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Mark Twain and the Bible

Mark Twain (1835-1910)Mark Twain is best remembered for his wit. The story goes that by the end of his life, all he had to do was shamble onto the stage at the beginning of a lecture time to send the audience into fits of laughter. Gentle, often double-edged, satire marks this man’s work. How unexpected, then, when Twain steps back from his usual tone in order to offer observations in a more serious tone. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain makes such a move. While we have been treated to many pages of commentary upon the foibles of both Americans and the inhabitants of the Old World, of both our narrator-guide and those he encounters, when the author takes up the topic of the Bible, the mockery subsides, if only for a paragraph.

It is hard to make a choice of the most beautiful passage in a book which is so gemmed with beautiful passages as the Bible; but it is certain that not many things within its lids may take rank above the exquisite story of Joseph. Who taught those ancient writers their simplicity of language, their felicity of expression, their pathos, and above all, their faculty of sinking themselves entirely out of sight of the reader and making the narrative stand out alone and seem to tell itself? Shakspeare is always present when one reads his book; Macaulay is present when we follow the march of his stately sentences; but the Old Testament writers are hidden from view.

Twain is not so glowingly appreciative of all would-be scripture. In Roughing It, he shares his opinions on the Book of Mormon:

The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle—keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, accourding to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

One has to wonder if these contrasting appraisals can be explained by mere bigotry. Twain is, at least nominally, a Christian, a Missourian who would have heard the tales of the “Mormon War” of 1838 in which the followers of Joseph Smith were driven out of the state only to settle in Nauvoo, Illinois, some seventy miles up the Mississippi from Hannibal. Actually, one has only to wonder at this, in my opinion, until reading comparative passages from the two books, but perhaps that is my bigotry speaking.

Reading Twain’s humor in the light of his admiration for the Bible underscores what, in my view, made him such a successful comic talent. Unlike so many of those reputed to be so funny today–Will Farrell and Tina Fey come to mind–one can see that Twain usually preserves a healthy measure of affection and appreciation for those characters whom he most strongly lampoons. He laughs at himself with the same vigor that he laughs at others.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Have You Considered My Servant?: Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)Many people, reading the story of Job from the Hebrew Bible, find it troubling how the tale plays out. After Job loses everything, including all of his children, the story seems to suggest that its all better when the hero’s fortunes turn around:

12 The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. 13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters. (Job 42:12-13)

Happily, if for nothing else than for his literary reputation, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Job-esque novel, The Sport of the Gods, does not end on such an unbelievably upbeat note. Of course, in fairness to the poet behind Job, the point of that work is not so much in the framing narrative as in the philosophical discourse inside that frame. The point of Dunbar’s narrative is not so obvious.

Early in the novel, we find Berry Hamilton and his free Black family living a positive, happy life in the American South. Although Berry and his wife Fannie do not come out of emancipation suddenly behaving like 21st-century college graduates, they do raise two articulate capable children. Clearly, it seems, the next generation of Hamiltons will fare better than the parents. That, as fate would have it, changes when Berry is falsely accused of stealing a considerable sum from his employer’s brother.

With Berry in prison and the community attitude foursquare against the Hamiltons, the remaining family relocates to New York. In relatively short order, all three of them move in negative directions. Fannie, convinced that a prison term gives her a divorce, feels compelled to marry an unpleasant man. Her son, Joe, winds up a drunkard, completely in the thrall of a captivating woman whom he murders when she refuses to endure his folly. Kitty Hamilton, the daughter, flourishes as a singer but allows her character to erode–at least in the view of her mother.

In the end, a helping of Karma is served as Berry is exonerated and freed. Still, he comes to New York only to find his wife married to another, his daughter on the road and absent, and his son incarcerated for life. Berry summarizes his experience powerfully.

He turned to the door, murmuring, “My wife gone, Kit a nobody, an’ Joe, little Joe, a murderer, an’ then I–I–ust to pray to Gawd an’ call him ‘Ouah Fathah.'” He laughed hoarsely. It sounded like nothing Fannie had ever heard before. “Don’t, Be’y, don’t say dat. Maybe we don’t un’erstan’.” Her faith still hung by a slender thread, but his had given way in that moment. “No, we don’t un’erstan’,” he laughed as he went out of the door. “We don’t un’erstan’.”

Berry, devastated, vows to kill his rival but delays that act and then finds that the man has been killed in a fight. The former employer, Maurice Oakley, is reduced to madness in the wake of the revelation that the money was squandered by Oakley’s brother rather than stolen by Berry, and the Hamilton parents return to the site of their previous happiness to live out their lives.

Still, Karma, as Dunbar presents it, is a harsher mistress than the Yahweh-dispensed justice enjoyed by the quickly forgetful Job. Living in their old cottage, they can hear the insane wailing of a broken Maurice Oakley.

It was not a happy life, but it was all that was left to them, and they took it up without complaint, for they knew they were powerless against some Will infinitely stronger than their own.

Job, like Berry Hamilton, never knew the cause of his problems. But as we read Job, we gain insight as to that cause, something that Dunbar never gives us. Instead, we see Berry Hamilton, bruised and battered, enduring the vagaries of life, slings and arrows that both that capitalized “Will” and the book’s title suggest are not simply the luck of a heartless, deterministic universe.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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What Debt Did You Owe? Dunbar’s “The Debt”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)When I read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Debt,” not one of his most anthologized works, I hear an echo of a poem I learned from my father from a far less noted writer, Jessie Rittenhouse. That brief lyric, “My Wage,” goes like this:

I bargained with Life for a penny,
And Life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store;

For Life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.

I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of Life,
Life would have paid.

Take a look now at “The Debt.”
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!
Both works involve some melancholy at the end. Both of them involve a voice looking back onto life with apparent regret. The regret in Rittenhouse’s work is obvious. One could argue that the regret in Dunbar is more ambivalent, that this character had been cheated and forced into debt by the same people who would force him to wear “The Mask” or who cage the bird in “Sympathy.” Such a turn strikes me as forced. Not every poem by a writer of color has to be a poem about race.
In both of these poems, twelve lines introduce us to someone who gives scant specificity about the origin of their problem. Does Rittenhouse mean a literal wage? Did she not request a high enough salary? That seems unlikely, since I have yet to receive a paycheck from life. Does Dunbar refer to an actual, financial debt, or is this, as I think the case in “My Wage,” a metaphor for something else?
What debt does Dunbar reference? It was incurred in the space of a single day, a “riotous” day. How much of a debt can a person rack up in a single day? Even the diamond necklace, which turns out not to be a diamond necklace, in du Maupassant’s “The Necklace” required only ten years to repay, yet this speaker suggests that the debt will be repaid only at death. Since he does not know when death will come, we can only assume that he is not privy to some amortization schedule. This debt will stand unfinished upon his death, but he will be released from it.
This debt was incurred in a day and cannot be repaid, we can assume. And for what bauble did the speaker lay down his 1900 equivalent of a Visa card? The thing was small. That’s all we learn. The loan was small but the interest profound.
Is Dunbar here decrying Robber Baron bankers charging usurious interest? I don’t think so. The idea of sin as a debt, an unpayable debt, is hardly unknown in Christianity. In Colossians 2, we read this:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
A Christian reading of Dunbar’s poem, then, emerges more easily than one from Rittenhouse’s poem, even though my father first encountered the latter in a church bulletin. To reference both Matthew 6 and the Rollings Stones, God does not give whatever we want, but He does give what we need.

Posted in Realism.

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Fallen and Unfallen–Hamlin Garland’s Daughter of the Middle Border

Hamlin Garland (1860-1940)I have written elsewhere that I know of no writer, with the exception of Erskine Caldwell, who wrote so consistently about farming people and yet seemed to have so little sympathy for them. (And in fairness, the residents of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road had long ago given up the claim to farming.) Hamlin Garland, in his stories of late-nineteenth-century farmers, seems to see no redeeming aspect in the farm life and a neverending supply of–to use his favorite word–toil.

Granted, Garland wrote during the decades when a steady stream of rural Americans began to make their way from farms to factories. During the course of Garland’s life (1860-1940), the urban population of the United States rose from 19.8% to 56.5% of the total. Granted, part of this shift came because of immigration that landed in urban settings, but a huge number of rural people made their way to the cities in those years. Virtually my entire family tree was transplanted from subsistence farms to the greener pastures of Kansas City during those decades.

Why then does Garland speak so glowingly, a realist morphed into a mushy, soft-focus romantic, when he looks back on his younger, rural days in Daughter of the Middle Border?

How sweet and sane and peaceful and afar off those blessed days seem to me as I muse over this page. At the village shops sirloin steak was ten cents a pound, chickens fifty cents a pair and as for eggs—I couldn’t give ours away, at least in the early summer,—and all about us were gardens laden with fruit and vegetables, more than we could eat or sell or feed to the pigs. Wars were all in the past and life a simple matter of working out one’s own individual problems. Never again shall I feel that confidence in the future, that joy in the present. I had no doubts—none that I can recall.

It is almost as if Garland recalls a prelapsarian Wisconsin from his youth and then rights of a starkly realistic farming world somewhere east of his childhood Eden. In fact, the contrast here seems to go beyond Genesis 2 and 3. The “realistic” rural world that Garland paints in his stories goes beyond the curse leveled at Adam in Genesis 3:17-19:

The ground is cursed because of you.
You will eat from it by means of painful labor
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow
until you return to the ground,
since you were taken from it.
For you are dust,
and you will return to dust.”

Instead, the hopeless world that the author paints seems more descriptive of the bleak outlook of Revelation 6:5-6:

And I looked, and there was a black horse. The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius.

Neither view, of course, is truly realistic in its portrayal of the American heartland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead, Garland over-romanticizes on the one hand or indulges in the most grim “realism” on the other, employing each point of view as it suits him.

How ironic that in the same autobiography, Hamlin Garland seems dismissive of the claims of both schools of literature:

This bitter war of Realists and Romanticists will be the jest of those who come after us, and they in their turn will be full of battle ardor with other cries and other banners. How is it possible to make much account of the cries and banners of to-day when I know they will be forgotten of all but the students of literary history?

From the viewpoint of a century later, it is Garland who is largely forgotten while the more judicious practitioners of these two approaches remain influential and widely read.

Posted in Realism.

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From Bondage to Bondage–Melville’s Typee

Herman Melville (1819-1891)A well known fact of Herman Melville’s biography and career points out that the author’s reputation–at least his reputation during his lifetime–peaked long before he got around to writing about a crazy sea captain and a white whale. In fact, Melville’s greatest critical success and sales came with his first two semi-autobiographical books, Typee and Omoo.

Typee, I have to begin, is not particularly good taken either as memoir or novel. Obviously, there is not much suspense in whether our narrator will survive his encounter with the Typee tribe. Personally, I did not particularly care if Toby, who disappears midway through Melville’s captivity, survived or not, and Melville, in the original edition of the book, had not answered that question either.

I do not ask why Typee was successful. As H.L. Mencken  famously said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.” This book had just the sort of sensational fare that would be appealing to a reading public confined to lives increasingly free from adventure. In Polynesia, Melville found physical danger, exotic settings and characters, noble and sketchy savages, suggestive eroticism–mild by contemporary standards but pushing the envelope of respectability in 1846–and a character who strains against authority but does not utterly jettison the standards of the day. In his balancing act between admiration and censure, between rebellion and conformity, Melville allowed a glimpse of the genius that he would, in later years, unfurl.

What I find most interesting in this first novel is the manner in which Melville lives within and rejects constraint. One can immediately see the conformity of the writer, typical of a beginner, as his narrative is quite conventional. Compare this pedestrian narrative structure with the complexity of Moby Dick or, even more so, The Confidence Man. Yet the Melville character in Typee derives his very reason for writing from a refusal to be constrained. Signing onto a whaler, our host seems surprised when that life involves spending trying time at sea. From the very first words of the story, he complains.

Six months at sea! Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land; cruising after the sperm-whale beneath the scorching sun of the Line, and tossed on the billows of the wide-rolling Pacific—the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else! Weeks and weeks ago our fresh provisions were all exhausted. There is not a sweet potato left; not a single yam. Those glorious bunches of bananas, which once decorated our stern and quarter-deck, have, alas, disappeared! and the delicious oranges which hung suspended from our tops and stays—they, too, are gone! Yes, they are all departed, and there is nothing left us but salt-horse and sea-biscuit.

Unlike Ishmael or Billy Budd later in Melville’s career, this figure brings rather petty complaints as his rationale for abandoning his post on the ship, focusing his thoughts mostly upon food. Yet when Melville and Toby abandon their shipmates, they recognize that they will be stranded on the island and perhaps fall into the clutches of the cannibals. Indeed, one constraint is exchanged for another, leaving the sailors to fear that in the midst of the Typee plenty of foodstuffs, their own persons might add to the buffet. In order to escape this captivity and his residence on the island, Melville is forced to sign onto another ship.

This rather young, inexperienced Melville, despite his considerable travels, has not come to the recognition that most human experience takes one from captivity to captivity. He is, instead, rather like a young Jacob, seeking quick solutions to lifelong problems.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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A Calculated Chaos–Chesterton’s Manalive

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)Having been quite pleased by The Man Who Was Thursday a couple of years ago, I eagerly attacked another Chesterton novel, Manalive. Unfortunately, when I read Thursday, I really did not read. Instead, I consumed a Librivox recording of the novel. The audiobooks at Librivox range from the very good to the unlistenable. I endured the reader of Manalive for perhaps five minutes before determining that I could not tolerate this voice for the duration.

Somehow, this little tale of non-readership seems to fit with the novel in question. Manalive seems to be a combination of Dead Poets’ Society and The Screwtape Letters. In fact, the light-hearted nature of Chesterton’s work, the same sort of feel that one gets from Screwtape, might be the highest recommendation for this book. Chesterton seems to be holding the sanctimonious but supposedly unfettered types that populate the pseudo-Transcendentalist works up to a close and unforgiving inspection, arriving at the conclusion that the truly emancipated, the truly alive person is the one who has been liberated from the burden of sin.

This novel revolves around the arrival at a London boarding house of Innocent Smith, a man who may or may not be a school friend of one of the other lodgers. Smith turns the house on its head, much to the delight of virtually all the inhabitants. However, his hijinks do not please everyone, and Smith is put on trial, accused of being insane and dangerous.

The bulk of the novel relates in a “tell don’t show” fashion the accusations and explanations for many of Innocent Smith’s past misdeeds. As it turns out, we discover that he only shoots pistols in the general direction of people in order to make them feel more alive. He runs off with a series of women who mysteriously disappear, but in fact he is really running off with his wife who, each time she is “won,” drops her false identity. His history of house-breaking and burglary involves him breaking into his own home.

The chaos that Innocent Smith brings wherever he goes is clearly well considered. Granted, Chesterton’s premise is rather forced, but my real impatience with this novel lies with its rather glacial pace. Once the trial of Innocent Smith has begun and before the book has reached its midpoint, the point that Chesterton seeks to make emerges clearly. Imagine that The Sixth Sense had revealed its twist ending half-way through the film and then proceeded to make and re-make the point for the next forty minutes.

Have I missed the charm or depth of this book? Perhaps. If so, let me know what I should have seen.


Posted in English Literature, Realism.

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Reading the Charges–Howells’ The Minister’s Charge

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)Although it does not carry the reputation of The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells’ follow-up novel, The Minister’s Charge, may be the better work because of its greater focus. That’s a theory in process. What are we to make of this book? The question can begin with the title. Clearly the “charge” in question is the young man, Lemuel Barker, who feels himself encouraged to come from country to city by the same Reverend Sewell who gave such glib advice to the Laphams in the previous novel. To cement that assertion, we see the alternate title:  The Apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker.

The problem with this pair of titles and the overall reading of the novel is that Sewell and the socially established set in which he travels gives takes so little real responsibility for Barker. In fact, the Barker’s problems erupt first of all when he takes seriously the polite encouragement of his poetry and then when Sewell, barely allowing the boy across his threshold, pushes him out into the night where he is quickly victimized by the streets of Boston.

In the ensuing chapters, Sewell does render some assistance to Barker, but he never seems willing to actually dirty his hands with the young man. This supposed man of Christ, clearly sees Barker as beneath him. Even his protestations to the contrary seem to underscore that bias.

“Why, suppose the boy really had some literary faculty, should I have had any right to encourage it? He was very well where he was. He fed the cows and milked them, and carried the milk to the crossroads, where the dealer collected it and took it to the train. That was his life, with the incidental facts of cutting the hay and fodder, and bedding the cattle; and his experience never went beyond it. I doubt if his fancy ever did, except in some wild, mistaken excursion. Why shouldn’t he have been left to this condition? He ate, he slept, he fulfilled his use. Which of us does more?”

“How would you like to have been in his place?” asked his wife.

“I couldn’t put myself in his place; and therefore I oughtn’t to have done anything to take him out of it,” answered Sewell.

Lest we drop all of the blame at Sewell’s feet, much of his lack of assistance to Barker is encouraged by his wife who, despite her theoretical defense of the boy–“How would you like to have been in his place?”–repeatedly finds his occasional visits to the parsonage annoying and out of place. Clearly, Barker is not the Sewell’s “sort of people.”

Sewell clearly does not take his “charge” as seriously as he might, nor does he behave as an adequate “master” to the apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker. Instead, the “charge” in the title can be seen as a legal charge against Sewell. Given the considerable talent that Barker demonstrates as he proceeds through the novel, one can only imagine how easily he would have progressed in life had the minister’s “ministry” have come ahead of his problems rather than in guilty response to them.

It is difficult to read this novel and not think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ Samaritan has even less reason to “dirty his hands” with the man on the side of the road, yet he takes the initiative, he inconveniences himself, and he behaves as a neighbor, something which Sewell really never manages.

Whether Howells intended it or not, The Minister’s Charge stands as an indictment of the arms-length charity of elite society. Even at his best, David Sewell is an “expert in the law,” performing only the good works that social standards demand.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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Foresight Is 20/20–Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898)Hindsight, a proverb says, is 20/20. But in the case of Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel, Looking Backward, it is foresight that supposedly earns that distinction. It is, of course, rather easy to predict the future when you place your target far enough ahead so that no one living is likely to be able to call you on the failure of your prognostications. In fairness, though, I am holding Bellamy to a standard that should not be imposed upon him. Let’s examine the premise of this book: a man from 1887 wakes up after mysteriously snoozing away 113 years in a secret chamber of his Boston home, which happened to burn to the ground on the very evening that a friend put him into a trance (the sort of trance that allows the body to forego all normal metabolic functions for over a century) and then this friend conveniently left the country leaving no one about to say, “Hey, Julian West probably didn’t die when his house burned down. He’s probably just hynotized in the basement.” Yes, this is a remarkably plausible premise.

Despite dropping this premise and a supposedly prescient view of the world at the turn of the century after next, Bellamy clearly did not set out to predict the future. Instead, he intended to suggest a form that the future could take if people were just bright enough to allow his socialist vision to make virtually every decision in how society would be framed.

Why is Looking Backward remembered largely as an historical and philosophical artifact and not as a great work of literature? We can understand this by comparing Bellamy’s book–I really hate to dignify it as a novel–with a couple of other decidedly second-rate but still superior works that have been explored in this space. The improbabilities behind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland–a King Solomon’s Mines-style, lost-kingdom book and behind William Dean Howells’ A Traveler from Altruria–in which rather than visiting the lost kingdom, we encounter a visitor from that place–are similar in degree with those in Looking Backward, but these books have what Bellamy’s story lacks: a plot and actual, narrated events.

The action–if we can call it such–of this book is almost exclusively dialogue, long, tedious, policy- and process-laden dialogue between West and his 21st century adopted family. We learn about each facet of this new world through chapters that conveniently explore a theme or two at a time. We learn about the education system, the labor system, the methods of international trade, women’s issues, and a dozen other areas of concern.

In the end, Bellamy escapes into the escape hatch employed by feeble writers in every creative writing class: It was all just a dream. Then he begs off of that exit and decides that maybe it wasn’t all a dream after all. Honestly, I have to wonder how Bellamy kept people reading to the end in his own day and how so many impressionable people could be gulled into a serious discussion of his book’s ideas.

The ultimate failure in Bellamy’s work, and the reason we should all be pleased that Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote fiction, lies in the absence of what makes Hawthorne and Melville great: flawed human nature. Bellamy seems to have seriously believed that people could behave themselves in a perfectly equitable society. Leaders, in his mind, would not abuse their power, and the vast majority of people, given the opportunity to pick their own profession, would pick wisely. Apparently, some people would actually choose to dig ditches and collect garbage, when they might opt for far less odious occupation.

Couple naivete with a decided lack of narrative skill, and you have Edward Bellamy, an interesting social thinker, an historically significant figure, but a truly inconsequential artist.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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The Well Calculated Risk–Melville’s “The Lightning-Rod Man”

Herman Melville (1819-1891)One almost has to read Melville’s story “The Lightning-Rod Man” as allegory or think the writer completely mad for offering such a peculiar tale. Indeed, over the past half century or so, scholars have latched onto this story with the sort of feverish enthusiasm produced by any story that clearly offers symbolism but unclearly indicates what is signified. For Eric Wertheimer, the story is a tale of commercialism and the illusory quality of home security, while most others have taken some sort of religious reading. Most commonly, the salesman of lightning rods is seen as a represenative of revivalist Christianity, preaching gloom and doom at a moment of apparent peril. In short, he can be read as Jonathan Edwards, offering a commodified version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Given Melville’s history in the “Burned Over District,” such a reading seems reasonable. It doesn’t explain why the story is apparently set in Albania–with its reference to the Acroceraunian hills–but there is a thoroughgoing exotic quality to this story. The characters, places, and situations seem simultaneously familiar and foreign.

Let’s assume for a moment that the key to Melville’s allegory is indeed religion rather than science or commercialism. In such a case, the mysterious lightning-rod salesman, a fellow who appears only in the midst of particularly ominous thunderstorms, would seem to stand as a representative of religious faith. A lightning-filled world poses dire physical (and even more significant) threats in this man’s mind, and he possesses the only key to salvation, a three-pronged lightning rod sure to deflect the wrath of an vengeful deity.

The narrator and host, then, stands in as a skeptical auditor of this lightning evangelist’s gospel. Far from being cowed into submission, the narrator mocks the lightning-rod man and the danger that he espouses.

“You pretended envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to and from Jupiter Tonans,” laughed I; “you mere man who come here to put you and your pipestem between clay and sky, do you think that because you can strike a bit of green light from the Leyden jar, that you can thoroughly avert the supernal bolt? Your rod rusts, or breaks, and where are you? Who has empowered you, you Tetzel, to peddle round your indulgences from divine ordinations? The hairs of our heads are numbered, and the days of our lives. In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God. False negotiator, away! See, the scroll of the storm is rolled back; the house is unharmed; and in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow, that the Deity will not, of purpose, make war on man’s earth.”

The combination of sarcasm with scientific debunking and semi-religious phraseology explains the angry response of the lightning-rod man. Clearly the narrator is not the most accomodating of hosts, but his attacks, while provoking the salesman to local anger, do not slow his efforts. At the story’s close, we learn that he “still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”

Accepting that the lightning-rod man represents an evangelist, either of religious salvation or home safety, and that the narrator rejects and in fact inverts the very claims of peril on which the sales pitch is constructed, the question that a reader must ask is how to interpret the wisdom of the narrator’s stance. Clearly neither the narrator’s house nor his person have been dashed apart by lightning as of his telling of this story, but such fortune neither proves nor disproves the wisdom of his course of action.

One cannot be entirely sure of Melville’s attitude toward his skeptical narrator in the way that one can be sure of, for example, Bunyan’s attitudes toward his various characters. Does this narrator speak for Melville? Does Melville offer him for tacit condemnation? Or is the author more ambivalent, simply presenting the story for our interpretation. Given what we know of Melville’s biography and other work, the direct critique of the religious seems likely but hardly a settled matter.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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Someone is Watching–Beckett’s “Film”

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)In 1965, Samuel Beckett created his one and only effort at film, a seventeen-minute offering entitled, cleverly enough, “Film.” Starring silent-film veteran Buster Keaton, this brief silent plays just as inscrutably as some of Beckett’s minimalist work. (I’m thinking of “Breath” here.)

Happily we do not have to journey to some trendy theater to witness “Film,” but can enjoy it for free on our computer screens thanks to the nice people at Open Culture.

If you don’t want to wade through a quarter hour of Beckett-style squalor, here’s the synopsis. Keaton, seen only from the back for most of the film, scurries through a rubbly urban landscape, nearly knocking over a couple he encounters. They look straight into the camera and are horrified. By Keaton? That’s not clear. Entering his apartment house, he comes upon an old woman. She too is horrified, but again it isn’t clear if he is the object of her shock. He then enters a singularly dismal apartment with a bed that looks as if someone melted on it.

He draws the tattered blinds, covers the cat, the birdcage, the mirror, and other items around the room. Eventually he sits in a rocking chair and gazes at a print of a curious, Assyrian-looking face. After a moment, he snatches the item from the wall and rips it up. Then he sits again and looks through several photos, apparently of his life, that suggest happier days. When he reaches a portrait of himself much as he now appears, he begins to rip these up, moving backward to his infancy. Then he sees a horrifying figure before him. It is…him. He collapses into the chair, covering his eyes. “The horror, the horror.”

I’m not sure how to respond to a film like this. Part of me wants to dismiss it as mid-century French (Irish) posturing. The attitude is not terribly different from that of the gloomy goth kids one sees today: Life is really terrible and bleak and awful, and we’re really clever and hip for realizing that. Is Beckett really no better than a late adolescent? Having read Waiting for Godot, I have to think he was.

A Christian reading of this film is fairly obvious. Who, after all, is the eye that follows our “hero”? Is it society? Himself? Or is it God? I’m not sure that it really matters? We can assert that God sees all, but the key thing in “Film,” whether we interpret it from a theistic or atheistic viewpoint, is the awareness that the character has of himself. I would argue that the other characters, the three who react in horror to something, are similarly aware of the true nature of themselves.

Keaton’s character realizes himself as those Isaiah prophesies against in Isaiah 64:6-7:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

Beckett correctly sees humanity in all its depravity. That much is admirable, but how do we respond to that depravity? Do we wallow in despair or reach out to the only source of hope. In Beckett’s universe, that hope is illusory and pointless. I’m pleased, on this Good Friday, to suggest that the light Keaton attempts to block out with his shabby curtains is not just an accusing light but a hopeful light.

Posted in Existentialism, Irish Literature.

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