Tag Archives: Daniel Defoe

Hemingway

 

 

I dutifully watched the three-part Ken Burns documentary “Hemingway” on PBS this week.

At times, I felt restless and wished the segments would end. But I learned a lot from the series, and the comments of critics and Hemingway biographers were illuminating.

Learning more about Hemingway’s life, his struggles as a writer, his failings as a person and husband, his devotion to this craft, his times was not a waste.

That said, something came to me at the end of the series tonight.

Why have I never particularly cared for — perhaps never cared, really — for Hemingway? Because, it struck me, his writing is monotonous and “anti-intellectual.” It does not engage the mind.

I read primarily for intellectual stimulation and enrichment. Words do have a powerful emotive aspect. I take delight in them. Embedded in passages of narration or description. And, yes, there is a rhythm to good prose, an authorial voice, the effect that good music also has, a cadence. But in the case of Hemingway, that cadence, that rhythm — unvarying, continual — becomes for me monotonous and unfulfilling. At times, if not often, it seems to be an affectation.

Compare the following “specimens” from Hemingway and two great writers — one American and the other English: Herman Melville and Daniel Defoe.

 

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When I came back to the front we still lived in that town. There were many more guns in the country around and the spring had come. The fields were green and there were small green shoots on the vines, the trees along the road had small leaves and a breeze came from the sea. I saw the town with the hill and the old castle above it in a cup in the hills with the mountains beyond, brown mountains with a little green on their slopes. In the town there were more guns, there were some new hospitals, you met British men and sometimes women, on the street, and a few more houses had been hit by shell-fire. It was warm and like the spring and I walked down the alleyway of trees, warmed from the sun on the wall, and found we still lived in the same house and that it all looked the same as when I had left it. The door was open, there was a soldier sitting on a bench outside in the sun, an ambulance was waiting by the side door and inside the door, as I went in, there was the smell of marble floors and hospital. It was all as I had left it except that now it was spring. I looked in the door of the big room and saw the major sitting at his desk, the window open and the sunlight coming into the room. He did not see me and I did not know whether to go in and report or go upstairs first and clean up. I decided to go on upstairs.

I was alone in the room. It was cool and did not smell like a hospital. The mattress was firm and comfortable, and I lay without moving, hardly breathing, happy in feeling the pain lessen. After a while I wanted a drink of water and found the bell on a cord by the bed and rang it, but nobody came. I went to sleep.

When I woke I looked around. There was sunlight coming in through the shutters. I saw the big armoire, the bare walls, and two chairs. My legs in the dirty bandages stuck straight out in the bed. I was careful not to move them. I was thirsty and I reached for the bell and pushed the button. I heard the door open and looked and it was a nurse. She looked young and pretty.

‘Good morning,’ I said.

‘Good morning,’ she said and came over to the bed. …

 

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

 

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By this time it blew a terrible storm indeed; and now I began to see terror and amazement in the faces even of the seamen themselves. The master, though vigilant in the business of preserving the ship, yet as he went in and out of his cabin by me, I could hear him softly to himself say, several times, “Lord be merciful to us! we shall be all lost! we shall be all undone!” and the like. During these first hurries I was stupid, lying still in my cabin, which was in the steerage, and cannot describe my temper: I could ill resume the first penitence which I had so apparently trampled upon and hardened myself against: I thought the bitterness of death had been past, and that this would be nothing like the first; but when the master himself came by me, as I said just now, and said we should be all lost, I was dreadfully frighted. I got up out of my cabin and looked out; but such a dismal sight I never saw: the sea ran mountains high, and broke upon us every three or four minutes; when I could look about, I could see nothing but distress round us; two ships that rode near us, we found, had cut their masts by the board, being deep laden; and our men cried out that a ship which rode about a mile ahead of us was foundered. Two more ships, being driven from their anchors, were run out of the Roads to sea, at all adventures, and that with not a mast standing. The light ships fared the best, as not so much labouring in the sea; but two or three of them drove, and came close by us, running away with only their spritsail out before the wind. …

Any one may judge what a condition I must be in at all this, who was but a young sailor, and who had been in such a fright before at but a little. But if I can express at this distance the thoughts I had about me at that time, I was in tenfold more horror of mind upon account of my former convictions, and the having returned from them to the resolutions I had wickedly taken at first, than I was at death itself; and these, added to the terror of the storm, put me into such a condition that I can by no words describe it.

 

— Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

 

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Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither? …

Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. …

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time. What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,—what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the fore-castle deck. …

 

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  April 7, 2021

James Joyce, Defoe lecture (Trieste, 1912)

 

 

Joyce, ‘Daniele Defoe’ (Italian)

 

Joyce, ‘Daniel Defoe’ (English)

 

 

The above downloadable Word documents contain the full texts — in the original Italian and English translation — of a lecture on Daniel Defoe that James Joyce delivered at the Univerità Populare, Trieste, Italy in 1912.

A bilingual edition of this lecture is virtually unobtainable — in print or on line. (The Defoe lecture, which was accompanied by one Joyce gave on William Blake, was presumed to be lost or unavailable for a long time.)  I managed to obtain separate texts and have transcribed the entire lecture for posting here.

Defoe and his works have long been an interest of mine, and my appreciation as well as interest in him continues to grow.

 

 

Roger W. Smith

   April 2020

James Joyce on Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”

 

 

The black plague devastated the City of London during the earlier years of the reign of Charles II. The toll of victims cannot be established with any certainty, but it probably exceeded a hundred and fifty thousand. Of this horrible slaughter Defoe [in his A Journal of the Plague Year] provides an account which is all the more terrifying for its sobriety and gloominess. The doors of the infected households were marked with a red cross over which was written: Lord, have mercy on us! Grass was growing in the streets. A dismal, putrid silence overhung the devastated city like a pall. Funeral wagons passed through the streets by night, driven by veiled carters who kept their mouths covered with disinfected cloths. A crier walked before them ringing a bell intermittently and calling out into the night, Bring out your dead! Behind the church in Aldgate an enormous pit was dug. Here the drivers unloaded their carts and threw merciful lime over the blackened corpses. The desperate and the criminal revelled day and night in the taverns. The mortally ill ran to throw themselves in with the dead. Pregnant women cried for help. Large smoky fires were forever burning on the street corners and in the squares. Religious insanity reached its peak. A madman with a brazier of burning coals on his head used to walk stark naked through the streets shouting that he was a prophet and repeating by way of an antiphony: 0 the great and dreadful God!

 

 

— James Joyce, “Daniel Defoe” (lecture delivered at the Univerità Populare, Trieste, 1912)

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2020

on the glories of English

 

 

 

 

It is organic. It is unstructured and unregulated. It has developed naturally. It seems to a native speaker such as myself unequaled in its richness, by which I mean to say the variety of source languages — such as the Germanic and French — out of which it grew, and its astonishing richness of vocabulary.

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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“The learned among the French will own that the comprehensiveness of expression is a glory in which the English tongue not only equals, but excels it neighbours.

“… it really is the noblest and most comprehensive of all the vulgar languages of the world.”

 

— Daniel Defoe, “Of Academies,” An Essay Upon Projects (1697)

 

NOTE: By “vulgar,” Defoe meant the word not in the sense commonly used today, but a commonly spoken tongue — as opposed to a language such as Latin, which was used at his time for scholarly writing and discourse.

 

 

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“Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is the culling and composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitalized, and stand for things, as they unerringly and very soon come to do; in the mind that enters on the study with fitting sprit, grasp, and appreciation.”

— Walt Whitman, “Slang in America,” North American Review, November 1855

 

 

“The English language befriends the grand American expression … it is brawny enough and limber and full enough.”

– Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

 

 

“What would you name as the best inheritance America receives from all the processes and combinations, time out of mind, of the art of man? One bequest there is that subordinates any perfection of politics, erudition, science, metaphysics, inventions, poems, the judiciary, printing, steam-power, mails, architecture, or what not. This is the English language—so long in growing, so sturdy and fluent, so appropriate to our America and the genius of its inhabitants.

“The English language is by far the noblest now spoken – probably ever spoken – upon this earth. It is the speech for orators and poets, the speech for the household, for business, for liberty, and for common sense. It is, indeed, as characterized by Grimm, the German scholar, ‘a universal language, with whose richness, sound sense, and flexibility, those of none other can for a moment be compared.’ ”

— Walt Whitman, “America’s Mightiest Inheritance” (an article published in the magazine Life Illustrated, April 12, 1856)

 

 

“Never will I allude to the English Language or tongue without exultation. This is the tongue that spurns laws, as the greatest tongue must. It is the most capacious vital tongue of all—full of ease, definiteness and power—full of sustenance.—An enormous treasure-house, or range of treasure houses, arsenals, granary, chock full with so many contributions from the north and from the south, from Scandinavia, from Greece and Rome—from Spaniards, Italians and the French,—that its own sturdy home-dated Angles-bred words have long been outnumbered by the foreigners whom they lead—which is all good enough, and indeed must be.—America owes immeasurable respect and love to the past, and to many ancestries, for many inheritances—but of all that America has received from the past, from the mothers and fathers of laws, arts, letters, &c., by far the greatest inheritance is the English Language—so long in growing—so fitted.”

— Walt Whitman, “An American Primer”

 

 

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“[T]he English [language] is like an English park, which is laid out seemingly without any definite plan, and in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your fancy without having to fear a stern keeper of rigorous regulations. The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been for centuries great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself.”

— Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905)

 

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

October 2017; updated August 2018

 

 

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Addendum: Such statements should not be taken for granted. Comments I have received on at least two of my recent posts

 

“Brummagem (more thoughts about language policing)”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2018/02/02/brummagem-more-thoughts-about-language-policing/

 

and

 

“an exchange about political correctness, pedagogy, and LANGUAGE”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/11/20/an-exchange-about-political-correctness-pedagogy-and-language/

 

show that some, perhaps many, of my readers do not necessarily have a sensitivity to or appreciation of the fact that language is organic or of the magnificence of the English language as it has evolved.

Roger W. Smith, “A Commentary on Nathaniel Philbrick’s Observations about ‘Moby-Dick'”

 

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

Philbrick is a great admirer of Herman Melville. He states, in the first chapter, that he has read Melville’s novel Moby-Dick “at least a dozen times.”

I read Moby-Dick in a book borrowed from the New York Public Library in the 1970’s. I couldn’t put it down. The book and Melville were a revelation for me.

The following are some thoughts of my own about Moby-Dick based upon my reading of Philbrick’s excellent study cum appréciaton.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

 

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(Page numbers below refer to Why Read Moby-Dick?)

 

 

pg. 9

Philbrick says, “I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs.”

Although I agree with most of the points Philbrick makes, I disagree strongly here. To fully appreciate the book, you’ve got to take it all in, including the cetology.

 

pg. 17

“free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy”; Ishmael’s, approach to life, in his own words.

An apt characterization. Ishmael, the first person narrator, begins the book with the words “Call me Ishmael”—setting the informal, free and easy tone of the book, and establishing a level of UNformality notably American.

 

pg.  21

Philbrick comments on how, at intervals, Melville “slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.”

Well put. The book is like a sea voyage under sail. There are very long stretches where land is not in sight, so to speak, and progress seems slow. By the time one finishes the book, one feels that one’s self has been on a long voyage.

 

pg.  22

I don’t agree with Ishmael’s statement (i.e., a statement made in the novel by Melville indirectly in the words of the main character Ishmael, not by Philbrick) that one ought to “forgo the cloying chunks of needless potato” in clam chowder. Clam chowder, which I love (New England clam chowder, that is), is so much better and filling with potatoes, which, in my view, are indispensable.

 

pg. 37

Melville:  “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

Shakespearean language.

The influence of Shakespeare on Melville can be seen as plain as day.

 

pg. 44

Philbrick: “Hidden beneath his [Melville’s] lapidarian surfaces were truths so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.”

YES. Melville fuses narrative with metaphysical speculation, reality with imagination, grim actuality with underlying truths.

 

pg. 48

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] metaphysical preoccupations perpetually threatened to overwhelm his unsurpassed ability to find the specific, concrete detail that conveys everything.”

Very true. A keen observation.

 

pg.  59

Philbrick writes of the “longings: of the twelve-year-old boy [Melville] for his dead father; of the author for fame; and of the almost-middle-aged man for a friend.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Such a heart rending story. Hawthorne was discomfited by Melville’s love and shrunk from it.

 

pg. 61

Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics.”

YES. An excellent point.

Waiting until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype.”

A personal observation of mine: Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. Though many admire the book, few, if any, seem to realize this.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “There is wonderful slapdash quality to the book.”

Very true. Well put.

Slapdash: The great writers seem to be able to write in this way, as if they were tossing something off and sort of “taking dictation” (from within), telling you a story or something or other in an unrehearsed, unscripted conversation. Their writing does not seem “studied” (does not read that way).

Melville excels at this, beginning with the novel’s opening words:  Call me Ishmael.” He picks up the story there, and, bang, you’re into it.

Another writer who, in my opinion, pulled this off – who would not ordinarily be thought of in this context – was Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn. (It seems to me that Melville might be diagnosed today as having been, at times, manic, as I imagine Henry Miller may also have been.)

Also, Daniel Defoe does the same thing. Defoe seems artless, like he’s merely there to write it down. It actually makes him a great read.

 

pg.  64

Philbrick: “Ishmael is the narrator, but at times Melville invests him with an authorial omniscience.”

A good critical insight.

 

pg.  65

Philbrick: “[T]he plot is [often] left to languish and entire groups of characters [in Moby-Dick] vanish without a trace.”

True. Cf. Bulkington.

 

 pg. 65

Philbrick: “… Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life though his ramshackle art. ‘[C]areful disorderliness,’ Ishmael assures us, ‘is the true method.’ ”

Right on target as concerns Melville the writer (as well as Melville’s view of life).

 

pp.80-81

Philbrick: “Melville has created a portrait of the redemptive power of intimate human relations, what he calls elsewhere [in Moby-Dick] ‘the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.’ It is an ideal world that would sadly elude him for much of his married life.”

The quote is from Moby-Dick, Chapter XCLV.

 

pg. 82

Philbrick quotes from Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII): ‘A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner center. …’

This is wonderful descriptive prose. (Remember how, in the experience of most of us, one of the first writing assignments we had in school was to write a paper describing something?)

A personal note: In the 1970’s, when I was living in Manhattan a block away from Riverside Park, along the Hudson River, there was a particularly cold winter. The Hudson froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

 

pg.  83

There is a quote from Chapter XCIII of Moby-Dick (not so indicated by Philbrick): “flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest.”

This is undoubtedly an echo of John Donne’s famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (another scholar confirmed my opinion):

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Melville, as the scholar put it, “knew seventeenth century English literature.”

 

 pg.  85

“So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense. …” (Moby-Dick, Chapter XCIII).

A profound observation by Melville.

 

pg. 103

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel….”

An apt description — perhaps one should say brilliant — very much on target.

 

pg. 114

Philbrick: “No matter how fantastic it may seem, everything in these last three chapters [Chapters CXXXIII-CXXXV of Moby-Dick] could have happened.”

Very true. And, the ability the pull this off is what makes Melville and the novel great. As philosophic as the book gets, whatever flights of fancy Melville gets carried way with, the book is firmly grounded in reality.

 

pg.  115

Philbrick: “In the destruction of the two whaleboats [in Chapter CXXXIV of Moby-Dick], Melville is also portraying the destruction of his own talent.”

 

pg.  117

“[The Pequod], like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her” (Moby-Dick, Chapter CXXXV).

This passage sounds Miltonic.

 

pg.  119

Philbrick mentions “the loss of [Melville’s] shy muse.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

pg.  127

“[A]t my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless–well, finish the sentence for yourself.” (Melville to his brother-in-law Lemuel Shaw, April 23 1849)