Tribute to Henry David Thoreau

Today I visited Concord and the nearby Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau stayed alone for two years. These photos, which I took today, are my tribute to him and his writings.  The captions are all quotations by Thoreau, taken from Walden.

Have you read Thoreau?  What do you think of him?

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for  society.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
"If  the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself."
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.”
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

In Praise of Fallen Women

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette
Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

If not for Fallen Women (aka strumpets, hussies, jezebels, floozies, trollops, and vixens), there would be no novels.  Female characters who have sex outside of marriage (often just once) and who then suffer grievously have excited the imaginations of our classic novelists more than any other subject.

A few examples off the top of my head include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  These novels were all written in the 19th century.

As the 20th progressed, fallen women no longer had to die.  Complete ostracism from polite society was deemed sufficient, as we see with Caddy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence.   (In the case of Ellen Olenska, she was Fallen because of her divorce rather than sexual indiscretions.)

It all started with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel.  Clarissa was one of the first novels written in English, and one of the longest.  (I read the abridged version, which was around 800 pages or so.)  The plot revolves around the Lovelace, a dyed in the wool Cad, who lusts after Clarissa.  He spends several hundred pages trying to seduce Clarissa, who succeeds in resisting his advances.  Ever more desperate, he finally drugs her and rapes her.  Clarissa, who is now a Fallen Woman, spends several hundred more pages dying of anguish.

Seeing how successful Richardon’s novel was, many other 18th century writers in both England and the United States followed suit.  One of the most successful American novels of the 18th century was The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster.  Published anonymously in 1797, The Coquette was a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Elizabeth Whitman.

Coquette

Elizabeth Whitman was the daughter of a highly respected family with illustrious backgrounds.  She was known and respected for her wit, her intelligence and her charm.  Yet she died in a tavern, seduced and abandoned.  How could such a thing happen?  Foster tries to explain Eliza’s fall in her novel.

In The Coquette, Eliza was proposed to by an upstanding young clergyman.  She was not especially attracted to him, but she realized he was a good catch.  She vacillated about her answer.  In the meantime, she was pursued by a Bad Man who just wanted to seduce her for the fun of it.  Bad Man had no intention of marrying her, because he needed to marry for money.  Eliza knows at heart that she would not be a good fit as a clergyman’s wife because of her gay personality and love of fun.  She also knows that Bad Man has a bad reputation, but is attracted to him anyway.

As you might expect, things do not end well for Eliza, who ends up seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead, and eaten by cats.  (The eaten by cats part was not technically mentioned in the book.)

The story of the real-life Elizabeth Whitman was fodder for countless finger-wagging sermons.    As one contemporary newspaper account intoned, Whitman “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved because she aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife; and having coquetted till past her prime, fell into criminal indulgences.”

Hannah Webster Foster’s novel paints a more nuanced picture.  As a reader, I was sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to marry someone she was attracted to, not just someone who was “good on paper.”  After all, her clergyman suitor was clearly interested in Eliza primarily because he found  her “hot.” I was also sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to enjoy her single state for a while and “date” more than one man.  (In the context of late 18th century America, “date” meant “talk to at balls or other public events.”).

Foster portrays Eliza as making some really dumb decisions.  But she also highlights how limited the choices were for young women of the time.  She also emphasized how narrow the path was for women who did not want to lose their reputations.

Alas, like so many other literary heroines afterwards, Eliza fell off her pedestal and into the gutter—swiftly and irrevocably.   She, like all the others, became fodder not just for cats but for all the voracious sermonizers who delighted in her ruin.

(This post is a continuation of my series on early American writers, in honor of Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Boston.)

Anne Bradstreet: Badass Puritan Poet

Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet

Because Thanksgiving season is upon us and because I will soon be travelling to Boston, I am continuing my series highlighting early American writers.  Yesterday, I wrote about the literary duel between Thomas Morton (the bad boy of early New England settlers) and William Bradford, the long-time governor of Plymouth Bay Colony.

Today, I am focusing upon the first English-speaking poet published in America:  Anne Bradstreet.  As you might guess from her name, she was a woman.  She was also a devout Puritan who married at age 16 and raised eight children in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Managing to become the first published poet of North American while being a female Puritan makes Anne Bradstreet distinctly Badass, in my humble opinion.  Bradstreet lived from 1612-1672, and she published her collection of poetry called The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650.

let us now praise badass women

During this time period, women—to put it mildly—were considered inferior to men and were expected to conform to female duties of running a household and raising children.  They were not expected to become published poets.

To give a example of the cultural attitudes that the prevailed, one historical document suggested to women readers that they should “derive their ideas of God from the contemplations of her husband’s excellencies.”

[Excuse me while I gag.]

So it was against strong odds that Bradstreet managed to publish a book of poetry.  It helped that her brother-in-law was a strong advocate of her work; he took a copy of her work to London to get it published.

The preface her brother-in-law wrote to the book explains much about the attitudes of the time:

.. .the worst effect of his [the reader’s] reading will be unbelief, which will make him question whether it be a woman’s work, and ask, is it possible?  If any do, take this as an answer from him that dares avow it; it is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments(my emphasis)

In other words, it is hard to believe that a woman could write poetry.  It is also rather disgraceful.  But, since the woman still managed to be well-behaved and did her domestic duties, I guess we can allow it.

Bradstreet tended to write about issues dear to many women’s hearts:  her husband, her children, her home, and her struggle to reconcile her faith with her more worldly desires.  People today who read her work out of context probably find it conventional and unremarkable.  (I know that was my first reaction to it.)

However, given her time period and her context as a Puritan settler in North America, her choice of subject matter was actually quite rebellious.  The Puritans in America were generally quite literate and promoted reading and writing—up to a point.  The only subject matter they really approved of was religious subject matter.  If a person was going to write poetry, they should be sure to write poetry in praise of God.  There was no other point in writing.

Bradstreet was a religious woman and she did often write about God.  But she also wrote about private, domestic matters.  For many of her fellow Puritans, such topics were considered frivolous or inappropriate. But that did not stop Anne Bradstreet.

In one of her poems, for example, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she wrote a poetic letter to husband.  In this poem, she expressed her fears that she might die in childbirth (a realistic fear at the time) and hoped that her husband would remember her lovingly.  She also hoped that he would raise their children well, and not let any wicked stepmother abuse them:

“And when they loss shall be repaid with gains,

Look to my little babes, my dear remains.

And if thou love thy self, or loved’st me,

These O protect from step-dame’s injury”

Other topics of her poetry include love poems to her husband, poems in memory of a deceased young grandchild, and even a poem lamenting the loss of her house to fire.  She often wrote about her faith, but when she did so, she highlighted the very real struggles she often faced in trying to understand why thing happened the way they did.

Despite the centuries that separate contemporary readers from the 1600s, I think most women can relate to at least some of Bradstreet’s poems.  Reading her poetry helps me to understand early Puritans as full-blooded human beings, rather than just one-sided symbols of early America.

National Blog Posting Month
National Blog Posting Month

Animal House in the Land of the Puritans: Thomas Morton

William Bradford
William Bradford

photo source

I will be visiting Boston, Massachusetts in a couple of weeks.  In preparation for my visit, I am going to highlight a few early American writers, most of whom lived in New England.

If you paid attention when you were in school, you most likely learned about William Bradford, who was governor of the colony of Plymouth from 1621-1657.  Much of what we know about the early separatist settlers comes from his history On Plymouth Plantation.

As you can imagine, life was hard for these early settlers who were trying to form a religiously pure community untainted by the corrupt ways of the Church of England back home.  Not only did Bradford’s community have to battle against nature, hunger, disease, Native Americans and the like, but they also had to battle against other English settlers of a dissolute nature.

Thomas Morton
Thomas Morton

photo source

Thomas Morton was one of these settlers, a major thorn in the side of Governor Bradford. Thomas Morton was not part of Plymouth; he was neither a Separatist nor a Puritan.   He was the breed known as a “Cavalier,” someone loyal to the King and Church of England.  For Bradford, that amounted to almost the same thing as atheism.  Furthermore, according to Bradford’s account, Morton and his band were licentious drunks who partied too much.

Worse yet, Morton invited Indians to his celebrations. [Gasp!] It nearly drove Bradford into a apoplectic fit when he heard that on May Day, Morton’s band got together with Indians to celebrate.  They all gathered together to cavort around a maypole, a true sign of paganism for Bradford. The Governor wrote that  “They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices.”

In other words, Bradford considered Morton and his pals to be the Animal House of Puritan times.

The truly shocking thing about Thomas Morton, however–the unforgivable thing–is that he did not consider Native Americans to be savages.  In his book New England Canaan, Morton goes to great length to portray the Native Americans as more civilized than the fanatical Separatists of Plymouth Plantation.  Morton points out that the Indians display a reverence for God, a deep sense of hospitality, a natural modesty, a respect for old age, and a reverence for authority.

Morton believed the Separatist and Puritan English would be better off if they respected the ways of the Indians and formed true friendships with them, rather than treating them as Satan’s minions and an impediment to be overcome.

Unfortunately, there was no room for such radical beliefs in early New England.   Thomas Morton was arrested and exiled by the Plymouth authorities.   I wonder how our country would be different if Morton’s views had prevailed.

Thomas  Morton

Pear Trees Are Obscene! Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

I'm a sexy beast.
I’m a sexy beast. Click here for source of photo.

 This post contributes to the Banned Books Blog Party hosted by hannah at her blog Things Matter.  Click here for more about her blog and the banned books blog party.

Pear trees in bloom should be banned.  They are just too sexy, too alluring.  They are, in fact, positively obscene.

This is the message I took away from learning recently that Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is on the list for Banned and Challenged Books.   You may be aware that September 21-27 is Banned Books Week.  Sponsored by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week

“is an annual  event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”    http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek

One of the Banned and Challenged Books listed by the ALA is their Their Eyes Were Watching God, a gorgeous novel written in 1937 by African-American anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.  Their Eyes chronicles the story of a girl named Janie Crawford who, throughout the course of the novel, matures from a restless girl of 16 into a mature woman in her early forties.  Hurston focuses in particular on Janie’s search to find love, community, and a voice of her own.

Zora Neale Hurston from Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library, Yale
Zora Neale Hurston from Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library, Yale

This quest is made difficult, however, by the fact that, as a poor, black, southern girl in the early years of the 20th century, with no family except her grandmother, Janie is at the bottom of the totem pole.  As she learns from her grandmother, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (14).  Poor black women are used by others—including black men—to gratify their own desires.  Expecting, as Janie does, to forge her own destiny and find love on her own terms, is unrealistic and even dangerous.

That is why Janie’s grandmother marries her off at age 16 to an older man whom Janie finds repulsive.  Granny knows through experience what it is like to be treated as a “spit cup” by men and she does not want Janie to go through the same pain.  Janie’s marriage with Logan Killicks is not a successful one.  It serves as the springboard to her restless search for a better marriage, a better life, which she does find eventually.

So why is Their Eyes Were Watching God on list of banned and challenged books?  According to the ALA, in 1997 “a parent objected to the novel’s language and sexual explicitness.”

Sexual explicitness?  I have read this book many times (it is one of my favorites) and I cannot remember any sexually explicit scene.  Hurston’s language is poetic, full of metaphors and images, rather than any starkly realistic descriptions of sexuality.

I can only surmise, but I am guessing what bothered Concerned Parent is the central symbol of the novel:  the pear tree in bloom.  In the beginning of the story, Janie is a sixteen year old girl who is first beginning to feel the stirrings of her sexuality.  One lovely spring day, she is lying under a pear tree when she has a revelation:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was a marriage!  She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. . . .

Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom!  With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen.  She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her.  Where were the singing bees for her?”  (11)

http://www.balboapark.org/blogs/balboa-park-beat/pear-trees-bloom#.VCa3iPldVTQ

Click here for source of photo.

 

This vision of the pear tree helps her to really “get” what the “birds and the bees” are all about.  This glorious vision of “marriage” in nature fuels her quest for the rest of the novel.  She, too, wants to find a “bee for her blossom.”  She wants the natural ecstasy she observed in nature.

 https://www.threadless.com/product/684/Birds_The_Bees

Click here for photo source.

Apparently, for Concerned Parent, the pear tree is too explicit; it is like a saucy siren minx who lures on innocent youth to their demise.  Good point, Concerned Parent.  But why stop at banning Their Eyes Were Watching God?  We should ban all pear trees everywhere.  Pear trees have undoubtedly been the cause of many a ruined life.

But let’s not stop at just pear trees.  Let’s ban all trees.  Their spring-time hanky-panky sets a bad example for the Youth of America.  For that matter, let’s get rid of spring time altogether.  You know how adolescents get when they feel those soft May breezes stroking them into a frenzy of desire.  But, as long as we’re at it, let’s ban nature.  All those plants and animals reproducing constantly.  It’s obscene and I won’t put up with it any longer—nor should you.  Let’s act now to end nature and its obscene allure.

Please join me in signing the attached Petition to Abolish Nature in All Its Forms So That Our Children Will No Longer Be Sullied.

Bird sluts
Bird sluts

Click here for source of photo

Diversiverse Challenge
Diversiverse Challenge

 

 

 

 

This post is a response to Aarti’s #Diversiverse challenge.

For more information about her #Diversiverse challenge, click here.

100 Best American Novels Before 1985?

It is probably impossible to come up with an objective list of the 100 best novels from any country.  Nonetheless, people try, and these lists can be helpful for people  looking for new works to read or a way to fill in the gaps of their undergraduate English literature degree.

This particular list comes from David Handlin, who describes himself as an “enthusiast” rather than a scholar.  He published this list in The American Scholar recently.  For the complete article, including his definition of what he means by “Best American Novels,” click here..  He places in bold-face the novels that are his personal favorites.

If your goal is to better understand the American literary tradition, I think this is a reasonably good list.  I teach American literature in a university, and if I could teach 100 novels, I think my list would not be dramatically different from this one.

What do you think?  Are there novels you think should be on this list?  Are there some that should definitely be removed?


1. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry (1792–1815)

2. Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette (1797)

3. Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland (1798)

4. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie (1827)

5. James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (1827)

6. John Pendleton Kennedy, Swallow Barn (1832)

7. Robert Montgomery Bird, Sheppard Lee (1836)

8. Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)

9. Johnson Jones Hooper, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845)

10. George Lippard, The Quaker City, the Monks of Monk Hall (1845)

11. James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater (1847)

12. Herman Melville, Redburn (1849)

13. Ik Marvel (Donald G. Mitchell), Reveries of a Bachelor (1850)

14. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

15. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

16. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or The Whale (1851)

17. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

18. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

19. Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (1857)

20. John W. DeForest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion (1867)

21. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868–1869)

22. Albion Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand (1879)

23. George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes (1880)

24. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

25. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

26. Henry James, The Bostonians (1886)

27. Henry James, The Princess Casamassima (1886)

28. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888)

29. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

30. William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)

31. Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

32. Henry Blake Fuller, The Cliff-Dwellers (1893)

33. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)

34. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

35. Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)

36. Frank Norris, McTeague (1899)

37. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899)

38. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)

39. Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901)

40. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)

41. Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902)

42. Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903)

 43. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)

44. Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)

45. Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

46. Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)

47. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (1920)

48. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

49. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

50. John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (1925)

51. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

52. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

53. Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)

54. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

55. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

56. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)

57. Willa Cather, Shadows on the Rock (1931)

58. William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)

59. Daniel Fuchs, Summer in Williamsburg (1934)

60. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1936)

61. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

62. John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1930–1936)

63. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

64. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

65. Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

66. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

67. Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)

68. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

69. Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

70. James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce (1941)

71. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)

72. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead (1948)

73. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949)

74. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

75. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

76. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

77. James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

78. Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)

79. William Gaddis, The Recognitions (1955)

80. John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

81. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1958)

82. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958)

83. John Updike, Rabbit, Run (1960)

84. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)

85. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

86. Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)

87. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

88. William Faulkner, The Reivers (1962)

89. Peter Matthiessen, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)

90. William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)

91. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

92. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)

93. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (1971)

94. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (1972)

95. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

96. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)

97. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

98. William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

99. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

100. Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)