Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 4/25/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Elena Ferrante, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2012)

Friday, 5/16/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

William Faulkner, AS I LAY DYING (1930)

Friday, 6/13/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Kate Atkinson, LIFE AFTER LIFE (2013)

Friday, 7/11/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Colum McCann, TRANSATLANTIC (2013)

Friday, 8/15/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Eleanor Catton, THE LUMINARIES (2013)

 

THE FALL SERIES:

OUR NEW ENGLAND

Friday, 9/12/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Mary Rowlandson, THE SOVEREIGNTY AND GOODNESS OF GOD (1682)

Friday, 10/3/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Catherine Maria Sedgwick, HOPE LESLIE (1827)

Friday, 10/24/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Mark Twain, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (1889)

Friday, 11/14/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Sarah Orne Jewett, THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS (1896)

Friday, 12/12/2014, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Philip Roth, THE HUMAN STAIN (2000)

Wednesday
Mar052014

Dickens Goes Smash

In May, 1865, suffering from work exhaustion and extreme anxiety over his not-so-clandestine relationship with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, Dickens took her and her mother on holiday to France. He was writing OUR MUTUAL FRIEND and--as he had done all his life--he took the manuscript on vacation with him and continued to work on the end of Book III and the opening of Book IV.

After a month abroad, the group decided to return home. They crossed on Thursday, 8 June 1865, and then on Friday afternoon, 9 June 1865, boarded the 2:36 train at Folkestone to take them up to London. The train, packed with Continental pleasure-seekers, was in this configuration: a steam locomotive, a tender hauler for coal and water, a brake van, one second-class carriage, seven first-class carriages, three more second-class carriages, and three more brake vans with guards who could signal to the engine up front with whistles.

At 3:13, just beyond the Headcorn Railway Station and before the train reached Staplehurst, Kent, the conductor spotted a man wildly waving a red flag. The train was running about 50 miles per hour. The conductor whistled for the brakes and threw the engine into reverse, but the train could not stop before it hit the Beult viaduct, where a length of track was undergoing maintenance and reconstruction of the timbers holding it up.

A drawing of the Staplehurst train wreck. The schematics are a bit muddled, perhaps from being drawn days after the crash.The viaduct was about 10 feet high and 21 feet long; the river underneath was almost dry. The locomotive, tender car, first brake car, and one second-class carriage made it over the viaduct before the bridge and tracks gave way. One first-class carriage remained hooked and dangling; the others and two second-class cars went into the river bed, a toppled and mangled mess. One second-class car car dangled from the other end and the remaining brake cars remained on the tracks. Ten people were killed; another forty to fifty were severely injured. Countless others, including Dickens himself, sustained minor injuries.

There were two causes of the accident: 1) the construction foreman had misread the train schedules for that Friday and thought he had more time and 2) the flag-waver was placed too close to the viaduct, only about 554 yards back, instead of the mandatory 1000 yards.

Dickens and party were in the dangling first-class cabin. He climbed out through a busted window, helped Ellen and her mother up the bank, and then took to moving the dead to a secure area and caring for the injured.

He found a man with a cracked skull, his brain hideously exposed. Dickens gave the man some brandy and laid him on the grass. The man said, "I am gone," and died in his arms. A bloody, mangled woman was propped against a tree; Dickens gave her brandy, but in a moment she too was dead. One young passenger later recalled "Charles Dickens, the very novelist" had cajoled him to free himself from a pile of twisted wreckage. Another passenger recalled how Dickens, with his hat full of water, was "running about with it and doing his best to revive and comfort every poor creature he met."

When the emergency train arrived from London to take away the survivors, Dickens climbed back into the precarious, dangling car of the wrecked train to retrieve the manuscript of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND from his satchel. Although he claims in the Postscript to the novel that he was in the process of writing chapter 2 of Book IV, "The Golden Dustman Rises A Little," we now know that he was just a page or two short of finishing chapter 4, "A Runaway Match." Look at the last paragraph of chapter 4. You'll see what happened after the wreck.

Dickens suffered a great deal of what we would now call "post-traumatic stress." He lost his voice for two weeks. He quit traveling by train for the rest of his life (that is, whenever he could escape the necessity). And he died five years to the day of the wreck. His son claimed at his eulogy that "he had never fully recovered."

One of the only photographs of the crash, taken several days afterwards.

Wednesday
Feb192014

The Publication of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND 

Since we've danced around this issue so often in our discussions, I thought I'd take a minute to clarify how OUR MUTUAL FRIEND was published.

Around 1836, Dickens and his publishers devised a new way of publishing novels: offer them in ten to twenty installments of three or four chapters each for a relatively cheap price (one shilling each). Each installment had 32 pages and four illustrations. Dickens began this scheme with THE PICKWICK PAPERS and continued it throughout his life, revolutionizing publishing history.

Before this innovation, publishers printed novels in chunks--usually a leather-bound volume of fifteen or twenty chapters at considerable expense--and authors were paid a royalty on net profits only after the publisher recouped costs. In general, authors split the profits of a work 60/40 with the publisher (the higher number being the author's take--how times have changed!). With Dickens' new scheme, authors were paid monthly royalties based on how individual installments sold--and thus could make money while writing the book. And novels could be purchased by the middle class, not just the upper class.

The individual installments of OUR MUTUAL FRIENDOUR MUTUAL FRIEND was no exception. It was published in installments as follows:

May 1864. Book the First. Chapters 1-4
June 1864. Chapters 5-7
July 1864. Chapters 8-10
August 1864. Chapters 11-13
September 1864. Chapters 14-17
October 1864. Book the Second. Chapters 1-3
November 1864. Chapters 4-6,
December 1864. Chapters 7-10
January 1865. Chapters 11-13
February 1865. Chapters 14-16

March 1865. Book the Third. Chapters 1-4
April 1865. Chapters 5-7
May 1865. Chapters 8-10
June 1865. Chapters 11-14
July 1865. Chapters 15-17
August 1865. Book the Fourth. Chapters 1-4
September 1865. Chapters 5-7
October 1865. Chapters 8-11
November 1865. Chapters 12-[17] ("Chapter the Last"), plus the "Postscript" and eight pages of "preliminary matter" (that is, the title page, table of contents, etc., ready to go in typeset for when they were gathered together as a volume.

If you look back at some of the chapters we've read, you can see how they fall together in sets--and see some of Dickens' plan. For example, in the chapters we read for this week, chapter 14 ends with a cliff-hanger question which leads to the last set of chapters, 15 - 17, on sale the next month. Those last three chapters are then the furtherance (and decline) of the Boffin plot (15), the upswing in the Rokesmith/Bella Wilfer plot (16), and the concluding Veneering snark (something that has happened at the end of every volume).

As we've discussed, Dickens tried to stay in advance of this novel, writing the first volume before he began publishing. However, something--what?--about OUR MUTUAL FRIEND slowed him down. By the third volume (this week's reading), he was hopelessly behind, barely able to keep up. He claimed this novel left him "dazed" as he wrote, something of a new feeling for him.

Dickens' writing method was always the same: he scribbled notes, expanded them, drafted them into paragraphs right on the same page, and finally fleshed out the dialogue in a mad jumble of almost illegible handwriting. He then handed these sheets to his secretary to make sense of them--and then reviewed the subsequent script before sending it all off to the publisher. Here's page fourteen of Dickens' handwritten manuscript for OUR MUTUAL FRIEND:

Imagine trying to decipher this!

As you may know, the reviews were not kind--with the exception of one from E. S. Dallas, a rather noted critic for the London Times. Up until this novel, Dickens had been handing his manuscripts over to his official biographer, John Forster, once they had been seen through publication. But this time, he gave the manuscript over to Dallas--who needed the money and sold it a few years later. In a moment of cosmic irony, it eventually was bought by J. P. Morgan, one of those Veneerings Dickens hated so much. It is now housed in the Pierpont Morgan in New York. 

Wednesday
Jan152014

Victorian Order: Incessantly Repeatable

"[Mr. Wilfer's] black hat was brown before he could afford a coat, his pantaloons were white at the seams and knees before he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn out before he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and by the time he worked round to the hat again, that shining modern article roofed in an ancient ruin of various periods."

--OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, Book I, Chapter 4, first paragraph

No period of European history has become so obsessed with notions of personal, social, cultural, political, and artistic order as the nineteenth century. These notions were grounded in the growing industrialism: you can keep your house clean with any number of solvents and with a mechanized system based on industrial tools; you can keep yourself clean with running water, a flush toilet, and some of the very same solvents. If you see your body as a machine, you can (and should) clean it. If you treat your house as an industrial system, you can (and should) control it. If you treat cooking as a mechanized process, you can standarize it into chemical formulae (a.k.a. recipes).

As long as you hide it. Mr. Wilfer's problem as a member of the growing lower middle class is that he can buy the necessaries to stave off ruin (dust?), but he can't hide that he's buying them in the first place. This old coat? Had it for years. The goal is to be orderly without seeming to try. And Mr. Wilfer is trying very hard.

Here are three cultural examples of the mechanized order-mania that are not directly related to OUR MUTUAL FRIEND but offer context.

1. In the mid-Victorian age, photographs were the new must-haves. They were a mechanized way of preserving (ultimately, by reproducing) a cherished image (or an industrial memory, as the case might be). Those photographed had to sit for hours for the exposure. And so babies--perhaps the second most photographed subject in the nineteenth century--had to be held still. The only way to accomplish that--hiding the rage for order while practicing it in a mechanized environment--was for the mother to hide behind the scenes, holding little Johnny or Janey for the duration. 

Thanks, Mom!Mother is in the cloth! In most cases, she is cut out of the shot, the baby seen against a background of velvet or brocade. But in some pictures, the original frame has been preserved. If you pull back, there she is, hiding, holding. It's order by trick, as it were.

2. If Victorians loved to photograph babies, they loved even more to take pictures of the dead. After Uncle Fred or Aunt Emma died, you propped them up in a chair and took their picture--often with your family at their sides. Now they could finally be still for that picture! In death, there was an order that fit the newly mechanized world.

Emma, you never looked better.The eyes were always the problem. They tended to fly open--and remain so. It sort of broke the (enforced) mood of (industrial) remembrance. The solution? Sew them shut but paint them back on, a nightmarish display of that compulsion for order in the face of the decay that is life. (I'll spare you a picture of painted eyes.)

3. No bit of ordered industrialization matches the London sewers. According to Rose George in her consummate book on all things sanitary, THE BIG NECESSITY (a must read!), no one is exactly sure to this day how many miles of tunnels are in the London system because of its endless crooks, bends, unused tunnels, doubled-up tunnels, and outright wrong turns no longer in use.

It all started in the mid-1850s with the introduction of flush toilets. Before then, London had been a maze of cess pools, emptied (sort of) by the "night soil men" (or sometimes "nightmen"). And not only London. In the mid eighteenth century, flashy Versailles had been an open pit--not outside the castle but within. The hallways and rooms were littered with human defecation. People apparently were too busy for chamberpots. Visitors complained that the grand hall of mirrors was nothing but a loo. The court ordered more and more screens to be set up throughout to hide what was apparently an unstoppable problem.

With the coming of indoor plumbing, the problem was eliminated (ahem) in a modern, mechanized way: it went into an overflow of water and left your house. What happened after that was not your concern. It was disappeared, as it were.

Before the building of the London sewers, whatever was flushed went by gravity through wooden troughs and open ditches right into the Thames. Children, mostly orphans called "mudlarks," scavanged the muck on the banks for valuables. (Apparently people were already flushing everything; today, iPhones are one of the most valuable commodities fished out of the London sewers.) In the very hot summer of 1858, London finally underwent what came to be known as "The Great Stink." The Thames turned so foul, so polluted, that it was blamed (erroneously) for cholera outbreaks. Parliament itself was engulfed in a noxious miasma. Something had to be done. MPs were inconvienced!

The Crossness pumping station, built between 1859 and 1865: beautifying the unspeakable.Sewers were constructed throughout the 1860s (while Dickens was at work on OUR MUTUAL FRIEND), including six trunk lines that measured over 100 miles. They ate up London's now-forgotten "other" rivers, tributaries of the Thames and Lea (the Peck, Tyburn, Fleet, and at least a dozen others which are now incorporated into the modern sewer system). Pump houses were built where gravity proved inefficient. Those sewers didn't exactly clean the water; they just got it farther from London. It was Kent's problem now. And so order was maintained. Or the illusion of it anyway.

Tuesday
Dec032013

Hammett and the Roots of Film Noir

Let's start here, with a clip from the 1947 film CROSSFIRE, with Gloria Grahame as hard-boiled Ginny Tremaine and Robert Young as the homicide detective.

The genre of noir (nwahr, French, meaning "black") is truly an American original: gritty, extra-dry wit spackled over loneliness and alienation, always with a crime element of some sort in the plot. Seedy characters in black-and-white cinematography. Striking femmes fatales in tight dresses. Mush-mouth criminals. Cool, abrasive, but polished detectives. And little to no musical score, as if the emotional distress doesn't need underlining with harmonic cues.

Although we mostly think of noir as a film genre, and although the movies are mostly set in California (or more specifically, in L. A.), it's important to remember that its roots are in New York City. And its creative genesis lay with writers like Dashiell Hammett (and the man who followed closely in his footsteps, Raymond Chandler).

In the end, noir is indeed a literary genre, even on the screen. The words are the thing, the patter of sense over rank senselessness. The scenes play out in novelistic conventions: small conversations among few players, telling (sometimes too telling) symbolism (THE MALTESE FALCON, anyone?), and the misdirected dramatic irony common among crime novels (that is, we know as little as the characters but we think we know more).

And that most novelistic of all subjects: love. Or lust. There is no line between the two. It's simply the old romance that somehow escapes the patter. Check out this clip from the 1954 film PUSHOVER with Fred Macmurray as our intrepid detective and Kim Novak, for my money the best actor in the genre:

Noir betrays its New York roots in a recent adaptation of the genre: sci fi noir. Think BLADE RUNNER (1982). Or GATTACA (1997). Or MINORITY REPORT (2002). Or TWELVE MONKEYS (2005). Here, the landscape is definitely Manhattan recomposed as a futuristic, dark, urban nightmare.

For me, noir comes to its apotheosis in one of the greatest movies ever made: VERTIGO (1958). Many would argue it's not a noir film--it's in color, after all, and fully scored, and the crime is mostly the torment within--but the cool, mannered surface, the polished, novelistic dialogue, and the talent of Kim Novac put it over the top for me. It's Hammett boiled down beyond the hard-crack stage: to mere residue, the almost chemical composition of despair.

Wednesday
Nov132013

New York and The Fundamentalist Controversy

Nathanael West's sadistically dark if brilliant 1933 novel (novella?, novelette?) MISS LONELYHEARTS is set in a bare but menacing New York City:

[Miss Lonelyhearts] went back to his desk and finished his column, then started for the park. He sat on a bench near the obelisk to wait for Mrs. Doyle. Still thinking of tents, he examined the sky and saw that it was canvas-colored and ill-stretched. He examined it like a stupid detective who is searching for a clue to his own exhaustion. When he found nothing, he turned his trained eye on the skyscrapers that menaced the little park from all sides. In their tons of forced rock and tortured steel, he discovered what he thought was a clue.

Americans have dissipated their energy in an orgy of stone breaking. In their few years they have broken more stones that did centuries of Egyptians. And they have done their work hysterically, desperately, almost as if they knew that the stones would some day break them.

As with most of West's writing, every sentence contains clear-sightedness, misdirection, truth, and folly: "canvas-colored and ill-stretched," "menaced the little park," "forced," tortured," "orgy," "hysterically," and "desperately."

The book as a whole is hardly a flattering picture of the city. New York is a place of hyper-religious consciousness and alienation. The denizens of this landscape are obsessed with Jesus, almost (maybe all the way) to blasphemy.

It doesn't seem like the New York most of us know: a fairly liberal place where religion has been sidelined for most of its citizens. But the city in the '30s was the site of some of the most intense religious controversies of that day: the fundamentalist/modernist struggles, mostly held within the Presbyterian church, but eventually extended out into every other Protestant demonimation in the U. S., and arguably into the Catholic church as well.

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878 - 1969)It all began in 1922 when the liberal Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick (soon to be the minister at the Riverside Church) was invited to give a guest sermon at the First Presbyterian Church down on Fifth Avenue at the edge of Greenwich Village. Fosdick was troubled by the growing strength of a rather rigid orthodoxy in Protestant seminaries. It was a pernicious stripe of righteousness that demanded all who disagreed be banished as reprobates, heretics, or just "the unsaved."

Fosdick's sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?," was actually a rather tedious, academic piece that outlined the differences between liberal and conservative strains of American Christianity. But it was also gasoline on dry timber. The Fundamentalists, aligning themselves with the "man in the pew," bridled at Fosdick's perceived elitism. As a response, a series of well-attended and crowd-pleasing debates were instituted across New York City; they almost always ended with the learned liberal minister brought low by the fervent, God-on-our-side preachers. The city was rocked by revivalist tent meetings, right among the buildings. The liberals retreated inside their churches. Eventually, the Presbyterian church split, professors were ousted from seminaries (particularly at Princeton where the fundamentalists came into full control), churches were broken up, and William Jennings Bryan (never one to shy from a carnival when he smelled the greasepaint) jumped out as the movement's political spokesperson. From this controversy came the Scopes Monkey Trial, the modern American missionary movement (and thus the likes of Pearl Buck), and the rise of unconnected, evangelical "Bible Churches."

We in America live among the shards of this conflict. This was the start of the rift between what we now know as mainline, liberal Protestantism and evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity. The on-going debates eventually split the Lutheran church into its liberal and conservative wings. It also led to the purging of moderates and liberals from Baptist seminaries in the 1970s with the re-emergence of the Southern Baptist Church as a leading force among the Fundamentalists. (During the early '70s, although hard to imagine today, Baptist seminaries were drifting to much more liberal positions.)

1922 Presbyterian cartoon, showing the descent of the modernistsBeyond Fosdick's sermon and the circus-like debates in New York City, the controversy had intellectual underpinnings among certain nineteenth-century German textural scholars, the "Higher Critics" (as they called themselves), who attempted to discover the "true" authors of Biblical texts. They rejected the notion that Moses, for example, wrote the first five books of the Bible and instead began to comb through the texts in an attempt to put together "original" voices. They ultimately decided that the various names for God--Yahweh, Elohim, and others--indicated the sources of various texts. So they began to pull apart the Old Testament to find the "real" message of the original documents: Yahweh as a jealous war lord god, Elohim as an omnipotent and transcendent sky god, and others. They even undertook the task of finding the "historical" Jesus outside the Biblical texts (or perhaps only within certain pieces of those texts).

The Fundamentalists reacted in outrage. The family Bible was being pulled apart! The stalwart text of the American pioneering spirit was being tampered with. How could you call yourself a Christian if you didn't believe the Bible?

The New York City synod of the Presbyterian church led the way. It adopted the five "fundamentals," the things you must believe to call yourself a Christian: the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the redemptive atonement of Christ's death, the bodily resurrection of Christ (and the believers sometime in the future), and the historical reality of Christ's miracles. If you doubted any one of these, you were out. And many, many lost their pulpits, their academic positions, and their livelihoods.

Lyman Stewart (1840 - 1923)Lyman Stewart, the founder of Union Oil, originally backed the Fundamentalists financially in New York City. But many other captains of industry of the day jumped aboard. Eventually, with millions at their disposal, the leaders of the Fundamentalists produced their own annotated Bible (the Scofield Reference Bible--still the best-selling Bible in the United States today), founded their own schools (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, Biola College, and hundreds more), and further adapted their message with increasingly apocalyptic overtones, bringing "new" French studies of the New Testament to this country for the first time. (These French studies emphasized the Rapture of the saved and the Second Coming of Christ, predicted by seven historical epochs through which humans have passed). The Fundamentalists were quickly turning Adventists, eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus and the end of the world.

In such territory we find ourselves today--not only in our own culture, but also in West's MISS LONELYHEARTS. This is a book born among these controversies. It tries--and fails--to understand how Christ (and by extension Christianity) operates in a newly minted world, a world of open love and open misery, a world in the throes of the Great Depression when all American promises seemed broken, a world becoming increasingly unhinged by modernity in art, politics, culture, and life. Andrew Sullivan has claimed that today's zealots on the Christian right have been driven mad by modernity. I simply call your attention to MISS LONELYHEARTS.