Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 8/11/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)



Friday, 9/15/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), first half

Friday, 9/29/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), second half

Friday, 10/20/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Damian Wilkins, MAX GATE (2016)

Friday, 11/10/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1891)

Friday, 12/8/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Christopher Nicholson, WINTER (2016)



Friday, 1/12/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 1/26/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 2/9/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 2/23/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.



Forgetting and Remembering Catherine Maria Sedgwick

A pen-and-ink of Catherine Maria Sedgwick, around the time she wrote HOPE LESLIEIn her day, Catherine Maria Sedgwick was one of the most important novelists in the United States. She was considered one of the fountainheads of a new, uniquely American literature. Subsequent generations considered her a trail blazer. Nineteenth-century women writers considered her an icon.

She worked mostly in the genre of historical romance, one of the most popular forms of fiction in her day. In fact, there were three "major" historical romancers of this period: Sedgwick, William Gilmore Simms (a writer Poe considered the finest ever produced in America), and James Fenimore Cooper (he of the "Leatherstocking" or Natty Bumppo tales). Sedgwick mostly outsold the other two--and was often a bigger critical hit, too. Yet she's largely forgotten today. In fact, we're more likely to know about Fenimore Cooper, certainly the lesser light among the three in his own day (and perhaps even so now). How did this strange set of events happen? How have we forgotten Sedgwick and remembered Cooper?

As always, through a complicated set of cultural and political circumstances.

Women writers in the nineteenth century enjoyed outstanding publishing and critical success. Although novels started off with a generalized readership in the eighteenth century, they were fast becoming part of a "woman's world" (as opposed to histories and biographies which were what men read, if they read at all--why that happened is itself an interesting subject for discussion).

Most of the "big boys" we now consider the stalwarts of American literature were troubled by all these women writing. Take Hawthorne's assessment, for example:

"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of 'The Lamplighter,’ [a novel written by Maria Susanna Cummins in 1854 and one of the best-sellers of the day) and other books neither better nor worse?–-worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000."

Brady's portrait of Hawthorne. Ol' Nate was never much a fan of women--except in his fiction.This screed was actually in a private letter written from England in 1855 to Hawthorne's publisher back home, but it exemplifies the "dis-ease" with women's writing among the alleged literati. The women outsold the boys; most of the boys sneered at the women. Yet we've gotten to a point where two "failed" writers--Thoreau and Melville--are considered the lions and Sedgwick is forgotten. Seems the boys won in the long run. But how?

Part of the answer lies in the politics of the early twentieth-century. American literature was becoming a matter of study in the United States (as opposed to American novels lumped in as lesser lights among British novels). There was a need to find a "usable" past, a great literary tradition. Scholars like Harvard's F. O. Matthiessen began "uncovering" the novels like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE SCARLET LETTER, MOBY-DICK, and more. Melville had been out of print for decades; Thoreau, largely forgotten, a footnote in Emerson biographies. Yet in his major work, AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: ART AND EXPRESSION IN THE AGE OF EMERSON AND WHITMAN (1941), Matthiessen codified the thinking of his moment and enshrined a long line of male New England writers at the center of the American experience. In other words, he and others "overlooked" the majority of novelists--women and Southerners--to find a uniquely "American" (read "New England white male") past. Why? Here are three reasons:

  1. New England itself was becoming marginalized in the national discourse. Boston was no longer the center of learning or commerce. San Francisco seemed to have more energy than Hartford or Albany. The United States had pushed to its western edge. The movement of civilization was distinctly south and west from here, leaving vast tracts of New England out of the rush (including our own Litchfield hills and Berkshire mountains). There had to be a way to re-commit New England to the center of the story. There had to be a way to reclaim our--that is, the Puritan--centrality. (Note that even now when we think of the settling of North America, we think of the Puritans--not the colonies further south like Jamestown, settled earlier, or Maryland, settled by Catholics at about the same time.)
  2. An early image of Natty Bumppo, a.k.a. Leatherstocking, a.k.a. Hawkeye. Apparently a good man is truly hard to find.Women had gained the vote and had been a major part of the effort to gear up during two world wars (think "Rosie the Riveter"). Political power seemed to be tipping away from the all-boy club. Men were coming home from the wars ragged and defeated. We need to find a bunch of men who represented the best of the country--even if it was in the past, a nostalgia for the day when "men were men."
  3. The South was not reconstructed. Rather, it was regressing back to pseudo-slavery in the form of Jim Crow. H. L. Mencken and other literary critics wanted to dismiss the region out of hand--a country of the "booboisie," as he called it--so there was a need to overlook both Southern women writers like Ellen Glasgow as well as the major writers who had flourished down south before the Civil War, including William Gilmore Simms, one of America's best.

Matthiessen at HarvardThus, Cooper, not Sedwick or Simms. Interestingly, F. O. Mattheissen himself carried on an "out" gay life at Harvard in the '30s and '40s, openly living with his partner and attending events as a couple--until he threw himself off the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel. Perhaps the disconnects were just too great.

Nonetheless, he and others established an all-male curriculum that ruled universities and secondary schools until an American scholar of British literature, Elaine Showalter, published A LITERATURE OF THEIR OWN: BRITISH WOMEN NOVELISTS FROM BRONTE TO LESSING in 1978. Showalter wasn't from the New England boys' club: although born in Boston, she'd gotten her degrees from Bryn Mawr and UC-Davis. In what seems patently obvioius today but was a bombshell in its time, she argued that Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf were as compentent and critically exciting as Dickens and James. Of course you can't think otherwise now. But that's only a measure of how far we've come. Indeed, her book was still something of a radical tome when I went off to a Ph. D. program in 1985. The old boys didn't like it one whit.

Showalter at PrincetonAlthough Showalter wrote about British fiction, her book caused a general roiling in American literary studies. Suddenly, there were dozens of women writers on this side of the pond who "needed" to be re-discovered--Catherine Maria Sedgwick among them. And yet the old boys club holds on. Thus, reading HOPE LESLIE still feels a bit like finding something new. In fact, it's something very old--and very foundational to the American experience.



Mary Rowlandson's War

The first page of the 1682 edition of Rowlandson's workOn a frigid January morning in 1675, a forty-something, Christianized, Native American from the Massachuset tribe walked fifteen miles across snow-laden trails to Plymouth and into history. Born Wassaumon but now called John Sassamon, he had been one of the first tribal men to attend Harvard under its outreach to Native Americans in 1653 (he did not stay enrolled long, for unclear reasons). He had since been actively involved in church affairs, helping to propograte the gospel to his peers and working on translations for various Christian tracts (and perhaps a Bible) with the printer and missionary John Eliot.

Sassamon had settled in the "praying Indian" town of Namasket (today on US 44 halfway between Providence, RI, and Plymouth, MA). But his loyalties had been shifting of late. Yes, he had been helping out as a minister--or something of a small-scale sachem--in Namasket but he had also taken up with the powerful Wampanoag sachem Metacom (or Metacomet). Sassamon was now his linguistic interpreter in all colonial affairs. The colonists had little truck with complicated Indian names. They called the powerful sachem "King Philip."

Paul Revere's 1775 engraving of King Philip (or Metacom)Despite the colonialists' misunderstandings of Indian political structures, Metacom was not a king. Instead, he fronted and counseled a vast and at times unwieldy collection of tribes that included Sassamon's Massachuset group as well as Nipmunks, Narragansetts, and over a dozen other tribal and familial alignments, all connected to less powerful sachems. (In political terms, such a decentralized confederation run by a powerful leader with little bureaucratic control is an amphictyony, like the judges in the Biblical book of Judges). While relations between the colonists and these groups had been fairly good in recent years, tempers were rising and patience was fraying, mostly because of "praying Indian" settlements like Namasket, bought on the cheap and turned back to Christianized Native Americans who various sachem felt did not have the gravitas, lineage, or maturity to lead settled towns. These sachem also were concerned about "new" Indians like Sassamon who were neither fish nor fowl, neither in one camp or the other. They were also troubled by rising literacy rates among the Christianized Indians. They theorized (correctly) that with reading came less political control. And Sassamon himself was very literate. 

Now, he was on his way to see Josiah Winslow, then governor of Plymouth. He carried news. Big news. In his role as an interpreter, he had heard that Metacom was trying to gin up support among all the sachem to stage a new war against the colonists.

Why Sassamon did this is a matter of some conjecture. Was he seeking protection? He did tell Winslow he thought his life was in danger. Did he expect money? Later Puritan historians would argue so (probably to absolve their own group from what followed). Did he hope for advancement in the Puritan world? No idea.

What we know is this: Winslow dismissed him out of hand. He wrote in his diary that he sent Sassamon back home, ignoring the warning, "because it had an Indian original, and one can hardly believe them [even] when they speak the truth."

Assawompset Pond today, under a scrim of iceA week later, Sassamon disappeared. About two weeks later, his bloated body was found under the ice at Assawompset Pond, just south of Namasket. It looked like a drowning. Everyone took it for such--until a "witness" stepped forward who claimed to have heard a story from a man who claimed to have seen Sassamon killed. Sure enough, on closer inspection his neck was broken and there were bruises on his torso. Maybe it was just supposed to look like a drowning. Maybe it was supposed to look like a warning. But to whom? To other Christianized Indians? To the colonists? To other Massachuset leaders who occasionally opposed Metacom?

In any event, Winslow was suddenly quite interested in Sassamon's news. Metacom was suspected. He voluntarily put in an appearance before the Plymouth dignitaries to explain himself. It didn't go well. He walked out and the colonists believed he was indeed preparing for war--although they couldn't prove it.

But they could investigate a murder. They convened a trial on March 1 and rounded up three of Metacom's chief counselors. There was that "witness." They had even found the man who had originated the story. And there was a mound of forensic evidence. Finally, a jury of twelve Englishmen and six "of the most indifferentest, gravest, and sage Indians" found the three guilty. They were sentenced to death and executed on June 8, 1675. Three days later, Wampanoags began gathering for war. They attacked Swansea, MA, southest of Providence, on June 24th.

A 1689 engraving from Dover, NH, of an "Indian Attack" at nightSo began King Philip's War--or as it is now often called, "Metacom's War." Over the next thirteen months, the colonists and Native Americans engaged in a particularly vicious conflict. Both sides burned people alive in their settlements; both sides exacted high casualties on civilian targets. Barbarities escalated: heads on pikes, burned bodies at road crossings, starved infant corpses nailed to gates. No one remained innocent. Northampton, Massachusetts, was burned. Simsbury, Connecticut, was burned. Dartmouth, New Hampshire, was almost destroyed. Springfield, Massachusetts, was fully destroyed, not a building left standing. 

A map of Mary Rowlandson's journeyAlmost one year to the day when Metacom had appeared before the Plymouth leaders, Nipmunks attacked Lancaster in the Massachusetts Colony. Mary Rowlandson was captured and led away from home into "the vast, howling wilderness"--out to the Connecticut River near current Northfield, Massachusetts, and then up the river into southwestern New Hampshire.

Based on demographics, Metacom's War was the most fatal war in American history. Eight percent of the colonists lost their lives. (By contrast, 2.3 percent of U. S. citizens lost their lives in the Civil War.) Indian losses mounted far higher: about seventy percent of all tribal people in southern New England were killed, starved to death, or transported to the Caribbean as slaves.

And yet this last image is the only contemporary one from the war that survives, from John Seller's "Mapp of New England" in 1675. Do you see them? They're at the middle in the top. A few tiny Puritans are firing on some Native Americans below a mountain ridge. It's almost genteel, a set piece, a small marker for a conflict that set in motion the development of the American psyche.


Faulkner and the Creation of Consciousness

Well, not consciousness, per se. Let's call it "literary consciousness." Or "narrative consciousness."

It's not that narrators before Faulkner were unconscious. It's that they were too conscious.

It all started because Faulkner gave up. After his first two books (fronted by the novelist Sherwood Anderson) went nowhere and his third was roundly rejected by publishers (and finally brought out in a highly edited form), he threw caution to the wind and created two novels back to back, THE SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING, that reshaped how literary characters went about the business of being characters. He sparked a change that we now take for granted.

In these two novels, the characters--speakers, all--are not rational. Instead, we hear a stream of their confessions and dreams, sieved through their unconscious. It's almost as if they're talking in their sleep, revealing deeply personal things about themselves in haphazard and sometimes misleading ways (ahem, Dewey Dell). That is, about the way your own unconscious self operates.

When Esther steps forward to tell her tale in Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE or when Moll Flanders narrates her life in Defoe's novel of the same name, they tell their tales in a rational, cohesive way. Start here at point A, move to point B, tell why A led to B, go on to C, and so on. They offer linear movement through their lives.

The characters in AS I LAY DYING offer something else. Call it, not narrative, but "performance." It's the self turned inside out, a messy jumble. Cora is trying to hold it together with religion. Darl is slowly going mad. Vardaman can only understand the world as a small child. Cash and Jewel are blinded by their dreams and regrets.

The only one who gives us any sort of linearity is the unseen narrator who is stitching it all together, calling the performers on stage one by one to make their pitch.

This is Faulkner: he narrated the unconscious. He tapped something almost untellable. He found below his characters the wellsprings, not of themselves, but of their imaginations (that is, of who they think they are).

His narrative technique opened the door to Philip Roth. You can't have Portnoy without Faulkner! It opened the door to Saul Bellow, to Flannery O'Connor, to Louise Erdrich (many consider her Faulkner's direct heir), to Toni Morrison (another direct heir), to Don Delillo, to Salmon Rushdie (yet another direct heir), to Ian McEwan, even to Alan Bennett.

In the end, I would posit that Faulkner has become more influential on literary writers than almost any other English-speaking author of the twentieth century. James Joyce was undoubtedly smarter, but his voice always stays in the head, a chilly intellectualism. Faulkner's voice is located further down and farther in, somewhere in the body.


Elena Ferrante: In Her Own Voice

As you may know by know, Elena Ferrante is something of a recluse. Or perhaps that's the wrong term. She zealously guards her privacy. She grants few interviews, never appears on camera. There is on photograph of her that makes the rounds, a grainy black-and-white of a mid-fifty-something woman smoking. It's widely considered a fake.

Frankly, she makes Salinger and Pynchon look like social gadflies.

She will, occasionally, grant written interviews. Click here for one she did with Publisher's Weekly.

There are a few more you can find. But trust very few unless they're from a reputable source. Many in Italy think the writer could even be a man. Or that "Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym for a more famous Italian writer who has gotten pigeonholed into one genre or another.

We've encountered her before in this group. Here's a blog post from the last time we read her, when we did DAYS OF ABANDONMENT.

She's had something of a big run recently with critical appraisals in The New Yorker (here), The Times Literary Supplement (here), and the L. A. Review of Books (here). Warning: don't read these unless you're done. They contain spoilers.

In fact, consider skipping them entirely. Of any writer I know, Ferrante almost dares critics to make assessments. Her writing flings theories back into their faces. Maybe into ours, too.


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.