Sunday, August 06, 2017

Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls

There's not much I can add to the critical acclaim this biography has already received. For pure reading enjoyment, it is one of the best books of its kind. You feel as if you're as close to an understanding of Thoreau as a 200-year gap makes possible. Walls gives us a well-rounded portrait of the man and the writer in all his genius and eccentricities.

Here, you see both the Thoreau who was socially awkward and prickly, who once accidentally set his beloved woods on fire, right beside the warm, energetic Concord citizen who cheerfully led the children out berrying and taught them about nature. If you needed a shed built, a house lot surveyed, a cellar stoned, or a plant identified, Thoreau was always there.

The dreaming Transcendentalist was the same man who figured out a better manufacturing process for the family's pencil business -- who could build his own boat, bed, chair, or house. He grew and entered prize-winning melons at the county fair, made a living as a surveyor, helped runaway slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and stood up for John Brown, even as the fiery abolitionist was being hanged for treason after the raid at Harper's Ferry. But he was still always the dreamer and philosopher -- turning his minute observations of the natural world into ecstatic nature writing, poetry, scientific inquiry, and spiritual epiphany.

One of the most moving things about Thoreau was his continuing struggle to confront and respond to a world that was deeply troubling. His Walden years weren't about becoming a hermit and disengaging -- he was trying to learn how to live a different life, an honest one, that didn't lend support to a culture already turning to overconsumption and indifference to the environment and to a government exterminating Native Americans, making unnecessary wars of conquest, allowing slavery to exist and expand. Walden was a two-year experiment which Walls' book illuminates as only one part of his extraordinary American life.

Walls is often dazzling in her ability to describe the line of Thoreau's thought, as here, when he is contemplating the changing world in the face of industry and commerce.

As the raw wound of the railroad's "deep cut" thaws and flows, he sees in the flowing sands the canvas of creation, revealing the great truth that we live not on the surface of a dead planet but in and through a living earth, like a leaf unfolding.

 And after reading 500 pages of Thoreau's biography, you feel as if you're just embarking on a journey -- being led back into his writing, and ready to tackle the most primary source of all -- the Journals that Thoreau kept for almost all of his adult life.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Henry David Thoreau, July 12,1817

Walden Pond, 2013

Not by design, but reading new biography by Laura Dassow Walls. Thoreau: A Life

Happy 200th Birthday!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Peacock and Vine: Byatt on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

Peacock and Vine is a long, thoughtful, and loving essay by A.S. Byatt musing on two famous designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book itself is a beautiful object, with glossy pages and gorgeous prints and photographs.
Victoria & Albert Museum, "Trellis" wallpaper by William Morris.

Englishman William Morris was the main influence on the Arts and Crafts movement, a return to traditional methods of producing textiles and decorative art. His designs feature intricate patterns of floral and animal prints and other folk motifs, hearkening back to Medieval and Renaissance styles. He was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sometimes the association was a little too close, considering Morris's wife Jane's relationship with Rossetti, who among other things, liked to paint her.

Byatt explains how she came to understand Morris in a kind of counterpoint to the southern aesthetic of the Spaniard Mariano Fortuny, who lived and worked in his 13th-century Venetian palazzo with his wife and artistic partner Henriette Negrin. Fortuny worked as a painter, photographer, etcher, theatrical designer, and couturier. One of his most famous designs is the Delphos dress.

Victoria & Albert Museum, "Delphos" by Fortuny
Fortuny was inspired by the simplicity of ancient Greek designs and the idea to "free" the female form from corsets and layers of undergarments.

Byatt's wonderful novel The Children's Book, focused on a community of artists during the same period (William Morris makes an appearance), and this book is another product of her interest in the question of how great art is made.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

General William Tecumseh Sherman, prose stylist

I spent November and December of last year reading the memoirs of General Sherman, reminding myself that the country had been through some pretty bad times before the election of 2016.

Sherman has a fascinating reputation. If you're from the south, he is a brute, inflicting needless cruelty on a civilian population on his March to the Sea. Otherwise, he is known as a brilliant strategist, a fighter, fiercely loyal, but perhaps a little unhinged. Reading his own words, I was struck by his intelligence and unrelenting belief in the rightness of the Union cause.

Sherman describes his early life in very light strokes. There is not much that is personal, only the highlights. He went to West Point, noting that he was not valued as much of a soldier, but he was a very good student. Unlike Grant, whose standing was at the bottom of his class, Sherman graduated number six in his class and would have been fourth had it not been for numerous demerits received in other areas (apparently tidiness was not among his strengths).

Sherman's early career took him to the Indian wars in Florida and service along the southern coastal forts. He spent the Mexican War in California, then a remote outpost, when San Francisco was a fledgling city. He wrote the report - sent by boat around Cape Horn to Washington - that announced the discovery of gold in 1848. He resigned from the army and went into banking for awhile. Then, he became the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary and Military Institute (later to become Louisiana State University), a post he held when the Civil War broke out. One of the things that recurs in his memoirs are the various meetings and correspondence he held during the war with people he formerly knew as friends at West Point and during his years in the south.

Admittedly, I am basing my view of the historical Sherman on what is the one-sided version of events he offers in his own memoirs. Still, I came away with a deep admiration of the man. From the beginning, he was reviled as "insane" when he offered his opinion on the number of troops it would require to hold the central theater of the war in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was basically a nobody - not expected to do well - but ended up, alongside Grant, as the savior of the Union - its most brilliant battlefield general. He was fiery and unforgiving, never shy about letting people have it when they questioned his prosecution of the war or his motives.
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. ... But you cannot have peace and a division of our country.
There is something wonderfully bracing in Sherman's vision of war, even as he acknowledges its inhumanity. To him, war was not grand, glorious, or heroic. It was cruelty and it was destruction, and he never pretended otherwise. You always see him taking the long view and weighing the logic of trying to fight a war of half-measures against an implacable enemy that would take "mercy" as weakness, and waging total war that would be the speediest and surest way to end it, possibly saving countless lives that would be lost in a prolonged struggle. Whatever else one may think of his March to the Sea, the boldness and success with which it was carried out are remarkable. Sherman's genius for the logistics of moving an army across enemy territory for many hundreds of miles with no supply line open behind him is probably unmatched in military history.
I considered this march as a means to an end, and not as an essential act of war. Still, then, as now, the march to the sea was generally regarded as something extraordinary, something anomalous, something out of the usual order of events; whereas, in fact, I simply moved from Atlanta to Savannah, as one step in the direction of Richmond, a movement that had to be met and defeated, or the war was necessarily at an end. 
One thing that is certain, Sherman was a superb writer. His descriptions and his correspondence snap with energy. He imposes order on chaos with words. And sometimes, he is sublime, as in this description of the morning his army departed Atlanta for the long, dangerous trip into the unknown. It approaches poetry.
We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard's column, the gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond.
...Then we turned our horses heads to the east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem like the memory of a dream; and I have never seen the place since.