even for such a passionate admirer as his friend, Herman Melville. He met few of the literary lions of his age even after he had achieved his own level of fame. When he served as consul in Liverpool for several years, Mellow points out that he claimed to try to arrange a meeting with Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) but was not successful, although how hard he really tried is debatable. He silently observed Lord Tennyson ( a favorite poet of his wife's) at a picture gallery, missed a chance to meet Thackeray (an author he admired), and never showed an inclination to meet Dickens. He did attend a dinner with Anthony Trollope later in life when Trollope visited Boston, and according to Hawthorne's friend, James Field, who declared to him in a letter:
Trollope fell in love with you at first sight. He swears that you are the handsomest Yankee that ever walked the planet.

Hawthorne's obsessions with secret sin, historical guilt, and curses run through nearly all his fiction, but in even such a thorough biography, no particular reason for it is uncovered. Yes, his ancestor was a judge at the Salem witch trials, but his more immediate familial history and experience is rather unextraordinary. Why he held on to such remote, dark elements of his pre-history remains a mystery, unless, by comparison, his rather staid, small-town upbringing was so unimaginative that he had to cast back into the family's more colorful stories for inspiration.

The other small pleasures of biography are the random cross-hatchings that occur within the cozy world of 19th century literature. While serving as consul, one of the people Hawthorne met in passing was Ada Byron's husband, the Earl of Lovelace, looking for information on his wayward son who had gone missing (apparently the eldest, who joined the Navy and then deserted). Hawthorne made a pilgrimage of his own to visit Lord Byron's ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, shortly after Ada's death, thus creating a bridge to the last biography that I read last fall -- Ada Byron's (Bride of Science by Benjamin Wooley).

And then there's the weird trivia. For example, did you know that Hawthorne's only son Julian spent a year in an Atlanta penitentiary for his role in a shady stock scheme? Once sprung, he went to California, where he worked for the Pasadena newspaper as a journalist. He died in San Francisco in 1936. 1936! Hawthorne's youngest daughter, Rose joined the Order of St. Dominic and became Mother Alphonso, caring for terminally ill cancer patients until her death in 1926. I think I'm always surprised by how little time is encompassed in American history. That Hawthorne, who seems to belong to such an early era (compounded by his most famous novel being set in Puritan New England) could have a son who died just on the cusp of World War II is disorienting. I always have the eerie feeling of time being folded somehow.

But, whatever facts are yielded by the industrious biographers, nothing changes the indelible beauty and power of Hawthorne's masterpiece, and how wonderfully he enters into the experience of Hester Prynne -- a woman, an outsider, a fellow sinner, and an unlikely heroine, who shocked many of his contemporary readers in 1850:
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers--stern and wild ones--and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. (The Scarlet Letter, Chapter 18, "A Flood of Sunshine")

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Hindenburg and Empire State Building, 1936. (
Michael Chabon has become one of my favorite writers, based largely on The Yiddish Policeman's Union, The Mysteries of Pitsburgh, and numerous essays. I've had The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my list for years, and it's considered to be his masterpiece (thus far). This is the first book I purchased just for my Kindle -- to mark the occasion, so to speak.

The story is immediately engaging, plunging the reader into the world of Prague on the eve of World War II. The Kavalier family is determined to get their oldest son, Josef, out of Prague and to the safety of America as the Nazi presence becomes increasingly hostile to the Jewish community. Josef is a budding "escapist" in the tradition of Houdini, and this becomes his only route out of Czechoslovakia, concealed in a coffin, bound for Lithuania, which contains not only the refugee, but also the famed Golem, a revered object that the Jews of Prague want to save from Nazi depredations.

This fantastic exploit delivers the Golem to a new hiding place, and by a long route, Josef, to his relatives in Brooklyn, the Klaymans. His cousin Samuel, at work for a novelty company, finds that Josef is an accomplished artist, which feeds into his own ambition to get into the new phenomenon of comic books. Together, they create The Escapist and enter the highly competitive world of comics in the Golden Era of the genre -- the late 30s and 40s. I won't belabor the plot points and descriptions of other characters. It is, above all, a wonderful story -- fully developed characters inhabiting a world, rich in detail -- the landscape of New York in the 40s providing the backdrop for Chabon's fertile imagination. I chose the picture of the Empire State Building above because it figures so importantly in the mythology and action of the novel.

The book that I chose as my first ebook download from our local library was Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was a quick read and entertaining. I would recommend it as a vacation-friendly book, nothing too taxing.

I can't imagine giving up my physical library -- there's too much pleasure to be had from the handling of books that you love, especially those from authors that are favorites. And there's also the weird, limbo-land of digital "ownership." Is it really yours? It's pretty hard to loan books to friends and family this way. And if I were not a particularly savvy person who didn't back up my library safely, how much trouble would it be to retrieve the books that I lost even after I legitimately purchased them, not to mention the issue of changing formats, if I decided I like the Nook or some other reader better? But, for books that you want to read but aren't that interested in adding to your library, or for out-of-copyright, freely-available books that you can download -- the Kindle certainly is a convenient and lightweight alternative. It's probably worth it's price just for traveling with an adequate library to hand. I'll just be looking for a nice edition of Chabon's Kavalier and Clay in its antique form to grace my physical bookshelves.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Still with Kindle!

No, I wasn't knocked out by the 900 pages of Parade's End last August; however, I have been very lazy about blogging since then, obviously. Right after PE, I couldn't get away from WWI and read a historical novel by Jeff Shaara. Rather more workmanlike than Ford (Shaara is not the stylist that his father Michael Shaara was, much less FMF), To the Last Man is still very good for its fictionalized take on the outsize characters of Baron Richthofen, Raoul Lufbery, John J. Pershing, Petain, and Clemenceau. It also folds in the evolution of aerial warfare with the Lafayette Escadrille (French air service but with many American volunteers) and the German air aces, of whom the most famous is the Red Baron. It sticks to real people even when it shifts from the high-ranking strategists to the boots on the ground. Trench warfare and the brutal fighting on the Western Front are brought to life through the experience of the young Marine, Roscoe Temple, who fought at Belleau Wood and St. Mihiel.

I followed up with the breezy and charming The Plague by Camus (just kidding). One has to emerge from world war by degrees, so a tense tale of exile, deprivation, and inevitable death bridged the gap to...Angels on Toast. The sharp American writer Dawn Powell was writing about Mad Men way back in the 40s. Traveling businessmen, their wives, mistresses, and general shenanigans are skillfully and wittily satirized by Powell. Needless to say, there's lots and lots of drinking and smoking, lies, and ruination. She's one of those really fine early 20th Century writers who has slipped under the radar for the most part (although canonized in the Library of America series).

Powell was a pretty good segue into another witty woman of the world, Nancy Mitford. One of the famous English Mitford sisters (right, Nancy is second from left), Nancy was brought up in the aristocratic atmosphere of a rambling country house with eccentric parents, and even more eccentric neighbors and relatives, all of whom people her stories. The Pursuit of Love in a Cold Climate is thinly veiled autobiography about the Radlett sisters, who go about finding and marrying and being variously tortured by all the wrong men. If Downton Abbey is the twilight of Empire, the Radletts exist quite a bit further into the gloaming. The Radletts are badly educated, irreverent, and outrageous in their quirks. The father of the clan is an irascible veteran of the Great War, claiming to have whacked several Germans to death with an entrenching tool, which is preserved with  bloodthirsty pride above the family fireplace. Mitford is effortlessly stylish, spinning out hilarious descriptions and dialogue that is shimmeringly droll. If you're suffering from winter blahs, Mitford will lighten your mood. I think I read this one during jury duty!

Okay, wrapping up very quickly here, I finished off jury duty with a good biography about Ada Byron (Benjamin Wooley's Bride of Science). Daughter of Lord Byron, she is considered to be the "mother of computer programming," due to her work with Charles Babbage, who created an early computer, the Difference Engine. Good stuff, for those of a geeky bent. Then, in the winter and toward the holidays, I got pretty lazy and/or distracted and read little -- The Call of the Wild by London and a very creepy occult novel of the late 1890's by Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan. If you're in the mood for rather baroque Satanic weirdness, you can download this gem from Project Gutenberg for free.

I'll break it off there for now, but as I hinted in the title, Santa hubby brought me my very first ebook reader for Christmas. I'm still in the early stages with it, but I have to admit, I kind of like the convenience: lightweight, well-lit, and I never lose my place or have to dig in the crevices of the sofa trying to locate my bookmark. How antique! Not to mention, downloading ebooks from the local library is pretty awesome. I'll tell you about the first book I bought and read on my Kindle next time. It had to be something to mark the occasion. Want to guess?