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.



The Nemesis of Polio

Polio--or more formally, poliomyelitis--was first diagnosed as a distinct disease in 1840 by a small-town German orthopedist named Jakob Heine. He noticed many adults in his town and others in isolated pockets in the Black Forest had a similar set of symptoms, including paralyzed and/or atrophied limbs; he began to make an anecdotal study, finally bringing together the first record of observable symptoms.

The viral spread was mostly contained to mountain towns where populations would come into daily contact with each other and not much with the outside world. The disease, however, began to reach pandemic proportions in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in the early 1900s with increasing urbanization.

We now know that it is spread primarily through the oral ingestion of human fecal matter--or more specifically, the small amount of mucus in it. Thus, the virus can also be airborne, particularly propelled from sneezes--although more rarely so. The virus takes up residence in mucus, first in the mouth, then onto the tonsils, before moving into the digestive tract, feeding there before jumping--and this, rarely--to other systems in the body, including the nervous system, resulting then in the alarming cases of paralysis. It is an RNA virus, hijacking cells from the inside and using them for transportation and protection. Most polio infections end up with influenza-type symptoms--and that's it. Paralytic polio is actually a rarer disease.

A multi-person iron lungThe worst polio outbreak in the U. S. occurred in 1952 with almost 58,000 cases reported nationwide. In 1955, Jonas Salk produce the first vaccine--and polio was put into permanent decline in the West, although it still occurs with rather shocking frequency in isolated pockets around the globe.

That polio erupted in waves in the summer was merely circumstantial. That it was associated with flies was also circumstantial, given the nature of how it is transmitted. (The virus is only infectious among humans, no other animals.) But in the summer, more children were outdoors, more children were playing together, and more children had more contact with each other. Swimming pools, of course, became localized sites of infection because of the way the virus is transmitted. However, it is extraordinarily resilient, able to go dormant without the presence of water and become active later on.

Why polio became a childhood disease in the U. S. is still not fully understood. In fact, paralytic polio is much more likely to affect adults, not children. In adults, the paralytic strain of the virus results in debilitating symptoms in one in 75 adults--but only one in 1000 children. (FDR contracted the disease at 39.) There is some thought that the childhood pandemics in the West were again circumstantial: adults wash their hands more carefully than children, cover their mouths more frequently when they sneeze, and generally do not come into such close contact as children who are, say, playing baseball or tag-you're-it.

Of course, the horror of the disease localized into the visions of the negative pressure ventilator, or "iron lung"--and rooms full of them at that. At the present moment, there are at least seven people in the United States still living in iron lungs as a result of paralytic polio. They have chosen not to be ventilated--and so live in this artificial breathing machine, forcing their chests up and down and thus air into their lungs through the changes of pressure inside the tube. They spend their days searching eBay and other sites, looking to bid on old iron lungs or their spare parts.

I have been in contact with several of them over the years--I became interested in this lifelong, living hell several years ago--and the three I have written to seem quite content with their lives. They are all now in their 70s and survive about the way you would imagine a person would survive: by distractions. One is even married. As you may know, people in iron lungs do not necessarily need to be inside the tube all day every day. (Such a case is detailed in the current movie "The Sessions," one of the best movies I've seen all year--go see it!) These people can come out, for varying amounts of time, sometimes a few hours, sometimes the full day. As their chest muscles tire from breathing, they go back in and get "recharged," as it were, letting the machine do the work.

However, these survivors all had a mild case of paralytic polio which allowed them to live on with some assistance. The majority of children who entered iron lungs in the 1940s and 1950s died in them. And thus they met their nemesis.


Ursula Le Guin and the Science of Fiction

Ursula Le Guin (born Ursula Kroeber in 1929) is one of America's pre-eminent writers of science fiction and fantasy. Raised in an illustriously intellectual home--her father and mother were noted anthropologists; her father held the first Ph. D. granted in anthropology by Columbia University--Le Guin came to fiction first and foremost through thought, through ideas. Her juvenalia include stories of distant, unknown countries--fictional anthropology as it were. She recieved her B. A. from Radcliffe in 1951 and her M. A. from Columbia in 1952. It seems natural that she would eventually be married to an intellectual, the French historian Charles Le Guin who taught at Emory for many years.

Le Guin has been heavily influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien (his complete mapping of a fictional world) and by Philip K. Dick (the notion that literature is an exploration of "what ifs"). She in turn has been cited as a major influence by both Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell, both of whom excel, not at the realism rigorously practiced by the likes of Anita Brookner or Richard Price, but at crafting alternate, time-skewed worlds.

Le Guin's main influence, however, has been to her own genres. She has been credited with introducing deep psychological underpinnings to science fiction. Today, science fiction and fantasy divide themselves into two camps: software and hardware, if you will. These days, after Le Guin, software versions in this genre are more about the motives, interests, and desires of people in alternate worlds; the hardware geeks (like those who read the George R. R. Martin novels or watch their film versions on HBO) are far more interested in the technology, geography, and warfare of alternate realms. If you've watched any of the recent incarnations of Dr. Who on BBC, you'll have seen the series shift in seven seasons from hardware to software. If you've ever had to endure any of the Lucas Star Wars movies, you'll have seen a hardware geek trying to pretend he's writing and directing a software incarnation of his genre (to middling if not baleful results--for the best review of those movies, see Anthony Lane's here).

And so THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Yes, there are the bits about the planet, its politics, its geography. Even the best science fiction writers have to satisfy the hardware geeks. If you're have problems with the book, blow through those parts and get to the software. That's what we'll want to discuss.


James and Hawthorne

The writer at eleven: a daguerrotype of Henry James Sr. and Jr. in 1854. Henry James had what could generously be called an “unusual upbringing.” His family, descended from a wealthy Albany clan, found themselves continually at the mercy of his father’s wanderlust. They traveled here and there, often in Europe, then settling in Newport one day, New York City another ("uptown," at 14th and 6th), and Cambridge, Massachusetts, yet another.

James and his brothers were tossed from one school to another, one tutor to another, with little regularity or discipline. Sometimes, Henry James—“Harry” to his family—was left on his own to wander New York City or Geneva, Switzerland, at the age of eight or ten; sometimes, he was locked up in brutal, repressive classrooms chanting Latin verbs. It never was the same day to day.

Yes, the James children each grew up to be formidable in his or her own right: his brother William, one of the most famous psychologists of his day; his brothers Wilky and Bob, military leaders of some renown; his sister Alice, one of the great diariests of her age, despite a debilitating opium addiction after a hysteria diagnosis; and Harry himself, one of the finest writers of the English language. But all that was in the offing. The downward slope of the family’s finances, combined with their father’s persistent boredom, crazed utopian efforts, and desire for lecturing fame on a level with Emerson or Alcott, would surely have obliterated the egos of all but the most resilient.

By 1862, Henry James was nineteen and directionless. His father didn't want him to go to college; the old man thought the institutions not up to snuff with his radical ideals. Yes, older brother William was going to Harvard—but only because the school had instituted courses in the modern sciences, housed in an outlying building, lest they contaminate the famed seminary.

A portrait of Henry James by John La Farge from about 1862.On the sly, Henry James enrolled in Harvard Law School. It wasn't college, per se. It wasn't even a graduate program in those days. His father still didn't approve--but didn't seem to care enough to do more than rant at the dinner table about Harry's choices. Even so, law school seemed like a direction, a profession, something.

Months before, Harry had seriously hurt his back pumping water for a house fire in Newport. He spent most of the summer of 1862 flat on his back, reading. Allegedly, he was boning up for law school. In fact, he was reading every word Hawthorne ever wrote. He had always thought that no American could produce good literature. Then he found the modern-day Massachusetts Puritan.

The great thing was that Hawthorne existed. Harry had gotten an itch to be a man of letters. He hadn’t told anyone--especially not his father who dreamed of being a man of letters. But Harry knew of no American writers who were of the stature of the Europeans. At last, here was Hawthorne: a strange case, yes, more a student of pyschology than history, more concerned with the world of spiritualism and magnetic forces beneath the obvious externals of American life, more concerned with sin than redemption—but a rich source, nonetheless.

Harry did indeed go off to law school that year. He attended lectures given by the faculty, all successful but unimaginative lawyers who had played small parts in the American legal system. But Harvard itself was the great prize. Harry could break the claustrophobia of his family. He had friends outside his siblings—for the first time in his life. He had access to one of the great libraries in North America. And he could sneak off to hear James Russell Lowell hold forth on literature. There was no English department back then. Instead, the professors of modern languages would occasionally discuss books, Lowell more so than the others.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., about 1870It was here, too, in Cambridge, that Henry James fell in love for the first time: with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the son of the writer, poet, lecturer and first-tier Boston Brahmin. Wendell, as he was known in his family, was a beautiful young man, given a bit to drink and the high life. Yes, he eventually became one of the greatest legal minds in the United States, sitting on the Supreme Court for decades, his mark still felt on American jurisprudence. But in the 1860s, he and the future writer consummated a fevered relationship in Harry's rooms: his private space, ever his refuge from an unpredictable and dismissive world. Harry would eventually become the great writer of the inner space, the private life. He had good cause.

In later years, Holmes dismissed the incident, writing that it all came down to a “difference in the sphere of our dominant interest.” But James was left both shattered and new--or as he would write of others up against a love that should not be: "panting." Holmes eventually spurned Harry and settled into a conventional life. And by the writer's own admission in both his journals and in the descriptions he penned, the character of Basil Ransom in THE BOSTONIANS is based directly on his first love. But the mark was left, more profound perhaps, and stiller. Years later, on tour, he wrote about that night in his journal, using all the characteristic indirection he could muster:

How can I speak of Cambridge at all. . . . The point for me (for fatal, for impossible expansion) is that I knew there, had there, in the ghostly old C[ambridge] . . . l’intitation première (the divine, the unique).

In some ways, it all started with Hawthorne.


Hawthorne and the Transcendentalists

Ralph Waldo EmerconIf Transcendentalism was the intellectual air of antebellum New England, Hawthorne was a fish.

Spear-headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalism exploded onto the scene in 1836 with the publication of his now-famous essay "Nature" as well as his speech "The American Scholar" in 1837 before Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Club. In that latter, Emerson lays out his mystical, consciously radical, post-Christian philosophy: we are all parts of some greater creature called humanity, "as the hand is divided into fingers." As such, the "Man Thinking"--Emerson's term for the regenerated soul--must not be bound by traditions or the past but must strive every day to see the world in its whole complexity. And in so doing, he will reinvent the world. "If a single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him."

The main point in all that, besides the fact that it's audacious? It's also achievable.

At first spurned by New England clergy, Transcendentalists soon took over Quaker meeting houses, Unitarian assemblies, and eventually even some Congregational churches. They looked to nature as not just a blueprint of God's creative activity but as the very essence of God; not an expression of the divine, but the divine itself.

A painting of Margaret FullerThe Transcendentalists had a club newspaper, as it were: "The Dial," edited for two years by Margaret Fuller, by all accounts one of the most well-read people in all of nineteenth-century America. She was a foreboding figure, given to swift, merciless judgments, but also interested in mesmerism and the other occult fancies of the day.

Hawthorne wanted to write for her. He was repeatedly offered introductions among the Boston literary set. And he balked again and again. When he was at Brook Farm, there was a milk cow named "Margaret Fuller." Some have stated Hawthorne had a hand in that naming. If so, it provides a clue into his own twisted psyche.

Indeed, the Transcendentalists were themselves given to table-knocking, seances, and other expressions of spiritualism. If the world was God, then you might as well try to permeate the (false) boundary between the spiritual and the physical.


Bronson AlcottTheir likes included Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (Hawthorne's sister-in-law), and George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm, the socialist community on which Blithedale is based.

They were a cheery lot, convinced the world's wrong could be righted, convinced that "right-seeing" would redeem humankind. They were abolitionists almost to a person. They were optimists of the highest order. "I would study, I would know, I would admire forever," Emerson said in his 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School.

Hawthorne was a pessimist. If not an outright cynic. He believed that nothing--not moneyed interests, not traditions, not social institutions, not government--should count more than an individual's experience. So much, so good, as far as the Transcendentalists were concerned. But Hawthorne also didn't for a moment think that people were basically good in nature. For him, sin was a requirement for consciousness.

By contrast, Emerson believed that if you stood long enough in a pure natural setting, your own self would fall away and you would become one with the cosmos, with God. As he wrote in "Nature," "In the woods, we return to reason and faith. . . . Standing on the bare ground--my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."

Wow. Hawthorne, however, wanted to be among the Transcendentalists without being of them. He wanted go buy shares in Brook Farm. He wanted to publish in "The Dial." But he also couldn't bring himself to go the whole distance. Check out this quote from THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE in chapter 8 when Coverdale is out working the fields: "The clods of the earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, kept becoming cloddish."

So much for Emerson and his lot.


Hawthorne Among the Shakers

A daguerrotype of Hawthorne, 1848By 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne had fulfilled his dream: he was one of the most well-known writers in the United States. He was still financially insecure, but his career had skyrocketed with the publication of THE SCARLET LETTER in 1850, followed closely by THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES a year later. He could still complain of being more discussed than read, but he was nonetheless front and center of the new national consciousness for a literature that was distinctly American, not dependent on European forms and themes.

With the publication of THE SCARLET LETTER, Hawthorne moved out to the hinterlands, to what he knew as Lenox, Massachusetts, renting a small house on the southern edge of what is now the Tanglewood property. (We now know from surveys that his house actually stood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, not Lenox, but the niceties of boundary lines were less observed in 1850.) He was in financial straits--as always--and was looking both to reduce his expenses and to find a quiet place to write.

Instead, he found an active community of like-minded writers, including one Herman Melville, flush with success from the publication of his sea adventures, but bored with being a best-selling author who published novels about half-naked Polynesian women.

It is here, in the wilds of Massachusetts, that Hawthorne wrote THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES--and began writing THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE.

But all was not well in the wilds. He hated the isolation, although he also craved it. He despised the winters--those in Salem were temperate by comparison. And he found the company pinched, full of wide-eyed Transcendentalists who believed that God lay under every leaf, every rock, every rill.

In the middle of writing THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE, remembering his own time among the utopians at Brook Farm a decade earlier, Hawthorne decided he'd had enough of the country life and decamped with his family back to Salem.

There were many good-byes to be said, particularly to Melville who had become Hawthorne's good friend. After all, Melville had dedicated his masterpiece--and financial Waterloo--MOBY-DICK to Hawthorne that same year.

Hawthorne and Melville were known to ramble the countryside, often taking long trips by carriage to out-of-the-way destinations, Melville notorious for risking life and limb to scramble over high rocks and jump across chasms.

But for one of their last trips, they set out for a closer site: the Hancock Shaker Village, already falling into disrepair.

They were ushered through the main house by the sober elders, tramping on the well-oiled floors. The Shakers were a utopian community of their own--except without any free love. In fact, the Shakers were not "given in marriage," to use the Biblical phrase.

The Hancock Shaker VillageHawthorne was repelled when he glanced into the same-sex dorms. He saw the narrow beds where two men or two women slept together every night. For warmth, yes. But also?

"The Shakers are and must needs be a filthy set," Hawthorne wrote later that day in his journal. "And then their utter and systematic lack of privacy; the close conjunction of man with man, and supervision of one man over another--it is hateful and disgusting to think of; and the sooner the sect is extinct, the better."

Hawthorne left the Shaker Village, went home, packed up, moved to Salem--and finished THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE, his tale of another utopian community where gender lines were not always so clear.