Showing posts with label Nathaniel Hawthorne. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nathaniel Hawthorne. Show all posts

Monday, April 30, 2012

Fiction as Non-Fiction

There are readers who devour mostly fiction and there are those who mostly read non-fiction.  Although I enjoy the occasional non-fiction work, mostly biographies, and, even then, tend to read biographies of writers or musicians, I happily settle down with a novel as my window to the world.  My non-fiction friends tell me I am wasting my time as they lecture about their newest insight into what makes the world tick, or how politics is evolving, and what history really means, from whatever non-fiction work they are reading at the time. 

Except for unassailable facts, what occurred and when, fiction and non-fiction can be topsy-turvy, with fiction being closer to the truth.  Most of my daily "non-fiction" consumption is reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, with an occasional Washington Post article for good measure. The WSJ has always had a conservative bent, even more so now that Murdoch's empire has annexed the newspaper and of course the NYT has a more liberal bias.  What the two newspapers have in common, though, is that they are well written.  However, it is amusing how they might look at the same issue, particularly when it comes to politics.  And they have become more polarized during the last four years as we've skirted a near economic depression and our government has moved to a state of immobilization.  That polarization has been further amplified in the media of radio and TV, and has become exponential on the Internet.  People seem to line up to read or view whatever seems to fit their belief system, a form of cognitive dissonance.  So much for so-called "non-fiction."

But writers of fiction and drama drill down to an inner world of their characters, trying to make sense of life from within.  Other artists, those in the performing or visual arts are doing the same, perhaps more abstractly.  What these authors and artists have to say about our world  matter as much as the journalists and non-fiction writers, perhaps more so.  The writers of non-fiction are filtering information even though it is purported to be fact.  The filters of fiction are more intangible leaving the reader not necessarily with neat conclusions, but frequently only with questions.  One has to actually think, something becoming more alien in our sound bite, "facetweet" cyber world.

So I find it fascinating when writers are asked to comment, directly, not through their fiction, about the state of the world.  The P.E.N. (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) American Center is hosting a World VoicesFestival  beginning today and A. O. Scott, a critic for The New York Times asked Margaret Atwood from Canada, E.L. Doctorow from the United States, and Martin Amis from Britain "to consider the question of America and its role in global political culture." 

Margaret Attwood writes a playful parable by trying to explain the state of American culture and politics to a group of visiting Martians, Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick ExplainShe uses two well known short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne "The Maypole of Merry Mount," and "Young Goodman Brown" to make the point that the bickering over individual freedom vs. the rights of the group and the American quest of finding satanic elements in the enemy du jour is deeply ingrained in the American soul (witch hunting then, and "right now it’s mostly ‘terrorism,’ though in some quarters it’s ‘liberalism’ or even ‘evil-green-dragon environmentalism.’ ”) 

The Martians are TV and Internet savvy.  They come to their own conclusions about the US: "Though American cultural hegemony is slipping, we perceive: newly rich countries such as India and Brazil have developed their own mass media. Also, America’s promise of democracy and egalitarianism — the mainstay of its cultural capital, widely understood — is being squandered."

Attwood urges them to read Moby Dick, which they do in an instant (Martians are very bright) but  "then they consulted™ for an expression that would best convey their reaction. 'Holy crap!' " --- coming to the conclusion that the novel was a predictive metaphor for the very state of America today (check the link for details).  In short, to understand America, one must look to its literature.

In contrast to Attwood's playful but insightful piece, E.L. Doctorow writes a scathing prescriptive "primer," Unexceptionalism: A Primer  

This is a four phase process (we've gone through the first three and are in the process of completing the final phase argues Doctorow) "to achieve unexceptionalism, the political ideal that would render the United States indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world...."

Here is one of America's leading novelists, works such as Ragtime, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, and Homer & Langley, who is plainly disgusted at the direction of the country.  His "primer" is clearly an invective borne out of the same sense of powerlessness and frustration many feel.

Finally, the UK's Martin Amis weighs in with Marty and Nick Jr. Go to America about when he first visited America as a child with his family in 1958, (he and his brother wanting their names to "sound American" hence, "Marty" and "Nick, Jr.")  I like to read what visitors have to say about their impressions of America and once got caught up in Charles Dickens' first trip to America, incorporating some of his "American Notes" in my 2005 edited collection, New York to Boston; Travels in the 1840's

Amis' family came because his father was a visiting professor at Princeton.  Martin Amis says "We came from Swansea, in South Wales. This was a city of such ethnic homogeneity that I was already stealing cash and smoking the odd cigarette before I met — or even saw — a person with black skin." 

Some people would like to think that we live in a post-racial era but Amis reminds us of the entrenched racism, not only when he lived in America as a child (when he returned to the UK in 1967 his father wrote a poem about Nashville which ends But in the South, nothing now or ever. / For black and white, no future. / None. Not here.) but now as well, concluding with a reference to the Trayvon Martin case, with a cynical twist at the end, "Leave aside, for now, that masterpiece of legislation, Stand Your Ground (which pits the word of a killer against that of his eternally wordless victim), and answer this question. Is it possible, in 2012, to confess to the pursuit and murder of an unarmed white 17-year-old without automatically getting arrested? Ease my troubled mind, and tell me yes."

I wrote about the Trayvon Martin tragedy soon after it occurred.  Mine wasn't a race to judgment, but that is what the conservative press would have you believe is happening. A man is indeed innocent until proven guilty, Amen to that I say.  But who speaks for the "eternally wordless victim" as Martin Amis so forcefully posits? 

We live in volatile times and need to listen to our creative writers.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Literary Concord

Several years ago Ann cut out an article in the Palm Beach Post about Concord, Ma. and its rich literary and revolutionary war history. As we were visiting our son, Chris, in nearby Worcester, it was an ideal opportunity to push on to Concord for a couple of days, stay at a B&B (North Bridge Inn, highly recommended) and see for ourselves. We decided to concentrate on Concord’s literary history, and its place at the crossroads of Transcendentalism with Emerson as the center of that universe. To walk where Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, and Hawthorne walked is awe-inspiring. They were all contemporaries, living near each other. This is indeed a sort of holy ground of American literary and intellectual history.

There is no better way to start such a trip than to visit the Concord Public Library, dedicated by Ralph Waldo Emerson when it opened in 1873. In this day of the Kindle and the iPad, it was refreshing to be in a traditional library, befitting the literary community which it is at the center. Inside one can find Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of Ralph Waldo Emerson. French’s tools were given to him by Louisa May Alcott.
In the Concord Museum Emerson’s study is perfectly preserved, moved there after there was a fire in the Emerson home.

The Old Manse was home at one time or another to both Hawthorne and Emerson. Here Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride Sophia rented for three years beginning in 1842. While on tour, we were able to see the following etching in one of the window panes using Sophia’s diamond wedding ring:

Man's accidents are God's purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne 1843
Nath Hawthorne This is his study
The smallest twig leans clear against the sky
Composed by my wife and written with her diamond
Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3, 1843. In the Gold light.

One can still see the smallest twig leaning “clear against the sky.” It would have been interesting to eavesdrop on conversations between Emerson and Hawthorne as Hawthorne was not a Transcendentalist. Henry David Thoreau (pronounced “Thorough” by the natives) is said to have planted the garden at the Old Manse as a wedding gift to the Hawthornes. The garden still blooms there. From the Old Manse Emerson’s grandfather witnessed the “shot heard around the world,” the opening volley of the American Revolution on the Old North Bridge.

The Old Manse also houses a 1864 Steinway piano and I was surprised when the docent invited anyone on the tour to try it. Most items on these house tours are of the “look-but-do-not-touch” nature. As no one volunteered I stepped forward to play a few bars of Memories by Andrew Lloyd Webber, my apologies to 19th century sensibilities. It was out of tune, but all keys functioned, more than 150 years after this piano was built.

This is how life was before the “conveniences” of modern life. Parlor games and music, plays written and performed by the residents, writing and philosophical discussions, and books read to the family by candlelight. (Hawthorne read the entire works of Sir Walter Scott to his children while living in Concord.)

The nearby Wayside is now a National Park property and tours of the home and the nearby North Bridge are conducted by Park Rangers. We were lucky enough to have had a private tour of this home. Louisa May Alcott spent her childhood there and many of the scenes from Little Women were set in her memory from that home. It is also the only home ever actually owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne who gave it the name, Wayside.

The tour of the Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott actually wrote Little Women was inspired. The docent enacted several quotes from the novel, leaving one motivated not only to buy the book (once again) but others as well in the gift shop.

Alcott’s father, an educator who struggled to make ends meet, was an enlightened man, encouraging his daughters to learn, building a small desk for Louisa May (unheard of at the time), and having the pleasure of watching his daughter become one of the best selling author’s of her time, certainly making the family wealthy. That small, plain desk has been perfectly preserved. Father Alcott was devoted to Louisa May and she was devoted to him. Eerily, as the New York Times reported at the time in 1888, it is a noteworthy fact in connection with her life and death that Miss Alcott and her father were born on the same day of the month, and that they died within 24 hours of one another.

A couple years ago we had the pleasure of touring Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst. She is probably my favorite poet. I wonder whether her relative isolation in Amherst, while the literary hotbed of New England was not far away in Concord, but far enough to remove her from that scene, might have contributed to the quiet loneliness of her poetry. I am not aware of Dickinson ever meeting the Concord group.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is now the resting place of the Alcotts, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson, Thoreau’s grave just simply inscribed, “Henry.” I cannot visit such a graveyard without thinking of Emily Dickinson’s poem I Died For Beauty which I never forgot since reading it in college and in fact recited those words at Dickinson’s gravesite in Amherst:

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth, the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our name

Our wonderful tour of Concord was concluded by having dinner at the Walden Grill with my best friend from college, Bruce, and his wife, Bonnie, residents of nearby Sudbury, and both dedicated teachers of literature. Perhaps learning, teaching and literature are in the water of Concord, Ma. and its environs!