Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hero of His Own Life? Notes on Dickens' David Copperfield

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” It's one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and after reading Charles Dickens' David Copperfield again, I'm struck by the ambiguous answer I might give.

 For in key moments, it isn't David Copperfield who is heroic, but other characters. The novel has the usual thoroughly evil Dickens' villains: David's cruel stepfather Murdstone and Murdstone's echoing sister Jane, the craven and cruel schoolmaster Creakle (a brief appearance but so meaty that Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan both made a ham sandwich of him in film versions) and the unforgettable Uriah Heep.

 There are the usual slyly satiric portraits of institutions of law and order, and the men who make their livings from them, more than hinting at Dickens' underlying outrage and disdain. There is also a hero (at least in David's eyes) who commits acts of villainy that Copperfield condemns, yet he persists in remembering him "at his best."

 There is a kind of angel or goddess, a child woman, a girl who yearns too much, a wayward girl, and an old woman servant with a heart of gold. There are the stalwart and large-hearted men of the sea, Mr. Peggotty and Ham.

 And there are the somewhat comic characters that populate a Dickens novel: his Aunt Betsey and her friend Mr. Dick, the eternal complainer Mrs. Gummidge, Copperfield's school friend and later companion the hapless Traddles, and the most famous of all, the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Mr. Micawber, and his long-suffering wife.

 As he does in other novels, Dickens' pegs several of these "minor" characters with their repeated turns of phrase and small repeated behaviors. But notably and in some respects unexpectedly, several of them do the heroic deeds. It's Micawber and Traddles who bring Uriah Heep to heel. It's Aunt Betsy who rescues young David, Mr. Peggotty who with the help of the wayward girl rescues the girl who yearns too much, Emily. And it's Ham who dies attempting to rescue a survivor of a storm at sea. Even Mrs. Gummidge becomes heroic.

 It's true of course that classical heroes often have decisive help, and couldn't accomplish their goal without aid. And David does have his moments, particularly when he suddenly becomes the financial support of others and applies himself with discipline and hard work. But it took the special interest and attention of others, as well as their good-heartedness and generosity, responding to David's good-heartedness and generosity, for him to succeed.

I read this Signet edition, which was the
first to publish Dickens' entire text.
Since I knew the story, both from having read the book before and from seeing a couple of film versions, the emotional response to key happenings was muted, and I was better able to appreciate how Dickens created his effects, and generally to savor the details. So while it didn't have the emotional resonance of reading W.G. Sebald's enigmatic The Emigrants, which I also recently finished, it provided other pleasures.

 But it's probably more than that. When I was younger I was more than impatient with the pace and language of 19th century novels--it took great effort to sit still for them. I craved faster prose and faster styles of storytelling that I found especially in some contemporary authors. I was young, it was the 1960s, my metabolism was set to rock music. I eventually could become immersed in the images of foreign films but I found these books difficult to sink into.

 That's not a problem now. My old metabolism is happy to read those long sentences and long books, though I take my time, and read not much more than a chapter at a sitting. For both reasons, I read with delight, savoring the language and narrative skill.

 For example, he gives us the murderous-hearted Mr. Murdstone (need it be said for a character in Dickens that he's aptly named? J.K. Rowling must have known her Dickens) and his sister, Miss Murdstone, as the tyrants of David's young life. Then after leaving them behind in David's boyhood, he inexplicably and a bit awkwardly makes Miss Murdstone the paid companion of David's employer's daughter who he loves and intends to marry. But it pays off in a confrontation scene.

 After Miss Murdstone has informed on David, the father opposes the marriage. As the scene begins with formalities, Dickens reminds us of Miss Murdstone's character with a memorable expression. He doesn't say that David takes her cold hand in greeting, but that "Miss Murdstone gave me her chilly finger-nails, and sat severely rigid." What a sentence!

But the resonance is given additional power at the end of the conference, as David observes: "Miss Murdstone's heavy eyebrows followed me to the door...and she looked so exactly as she used to look, at about that hour of the morning..." when she glowered at him over his lessons.

 It's true that David doesn't exhibit much psychological acuity, apparently not sensing that his first choice for a wife replicated qualities of his mother. But on more general matters he shows some insight. “I had considered how the things that never happen are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.” 


Originally serialized in a periodical, each
installment ended in a "cliffhanger."
This was a popular work of fiction, serialized in a periodical. So the philosophical observations in the writing may not be earthshaking but remain essential--and especially essential to Dickens, as in the ruminations of a very minor character near the end of the novel:

 “Dear me,” said Mr. Omer, “when a man is drawing on to a time of life, when the two ends of life meet...he should be over-rejoiced to do a kindness if he can... And I don’t speak of myself particular, because, sir, the way I look at it is that we are all drawing on to the bottom of the hill, whatever age we are, on account of time never standing still for a single moment. So let us always do a kindness, and be over-rejoiced.” 

 As for the film versions, they may guide the reader through main events and give visual references to the characters, but they are far too short to suggest the richness and riches of the book. It's good to have a guide through the story, though, and fun to see good portrayals of the characters.

 Probably the best version is the 1999 BBC/PBS miniseries, mostly because it is the longest. But even this one is not full enough--after lavishing attention on the earlier parts of the novel, it rushes through climactic scenes and invents others. One notable change is the fate of Uriah Heep. In the movie he is arrested and is seen as a prisoner to be transported to a penal colony in Australia. But in the novel, Micawber and Traddles force Heep to make restitution and return funds he had stolen, under threat of exposure. Dickens clearly doesn't trust the justice system of his day. (The film's solution also muddles the positive meaning of a new life in Australia for other characters in this book.)

But this film version features a fine performance by Daniel Radcliffe as the very young David, shortly before he became Harry Potter. Other performances are definitive: Maggie Smith is Aunt Betsey, Nicholas Lyndhurst is Uriah Heep and so on down the line--in particular, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Micawber (and that's saying something, since the role was also played in movie versions by Ralph Richardson and W.C. Fields.)

 The one questionable role was the adult David Copperfield, and that seemed to be the case in all other film versions. Probably it is not the fault of the actors--in this case, perfectly serviceable--but in the role. He is the center of the action, but he mostly reacts. Still, it's notable that well-known actors played the "minor" roles, and not this one. 

Which suggests again but doesn't answer the first question posed. David is the narrator of the story, and he becomes a writer in the course of the book. (Which could be one reason why Dickens named this as the favorite of his novels.) But is he is the hero of his own life? Well, we might say of him as of ourselves: if not, who is?

My Bleak House Experience

Perhaps it was my selection of classes, or a reflection on the times (the 1960s, though the lit department was still enthralled with the New Criticism of earlier decades) but I got a bad impression of Charles Dickens as an English literature and composition major in college.

It didn't help that my only experiences with Dickens were an interminable term in high school forced through Great Expectations, and the annual television viewing of one or another version of the melodramatic romp of A Christmas Carol.

But things are different now, and so am I.  I'm not in the academic grip of modernism, nor postmodernism for that matter.  I'm in no academic grip at all. Nor do I read for money much anymore.  I can read what I like.

These days I'm liking Charles Dickens, perhaps because I've become acquainted with his work through Bleak House, one of his later big novels which some consider his best.  Some call it the best English novel of the 19th century.

I was startled by the freedom and virtuosity of Dickens in Bleak House as well as his powers of description. In the immense space of that novel he could be satirical and naturalistic, transparently heartfelt and slyly ironic. Some of it bordered on surrealism. The moderns must have stolen a lot from Dickens, perhaps even while denouncing him.

But after 881 pages of the Signet paperback edition, I read the short afterword by Geoffrey Tillotson and learned that Dickens not only riffed on some of his contemporaries like Carlyle and Tennyson but learned his satiric technique from 18th century poet Alexander Pope. This is the difference between working writers, who beg, borrow and steal from the best no matter their current standing, and the critics and teachers of literature, who decide who is fashionable and legitimate to read.

I also watched the 2005 miniseries of Bleak House on DVD.  It was decently faithful to the book's characters and plot, and especially useful to me fairly early in my reading.  I watched all the episodes on the first of three disks, which coincidentally ended at about where I'd last left off reading.  It helped in clarifying some plot points.  After that, I enjoyed it less as accompaniment as for itself, with its uniformly fine acting.

Having the plot clarified and seeing the characters portrayed did not disturb my reading at all, partly because I was reading in considerable degree for other elements.

I recently saw the Richard Curtis movie About Time. It concerns a contemporary young man who learns from his father that the men in their family can travel through time, though only the past times of their own lives. When his father (played by Bill Nighy) reveals this and the son asks him how he's used this gift, the Nighy character says he's used this infinite time to read books. He's read everything he's wanted to twice, and Dickens three times.

 At my age I read for the experience of it, while I'm reading. I don't worry about how much I retain. Well, I do notice the loss, but it doesn't stop me from reading as much as I can. One thing has remained true, and perhaps become more true: I read not so much for story or even characters but for the diction, the vocabulary, the rhythms. The words, the sentences, and so on. I guess you can say I read for a good time, but what constitutes a good time for me would probably mystify most people.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My Book House

These days I live in a house of books. There are book shelves in nearly every room, and in the two rooms where I spend the most time alone, overflowing bookcases line several walls in each, from floor to nearly the ceiling.

 Growing up most of a continent away, there were always some books in our house (though none in most other homes I visited), and I always had books to hold and look at. I had Golden Books of the 1950s, and other child-size books like Little Toot and The Little Red Caboose. But I also had a library of particular book-size books. My first house of books was My Book House.

Officially called The Book House For Children, they were illustrated anthologies of verse and prose edited by Olive Beaupre Miller and published under its own imprint in Chicago. The first set came out in a series beginning in 1920, and some version would continue to be published until 1971.

 The set that I grew up with was published in 1943. The prior 1920s editions were six thick volumes but by the 40s the same basic material was in twelve volumes of more than 200 pages each. They were deep blue, thinner but larger in size to better accommodate illustrations.

We had fifteen books in all, for the set included a Parents' Guide Book and two extra volumes, the orange Tales Told in Holland and the lighter blue Nursery Friends From France, both unchanged from 1927, when they accompanied the original sets as "My Travelship." There was a third Travelship volume called Little Pictures of Japan, but I don't recall we had it, possibly because it wasn't offered in 1943 since the US was at war with Japan.

Our set must have been acquired at my birth in 1946. I believe my mother's sister Antoinette, who was a teacher, either gave us the set or advised my mother to buy it. It became central to my childhood and that of my sisters, Kathy and Debbie. I have the set now, and evidence of each of us survives in the books themselves: my scrawls of the alphabet and attempts to print my name in pencil and crayon, a number of blank endpapers in the Parents' Guide volume decorated with Kathy's drawings, and a clutch of napkins stuck in one volume upon which Debbie wrote and drew--and signed, when she was seven.

We were not the only ones who grew up with these books, of course. In recent years they've become a favorite of home schoolers. Writers remember them. Novelist Jim Harrison mentioned the Book House set several times in his fiction and nonfiction. Larry McMurtry writes a few words about it in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, which I've recently read and which prompted these musings on my early experience with books.

 For me now, the color, slight shine and heft of these volumes, the very touch of their cool surfaces, still define "books." As I view their contents, browsing by the light of the floor lamp that had once been in my grandparents' living room, now nearest to the shelves where these books repose, I can be taken back to earliest impressions, especially by the relationship of these evocative, colorful and now singular illustrations to the text.

The content is comprised of verse and prose, often by (or adapted from) classic authors from many countries. The twelve volumes were arranged in a graduated sequence of readings for children from babydom to early adolescence. This approach is codified in a general way by the Parents Guide Book titled In Your Hands. It provides advice and information in a direct and informal tone, like the then wildly popular books by Doctor Spock.

 Once I'd learned to read I don't recall my mother offering any guidance as suggested, but she seems to have heeded some of the suggestions on reading to babies. (I have the advantage of having my own very real memories confirmed by watching her with my younger sisters, particularly Debbie, who was born when I was 8.)

 For example, the book suggests how to hold a baby's arms and clap while mother recites "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man" (which sounded more like "patty-cake" to me) and how to play with the babies toes for "This little piggy went to market." It's exactly how my mother did it, although she sometimes added a rhythmic bouncing as she held me on her knee, which I believe was important in showing me that whatever else words in such arrangements were about, they were first of all about rhythm and music.

Since my mother's own babyhood was in Italy and the Italian language, and I was the eldest child of two eldest children in the vanguard of my generation, I believe she was following this book's instruction, including gradually getting me to chant along, and to anticipate the words and rhymes. The rhythmic bouncing, however, was probably homegrown. Since I remember my grandmother doing that with us, she probably had done so with my mother.

But other instruction she ignored, just as we ignored many of the other selections in that first volume, In the Nursery. I know that we used this book even for these common nursery rhymes because I remember poring over the illustrations. Many of the illustrations were comical, many quite literal, many romantic in a 19th century style.

When I look at them now, I feel the resonance of their magic then. Like the animals around a music stand under the verses about the sounds they make ( Bow-wow," says the dog; "Mew, Mew," says the cat; "Grunt, grunt," goes the hog; And "Squeak!" goes the rat.) Or the cow flying over the moon accompanying "Hey diddle diddle," the subject as well--as my mother once pointed out to me--of our cookie jar.

 After fifty pages of common nursery rhymes, there are successive sections of short rhymes from Scotland, Wales and Ireland; Norse, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, South American, Mexican, Polish, Swedish, Chinese and East Indian nursery rhymes, and one Japanese lullaby, before national and regional rhymes from America, including American Indian Songs.

Then another set of short sections of German, French, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Canadian, Russian, and Hungarian rhymes, and a Roumanian lullaby. Rhymes from Finland, Africa; rhymes from Shakespeare, verse from Keats, Robert Burns, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert Lewis Stevenson.

 Some of the verses get longer before the book turns to prose, and explores childhood experience in a neighborhood, on a farm, in a big city and so on, sometimes in stories similar to those found in an early grade reader, sometimes adapted from authors like Hans Christian Andersen. Ending up with tales from Greece, Rome and the Bible. All in this first volume.

 This resolute international inclusiveness, the combination of folk stories, myths and work of classic authors, set one pattern for further volumes. Olive Beaupre Miller would change the mix over the years, but this edition seems to preserve some authentic cultural fragments, perhaps otherwise lost, with no apology for how puzzling many selections were and are.

Volume 2 is appropriately named Story Time because it introduces stories rather than anecdotes and descriptive narratives, including fables (Aesop and otherwise), folk tales from many cultures (one retold by Tolstoy), Bible stories ("Noah's Ark") and classic tales (Peter Rabbit, the Nutcracker) interspersed with verses, including two by William Blake, one ("Owl and the Pussycat") by Edward Lear, and one by the Indian poet Tagore.

 Some stories have morals and messages, but they aren't all "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Engine That Could" (which are included.) The one that stayed with me is "The Gingerbread Man" (who in the story is called the Gingerbread Boy.) The Gingerbread Boy comes to life, leaps out of the oven and over 8 madcap pages inset with illustrations, he laughs and outruns everybody. Until the last page when he reaches the river, still being pursued, and accepts the fox's offer to carry him across on his back. As the water gets deeper the fox counsels him to jump up on his shoulder and then his nose, until the fox eats him.

Not exactly a strive and succeed sort of story, but the impact of it hit me with the final illustration. Most of the figures had been cartoonish, except the fox in the final one, which is rendered with startling realism. I'm surprised now to see how small this illustration is, down at the bottom of the page, because it made a big impression on me, when my mother read me the story.

 The illustration in this book I most loved however was of the Sandman holding his wondrous umbrella over a sleeping child. The umbrella reminded me of a similarly shaped and decorated lampshade on a table lamp at my grandparents. (I believe my sister Kathy has it now.)

Volume 3, Up One Pair of Stairs was transitional--I remember reading parts of it myself. I learned to recognize words on my own, but didn't really read until taught to do so in first grade, where I was in the Rosebuds reading group, the most advanced one. We started with the classic Dick and Jane readers, though possibly a Catholic edition.

This volume of My Book House has more and longer prose stories, and the illustrations have changed. In the first two volumes the colors were bright and varied, with variations of reds. Though I believe they all were done with a four-color process (illustrations using similar colors appeared together), the palate mostly became restricted in this and subsequent volumes to shades of blue and orange as well as black and white, and more like art deco. They were less prominent usually, deferring to the text, but not always.

Both my sister Kathy and I especially remember the final selection, "Water Babies," with verses based on the story by Charles Kingsley. A kind of fairy tale that I can now see is touching upon issues of innocence, socialization and nascent sexuality, its illustrations probably seemed daring to us, as they modestly portray the nudity implied in the text.

By volume 3, the books in my set are also in better shape, showing less handling than the first two. Now I seem them as treasuries, but at the time they competed with schoolbooks and later with comics and library books. But I did read selections in all of the volumes, often in bed and especially when restricted to bed by my many childhood illnesses (mumps, chicken pox, measles twice as well as colds, flus, etc.)

In volume 4 (Through the Gate) I'm sure I read about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed and the Fisherman and His Wife, a cautionary tale about greed.





Volume 5 (Over the Hills) wove in more history, with several pieces about Abraham Lincoln (and the Gettysburg Address verbatim), along with Jack and the Beanstalk, a poem by Emerson, and William Dean Howell's "The Pony Engine and the Pacific Express" (I especially loved stories about trains, like those I could see a few blocks from my grandmother's house.)


Volume 6 (Through Fairy Halls) emphasizes magical worlds, though hewing close to impressive classical sources, such as libretto for operas, a tone poem by Debussy, Shakespeare (prose telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Dickens, and stories about Leonardo da Vinci and composer Felix Mendelssohn. The versions of stories we would know in more popularized form like Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty are closer to original sources. Again, a mix of international tales, including Alaskan, Hawaiian, Northwest and Winnebago Native tales, and poems by Basho and Eugene Field.

 Now when I browse subsequent volumes I see poems, excerpts and rewritten tales from authors and works I've since read. If I read these as a child, their influence was subconscious, but then much of education is. There are bookmarks left in them (one indicating 1962) by one or another of us.

The one volume I remember best is the eighth: Flying Sails. At some age--perhaps 11 or so--I became passionately interested in tales of ships and the sea, and voyages. And of all the stories in this volume, the one I recall definitely reading first there is "Gulliver's Travels to Lilliput."

 Comparison to Jonathan Swift's text shows this to be only lightly edited and condensed, so Swift's voice is preserved as well as the now classic story. Again I remember reading it here because I recall the illustrations. But these illustrations are not so numerous, and the story lasts for some forty pages. The point being that while I was transported by the wonder of the story, I was given the opportunity to absorb its literary merits as well.

Volume 12 (Halls of Fame) is devoted largely to biographical sketches of authors, including authors of famous fairy tales with suggestions of their hidden historical references. It notably includes a long, illustrated retelling of Goethe's Faust. This final volume ends with an index to the entire set, plus a child development index that sends the parent or reader to appropriate pages for views on bravery, courtesy, imagination, shyness etc.


These books existed in my life within a context that prominently included movies (especially Disney), radio (early on) and television, as well as phonograph records. (I still have my battered 78 version of Tubby the Tuba.) But the point is that books were represented, and not just picture books or school books (which barely registered as books.) My Book House provided living examples of what books are, and the template for my further and continuing explorations of these nurturing, magical objects.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Don DeLillo and Zero K

I've been reading Don DeLillo's novels with admiration since the early 1970s, shortly after he began publishing them.  I caught up with his second novel End Zone in paperback, and after finding his debut novel (Americana) with the indelible first line ("It was the end of another dull and lurid year") I then reviewed his third, Great Jones Street.  I was a rare fan of his next and probably least known novel (largely regarded as a noble failure at the time),  Ratner's Star, and was pleased to see it's his personal favorite.  It's the one I've re-read several times over the years.

I pretty much kept up (or caught up) with his work for the next three decades (I remember reading The Names in Cancun, and I even managed to see a production of his play The Day Room) but lost the thread after Cosmopolis in 2003, which I didn't much like. (Though I did read it at one sitting in a bookstore cafe.)  So it was with a little gap behind it that I recently read his latest, Zero K.  It's nothing short of masterful.  So it got me looking at DeLillo again.

I saw a recent interview and was surprised by recent photos.  When we were both younger we looked completely different from each other.  But now the resemblance (nose, mouth especially) is pretty striking.  Apart from old white guys tending to look alike, there's also the Italian element.  His parents came from the Molise region, next door to the Abruzzi where my mother and her parents were born.  For awhile in middle age I thought I was moving towards favoring my father's side, but by now it's my mother's, or grandfather's to be more specific.

DeLillo grew up in the Bronx, with eleven people in a small house.  He's said he had no problem with this and had a happy childhood.  But once he was on his own he lived alone in a small and sparse apartment.  Many of his protagonists also live in limited spaces, carefully calibrating their environments.

Those constricted environments reach a kind of apotheosis in the facility where much of Zero K takes place--a fortress building isolated from the world, designed as a kind of art project (International Style blankness with postmodern quirks) to house cryogenically preserved bodies and brains of very wealthy people, awaiting a future that will provide them new life.  Many of these belonged to people on the verge of death from incurable illnesses (like the protagonist's stepmother) but some undergo the process while still healthy.  Their bodies go to an area called Zero K.

When the novel is situated in this brilliantly imagined facility I was mesmerized as I haven't been by a novel in some time.  It sags when it leaves it, but these sections are necessary to the novel, and the contrast is perhaps part of the point.

After reading it I felt compelled to go back to that first DeLillo I read, End Zone, about some unusual football players at a remote Texas college.  Maybe it was coincidence or maybe a vague memory (since I read it several times--for awhile I was working with a producer who wanted to option it for a film, and I was to get first crack at the screenplay. Rereading it all these years later, passages were very familiar) but its protagonist, Gary Harkness, seems to me very similar to Jeffrey Lockhart, the voice of Zero K.

Both are first person novels, both guys are self-confined, intent on words and their definitions, and obsessed with the vocabulary and imagery of violent death (Harkness the nuclear war scenarios of the 50s-70s, Lockhart the terrorism, refugees and natural disasters of this decade.)  They have similar names and even do similar physical exercises.  They could be the same man, but written differently.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Reading, Writing and Obama

“At a time,” he says, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

President Barack Obama in a wonderful story about Obama as reader and writer by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times.  Yet another reason we're really really going to miss President Obama.

In addition to the article, there's the verbatim interview, with even more neat reading and writing stuff.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

We've All Come to Look For America

My recent reading has tended to center on the 20th century, especially the 30s and 40s.  As usual it's been partly intentional, partly serendipitous, as one book led naturally to another.

One hand of chance was finding a 1968 first edition of The Generous Years by Chet Huntley, in a "free box" on the street (common in our campus town as students move out.)  This particular volume had been a gift.  Though the recipient's name is smudged, it appears to have been a birthday gift from "Mary Ellen & Lyle," when this book was new.

This is Huntley's vivid autobiographical account of his early years in the northern Montana frontier--literally a frontier, for his family was among the first to settle and attempt ranching and farming on this recently available government-deeded land.

It was incredible to me that this was Chet Huntley's early 20th century childhood--the newscaster on the Huntley-Brinkley report I watched in the 1960s, reporting on the space program.  His writing is surprisingly precise, descriptive and evocative. (Surprising perhaps because his on-camera persona was so spare and matter of fact.) Through his recollections, the specifics of the land and the times as he experienced them says a lot more generally about America in the first 30 years or so of the 20th century.

Also by chance I happened on a video version of another TV journalist's autobiography (though it's likely that it caught my eye because I'd started reading the Huntley book.)  It was so fascinating that I got a copy of the book itself--Not So Wild A Dream by Eric Sevareid.  Originally published in 1946, it is a more lengthy autobiography covering more of his life.  The edition I got (U. of Missouri Press 1995) includes an introduction he wrote for the 1976 anniversary edition.

I knew Sevareid from his reporting and commentaries on the CBS television news, and I have a vague idea I saw him in person once covering the 1972 McGovern campaign.  His boyhood in North Dakota had definite similarities to Huntley's though his book also covers his college years and early reporting in Minnesota, his pre-World War II reporting in Europe, and his war reporting in China, Africa, Italy, Paris and London (where he began and ended the war, working with Edward R. Murrow.)

It's a fascinating book, not only for the pith and depth of his thoughts but for his sharp scene creation and narrative.  The book describes at least two outsized adventures, once when he was young, and another when he survived an emergency parachute jump and several weeks among a tribe of headhunters in remote Asian mountains.

The book has a shape as well.  It begins describing the functioning democracy of his small North Dakota town of Velva, and ends with the end of the war that tied the world together as never before, with a new role for the US.  "America was involved in the world, all its little Velvas were in the world, and the world was now in them, and neither the world nor America would ever be the same."

The bulk of this book about the late 30s and 40s is a window on that era, and on what the war meant to those close to it.  Sevareid's title--Not So Wild A Dream--is a quote taken from one of the most famous radio programs to that date, "On A Note of Triumph," about the end of the war in Europe, written by Norman Corwin.

A separate stream of my reading had already brought me to Corwin.  I came upon Gerald Nachman's Raised on Radio among books that Margaret had on her office shelves as she prepared to retire from chair of the theatre, film and dance department.  From this book I learned how many more than I realized of the early TV programs I watched as a child were originally radio shows, and I learned about Norman Corwin.

I didn't know the name, but Norman Corwin was famous and influential from the late 30s into the 50s, but most prominently during World War II.  As a writer, producer and director, he was variously called the Bard, the poet laureate, the Shakespeare of radio.  Corwin's works, Nachman writes, "were sui generis, blending drama, history, journalism, verse, narrative, music, and sound into a kind of radio tone poem, using the finest actors, composers, poets and special effects available."

 Yet as strange as they may sound now they were very popular programs, and CBS gave Corwin a free hand, never even asking to see scripts in advance.  There are several of the actual broadcasts available on the Internet, including "Untitled" , and the more directly topical (and patriotic) "We Hold These Truths" and the aforementioned "On A Note of Triumph," probably the most famous of his many World War II programs.  They still sound impressive.

Scripts for a selection of mostly World War II programs comprise the volume  Untitled And Other Radio Dramas by Norman Corwin (Holt 1947--available in libraries and ex-library used.) Especially with Corwin's explanatory postscripts, it is a document of the times, with insights well beyond the surviving cliches about WWII.  Some of these scripts were subsequently done on stage all around the US and elsewhere in the world.

I suppose the chief surprises, especially in the postscripts, are a couple of cliches knocked down.  We think of soldiers marching off to fight Hitler with a firm idea of what they were fighting for, and everybody on the homefront pitching in happily to do their bit for the boys in uniform.  In fact, a lot of businesses and individuals groused about wartime restrictions, including businesses on the coasts that were irate about being told to turn out their lights so that American transport ships weren't sitting ducks for enemy submarines.  And a lot of soldiers--and the general public--had no idea what the war was about.

So Corwin gave an American's perspective on England (the two peoples were not especially close at the time) with a series about an American's experiences visiting England.  He made founding concepts contemporary--and gave them some flesh and blood--in "We Hold These Truths."  And so on.

Another insight lost in the cliches was a purpose that gets ignored but that Corwin emphasizes--bringing the values of equality and cooperation that helped win the war into a lasting peace--not another debacle like the Great War's end.  It meant in part sustaining international cooperation, raising standards of living, and breaking down old barriers like the class system.  They weren't fighting just to defeat evil.  They were fighting for a better future.

That was expressed for example in those final words of "On A Note of Triumph" that Sevareid quotes: "Post proofs that brotherhood is no so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend..."

Also (and not unrelated) in these months I read playwright Arthur Miller's collected prose pieces (Echoes Down the Corridor) and re-read his autobiography (Timebends.)  I'm currently reading the third volume of his Collected Plays (Library of America) which includes his unjustifiably neglected late plays and some early work, including--for the first time in print--his 1930s/40s radio plays, commissioned by Norman Corwin.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Coincidental Genius

Four hundred years ago today, the deaths of two literary giants were recorded: William Shakespeare and Cervantes. Though there's dispute over the actual day they died, officially it is the same day for both: April 23, 1616.

 The two men apparently did not meet (Shakespeare never left England, and after his soldiering days Cervantes stayed in Spain) and probably did not know about each other. Still the coincidence of this day is the occasion for a symposium at the Newberry research library in Chicago (and elsewhere), a which-said-what quotes quiz (it's predictably tricky) and an article on the subject in the Guardian, which points out that April 23 is also the death date given for William Wordsworth, Rupert Brooke and some lesser known poets.

 Also a comparison of the lives and work of Shakespeare and Cervantes that notes that a 2002 poll of 100 unnamed international writers named Don Quixote the "most meaningful book of all time."

 Oddly, I stumbled on the coincidental death day by sheer coincidence (Kowincidence?) I've started reading a few pages of J.B. Priestley's Literature and Western Man (1960--when "man" was still an acceptably encompassing synonym for human) before bed, and a week or so ago I got to the page where he noted these deaths on this date of April 23, 1616. Apparently my math skills were up to realizing this was an anniversary year, though it took a calculator to figure out the exact number of years.

(Though perhaps not directly pertinent, I began reading the Priestly book because it was recommended (or favorably mentioned) by novelist and playwright Roberson Davies.  He saw it as a Jungian view of literary history.  My desire to read it was instantly abetted by realizing I owned a copy of it, always an extra bit of confidence and delight.)

 What's fascinating about this coincidence of date is that these are not just two famous writers--their work is arguably the most famous in the western world and considerably beyond it. They are the most famous writers, in two areas of literature. As Priestly wrote, "Perhaps only Shakespeare has captured and delighted more minds than Cervantes."

Shakespeare worked in what became the dominant form of his time and place, plays for the stage. His work helped make it dominant, and transformed theatre for all time. The secret of his perennial appeal, Priestly writes, might be not only the range of what he dramatized but his insistence on not being one-sided.

 "In his desire to keep a balance, his wrestling with the opposites, even the very kinds of opposites they were, despite his immensely rich nature (and rich is surely his favorite word) and many-sided genius, he comes close to generations of ordinary Western men of intelligence and good will. It is perhaps the secret of his hold upon our world, century after century...."

 "Though he conjures up everything from lyrical young love and gossamer fairylands to darkest witchcraft and bloody murder, he always leads us home...If the day ever comes when Shakespeare is no longer acted, read, and studied, quoted and loved, Western Man will be near his end."

 Drama was also the dominant form in Spain, but Cervantes did something else. He put together some existing forms of tales to create something new. Don Quixote is generally considered to be the first novel.

 As Priestly writes: "...and in the gathering shadows of the age and his own time (in contemporary terms he was an old man), with no patron, no salaried place, few prospects, rich only in experience, memory, knowledge of men, the one-handed old soldier began to write his book. Then out of that experience, memory, knowledge, and an eruption of genius, he wrote the best novel in the world."

 But literary definitions aside, he certainly defined a huge area for the novels to come. "Through its bustle of roads and inns, its sense of movement, colour and life, he reached far forward to inspire all the novelists who set their characters wandering." So to Fielding, to Dickens, Melville, Kerouac, Jim Harrison. "And as the magical ironist of the relativity of reality, of truth at war with illusion, he might be said to have pointed further forward still..." To Ibsen, Joyce, and pretty much everyone since.

 "Of all our great novelists," he concludes, " he is the youngest, because he is the first, and the oldest, because his tale of the mad knight is an old man's tale. He is also the wisest."

 It is worth mentioning that though both writers were famous in their time, by April 1616 the world had seemingly moved on, never to return. Shakespeare's drama was already going out of style at the end of his career. Though some of his plays were always performed somewhere in the years after his death, his work was not so appreciated again until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the 19th century. Similarly, the novel did not emerge in a big way until about then, especially in England, and Cervantes' role as a pioneer as well as an exemplary became cherished.

 So these two geniuses, together responsible for much of what life and letters are like today, died on pretty much the same day. Or...did they just return to where they came from on the same spaceship?

Monday, March 28, 2016

R.I.P. Jim Harrison

Writer Jim Harrison is dead at the age of 78. He is one of the great American writers of his generation, and unique in his evocation of non-urban America. His poems, fictions, essays and interviews pulsed with a lively and engaged intelligence and humor.

 His most famous fiction is Legends of the Fall, but I believe his greatest achievement will prove to be his late 90s novel The Road Home, interlaced with an earlier work, Dalva, to form an 800 page epic that qualifies as much as any to be a Great American Novel.

Harrison might have agreed with at least that intention.  He said in a 1998 interview: "I like to think that The Road Home addresses the soul history of our country."

 There was a certain quality of elegy to The Road Home, and it seemed like the work of a lifetime in several senses. Yet he kept writing for nearly another 20 years. And he was aware of what those years meant.

The NPR story that ran on All Things Considered Sunday quoted one of his poems:

Before I was born I was water. 
I thought of this sitting on a blue
 chair surrounded by pink, red, white
 hollyhocks In the yard in front 
of my green studio. There are conclusions
 to be drawn but I can't do it anymore.
 Born man, child man, singing man, 
dancing man, loving man, old man,
 dying man. This is a round river 
and we are her fish who become water.

 I've written about several of his books here and for several publications over the past 18 years, but I couldn't begin to summarize what I've learned and what I've taken from his words. On Saturday, the day he died (though it wasn't announced until Sunday), I watched a video of the late psychologist James Hillman (who Harrison often quoted) saying that as humans, our job in the world is to fall in love with it. The New York Times obit Sunday quotes Will Blythe reviewing Harrison: “His books glisten with love of the world."

May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

R.I.P. 2015

It may be difficult at this remove to define the literary impact of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime.  Mixing fictional characters and events with historical characters and events in real places has become an accepted approach within the novelist's standard choices.

Not so in 1975, at least the way that Doctorow did it.  He repeated this general approach in novels that followed but the voice of Ragtime was unique.  This novel influenced the literary acceptability of a kind of fantasy, paving the way for novelists defined as literary and as genre.  There are antecedents for the approach and style, but at least partly because he applied his form of magical realism to historical New York and the USA, this novel had a tremendous impact in American fiction and popular culture.

Doctorow was also part of a dying breed--the author with deep literary knowledge and taste, whose teaching, lecturing and non-fiction writing expressed authority as well as authorship.

Eduardo Galeano was an exemplar of the Latin American literary master--novelist, journalist, political activist and deeply cultured, he wrote angry screeds (We Say No), poetic observations (The Book of Embraces, Walking Words) --and some of the more famous prose on soccer (Sun and Shadow.)  He wrote about the presence of the past, and the importance of memory.

I met the poet James Tate once, when we were both quite young.  Though his poems could be surrealistic, he was an open, friendly and conscientious person (for much of the evening he hilariously recounted his efforts as caretaker to another talented surrealistic poet who was as crazy in his real life as in his verse.)  Tate went on to great renown, winning a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.  This excellent New York Times memorial alerted me to his passing.

Other writers who died in 2015 included novelists Gunter Grass, John A. Williams, Robert Stone, Paul West, James Salter, and a revered literary figure in Pittsburgh, Hilary Master.

Poets C.K Williams, Charles Tomlinson, Bill Kushner, Carlos Bousono and Frank Wright, who was the son of a poet I revered, James Wright.  They are the only father and son ever to both win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  Irish playwright Brian Friel.

Poet, singer-songwriter, actor and Native American activist John Trudell.  Canadian First Peoples author Basil Johnson.

John Hoerr
John Hoerr wrote a masterful history of the rise and fall of the steel industry in Pittsburgh that is among the nonfiction books I most admire, with a great and transferably apt title: And the Wolf Finally Came.

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.  Writers on film Richard Corliss, Penelope Houston and Irving Singer.

Writer and editor Alan Cheuse.  Important environmental philosopher Paul Taylor.  Historian Allen Weinstein.  Pew pollster and author Andrew Kohut.  Mythologist Alexander Eliot.

May they and other writers who died this year, well known and unknown, rest in peace.  Their work lives on, in words and in the future lives of incalculable future readers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Deptford Trilogy (and More) by Robertson Davies

As in his previous trilogy, each of these three novels focuses on a character from a small Canadian town (in this case Deptford, Ontario, said to be based on Davies' birthplace of Thamesville), though this time all three of these characters appear in all three of the novels.

  As in the Salterton Trilogy, the first book takes place in the town, while the third takes place overseas (largely in the previous trilogy, entirely in this one) and is the story of the character's education, artistic and otherwise. This time the middle book also takes place in Europe.

As the author himself said, the trilogy follows the consequences of a single act: a boy throws a snowball with a stone hidden in it at another boy, who dodges, and it instead hits a pregnant woman.  Those consequences are followed over the subsequent sixty years.

Fifth Business is narrated by the boy who dodged the snowball, Dunstan Ramsey, who becomes a teacher and scholar, with a special interest in the topic of saints.  There is an especially haunting portrayal of the woman hit by the snowball, which bears on Ramsey's acute interest in saints. This novel more than any other established Davies as an important novelist, and though it continues particular Canadian concerns, as a novelist with international appeal.

The Manticore is the account of the son of the rich and powerful man who as a boy threw the snowball.  This is the first Robertson Davies novel I read, some 25 years ago.  It is the account of this character's analysis with a Jungian therapist in Zurich.  This narrative, along with a few other odd fragments and personalities that crossed my path at the time (an article on James Hillman, the Jung that Chris Stevens quoted on Northern Exposure, etc. ) first got me interested in Jung.  I now have nearly all of his books, as well as many about him, and have even read some.

Books as it turns out were as close as Davies got to Jungian analysis.  Though Jungians were convinced he had been analyzed, and even guessed by whom (the famed Marie von Franz--her book on creation myths was another of my avenues to Jung), Davies claimed he'd never had a single analytical session with anybody.

World of Wonders is the story of the boy born prematurely because of the trauma induced by that snowball blow.  He became a famous magician, but his hero's journey is harrowing--and told at length.  The Jungian influence is important throughout (even "the fifth business" is a term about archetypes on the stage), and there is a dramatic unity--the first novel ends very dramatically, and the rest of the trilogy follows more or less in chronology.

Re-reading this trilogy led me to a book of interviews with Davies and especially his collection of speeches, One Half of Robertson Davies.  This is a remarkable book I read with great profit.

  He spoke highly (and therefore bravely) of the much maligned dramatic form of melodrama. His immense knowledge of books and historical context was enlightening.   Davies turns out to be a champion of feeling, especially in the arts.  His series of four lectures on Evil is an eloquent corrective to some of the main intellectual currents of his time.  Regardless of how much one agrees with him on religious matters for example, it was intensely valuable to hear what he had to say with such clarity, fairness and good humor.  I'm happy to have known him in this way.