2003 Reading by Ernie Seckinger

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. -- Henry David Thoreau, Walden.


January

**** The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1897-1962. Edited by Ann N. Ridgeway, Foreword by Mark Van Doren. Johns Hopkins Press. Photographs by Leigh Wiener. Throughout his life, Robinson Jeffers complained to others and himself of his inability to write letters. A more wonderful self delusion was never before or since visited upon a human being. The letters within this volume are written by a beautiful mind, contain gems of the meaning of poetry and of life, and dispel the dark reputation he acquired through his epic poetry. His view of the world as real—with a history that makes man's insignificant—and its destiny to long outlive man and his ridiculous attempts to control it is clearly revealed here. In a letter to an inquiring nun, he provides one of the most clear statements of belief I recall:

I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one's affections outward toward this one God, rather than inward on one's self, or on humanity, or on human imagination and abstractions—the world of spirits.

I think that it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he to us.

In this he is surely a Deist.

*** Amateur Sugar Maker by Noel Perrin 1972. The first section of this tiny gem is modeled after Thoreau's "Economy." This is by no means a Walden, nor is it an even book, but it is a gem of New England life, complete with the aroma of maple syrup making. Now I'm heady for the taste!

*** Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard Hey, give me a break! It was a good read, was my nighttime reading, and made a great 4-part TV summer replacement a few years ago.

My morning reading this month finished the year 1855 and the entire year ***** 1856 in Henry David Thoreau's Journal. It without doubt one of the longest journals about, but less than some of his contemporaries or near contemporaries such as the father-son team of journalers John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Some historians doubt that any single person has read all of John Quincy Adam's lifelong journal. Henry's approximates two million words, or so I'm told. I'll not be counting them, but reading them instead. Once I am done with his last entry, I will likely start anew. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps the two (or three) most important reasons I read Henry are to think about life and how it is lived, to think about nature and how we treat it (or is that Her). Perhaps another reason, at times deeply important for me is the sheer quality of much of the writing. Many current literary critics point to Emerson over Thoreau for Transcendentalism. Yet in writing, Thoreau had a sense of at least the paragraph. Emerson's universe was the sentence. His paragraph breaks are to give the printer a rest. An example of two of Henry's work:

November 5, 1855. I hate the present modes of living and getting a living. Farming and shopkeeping and working at a trade or profession are all odious to me. I should relish getting my living in a simple, primitive fashion. The life which society proposes me to live is so artificial and complex--bolstered up on many weak supports, and sure to topple down at last--that no man surely can ever be inspired to live it, and only 'old fogies' ever praise it. At best some think it their duty to live it. I believe in the infinite joy and satisfaction of helping myself and others to the extent of my ability...The fellow-man to whom you are yoked is a steer that is ever bolting right the other way.

He also gives me advice on keeping a journal: "A journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said."

For fans of baseball and its history, on April 10, 1856, he looks over the fields and remembers from a time ago "games of baseball played over behind the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow."

For the Buddhists among you: "Indeed, it is by obeying the suggestions of a higher light within you that you escape from yourself and, in the transit, as it were see with the unworn sides of your eye, travel totally new paths."

**** American Transcendentalism 1830-1860: an intellectual inquiry by Paul F. Boller Jr. I soon realized that Boller and I share a common point of view on the Transcendentalists. This view is different from that of E.O. Wilson. Boller in his preface "regards himself as partly Emersonian and partly Deweyan, partly Transcendentalist and partly empiricist... believe that there are irreducible (even unanalyzable) elements in human experience which transcend verbal and conceptual formulations... but which are the major sources of creativity." Boller stresses over and over again the religious motivation of the founding Transcendentalists--even Thoreau. Thoreau was anti-clerical, not anti-religious. To him the individual was a part of a life process that was eternal and that heaven lies about us.

Two kinds of general texts on Transcendentalism exist. Both are quite important. Perry Miller and Joel Myerson have created wonderful anthologies from the works of the Transcendentalists themselves. O. B. Frothingham and Professor Boller wrote interpretive histories. All should be read. Professor Boller's work should be a standard text. As I read it, little update from the 1974 original is needed, but I welcome him to consider that as he enjoys his retirement.

**1/2 Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. An unabridged Recorded Books audiotape, 7.25 hours. Ah, the greatest idle fellow of all time and the author of Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. In this book, he once spent a morning wondering how a woman with only one house to clean occupied her time! Dare I say its original publication date was 1889 and was quickly a million seller. This is British humor 84 years before Monty Python.

February

*** Ernest Hemingway Green Hills of Africa. Original publication date 1935. This is a lightly fictionalized account of a safari he and his wife (which one not mentioned) took in East Africa during parts of 1933 and 1934. It is a book on a subject--hunting safari--that has thankfully past. Now we photograph live animals; his were dead. Such a bloody book. At least once he slipped into talking about his writing, something he was famous for avoiding.

What I had to do was work. I did not care, particularly, how it all came out. I did not take my own life seriously any more, any one else's life, yes, but not mine. They all wanted something that I did not want and I would get it without wanting it, if I worked. To work was the only thing, it was the only thing that always made you feel good, and in the meantime it was my own damned life and I would lead it where and how I pleased.

** The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802 by John Worthen. 2001. Yale University Press. One of those detailed works professors are required to write but I don't need in my head. It was good though to learn 2 things: parts of Sara's rock still exist and that not all believe in the avarice of Wordsworth against Coleridge that Holmes and others hagiographically preach. The bad news is that vandalism caused the relocation of Sara's rock to a museum.

**** Psychology and Religion by Carl Gustav Jung Yale University Press, original 1938. Whereas Gilgamesh escaped revenge of the gods by paying attention to warnings in his dreams, the modern patient lives in a time when the gods are extinct and are in bad repute. He would not be so superstitious as to listen to dreams. I found compelling his statement that patients ruled by fear are far more dangerous than those ruled by wrath or hatred. Does this have meaning for our present difficulties?

*** Tony Hillerman, The Wailing Wind. Audio from the Daphne Public Library. Joe Leaphorn simply cannot retire and Jim Chee falls in love--again. To put this in a review would give away too much of this fine story, but the main story is .... woops! See if you get it and let me know.

*** The Tempest on audio tape. An interesting retelling of the movie The Forbidden Planet by the Bard.

March

**** The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand. 2000. In a nutshell, this book is a history of Pragmatism. From Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr's discovery during the Civil War that certitude leads to violence (something many Fundamentalists of all religions seem to be practicing quite well these days) to John Dewey's transmogrified Vermont Transcendentalism, this book is a wonderful and well-written exposition and at times explanation of the thought of the last half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century thought in America. In my stream of reading about Transcendentalism, this book was important to me because it put so much and so many people in context. What was most magnificent to me though was Dr. Menand's academic status. Here is a book of ideas by someone academically affiliated with a Department of English! There is no deconstruction here, only thought. Wonderful and a good model for other members of academic English students, few of which seem to be on his track. This book is requiring reading in any program of Bildung.

*** A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries. 1984. Bought at the Barrow Bookstore, Concord, MA. As should be obvious from my attempts at characterizing Henry Thoreau's Journal, to write about the journals and diaries of others is a nearly impossible task. Even those kept with an eye to eventual disclosure are personal. To connect with them, you connect with the writer so I think you simply have to read them, as I do Thoreau's. Mallon though has created a fine introduction to many, many diaries that I will never find (or make) the time to read.

I bleed myself to be your drink:
Is not the blood of poets--ink?
--William Soutar, 1898-1943

** Seduction by Design by Sandra Brown read by Jenna Stern. A Recorded Books unabridged book on CD. Whew! A best seller-style romance. I am scraping the bottom of the barrel at the library but I need something to take my mind off matters of war every now and then. I found it interesting to listen to the language--expecting little. This is not written badly at all but I could guess with a thesaurus at hand.

*** Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond by Larry McMurtry. 1999. Read at the insistence of Gress Hickman, to whom I owe a great debt. A wonderful memoir of McMurtry's reading and the making of stories--of even American myths.

April

In March I was obviously all over the map. April saw me settle into spring and into ***** Henry David Thoreau's Journal for 1857. I am in some ways sad that I am not 30 years in the future since by then the free-text edition being published (slowly) by Princeton University Press may finally be completed. So, for the "complete journal" we are left with the 1906 edition that received some editing after Henry's death. I, for one, am not interested in what Bradford and Torrey thought about proper thoughts, illustrations, and punctuation; I care only to see what Henry wrote. If I am willing to invest the time to read 2,000,000 words, then I should get the real thing! Still, this is quite marvelous reading. Harold Bloom speaks (and spoke May 4, 2003 on BookTV's Indepth) of the sublime. Many passages of this journal reside at this level. At the risk of repeating what I said in my comments on the 1856 Journal, I will repeat myself and say that many say his Transcendentalism was before 1854. Reading these years for myself has revealed to me that he may even be more explicitly Transcendental now than then. A few passages follow:


After spending four or five days surveying and drawing a plan incessantly, I especially feel the necessity of putting myself in communication with nature again, to recover my tone, to withdraw out of the wearying and unprofitable world of affairs. The things I have been doing have but a fleeting and accidental importance, however much men are immersed in them, and yield very little valuable fruit. I would fain have been wading through the woods and fields and conversing with the sane snow. Having waded in the very shallowest stream of time, I would now bathe my temples in eternity. I wish again to participate in the serenity of nature, to share the happiness of the river and the woods. I thus from time to time break off my connection with eternal truths and go with the shallow stream of human affairs, grinding at the mill of the Philistines; but when my task is done, with never-failing confidence I devote myself to the infinite again. It would be sweet to deal with men more, I can imagine, but where dwell they? Not in the fields which I traverse. (January 4, 1857)

I sometimes hear a prominent but dull-witted worthy man say, or hear that he has said, rarely, that if it were not for his firm belief in "an overruling power," or a "perfect Being," etc., etc. But such poverty-stricken expressions ohnly convince me of his habitual doubt and that he is surprised inhto a transient belief. Such a man's expression of faith, moving solemnly in the traditional furrow, and casting out all free-thinking and living souls with the rusty mould-board of his compassion or contempt, thinking that he has Moses and all the prophets in his wake, discourages and saddens me as an expression of his narrow and barren want of faith. I see that the infidels and skeptics have formed themselves into churches and weekly gather together at the ringing of a bell.

Sometimes when, in conversation or a lecture, I have been grasping at, or even standing and reclining upon, the serene and everlasting truths that underlie and support our vacillating life, I have seen my auditors standing on their terra firma, the quaking earth, crowded together on their Lisbon Quay, and compassionately or timiditly watching my motions as if they were the antics of a rope-dancer or a mounteback pretending to walk on air, …

So, when I have been resting and quenching my thirst on the eternal plains of truth, where rests the base of those beautiful columns that sustain the heavens, I have been amused to see a traveler who had long confined himself to the quaking shore, which was all covered with the traces of the deluge, come timidly tiptoeing toward me, trembling in every limb.

I see the crowd of materialists gathered together on their Lisbon Quay for safety, thinking it a terra firma. (This written on the day he met Theodore Parker "in the cars," February 4, 1857)


The Transcendentalists often used analogies in nature to reflect. On May 12, 1857, he hears a bird singing and says, "The spirit of its earthsong, of its serene and true philosophy, was breathed into me, and I saw the world as a through a glass, as it lies eternally… as the bay-wing song many a thousand years ago, he sang to-night. In the beginning God heard his song and pronounced it good, and hence it has endured.
…I would thus from time to time take advice of the birds, correct my human views b y listening to their volucral. He is a brother poet, this small gray vird (or bard), whose muse inspires mine.

I ordinarily plod along a sort of whitewashed prison entry, subjecft to some indifferent or even groveling mood. I do not distinctly realize my destiny. I have turned down my light to the merest glimmer and am doing some task which I have set myself. I take incredibily narrow views, live on the limits, and have no recollection of absolute truth. Mushroom institutions hedge me in. But suddenly, in some fortunate moment, the voice of eternal wisdom reaches me, even in the strain of the sparrow, and liberates me, whets and clarifies my senses, makes me a competent witness.


What, pray, is true jewelry? The hardened trar of a diseased clam, murdered in its old age. Is that fair play? (august 10, 1857)


In considereing autumnal tints, "One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brfewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at that season when the maples blazed out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and surrounded them with house-sheds for." (October 7, 1857)


Celebrate not the Garden of Eden, but your own. (October 22, 1857)


On October 25, 1857, he speaks of the rise in his spirit as the river rises and "I trust there will appear in this Journal some flow, some gradual filling of the springs and raising of the streams, that the accumulating grists may be gounds."


Do not despair of life. You have no doubt forced enough to overcome your obstacles. Think of the fox prowling through wood and field in a winter night for something to satisfy his hunger. Notwithstanding cold and the hounds and traps, his race survives. I do not believe any of them ever committed suicide." (December 27, 1857) Meager to be sure, but this is as close as my Journal can get to his: Flying on April 27, 2003 I remarked, I cannot take Henry to the heights so I will see it myself. The beauty of the cloud tops, seen from above. Today they are like toadstools. In Nature, they serve as agents of redistrubtuion of moisture-as agents of right, we should serve as redistributors of wealth."

*** The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. "[T]here are no innocent readers anymore. Each overlays the text with his own perverse view. A reader is the total of all he's read." A very fine literary mystery set around antiquarian books.

**** Master of the Senate, Volume 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro. A well written and thorough book--at times more thorough concerning Johnson's private life and personality quirks than perhaps I wanted to know. But I suppose those things go into the development of one's character.

Its 1061 pages plus index and bibliography was just too much for me to take at this time. But within the first 200 pages is an almost 40 page biography of Richard B. Russell, certainly a household name as I grew up in Georgia. Russell certainly fits the bill for a Caro subject--an accumulator and user of power. What saddened me was the clear explication of how Russell used that power, in his quiet, mostly non-vituperative way, to successfully resist any and all attempts at what we now call the civil rights struggle. Rather than rant as many other racist Southerners were apt to do, he phrased the argument in constitutional terms--a euphemism for states' rights--including his successful efforts to defeat an anti-lynching law.

***** Preliminary Essay to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection by James Marsh 1840, 2nd U.S. edition from the Fourth London Edition Edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge. This is the work read by the American Transcentalists that focused their thought on the difference and the importance of the difference between understanding and reason. In a nutshell:

For, I beg it may be observed, as a point of great moment, that it is not the method of the genuine philosopher to separate his philosophy and religion, and adopting his principles independently in each, to leave them to be reconciled or not, as the case may be. He has, and can have, rationally but one system, in which his philosophy becomes religious, and his religion philosophical.

Where do we look for the image of God in which we are created?

***** The Diary of Pepys, Volume 1. The work as a whole is said to offer an intimate glimpse of middle 17th century society in England. I find this first volume a bit quotidian, yet interesting. He does recount his viewing of Cromwell's head! From Project Gutenberg.

May

***** 1857 Journal of Henry David Thoreau I find that it sometimes actually hurts to read his descriptions of fields, woods, rocks, and stream. Not the passages where he is being naturalist, but when he simply revels in Nature. Also, I find this year to be quite unlike what is often reported for his journal after 1853; I find 1857 to be deeply Transcendentalist:

How rarely I meet a man who can be free, even in thought! We live according to rule. Some men are bedridden; all, world-ridden. I take my neighbor, an intellectual man, out into the woods and invite him to take a new and absolute view of things, to empty clean out of his thoughts all institutions of men and start again; but he can't do it, he sticks to his traditions and his crochets. He thinks that governments, colleges, newspapers, etc. are from everlasting to everlasting. --May 12, 1857

I ordinarily plod along a sort of whitewashed prison entry, subject to some indifferent or even grovelling mood. I do not distinctly realize my destiny. I have turned down my light to the merest glimmer and am doing some task which I have set myself. I take incredibly narrow views, live on the limits, and have no recollection of absolute truth. Mushroom institutions hedge me in. But suddenly, in some fortunate moment, the voice of eternal wisdom reaches me, even in the strain of the sparrow, and liberates me, whet and claridies my senses, makes me a competent witness. -- May 12, 1857

Do not despair of life. You have no doubt force enough to overcome your obstacles. Think of the fox prowling through wood and field in a winter night for something to satisfy his hunger. Notwithstanding cold and the hounds and traps, his race survives. I do not believe any of them ever committed suicide.

***** 1858 Journal of Henry David Thoreau

On the sandy slope of the cut, close by the pond, I notice the chips which some Indian fletcher has made. Yet our poets and philosophers regret that we have no antiquities in America, no ruins to remind us of the past. Hardly can the wind blow away the surface anywhere, exposing the spotless sand, even though the thickest woods have recently stood there, but these little stone chips made by some aboriginal fletcher are revealed. With them, too, this time, as often, I find the white man's arm, a conical bullet, still marked by the grove of the rifle, which has been roughened or rucked up like a thimble on the side by which it struck the sand. As if, by some explained sympathy and attraction, the Indian's and white man's arrowheads sought the same grave at last. --October 15, 1858

***** Henry David's House by Henry David Thoreau, edited by Steven Schnur. Illustrated by Peter Fiore. 2002, Charlesbridge Publishing, Watertown, MA. This is a book for readers of all ages of selections from Walden with oil illustrations to highlight the process of building his house at Walden Pond and living there for two years and two months. The artwork captivated me, particularly the flute-playing Henry in his boat charming the perch.

***** William Wordsworth The Prelude Pages 124-222 in Wordsworth edited by Andrew J. George, Riverside Press 1904. As has been said, for the nineteenth century reader, Wordsworth was the poet of Nature. A close reading of Walden and the Journal reveals the influence Wordsworth's autobiographical poem had on Thoreau. But as with Emerson, Wordsworth said, Thoreau executed. He put these ideas into action. Therein perhaps lies one of the prime reasons many literary critics give Thoreau shorter shrift than Emerson or certainly Wordsworth, he was a doer.

This poem of Wordsworth contains the most Transcendentalist poetically statements I have read.

From Nature doth emotion come, and moods
Of calmness equally are Nature's gift:
This is her glory; these two attributes
Are sister horns that constitute her strength.
Hence Genius, born to strive by interchange
Of peace and excitation, finds in her
His best and purest friend; from her receives
That energy by which he seeks the truth,
From her that happy stillness of the mind
Which fits him to receive it when unsought.

*** Elmore Leonard - Split Images From the 1980s but holding up well. Another fun audiotape of a Leonard book. Pure entertainment with characters you can care about.

June

Read again a few essays from *** Modern Critical Views: Henry David Thoreau, edited with an Introduction by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House 1987. Robert Weisbuch - Thoreau's Dawn and the Lake School's Night. Says that Intimations of Immortality the poem that most influenced Thoreau.

Selections from *** Twentieth Century Interpretations of Walden edited by Richard Ruland. Prentice-Hall 1968. The Intellectual Heritage of Thoreau by Norman Foerster. Originally written 1916-1917. A precursor to Sattlemeir's fine book on Thoreau's reading but more. A nice introduction to Transcendentalism. Referred to Thoreau as "the Transcendental type at its purest." Also The Movement of Thoreau's Prose by John C. Broderick. Broderick seeks to establish that Thoreau applied a structural thread over much of his writing, countering Lowell and even Cook. The latter seeing Throeau as "essentially an aphorist whose unit of writing was the epigrammatic sentence." Broderick thinks, as do I, that Thoreau's best paragraphs (and I would expand that to passages, particularly in the Journal)

move...from the mundane known to the transcendent knowable and back again. By various stylistic means he involves the reader in an intense spiritual experience, only to set him down again in the world from which he has been removed, presumably with more abundant resources for living.
Also two in this volume by E.B. White - A Slight Sound at Evening and Henry Thoreau. In the former "religious feeling without religious images," and in the latter "He never slept, except in bed at night."

**** Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana Wisdom Publications, Boston. 2002 edition. A fine book on vipassana meditation practice. This book dispelled the wrong notions I had about meditation. Perhpas the greates revelation to me was the acknowledgement that "thinking" during mediation was not a mortal sin or even sign of mental feebleness--it is to be be human. Just the title--mindfulness--gave me insight.
Its rules for application


(1) Don't expect anything
(2) Don't strain
(3) Don't rush
(4) Don't cling to anything, and don't reject anything
(5) Let go
(6) Accept everything that arises
(7) Be gentle with yourself
(8) Investigate yourself
(9) View all problems as challenges
(10) Don't ponder
(11) Don't dwell upon contrasts.

*** Henry David Thoreau: Studies and Commentaries. Edited by Walter Harding, George Brenner, and Paul A. Doyle. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 1972. Alfred Kazin's presentation included this:

[Thoreau's Journal] is one of the most fanatical, most arduous, most tragic example in the history of a man trying to live his life by writing it--of a man seeking to shape his life, to make it, by words, as if words alone would not merely report his life but become his life by the fiercest control that language can exert.

**** A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity by Theodore Parker. 1841. " While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit...has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name. The differences between what is called Christianity by the Unitarians in our times, and that of some ages past, is greater than the difference between Mahomet and the Messiah."

**** Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce. There is no cooler movie that Cool Hand Luke. Donn Pearce also wrote the screenplay for that. This, the original novel based on his Florida chain gang experience, is harder, has a rougher edge than the movie. Allusions to the trauma of warfare. A very fine book. Recorded Books version read by the wonderfully gravel-like voice of Mark Hammer.

***** The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers edited by Tim Hunt. Stanford University Press, 2001. The five stars for Hunt's 5 volume set of the complete poems. Need an idea for my Christmas present?

Justice and mercy
Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor the fish nor eternal God.

It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth
Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame--besides, I am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.
We had great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.

Jeffers believed poetry should bring us to reality rather than transform or replace it. He engaged permanent things.

*** Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties by Noel Riley Fitch. WW Norton. NY 1983. Remember the centennial of Bloomsday coming up on June 16, 2004! Sylvia Beach coined the term for the day of Ulysses in Joyce's Dublin. This book is the ultimate name dropper of the modernist period. Somewhat journalistic but an interesting slice of life in that literary period.

Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas A. Basbanes. 2001. Breezed though parts of this wonderful book donated to the Daphne Public Library in honor of librarians who recently received advanced degrees: Muriel Nero, Tonja Young, Nancy Seale. I must get my own copy of this book to savor over time.

**** A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. James Joyce Read by John Lynch, Durkin Hayes Audio. Prequel to Ulysses.

*** Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard Read by George Guidall. Recorded Books. Another fun one by Leonard.

July

*** Edmund Wilson by David Castronovo Literature and Life Series. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. NY 1984. From Vintage Books, Vancouver, WA . A very fine neighborhood used bookstore. As I began this in November I wondered why Wilson's reputation and general public awareness were at a low ebb. Reading of his unflinching curmudgeonness and some of the subject matter he undertook are revealed here. Simultaneously, Louis Menand has begun, both in the New York Review of Books and in their recently reissued edition of To the Findland Station, a rehabilation of Wilson. If you have any interest in history or literature from the Civil War, world socialism, the 1920s through the 1960s, you should know Wilson.

Theodore Parker by David Ashcraft. A sermon given at the Miami Valley Unitarian Fellowship 12/1/02. Ashcraft places Parker as the fount of modern Unitarian-Universalist theology. Downloaded from that website. Still current as of July 19, 2003.

*** The Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman. For an audiobook, it is really hard to beat a Tony Hillerman mystery with Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. This one has both.

**** American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism by Dean Grodzins. University of North Carolina Press. 2002. This is the first volume of Grodzins treatment of Parker. It concentractes on his early life and his "heresy." The second volume will cover his abolitionism. Interest in Parker is not high now, Grodzins believes because "he held a view that many today find alien. He was passionately religious, believed deeply in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, without being theologically conservative. This perspective has been almost lost among contemporary intellectuals."
This book is an intellectual-theological biography--going into the theology of Parker and his time as much to serve as a volume in the pantheon of works on Universalist-Unitarian theology as it is his biography. The theological discussions did get a little tiresome at times. The 1841 debate on whether the Sabbath was divinely or humanly inspried occupied over 3 pages. But it must be remembered that one cannot understand Transcendentalism without an understanding of the Unitarianism that came before it. I do await the next volume.

**** Way Station by Clifford D. Simak Over and over I read this book, one of my all time favorite comfort zone books. I will never tire of it. A good sci-fi story but so much more without overwhelming the story or the fun of reading it.

August

***** The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Narrated by Norman Dietz. Excerpted from History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition edited by Nicholas Biddle. Recorded Books. This short version continues to whet my appetite for the whole enchilada.

***** Ulysses by James Joyce. What can a mere mortal reader say about Ulysses? All I can say is I finally got around to it! I bought this corrected text by Gabler version at the UWM bookstore in Kalamazoo in 1987. It's about time. Let's see now, I've read the entire Bible at least once straight through, Walden several times, Ulysses now, nearing completion of Thoreau's Journal. What can be next but Proust!

Ending the month by beginning another year in Thoreau's Journal: 1859.

September

***** 1859 in Thoreau's Journal. A great passage on solitude:

I am invited to take some party of ladies or gentlemen on an excursion, --to walk or sail, or the like, --but by all kinds of evasions I omit it, and am thought to be rude and unaccommodating therefore. They do not consider that the wood-path and the boat are my studio, where I maintain a sacred solitude and cannot admit promiscuous company. I will see them occasionally in an evening or at the table, however. They do not think of taking a child away from its school to go a-huckleberrying with them. Why should not I, then have my school and school hours to be respected? Ask me for a certain number of dollars if you will, but do not ask me for my afternoons.

And on Transcendentalism:

It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair's breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany...you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward beauty? You have got to be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are...If it were required to know the position of the fruit-dots or the character of the indusium, nothing could be easier than to ascertain it; but if it is required that you be affected by ferns, that they amount to anything, to you, that they be another sacred scripture and revelation to you, helping to redeem your life, this end is not so surely accomplished...[You can analyze a sentence in the Aristotelean method.] But if you should ever perceive the meaning you would disregard all the rest. So far science goes, and it punctually leaves off there, --tells you finally where it is to be found and its synonyms and rests from its labors.

Shades of John Brown, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, today's dissenters: "Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made, and declared by any number of men to be good, when they are not good?"

*** The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd Audiobook from the Daphne Public Library. A good story from an obvious good storyteller. Little quotes from apiary science give morals appropriate to life and the story. Often I've found adults poorly project teenage sensibilities when they try to write a novel from such a perspective. Kidd does fine here. I wonder about two things though: is Kidd from the Deep South and is she too young to remember the times of the book's setting. I say that not in any way to excuse anything that occurred regarding the negative--dark side, if you will--of racism in the South. I ask these questions because these elements in the book seem to come from history, not personal experience. Perhaps away from white society people did live and talk as the Boatwrights do here. I do not know because I do not have that experience. What experience I do have though concerns face to face relationships between white men and older black women. The South was then simply a more polite place than the book suggests. Black women, expecially those who seemed to be older or who were caring for white children were, in my experience, shown deference. Now among themselves, men and boys would say the most outrageous things--many of which are frankly beyond the imagination of decent people. On a less serious level, I've been present when a person of genteel manners called a black man, say a gas station attendant "Sir," only to beat themselves up about the slip once we were again in private--but it was not openly retracted. It is really hard to convey some aspects of the pre-integration, pre-Jimmy Carter South, without crossing the line of credibility, so I'll just say it this way. In the South of then, it did not matter how close a black and a white person were as long as their respective social stations were maintained. In the North, it did not matter to how high a social station a black person rose, as long as they did not get too close.

*** 1/2 Michael C. Keith The Next Better Place: A Father and Son on the Road. A memoir as fulfilling as a novel. On the Road seen from a kid's perspective.

**** The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism Edited by Joel Myerson. MLA 1984. I would give a lot for an update of this first comprehensive bibliography of American Transcendentalism. It is simply wonderful.

*** Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell I had a preconceived notion of this book based on a few patchy memories of reviews from 2000. From those memories, I anticipated a woodsy coming of age novel. Actually reading it revealed it to be that and so much more. I find interesting novels well, interesting. When they are written in the first person, so much the better!

*** Elmore Leonard When the Women Come out to Dance Recorded Books on CD. 6.75 hours of short stories by the master of crime writers. Fragments here you will discover later became novels--so much more the fun. A good companion while driving through the south Alabama piney woods.

October

*** Stick by Elmore Leonard. Eight and one-quarter hours of unabridged fun--perhaps the most fun you can have while driving the noxiously boring I85-65 between Atlanta and Mobile! There is a writing lesson in Leonard's books, "Just Say It!"

***** Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter Knopf 1964. Bought from a truly great used bookstore--Tappin Book Mine in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Other volumes I've bought there over time include the Lyrical Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Justine by Laurence Durrell. So far I'm out about $22! www.TappinBookMine.com.
I've been working my way through this delicious tome since the beginning of August. Rather than a formal history, this is more an intellectual memoir--a fine book. What struck me most about the book, other than its fine title, was its age. As I read it actions were occurring on the part of the Bush administration, the religious right, and popular culture that Hofstadter either highlights or predicts. No changes in the last 40 years, it would seem. Harold Bloom's The American Religion takes up on a part of Hofstadter's thesis. Hofstadter's indictment of American education continues to play out in the same way he discussed so long ago. To him American education aims to turn out experts, not intellectuals or men of culture. The loss of art in the curriculum of many schools continues. His closing paragraph is worthy of inclusion here:

One of the major virtues of liberal society in the past was that it made possible such a variety of styles of intellectual life--one can find men notable for being passionate and rebellious, others for being elegant and sumptuous, or spare and astringent, clever and complex, patient and wise, and some equipped mainly to observe and endure. What matters is the openness and generosity needed to comprehend the varieties of excellence that could be found even in a single and rather parochial society. Dogmatic, apocalyptic predictions about the collapse of liberal culture or the disappearance of high culture may be right or wrong; but one thing about them seems certain: they are more likely to instill self-pity and despair than the will to resist or the confidence to make the most of one's creative energies. It is possible, of course, that under modern conditions the avenues of choice are being closed, and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible; but in so far as the weight of one's will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it is not to be so.

** Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. Subtitle: A Novel of Mythic Proportions. Algonquin Press 1998. The hot thing in LA (Lower Alabama) these days--movie soon. Though I must say such is not my cup of tea.

***** Henry Builds a Cabin by D. B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin, Boston 2002. Not just a wonderful retelling from Walden of Henry building his house at Walden Pond, but through the illustrations and text together a rich tapestry of American enterprise and self-determination. Illustrations here can be viewed as simple graphic representations of the story as they are. But, quite importantly, I think, they have a depth that allows new perspective on each new viewing.
The first read--and here I speak of either the child or the adult because this book has no age bounds--conveys the story. The second read the beauty of Nature surrounding Henry's house. A third reading reaveals subtle and satisfying visual allusions like the pencil Henry uses to design his house. A close look reveals it is a John Thoreau & Sons pencil, the Thoreau family business. In another image Henry's boat merges with the Pond as in the larger work on which this story is based Henry merged and became one with the pond as he with his flute charmed the perch. So many before have spoken the untruth that Henry built his house at Walden to be a hermit. Here we see visitor after visitor inspecting the house and expecting further company.
This book pleases me very much. I think those who read it will not forget it.

***** Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. My copy an old Volume 29 of Harvard Classics. I recently decided that even though I knew a fair amount about Darwin and his theories, it was time to read him in the original. I had read about half of the Voyage before but had been distracted away from it. This read was from beginning to end and was a delight! Darwin's writing surprised me with its wonder and sheer mastery of the language (expressed in an early 19th century form). Witness: "Delight itself, however is a weak term to express the feeling of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest." Or,

"Nature, in these climes, chooses her vocalists from more humble performers than in Europe. A small frog, of the genus Hyla, sits on a blade of grass about an inch above the surface of the water, and sends forth a pleasing chirp: when several are together they sing in harmony on different notes."

This book is his record of the nearly five year voyage of the Beagle around the world during which Charles Darwin was the ship's naturalist. Throughout his life he mined these memories, his collections, and analyses to derive his theory of Natural Selection. It is though also a fine read of a voyage from England in the 1830s with stops including Brazil, Argentina (the Pampas, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego), Chile, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, St. Helena, and Ascension. Very fine indeed.

November

**** Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait by Carlos Baker. This book submerges the reader in the society surrounding Emerson so deeply it is as if the housekeeper tells the story by voice to you. Baker lays these incredibly documented lives out in a way we can get to the heart of the issues without reading the volumes he and other professional readers must to garner this level of understanding. Baker's writing style adds to the experience since this reads like a good novel. Indeed I learned several facts reading this book but more. It conveys--I think this had to be Baker's very purpose--what life, the quotidian--was for this group of greats brought together in Concord, Massachusetts. Ah, to be there at a strawberries and cream party at the Emersons with the Hawthornes, Alcotts, Sanborn, and Thoreau! To hear the talk ranging from the growth habits and taste of strawberries to the late John Brown to Plutarch. Reading this book is as close as we mere mortals will get to the Concord Time Travel Express.

***** The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This a companion volume to the Learning Channel series Great Books. Preface by Walter Cronkite. Wonderful reading but it took me about half way through before I realized this was the Sixth Edition. Too much had been added in response to criticism over the past 13 years. I put this aside awaiting a (reprint) copy of the First Edition. Why I want to read it is to see what hit the world in late November 1859. Thoreau had a copy within a few months and began to see its logic. First impact, first impression as a book is what I'm after, not a scientific treatise that must be critiqued or supported in every detail.

***** The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial: A History of the Magazine and its Contributors by Joel Myerson. Farleigh Dickinson University Press. 1980. This is such an important book. I wish it to be on my shelf, yet this copy is an interlibrary loan from Auburn University (gift suggestion!). The individual bios and the references are simply choice. As my reading within the field continues, I find to some extent that my research is progressing backwards--perhaps this and Myerson's subsequent bibliography should have come earlier. A great project would be an update of the bibliography of Transcendentalism (see entry above in September), including webpages . Ah, for the academic life. Sigh.

As I have traveled the pages of Transcendentalism, I have in large measure avoided Emerson. Reasons for this include a desire to hear from the others first and not become fixed on Emerson as have too many others. Another reason is that I am not a fan of his writing style. But on Thanksgiving Eve, I launched into Emerson, opening the Library of America volume of Essays & Lectures, notes by Joel Porte. A few results next month.

December

Reading ***** Emerson. What can I say here without being trite or completely redundant to the millions of words others have written about RWE? Here goes a try. I left most of Emerson's works for the end of my Transcendentalism voyage because I knew for most everyone else, he defines Transcendentalism. That seemed to me to present the possibility that he also overwhelmed the field. To be familiar with it first and work out the influences later seemed appropriate to me. Why I'm not so sure of but I think there was a little rooting for the underdogs involved. I enjoyed coming to understand through wide reading that he, Thoreau, Parker, and Fuller were the Fab 4, but also that many others had Transcendentalist views and contributions to American intellectual history and perhaps even to the way we live.
Now to Emerson's works. During late November and December I read "The American Scholar," "The Divinity School Address," "Literary Ethics," Representative Men, "Self-Reliance," "The Method of Nature," "Man the Reformer," "Lecture on the Times," "The Transcendentalist," "The Young American," "History," "Compensation," and "The Over-Soul." Previously I've read Nature a couple of times.
For this (self-imposed) limited space, I will not address each essay but rather will attempt some sort of come away synthesis. To be so bold, I think I see in Emerson:
(1) a call to be an individual, in whatever way is meaningful for you but relying on your own view of the world. "Imitation cannot go above its model," he says.
(2) that, what shall we call it, religion, spirituality, consideration of the Divine, is important for human nature. What form it takes is far less important, if it matters at all. "God is, not was."
(3) America has experienced its own literary launch. No longer need "we" have to look to Europe.
(4) We are literally a part of nature.

**** The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. Advancing the genre of murder mysteries again--after Tony Hillerman, Caleb Carr, John Dunning, and Nevada Barr took it out of pulp fiction. This effort takes it literally into the field of literature. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translates Dante's Divine Comedy, a group of literary friends assists him. The group includes the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, George Washington Green, and James T. Fields. That much is history. The novel takes off by spinning Dante's tales of Hell into murders ever so real in post-Civil War Cambridge and Boston. After reading this--can a murder mystery be said to be fun?--I do not see how I can continue to neglect my copy of Longfellow's Dante.

*** Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (her works recommended by fellow time traveller buff Jeff Gardner). Stories of time travel to the past seem to be always set in the future. Oxford 2055. I doubt several of the characters in that place and time were Oxford dons--perhaps prima dons! A time net journey back goes a bit awry. More detail here runs the risk of giving away too much of the story so I will not continue in that vein. I've found a sense of fun in many time travel stories; this one was rewarding but fun not the payoff. If you have interests in these keywords: time travel, Medieval times, rural England of the past, medieval religion, The Plague, then read this.

*** The Spider's Web by Wayne Greenhaw. River City Publishing, Montgomery, Alabama. From the Daphne Public Library . A coming of age novella set amidst a childrens' hospital ward. My connection was the orderly George Washington. Memories flooded back to me of an orderly of similar kindness--that same often poor memory wants to call him John Cochran--at the Soperton Hospital in about 1955--the same time as this story. Being left alone at 5 is a rough thing and a kind voice goes a long way.

**** Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester. An unabridged audiobook from Recorded Books, LLC, read by the author. Krakatoa is legend in the language of humanity. The word alone evokes visions of seemingly impossible cataclysms. The event was so great it does not seem ancient history--and indeed it was not. The great eruption was only, in one measure, one generation out of human memory--four years before my elder grandfather was born and I certainly knew people in my youth born early enough to remember the event (alas though not a subject of conversation with me). I first learned of the event by a school teacher's reading of Twenty One Balloons, for the longest time my favorite book. But loose on the facts, it even has the peak in the wrong ocean!
Winchester's treatment is as fascinating using the facts. For me, it was the perfect fit between fact and narrative for the audiobook format.

*** To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Another of her time travel novels, this one in the form of a Victorian comedy of manners taking off of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. Jerome is actually encountered in the book and of course on the river.

** Foe by J. M. Coetzee. The story line--a woman becomes a castaway on the same island as Crusoe and Friday. Fascinating story concept. For execution I give the recent Nobel laureate 2 stars. [The low rating has nothing to do with my digust at the Nobel committee for not awarding John Updike.]


Created January 11, 2003

Updated February 10, 2004 with some omissions corrected for April 2003. Moved to Windstream June 2008 from Zebra.net.


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