Tag Archives: Charles Pierre

the true intellectual …

 

 

 

Something brought the following thought to the forefront of my consciousness this morning.

That the true intellectual knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

I would imagine that this is true of people in other fields — say, an actor or athlete whom everyone raves about, who knows better than anyone else what they excel at and what their weaknesses are — what they can and can’t do, so to speak.

Relatives — which is to say, people who know me well — have often accused me, unfairly, of braggadocio in my writings, in these posts.

 

 

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I was thinking this morning about intellectuals and writers I have known personally.

I became a close friend of Charles Pierre, a New York poet and author of five books of poetry, in my early days in New York. There was a meeting of minds, and there were many deep discussions. From Charlie, I learned much about poetry, and how little I knew. I also learned that some people are more well read than me. His reading was prodigious, deep, and wide in scope: poetry, classic and contemporary (I had never head of Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery); classical and modem fiction; and philosophy. There was no way I could ever match his knowledge of poetry. Or of contemporary literature, including the avant-garde and the poets who were reading their works in the bars of Manhattan at Sunday poetry readings. I had dipped into James Joyce’s Ulysses. Charlie was reading it when we were first becoming acquainted, assiduously.

He gave me a learned, extemporaneous “lecture” in one of our chats on the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. He told me about his admiration for the poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (whom he was reading at the time) and how difficult it was to translate poetry. About what he thought the best translations of Dante (whom I had never read) were. About the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (whom I had never heard of) and Juvenal’s satires. About how much he admired the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran (whom I had also never heard of).

And, then there was my therapist, Ralph Colp Jr. MD. I was a history major. Dr. Colp (doctor, scholar, and writer) was a walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of history was encyclopedic; his mastery and recall of the facts near total. He put me to shame. He caught me in faux pas, such as placing Frederick the Great in the wrong century.

And, yet, Dr. Colp once said to me, “There are great gaps in my knowledge,” by which he meant his knowledge in general (his book learning). He had the humility of a true intellectual.

Guess what. So do I.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 6, 2020

the great American novel hasn’t been written yet (review of “Of Time and the River”)

 

 

“the great American novel hasn’t been written yet”

review of Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe

TIME Magazine

March 11, 1935

 

 

The Great American Novel has not yet been written. Herman Melville did several chapters of it, Walt Whitman some chapter headings, Henry James an appendectiform footnote. Mark Twain roughed out the comic bits, Theodore Dreiser made a prehistoric-skeleton outline, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway all contributed suggestions. Last week it began to look as if Thomas Wolfe might also be at work on this hypothetical volume. His first installment (Look Homeward, Angel) appeared five years ago, his second (Of Time and the River) last week. In the interval Author Wolfe had written some 2,000,000 words, now has ready two more volumes of his projected six. Great in conception and scope, Author Wolfe’s big book occasionally falters in execution, but his second volume is written with a surer hand than the first. If installments to come improve at such a rate there will no longer be any question about Wolfe’s great and lasting contribution to U. S. letters.

Scene, as well as subject, of course, is the U. S. Time-scheme will run from 1791 to 1933; the first two volumes cover 1884-1925, the last will go back to an earlier beginning. Readers of Look Homeward, Angel will remember its wildly sensuous account of the Gant family. In Of Time and the River Author Wolfe picks up his story, continues his method: he flays real life until the skin is off it and the blood comes. The skin-narrative can be shortly told. Eugene Gant, youngest of his family, at 19 leaves his Southern home and goes to Harvard. His father, a Jeremiah miscast, is slowly dying. In Cambridge Eugene studies hard at his playwriting course, makes many a queer acquaintance, one good friend: Starwick, a Midwestern esthete. After going home for his father’s funeral, and finishing his Harvard course, Eugene goes to Manhattan, teaches English for a while at a downtown college, then goes abroad. He gets little good out of England, finds Paris more to his taste. There he meets Starwick again, spends hard-living months with him and two U. S. girls, one of whom has left her husband for Starwick. Eugene falls in love with the other, only to find that she, too, loves Starwick. His disappointment, coupled with a suspicion that his friend is not as manly as he might be, leads to a final quarrel. The quartet breaks up, Eugene adventures for a time by himself, finally decides to go home. As he boards the liner at Cherbourg he sees a face, hears a voice, that he knows will haunt him forever. Here the book ends.

But no such bald outline can give even the superficial taste of this big (912-page) book. It contains hundreds of characters, scenes that range from harsh realism through satire and humor to passages of Joycean impressionism, Whitmanesque poetry. In form it is variously a narrative, an epic, a diatribe, a chronicle, a psalm, but in essence it is a U. S. voice. Author Wolfe’s whole theme: “Why is it we have crossed the stormy seas so many times alone, lain in a thousand alien rooms at night hearing the sounds of time, dark time, and thought until heart, brain, flesh and spirit were sick and weary with the thought of it; ‘Where shall I go now? What shall I do?’. . . We are so lost, so lonely, so forsaken in America: immense and savage skies bend over us, and we have no door.”

Of Manhattan and its citizens he writes: “Hard-mouthed, hard-eyed, and strident-tongued, with their million hard gray faces, they streamed past upon the streets forever, like a single animal, with the sinuous and baleful convolutions of an enormous reptile. And the magical and shining air—the strange, subtle and enchanted weather, was above them, and the buried men were strewn through the earth on which they trod, and a bracelet of great tides was flashing round them, and the enfabled rock on which they swarmed swung eastward in the marches of the sun into eternity, and was masted like a ship with its terrific towers, and was flung with a lion’s port between its tides into the very maw of the infinite, all-taking ocean. . . .”

The Author. Thomas Clayton Wolfe’s career closely parallels that of his hero, Eugene Gant. Born in Asheville, N. C. in 1900, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at 19, then took an M.A. at Harvard, where he studied under the late Professor George Pierce Baker in his famed 47 Workshop. After traveling and studying in Europe he got a job as instructor in the English department at New York University. Five years ago he resigned to devote himself to his magnum opus, went to Europe again on a Guggenheim Fellowship. An omnivorous reader, he says of his hero “Within a period of ten years he read at least 20,000 volumes.” After futile searches for “a place to write,” Thomas Wolfe is at present living in Brooklyn. Says Eugene, in autobiographical disgust: ” ‘To write’—to be that most foolish, vain, and impotent of all impostors, a man who sought the whole world over ‘looking for a place to write’, when, he knew now with every naked, brutal penetration of his life ‘the place to write’ was Brooklyn, Boston, Hammersmith, or Kansas—anywhere on earth, so long as the heart, the power, the faith, the desperation, the bitter and unendurable necessity, and the naked courage were there inside him all the time.”

Big, heavyset, wild-eyed, Thomas Wolfe looks the intensely serious writer he is. In Sinclair Lewis’s belligerent speech accepting the Nobel Prize (1930) he said of Wolfe: “He may have a chance to be the greatest American writer. . . . In fact I don’t see why he should not be one of the greatest world writers.” No backscratcher, in Of Time and the River Author Wolfe replies: “A book like Main Street, which made such a stir, is like Main Street.”

 

 

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This review caught my eye. Because it gives a feeling for how Thomas Wolfe (whom I have been intending to read more of, if I can find the time) was perceived relatively early in his career.

Regarding the anonymous Time reviewer’s comment that “The Great American Novel has not yet been written” yet, I disagree that it hadn’t. Of course, Walt Whitman was not a novelist (though he wrote a couple of novels); and the review is written in the breezy style that Time was known for.

I consider it my own opinion, but come to think of it, I think that it was first expressed to me by a former friend of mine, Charles Pierre: namely, that The Great American Novel had been written long before Wolfe and Hemingway existed — by Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. Charlie and I were both reading Moby-Dick at about the same time. There is no doubt on my part as to the truth of this statement.

 
— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

 

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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“I have been passing my time very pleasurably here [at his father-in-law’s home in Boston] … chiefly in lounging on a sofa … & reading Shakespeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.”

 

— Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, February 24, 1849

 

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

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“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame­work”

 

— Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

 

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

 

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

 

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader. I am very engaged when I read and am anything but a passive reader. I am continually asking myself, what do I think about the thoughts expressed and the writer, and am constantly trying to “extrapolate,” in a sense, ideas and information to ruminate upon.

A book is not merely an inanimate thing waiting to be read. Reading is an experience like any other, say a personal or romantic relationship. What one gets out of a book — the experience of reading it – depends both upon what the book offers and what you, the reader, invest in it, the energy level, enthusiasm, discernment, and attentiveness of the reader.

 

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The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

 

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See also my post:

 

“my treasured books”

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/02/11/roger-w-smith-my-treasured-books/

“I don’t have to be afraid”

 

 

 

… if sleeplessness

or passiveness keeps you from the usual
go-round of night and day : take this message
and imagine it was sent to you alone

with these words: I don’t have to be afraid
of you now, since you no longer listen.
I’m tired of thinking about going on

with it all. I will never understand
why you ever needed me for anything.
These are the last words I will ever send you.

 

— Charles Pierre, “The Dark Muse” (excerpt), Green Vistas: Poems 1969-1979 (New York: Northpoint Press, 1981)

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique, of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

“I Hear America Singing”

 

 

 

R-62128

 

 

 

 

 

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I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

 

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

 

 

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In the 1970’s, when I first lived in New York, I used to frequently borrow LP records from the New York Public Library. I once borrowed an LP on the Caedmon label (a pioneer in audio recordings) of the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970) reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

I told my poet friend Charles Pierre, a great admirer of Whitman, whose poetry influenced the former’s own book of poetry (his first), Green Vistas, about the marvelous (as I found it to be) recording.

“Who was the reader?” he asked.

“Ed Begley,” I said.

“Ed Begley,” he answered. “Oh, he’s wonderful.”

I was wondering how he knew this (when it came to Whitman).

 

 

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“I Hear America Singing” was the first poem by Whitman – THE poem — that got me into Whitman. I had to hear it out loud, it seemed.

Listen.

I heard the poem being read (by a different reader) on an audiotape yesterday.

It is a very short poem. Notable for:

Utter simplicity. Saying just enough to convey the meaning, profoundly, without anything else (and no extraneous references or allusions, literary or otherwise). For example: “The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.” Just that: a girl sewing or washing. Nothing more needs to be said. (Normally, we might expect to hear “sewing a new coat,” or “washing clothes.”)

Biblical cadences and parallelism: “The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;” “the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown.” Giving the reader an exquisite sense of aesthetic satisfaction and of completion.

Parallelism achieved by the use of grammatical constructions — i.e., gerunds such as “sewing” or “washing.”

Repetition in the way one might hear in a nursery rhyme: “The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck”; “the day what belongs to the day.”

The use of adjectives that one might not expect in the context, adjectives that delight: “the delicious singing of the mother.”

A manner of stating things so that what seems simple and apparent has profound implications, and what is not said or left out is as important as what is said. For example: “the hatter singing as he stands.” This phrase invites us to “fill in the blanks” and envision the hatter standing at a workbench. Whitman tells only so much and invites the reader to complete the picture in his or her mind. It is a kind of addition by subtraction.

The poem itself sings.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

manifesto (my response to critical comments on this site)

 

 

Montaigne wrote about everything under the sun; he’s my model. Samuel Johnson in his essays did something similar. A former English teacher colleague of my wife told me once, “You could write about a doorknob and make it interesting.”

I’m a writer, not a professor, policy wonk, or doctor.

I do not pretend to expertise I don’t have or put on airs.

I write ESSAYS. I know they are consistently good and of a consistent level of excellence. If you like good writing, you will like my blog. Which is my followers keep coming back, regardless of subject matter.

I write from personal experience. MY experience. Which is exactly what Montaigne did. Which is what good writers do. If I tried to write from an omniscient stance and pose as an authority, my writing would fall flat. Any writer will give the same advice: write about what you KNOW (and have experienced).

It is not surprising that some people will not find my writing interesting or appreciate it. To appreciate it, you have to be able to appreciate good writing.

If I write about Mozart, I’m not fooling myself that I am an authority. But I think that the writing is good and interesting. That’s what matters. If someone wants a self-help piece, or to bone up on history or politics or classical music, my blog is unlikely to be of interest or value to them. Its appeal lies solely in its excellence of writing.

I do do an awful lot of background research to ensure that my pieces are factually accurate and that I have covered the material. I rarely make factual errors or wild assertions or claims. This is different from stating opinions, when it’s clear that that’s what I’m doing.

Good essay writing should have a point of view. We’re not talking about a scholarly monograph. But, when I provide facts or background material, it’s usually reliably accurate.

Some of my writing is whimsical, impressionistic, or what have you. A light piece playing with or sometimes floating an idea or trying to convey an impression or mood. This is well within the essay writing tradition.

I don’t know quite how I would compare alongside acknowledged masters. But, I am convinced that my essays are very good and worth reading mainly for the pleasure and enlightenment that can be derived from good writing.

An artist paints in his studio. A lot of what motivates him is the pleasure of painting and doing it well. Once you’ve gotten good at something, it’s a lot of fun to keep doing it. You get pleasure every time, and there’s a feeling of self-affirmation.

The artist wants his work to be exhibited … craves recognition.

The pleasure of writing well, of meeting my own standard of excellence, is its own reward. I know when I’ve done justice to a topic and met my own high standards. There’s great satisfaction in carrying it off.

A lot of my pieces probably don’t seem that substantial. But, if one looked closely, they would see the craftsmanship and how well done they are. Yet, think of all the people who buy a pair of shoes or a bottle of wine with no idea which ones are best or appreciation of what production entails.

Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets. But I know what I can and cannot do. I do not write fiction or poetry. It’s a matter of what kind of writing I am qualified or prepared to do, not whether I can or cannot write well.

I have a small, slowly growing coterie of followers. I get great satisfaction out of their positive feedback and knowing I have reached them. It speaks well for me and them that they are discerning readers who can see the person embedded in the piece as well as the words and who appreciate my range of interests and integrity.

That’s enough for me — it means so much to me — but I do crave recognition and believe I deserve it.

The best man at my wedding, Charles Pierre, is a poet who had at that time just self-published his first book of poetry. He always made it clear that, in his opinion, he was good, despite not getting recognition, for the most part. I know very little about poetry, but I read his poetry and somehow, I knew that what he claimed was true.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

 

hats

 

 

The other day, I used a cliché in conversation with a friend. I had shared an audiotape of an interesting lecture with him. “If you don’t find it interesting,” I said, “I’ll eat my hat.”

He joked that I don’t wear a hat.

“Yes,” I replied, “nobody does. Since JFK.”

 

 

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Afterwards, I got to thinking about a remark a friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, once made to me.

In the preface to his Collected Stories (1978), the author John Cheever wrote: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat [italics added].”

Alluding to this, my friend Charlie observed that this indicates something that was true of what he called the “New Yorker writer” and New Yorker stories.

“They trade off on what you already know,” he said. “It’s a commonplace that men used to wear hats.” The implication: such stories are not really original in content; they don’t take us into new realms of consciousness, thought, or experience.

 

 

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Another thought, a memory, about hats occurred to me because of my friend’s jest the other day.

When I was in the seventh grade, I rode a bike to school every day. It was freezing cold in the winter months. We lived in New England. Often, I would get to school and would be rubbing my hands at my desk; they would seem almost frostbitten. There would be tears in my eyes.

I didn’t wear gloves; nor, for the most part, did I wear a hat.

Actually, I had a knit cap. My mother would insist that I put in on every morning.

It was probably something stupid such as that I didn’t want to mess up my hair (slicked with hair tonic). That must have been the reason. Anyway, I didn’t want to comply. But I would give in and put on my hat.

When I got just past our front yard, I would take the knit cap off and stick it my back pocket.

My mother in later years would joke with me about this. She said that she would be watching me, through the kitchen window, leave for school. (She was the solicitous type — although she was not overbearing — and undoubtedly wanted to make sure I got off okay.) She said she would be amused to see me take my hat off, without fail, when I thought I was out of sight.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

missed opportunities

 

 

 

… if sleeplessness

or passiveness keeps you from the usual
go-round of night and day : take this message
and imagine it was sent to you alone

with these words: I don’t have to be afraid
of you now, since you no longer listen.
I’m tired of thinking about going on

with it all. I will never understand
why you ever needed me for anything.
These are the last words I will ever send you.

 

 

— Charles Pierre, “The Dark Muse” (excerpt), Green Vistas: Poems 1969-1979 (New York: Northpoint Press, 1981)

 

 

 

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“Мне отмщение, и Аз воздам” (Vengeance is mine, I will repay)

 

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” Romans 12:19 (quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35); used as epigraph on title page of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

 

 

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Alexey Alexandrovitch went into her boudoir.

At the table, sitting sideways in a low chair, was Vronsky, his face hidden in his hands, weeping. He jumped up at the doctor’s voice, took his hands from his face, and saw Alexey Alexandrovitch. Seeing the husband, he was so overwhelmed that he sat down again, drawing his head down to his shoulders, as if he wanted to disappear; but he made an effort over himself, got up and said:

“She is dying. The doctors say there is no hope. I am entirely in your power, only let me be here … though I am at your disposal. I…”

Alexey Alexandrovitch, seeing Vronsky’s tears, felt a rush of that nervous emotion always produced in him by the sight of other people’s suffering, and turning away his face, he moved hurriedly to the door, without hearing the rest of his words. From the bedroom came the sound of Anna’s voice saying something. Her voice was lively, eager, with exceedingly distinct intonations. Alexey Alexandrovitch went into the bedroom, and went up to the bed. She was lying turned with her face towards him. Her cheeks were flushed crimson, her eyes glittered, her little white hands thrust out from the sleeves of her dressing gown were playing with the quilt, twisting it about. It seemed as though she were not only well and blooming, but in the happiest frame of mind. She was talking rapidly, musically, and with exceptionally correct articulation and expressive intonation.

“For Alexey–I am speaking of Alexey Alexandrovitch (what a strange and awful thing that both are Alexey, isn’t it?)–Alexey would not refuse me. I should forget, he would forgive…. But why doesn’t he come? He’s so good he doesn’t know himself how good he is. Ah, my God, what agony! Give me some water, quick! Oh, that will be bad for her, my little girl! Oh, very well then, give her to a nurse. Yes, I agree, it’s better in fact. He’ll be coming; it will hurt him to see her. Give her /to the nurse.”

“Anna Arkadyevna, he has come. Here he is!” said the midwife, trying to attract her attention to Alexey Alexandrovitch.

“Oh, what nonsense!” Anna went on, not seeing her husband. “No, give her to me; give me my little one! He has not come yet. You say he won’t forgive me, because you don’t know him. No one knows him. I’m the only one, and it was hard for me even. His eyes I ought to know–Seryozha has just the same eyes–and I can’t bear to see them because of it. Has Seryozha had his dinner? I know everyone will forget him. He would not forget. Seryozha must be moved into the corner room, and Mariette must be asked to sleep with him.”

All of a sudden she shrank back, was silent; and in terror, as though expecting a blow, as though to defend herself, she raised her hands to her face. She had seen her husband.

“No, no!” she began. “I am not afraid of him; I am afraid of death. Alexey, come here. I am in a hurry, because I’ve no time, I’ve not long left to live; the fever will begin directly and I shall understand nothing more. Now I understand, I understand it all, I see it all!”

Alexey Alexandrovitch’s wrinkled face wore an expression of agony; he took her by the hand and tried to say something, but he could not utter it; his lower lip quivered, but he still went on struggling with his emotion, and only now and then glanced at her. And each time he glanced at her, he saw her eyes gazing at him with such passionate and triumphant tenderness as he had never seen in them.

“Wait a minute, you don’t know … stay a little, stay!…” She stopped, as though collecting her ideas. “Yes,” she began; “yes, yes, yes. This is what I wanted to say. Don’t be surprised at me. I’m still the same…. But there is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her: she loved that man, and I tried to hate you, and could not forget about her that used to be. I’m not that woman. Now I’m my real self, all myself. I’m dying now, I know I shall die, ask him. Even now I feel–see here, the weights on my feet, on my hands, on my fingers. My fingers–see how huge they are! But this will soon all be over…. Only one thing I want: forgive me, forgive me quite. I’m terrible, but my nurse used to tell me; the holy martyr–what was her name? She was worse. And I’ll go to Rome; there’s a wilderness, and there I shall be no trouble to any one, only I’ll take Seryozha and the little one…. No, you can’t forgive me! I know, it can’t be forgiven! No, no, go away, you’re too good!” She held his hand in one burning hand, while she pushed him away with the other.

The nervous agitation of Alexey Alexandrovitch kept increasing, and had by now reached such a point that he ceased to struggle with it. He suddenly felt that what he had regarded as nervous agitation was on the contrary a blissful spiritual condition that gave him all at once a new happiness he had never known. He did not think that the Christian law that he had been all his life trying to follow, enjoined on him to forgive and love his enemies; but a glad feeling of love and forgiveness for his enemies filled his heart. He knelt down, and laying his head in the curve of her arm, which burned him as with fire through the sleeve, he sobbed like a little child. She put her arm around his head, moved towards him, and with defiant pride lifted up her eyes.

“That is he. I knew him! Now, forgive me, everyone, forgive me!… They’ve come again; why don’t they go away?… Oh, take these cloaks off me!”

The doctor unloosed her hands, carefully laying her on the pillow, and covered her up to the shoulders. She lay back submissively, and looked before her with beaming eyes.

“Remember one thing, that I needed nothing but forgiveness, and I want nothing more…. Why doesn’t he come?” she said, turning to the door towards Vronsky. “Do come, do come! Give him your hand.”

Vronsky came to the side of the bed, and seeing Anna, again hid his face in his hands.

“Uncover your face–look at him! He’s a saint,” she said. “Oh! uncover your face, do uncover it!” she said angrily. “Alexey Alexandrovitch, do uncover his face! I want to see him.”

Alexey Alexandrovitch took Vronsky’s hands and drew them away from his face, which was awful with the expression of agony and shame upon it.

“Give him your hand. Forgive him.”

Alexey Alexandrovitch gave him his hand, not attempting to restrain the tears that streamed from his eyes.

“Thank God, thank God!” she said, “now everything is ready. Only to stretch my legs a little. There, that’s capital. How badly these flowers are done–not a bit like a violet,” she said, pointing to the hangings. “My God, my God! when will it end? Give me some morphine. Doctor, give me some morphine! Oh, my God, my God!”

And she tossed about on the bed.

The doctors said that it was puerperal fever, and that it was ninety-nine chances in a hundred it would end in death. The whole day long there was fever, delirium, and unconsciousness. At midnight the patient lay without consciousness, and almost without pulse.

The end was expected every minute.

Vronsky had gone home, but in the morning he came to inquire, and Alexey Alexandrovitch meeting him in the hall, said: “Better stay, she might ask for you,” and himself led him to his wife’s boudoir. Towards morning, there was a return again of excitement, rapid thought and talk, and again it ended in unconsciousness. On the third day it was the same thing, and the doctors said there was hope. That day Alexey Alexandrovitch went into the boudoir where Vronsky was sitting, and closing the door sat down opposite him.

“Alexey Alexandrovitch,” said Vronsky, feeling that a statement of the position was coming, “I can’t speak, I can’t understand. Spare me! However hard it is for you, believe me, it is more terrible for me.”

He would have risen; but Alexey Alexandrovitch took him by the hand and said:

“I beg you to hear me out; it is necessary. I must explain my feelings, the feelings that have guided me and will guide me, so that you may not be in error regarding me. You know I had resolved on a divorce, and had even begun to take proceedings. I won’t conceal from you that in beginning this I was in uncertainty, I was in misery; I will confess that I was pursued by a desire to revenge myself on you and on her. When I got the telegram, I came here with the same feelings; I will say more, I longed for her death. But….” He paused, pondering whether to disclose or not to disclose his feeling to him. “But I saw her and forgave her. And the happiness of forgiveness has revealed to me my duty. I forgive completely. I would offer the other cheek, I would give my cloak if my coat be taken. I pray to God only not to take from me the bliss of forgiveness!”

Tears stood in his eyes, and the luminous, serene look in them impressed Vronsky.

“This is my position: you can trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of the world, I will not abandon her, and I will never utter a word of reproach to you,” Alexey Alexandrovitch went on. “My duty is clearly marked for me; I ought to be with her, and I will be. If she wishes to see you, I will let you know, but now I suppose it would be better for you to go away.”

He got up, and sobs cut short his words. Vronsky too was getting up, and in a stooping, not yet erect posture, looked up at him from under his brows. He did not understand Alexey Alexandrovitch’s feeling, but he felt that it was something higher and even unattainable for him with his view of life.

 

 

Anna Karenina, Part Four, Chapter 17

 

 

 

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The mistake made by Alexey Alexandrovitch in that, when preparing for seeing his wife, he had overlooked the possibility that her repentance might be sincere, and he might forgive her, and she might not die–this mistake was two months after his return from Moscow brought home to him in all its significance. But the mistake made by him had arisen not simply from his having overlooked that contingency, but also from the fact that until that day of his interview with his dying wife, he had not known his own heart. At his sick wife’s bedside he had for the first time in his life given way to that feeling of sympathetic suffering always roused in him by the sufferings of others, and hitherto looked on by him with shame as a harmful weakness. And pity for her, and remorse for having desired her death, and most of all, the joy of forgiveness, made him at once conscious, not simply of the relief of his own sufferings, but of a spiritual peace he had never experienced before. He suddenly felt that the very thing that was the source of his sufferings had become the source of his spiritual joy; that what had seemed insoluble while he was judging, blaming, and hating, had become clear and simple when he forgave and loved.

He forgave his wife and pitied her for her sufferings and her remorse. He forgave Vronsky, and pitied him, especially after reports reached him of his despairing action. He felt more for his son than before. And he blamed himself now for having taken too little interest in him. But for the little newborn baby he felt a quite peculiar sentiment, not of pity, only, but of tenderness. At first, from a feeling of compassion alone, he had been interested in the delicate little creature, who was not his child, and who was cast on one side during her mother’s illness, and would certainly have died if he had not troubled about her, and he did not himself observe how fond he became of her. He would go into the nursery several times a day, and sit there for a long while, so that the nurses, who were at first afraid of him, got quite used to his presence. Sometimes for half an hour at a stretch he would sit silently gazing at the saffron-red, downy, wrinkled face of the sleeping baby, watching the movements of the frowning brows, and the fat little hands, with clenched fingers, that rubbed the little eyes and nose. At such moments particularly, Alexey Alexandrovitch had a sense of perfect peace and inward harmony, and saw nothing extraordinary in his position, nothing that ought to be changed.

But as time went on, he saw more and more distinctly that however natural the position now seemed to him, he would not long be allowed to remain in it. He felt that besides the blessed spiritual force controlling his soul, there was another, a brutal force, as powerful, or more powerful, which controlled his life, and that this force would not allow him that humble peace he longed for. He felt that everyone was looking at him with inquiring wonder, that he was not understood, and that something was expected of him. Above all, he felt the instability and unnaturalness of his relations with his wife.

When the softening effect of the near approach of death had passed away, Alexey Alexandrovitch began to notice that Anna was afraid of him, ill at ease with him, and could not look him straight in the face. She seemed to be wanting, and not daring, to tell him something; and as though foreseeing their present relations could not continue, she seemed to be expecting something from him.

Towards the end of February it happened that Anna’s baby daughter, who had been named Anna too, fell ill. Alexey Alexandrovitch was in the nursery in the morning, and leaving orders for the doctor to be sent for, he went to his office. On finishing his work, he returned home at four. Going into the hall he saw a handsome groom, in a braided livery and a bear fur cape, holding a white fur cloak.

“Who is here?” asked Alexey Alexandrovitch.

“Princess Elizaveta Federovna Tverskaya,” the groom answered, and it seemed to Alexey Alexandrovitch that he grinned.

During all this difficult time Alexey Alexandrovitch had noticed that his worldly acquaintances, especially women, took a peculiar interest in him and his wife. All these acquaintances he observed with difficulty concealing their mirth at something; the same mirth that he had perceived in the lawyer’s eyes, and just now in the eyes of this groom. Everyone seemed, somehow, hugely delighted, as though they had just been at a wedding. When they met him, with ill-disguised enjoyment they inquired after his wife’s health. The presence of Princess Tverskaya was unpleasant to Alexey Alexandrovitch from the memories associated with her, and also because he disliked her, and he went straight to the nursery. In the day nursery Seryozha, leaning on the table with his legs on a chair, was drawing and chatting away merrily. The English governess, who had during Anna’s illness replaced the French one, was sitting near the boy knitting a shawl. She hurriedly got up, curtseyed, and pulled Seryozha.

Alexey Alexandrovitch stroked his son’s hair, answered the governess’s inquiries about his wife, and asked what the doctor had said of the baby.

“The doctor said it was nothing serious, and he ordered a bath, sir.”

“But she is still in pain,” said Alexey Alexandrovitch, listening to the baby’s screaming in the next room.

“I think it’s the wet-nurse, sir,” the Englishwoman said firmly.

“What makes you think so?” he asked, stopping short.

“It’s just as it was at Countess Paul’s, sir. They gave the baby medicine, and it turned out that the baby was simply hungry: the nurse had no milk, sir.”

Alexey Alexandrovitch pondered, and after standing still a few seconds he went in at the other door. The baby was lying with its head thrown back, stiffening itself in the nurse’s arms, and would not take the plump breast offered it; and it never ceased screaming in spite of the double hushing of the wet-nurse and the other nurse, who was bending over her.

“Still no better?” said Alexey Alexandrovitch.

“She’s very restless,” answered the nurse in a whisper.

“Miss Edwarde says that perhaps the wet-nurse has no milk,” he said.

“I think so too, Alexey Alexandrovitch.”

“Then why didn’t you say so?”

“Who’s one to say it to? Anna Arkadyevna still ill…” said the nurse discontentedly.

The nurse was an old servant of the family. And in her simple words there seemed to Alexey Alexandrovitch an allusion to his position.

The baby screamed louder than ever, struggling and sobbing. The nurse, with a gesture of despair, went to it, took it from the wet-nurse’s arms, and began walking up and down, rocking it.

“You must ask the doctor to examine the wet-nurse,” said Alexey Alexandrovitch. The smartly dressed and healthy-looking nurse, frightened at the idea of losing her place, muttered something to herself, and covering her bosom, smiled contemptuously at the idea of doubts being cast on her abundance of milk. In that smile, too, Alexey Alexandrovitch saw a sneer at his position.

“Luckless child!” said the nurse, hushing the baby, and still walking up and down with it.

Alexey Alexandrovitch sat down, and with a despondent and suffering face watched the nurse walking to and fro.

When the child at last was still, and had been put in a deep bed, and the nurse, after smoothing the little pillow, had left her, Alexey Alexandrovitch got up, and walking awkwardly on tiptoe, approached the baby. For a minute he was still, and with the same despondent face gazed at the baby; but all at once a smile, that moved his hair and the skin of his forehead, came out on his face, and he went as softly out of the room.

In the dining room he rang the bell, and told the servant who came in to send again for the doctor. He felt vexed with his wife for not being anxious about this exquisite baby, and in this vexed humor he had no wish to go to her; he had no wish, either, to see Princess Betsy. But his wife might wonder why he did not go to her as usual; and so, overcoming his disinclination, he went towards the bedroom. As he walked over the soft rug towards the door, he could not help overhearing a conversation he did not want to hear.

“If he hadn’t been going away, I could have understood your answer and his too. But your husband ought to be above that,” Betsy was saying.

“It’s not for my husband; for myself I don’t wish it. Don’t say that!” answered Anna’s excited voice.

“Yes, but you must care to say good-bye to a man who has shot himself on your account….”

“That’s just why I don’t want to.”

With a dismayed and guilty expression, Alexey Alexandrovitch stopped and would have gone back unobserved. But reflecting that this would be undignified, he turned back again, and clearing his throat, he went up to the bedroom. The voices were silent, and he went in.

Anna, in a gray dressing gown, with a crop of short clustering black curls on her round head, was sitting on a settee. The eagerness died out of her face, as it always did, at the sight of her husband; she dropped her head and looked round uneasily at Betsy. Betsy, dressed in the height of the latest fashion, in a hat that towered somewhere over her head like a shade on a lamp, in a blue dress with violet crossway stripes slanting one way on the bodice and the other way on the skirt, was sitting beside Anna, her tall flat figure held erect. Bowing her head, she greeted Alexey Alexandrovitch with an ironical smile.

“Ah!” she said, as though surprised. “I’m very glad you’re at home. You never put in an appearance anywhere, and I haven’t seen you ever since Anna has been ill. I have heard all about it–your anxiety. Yes, you’re a wonderful husband!” she said, with a meaning and affable air, as though she were bestowing an order of magnanimity on him for his conduct to his wife.

Alexey Alexandrovitch bowed frigidly, and kissing his wife’s hand, asked how she was.

“Better, I think,” she said, avoiding his eyes.

“But you’ve rather a feverish-looking color,” he said, laying stress on the word “feverish.”

“We’ve been talking too much,” said Betsy. “I feel it’s selfishness on my part, and I am going away.”

She got up, but Anna, suddenly flushing, quickly caught at her hand.

“No, wait a minute, please. I must tell you … no, you.” she turned to Alexey Alexandrovitch, and her neck and brow were suffused with crimson. “I won’t and can’t keep anything secret from you,” she said.

Alexey Alexandrovitch cracked his fingers and bowed his head.

“Betsy’s been telling me that Count Vronsky wants to come here to say good-bye before his departure for Tashkend.” She did not look at her husband, and was evidently in haste to have everything out, however hard it might be for her. “I told her I could not receive him.”

“You said, my dear, that it would depend on Alexey Alexandrovitch,” Betsy corrected her.

“Oh, no, I can’t receive him; and what object would there….” She stopped suddenly, and glanced inquiringly at her husband (he did not look at her). “In short, I don’t wish it….”

Alexey Alexandrovitch advanced and would have taken her hand.

Her first impulse was to jerk back her hand from the damp hand with big swollen veins that sought hers, but with an obvious effort to control herself she pressed his hand.

“I am very grateful to you for your confidence, but…” he said, feeling with confusion and annoyance that what he could decide easily and clearly by himself, he could not discuss before Princess Tverskaya, who to him stood for the incarnation of that brute force which would inevitably control him in the life he led in the eyes of the world, and hinder him from giving way to his feeling of love and forgiveness. He stopped short, looking at Princess Tverskaya.

“Well, good-bye, my darling,” said Betsy, getting up. She kissed Anna, and went out. Alexey Alexandrovitch escorted her out.

“Alexey Alexandrovitch! I know you are a truly magnanimous man,” said Betsy, stopping in the little drawing-room, and with special warmth shaking hands with him once more. “I am an outsider, but I so love her and respect you that I venture to advise. Receive him. Alexey Vronsky is the soul of honor, and he is going away to Tashkend.”

“Thank you, princess, for your sympathy and advice. But the question of whether my wife can or cannot see anyone she must decide herself.”

He said this from habit, lifting his brows with dignity, and reflected immediately that whatever his words might be, there could be no dignity in his position. And he saw this by the suppressed, malicious, and ironical smile with which Betsy glanced at him after this phrase.

 

Anna Karenina, Part Four, Chapter 19

 

 

 

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“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

The clerk in the Tank involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever.

“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Scrooge, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation! You’re quite a powerful speaker, sir,” he added, turning to his nephew. “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament.”

“Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”

Scrooge said that he would see him—yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

“But why?” cried Scrooge’s nephew. “Why?”

“Why did you get married?” said Scrooge.

“Because I fell in love.”

“Because you fell in love!” growled Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. “Good afternoon!”

“Nay, uncle, but you never came to see me before that happened. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

“And A Happy New Year!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on the clerk, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Scrooge; for he returned them cordially.

 

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, Stave One

 

 

 

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He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness. In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew’s house.

He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl! Very.

“Yes, sir.”

“Where is he, my love?” said Scrooge.

“He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.”

“Thank’ee. He knows me,” said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”

He turned it gently, and sidled his face in, round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.

“Fred!” said Scrooge.

Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started! Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn’t have done it, on any account.

“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”

“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?”

Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

 

A Christmas Carol, Stave Five

 

 

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posted by Roger W. Smith

June 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Miller

 

 

 

‘Henry Miller’

 

 

A downloadable Word document of this essay is attached above.

 

 

 

In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.

I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.book.  (This showed a certain appreciation of my intelligence and/or curiosity as well as, perhaps, literary tastes; and what might be viewed as a degree of practical wisdom on my father’s part.)

The reason I kept the book is that I liked Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. I was a teenager curious about and inexperienced in sex. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.

Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but must admit that I have never read it in its entirety — I dipped into the book without reading it sequentially from beginning to end. Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer the former book and think it is underrated. In my opinion, it is by far Miller’s best book. I would deem it a classic of American literature. Few, it seems, would concur.

Tropic of Capricorn is an autobiographical novel, taking the reader from the point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller gives up his conventional workaday life with a wife who bores him (and makes him feel like a captive) and leaves for Paris.

The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum. It seems to be written off the cuff — is written pell-mell as if someone were speaking in that fashion — yet it is constructed with a prefect authorial “ear”; pitched at just the right level and tone (or narrative voice); fashioned so that one episode follows another with undeniable cogency. It’s like a piece of music that is irresistible to the mind and ear.

I kept reading Miller. I spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college — neglecting my studies — and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I basically devoured him.

While in college, I read the first two books of Miller’s trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion — Sexus and Plexus — and enjoyed them greatly. Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But I liked them, to put it mildly. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a healthier appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism (one would have said then, pornography) plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller, including much of his nonfiction, which did not have sexual content, and got a real feeling for his range and scope – as well as appreciation for his intellect (to an extent). I say “to an extent” because my admiration for Miller is not primarily admiration for his essays or theories. He was, however, a man with a keen intellect and a man of wide reading and knowledge. He was basically self educated, having only briefly attended college. His interests included music and art as well as literature. He was an amateur pianist and painted thousands of watercolors that are now in major collections.

Miller once wrote (I forget where) that he used to go to bed every night listening to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Reading this, I felt kinship with him, since the Egmont Overture has never failed to inspire me.

Miller dropped out of City College after a semester. One reason, he said, perhaps flippantly, was that he couldn’t bring himself to read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Again, I felt kinship with Miller. In my junior year in college, I took an English course which included The Faerie Queene; I had great difficulty getting through it.

In the second semester of my senior year in college, I took an independent study course, Readings in Henry Miller, with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch, a brilliant up and coming American Studies professor who had a distinguished career.

I have a collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle.

I do, however, find it hard now to get back into him.

I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of Miller’s early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages, which I reread several times in the vain hope that I could get into the book. It is a failure, which I’m certain that Miller himself in his later years would have conceded. He hadn’t found his narrative voice yet. A critic once remarked somewhere that Miller had to write in the first person. (Crazy Cock and other early, then unpublished novels by Miller were written in the third person.) I agree.

I recently reread portions of Miller’s Plexus. I was surprised at how well the book stood up after all those years (meaning the forty-five plus years since I read it), and how well written it is, in my opinion. The characters are well drawn, the narrative flows, the language is just right. Miller very skillfully mixes narrative with exposition; anecdotal material with riffs of a quasi-philosophical nature. The characters are drawn from Miller’s days in New York; you can tell that they were real people – with their idiosyncrasies exaggerated.

One gets the impression – it seems that this was the actual truth – of Miller pounding away at his typewriter, writing at a furious pace. I believe (this is an aside) that it is probable that Miller nowadays would be diagnosed as bipolar.

I have read some of Miller’s letters. One gets the same impression. He can go on for ten or twenty pages. It can get tedious. It can also be spellbinding.

My favorite Miller letter is a long one he wrote on March 9, 1930 to Emil Schnellock, a commercial artist who was a lifelong friend of his, beginning when they both were students at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn. In the letter, Miller describes his first Sunday in Paris: “Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!”

Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and was raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn (his father was a tailor); he worked in Manhattan as a young man. The anecdotes and characters he relates and portrays from his New York City years – mainly the 1920’s — are colorful and engrossing. He was a raconteur’s raconteur. His books reflect what it seems was a time when New York was peopled by colorful characters, rich and poor, of various ethnicities. Miller’s prejudices are plain for all to see. Yet, you get the feeling that he was not a mean or vindictive person. I feel somewhat the same way about Miller’s attitude towards women, for which he has been attacked harshly by feminist critics such as Kate Millet. He denigrates women; he also worships them.

My former psychiatrist, Ralph Colp Jr., once said about Miller that he was a “born writer” — it was, in my psychiatrist’s opinion (which I think is dead on), indisputable fact. The way he put it was that — whatever one might say pro or con about Miller (whom my psychiatrist in fact admired as a writer), whatever critics or guardians of public morals might say against him — one thing had to be conceded: he could WRITE.

I have seen two films based on Miller’s works: Tropic of Cancer (1970) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1970), both set in Paris; and a third, Henry and June (1990), also set in Paris, about Henry Miller, June Miller (Miller’s second wife, his Beatrice), and Miller’s lover and fellow writer Anaïs Nin, in which the lead actor, Fred Ward, does a very good job of portraying Miller. (Quiet Days in Clichy — a short, whimsical work — was one of my favorite Miller books.) I thought the film Tropic of Cancer was just so so, and was a letdown. Quiet Days in Clichy, I recall, was well done. The film was a sincere attempt to catch the essence of Miller.

Henry Miller died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California on June 7, 1980 at the age of 88. I read his obituary in The New York Times. I felt a genuine sense of loss and was saddened that we wouldn’t have him around to amuse and goad us any more. He was a free spirit who referred to himself in Tropic of Cancer as “the happiest man alive.” Reading him made me feel liberated, better about myself, and happy. It seems that this has been the case with many of his other readers.

One criticism I would make of Miller is that at a certain point in later life he stopped developing, as a writer. This point was made by Miller’s former Paris friend Alfred Perlès in a book by Perlès that seems to be forgotten: My Friend Henry Miller (New York, 1956). Perlès felt that, after Miller returned to the United States from France, he lost an important source of stimulus and became “stagnant.” I agree. I think that there was something about the challenge of living a hand to mouth existence while experiencing a tremendous surge of sexual and social liberation, cultural novelty, and intellectual stimulation in Paris during the 1930’s (as Perlès noted) that brought out the best in Miller and enabled him to achieve a literary breakthrough whereby he produced many of his best works.

Miller was given at times — not surprising in view of his prodigious output and method of composition — to making fatuous statements. He would get carried away by his enthusiasms. He titled an essay about his lover Anaïs Nin “Un Être Étoilique” (A Heavenly Being). This was overpraise for Nin.

Miller was regarded, besides being the writer who managed almost single-handedly to break down barriers against obscenity, as a forerunner of the Beat Generation. I never considered him to be a beatnik or proto-hippie.

Yet, once in the early 1970’s, I picked up a hitchhiker, a bearded hippie. It turned out he was an intellectual and we started talking about writers. I mentioned that Henry Miller was one of my favorite writers, thinking he would have never heard of Miller, much less read him. “Henry Miller is one of my all time favorites,” he said.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     June 2016

 

 

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‘Addendum:

 

The following exchange of emails with Thomas P. Riggio, Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, occurred in November 2016, subsequent to my posting of the above essay.

 

Roger,

Your journey with Henry Miller is very interesting. During my teaching years, I used to be the only one in a large department who assigned books by Miller. I became an object of discussion among the bookstore managers. As a result, I remember members of my department, often very liberal and well educated types, dismissing his work as pornography.

I was a big fan of his work, and like you, think Capricorn is his masterpiece. I recall that my students had very polar reactions to his work — many (especially men) felt him as a liberating voice and others (mainly women) were turned off by him. It got to the point, beginning with the culture wars of the 1990’s, where I found it not worth the angst to teach him any longer.

By the way, apropos of your references to Spenser, I’ve always thought that the figure of Una in Capricorn and elsewhere — the idealized figure of virtue, truth etc. — was a reference to Una in The Faerie Queene … writers sometimes talk trash about some of their influences to throw readers/critics off their trail. Though, that said, I can’t imagine Spenser as among Miller’s favorite writers.

Black Spring has a lot of good writing in it, including the essay on childhood and relationship to his tailor father. The writing is very unlike the style of the two Tropics.

Glad to learn you are a fan. Yes, I can see that he would be harder to read as we age. He touches everything in us, and youthful hormones are not the least of them.

P.S. Do you know his comments on Dreiser in The Books in My Life? And, did you know his first unpublished book [Clipped Wings], written at the telegraph office, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men?

 

 

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response by Roger W. Smith

 

Thanks a lot for your feedback. Some thoughts, in no particular order.

Regarding the hassles of teaching Miller, because he was pornographic, I also have a blog post about the so called “dirty books” I encountered as an adolescent (without really reading most of them). See Roger W. Smith, “‘dirty’ books” at

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/07/02/dirty-books/

 

I had an outstanding high school English teacher … he was a realist and knew that it wasn’t worth fighting the authorities to teach books like The Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which there was the occasional obscenity or sex scene.

I’m glad you agree with me about Tropic of Capricorn. A friend of mine, Charles Pierre, a poet living in Manhattan, was a voracious reader who would put me to shame, he was so well and widely read, steeped in the classics, fully conversant with poetry and with challenging modern authors (e.g., Thomas Pynchon). Henry Miller was by no stretch of the imagination his favorite, but I was surprised when he told me one day that he was reading Black Spring. He commented on how impressed he was with the brilliant writing (read, style).

Of course, we know that Kate Millet had Miller in her sights and, in part, made her reputation attacking him. Regarding Miller’s misogyny, though it didn’t bother me, she had a point.

The Una-Spenser-Miller reference of yours is intriguing.

I didn’t know at the time when I was becoming a Miller fan that Miller was a Dreiser fan. As a matter of fact, I was almost completely unaware of Dreiser, aside from the fact that there was a paperback of Sister Carrie on my older brother’s bookshelf; it was on his syllabus in college.

I was recently looking for Miller writings about Dreiser. It turns out there is very little.

Many of Miller’s works are hard to come by, very hard, if one can even identify and find them. I found that some scholar or other published a comprehensive two volume Miller bibliography not long ago: Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1979) and Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources (1993-94). It may have been a limited print run. Very few libraries seem to have the book, and, if they do, they usually do not have both volumes.

I am a bibliophile and book collector, but I am not an antiquarian and I don’t collect books for profit. I found that both volumes of the Miller biblio were available for sale on the Internet. I purchased them. They were in mint condition. They are fascinating to browse.

I have read that early works by Miller — trial works, as it were — either came close to getting completely lost or, in some cases, can not be found. For example, I think the ms. of “Clipped Wings” has been lost.

I read that some early writings of Miller such as Crazy Cock were unearthed from the possessions of Miller’s second wife June, who may have possibly become reclusive in old age. I believe she survived Miller.

I did put one post about Miller and Dreiser on my Dreiser blog. See

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/

 

I am ashamed to admit it! I was actually a fan of Anaïs Nin for a while. I bought some books by and about her and Miller at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. A little while later, after my short lived enthusiasm for Nin had waned, Dr. Colp made a remark to me, which I feel is true, “she’s unreadable.” One word that seems to apply to her diaries is solipsistic.

I never really read Lawrence Durrell.

I am vaguely aware of Miller’s comments about Dreiser in The Books in My Life. Thanks for reminding me about them.

Miller was never the type of writer to appeal to academics — there seem to be very few scholarly papers or monographs about him. It is interesting to hear that you actually taught him.

Nowadays, it seems quite possible if not probable that curriculum watchdogs would not approve of his works as passing ideological muster.

I did know about the influence on Miller of Dreiser’s Twelve Men. See the post of my Dreiser site at

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/