Monthly Archives: November 2010

Tolstoy, the Novelist vs. the Activist

One thing I appreciate about the New York Times is that many of its columnists routinely mention literature. Maureen Dowd probably does so the most (note this passing reference to T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland), and I once wrote a column on Roger Cohen’s use of The Great Gatsby in a piece on President Obama. (Cohen wrote […]

Posted in Tolstoy (Leo) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Narnia, Much More than a Sermon

Jason Blake, my Ljubljana colleague, set off an interesting discussion two weeks ago when he wrote a post on on reading nonsense poetry to his daughter. Many readers wrote in about children’s literature, and at one point in the discussion Jason posted a poem by Robert Lewis Stevenson that made a number of us, with […]

Posted in Lewis (C. S.) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Gratitude, God’s Great Gift

  Spiritual Sunday I have been teaching Paradise Lost this past week so, in the spirit of the Thanksgiving weekend, I share here some of Milton’s insights into gratitude. Let me start with the prayer of gratitude that Adam and Eve offer up to God in Book IV. They have been working in the garden […]

Posted in Milton (John) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Michael Vick and the Scarlet Letter

Sports Saturday Quarterback Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles continues to be the most interesting story in American sports. After spending two years in jail for participating in dog fighting, against all predictions he has emerged to become one of the most dynamic players in the National Football League. In the last three weeks he […]

Posted in Hawthorne (Nathaniel) | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

A Hysterical Response to a Masterpiece

Film Friday The film I write on today is one that has the resonance of great literature. It is also a film that affirms our humanity in the face of fear. Since too often we let fear set us against one another, it is good to look at a work of art that reminds us […]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Expressing Gratitude for Nature’s Feast

  Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday because it involves holding a feast in the face of on-coming winter.  I read this as a sign that we believe the harvest bounty can carry us through the hard times. To accentuate the symbolism, I like my Thanksgivings to be cold and even a bit wet. Sir Gawain […]

Posted in Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , | Comments closed

The Burning of the Books

In Ben Click’s post yesterday on the banning history of Huckleberry Finn, he tells the story of a man who remembers hearing the book read to him when he was a child in a concentration camp. Horst Kruse never forgot that reading experience and would go on to become a Twain scholar. Ben talks about […]

Posted in Brecht (Bertolt) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Huck Finn’s Censorship History

I have always been fascinated by the many ways that literature influences our lives, but, as a literary scholar, I also know that influence is a very hard thing to prove. That’s why I find censorship to be interesting. When people censor a book, they do so because they assume that it can have an […]

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

For a Political Reality Check, Look to Dogs

What keeps cynical leaders from restructuring reality to suit their ends? Modern democracies have a number of institutions to keep us grounded in truth and principle. In times of stress, these can become the targets of extremist political movements. In America we have rightwing commentators and rightwing media (most notably Rush Limbaugh and Fox “News”) […]

Posted in Kundera (Milan) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Cock Crowing: Greeting God’s Holy Light

Joan Miro, “Le Coq” Spiritual Sunday This is the story of a student basketball player whose life has been changed by the mystic religious poetry of Henry Vaughan. Okay, so “changed” might be an exaggeration. But the 17th century metaphysical poet is helping Brian sort through a series of life reversals in ways that I […]

Posted in Vaughan (Henry) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Manning vs. Brady, Hector vs. Achilles

Sports Saturday Tomorrow will witness the fiercest rivalry in American football—and maybe in American sports—as Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts travels to Boston to play against Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Many are beginning to believe that football has never seen a quarterback rivalry that matches this one. Which of the two […]

Posted in Homer | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Lee’s Film Has More Sensibility than Sense

  Film Friday A while back I wrote about how Patricia Rozema’s film of Mansfield Park sells Jane Austen short. Today I accuse Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) of doing the same. When the film came out, I remember hearing an interview with Lee (maybe on National Public Radio) about how his affinity with Jane […]

Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Read Your Kids Nonsense Poems

I taught Alice in Wonderland a couple of weeks ago and found myself thrown back to wonderful childhood memories of my father reading me Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poetry.  Authority figures in the book are always ordering Alice to recite instructional verse, like Issac Watts’ “Against Idleness and Mischief” or Robert Southey’s “The Old Man’s Comforts […]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Twain Was No Racist (Not Even Close)

“I hope that like Mark Twain, 100 years from now people will see my work and think, ‘Wow. That is actually pretty racist.’” –Tina Fey accepting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor Thanks to a visiting lecturer in our Mark Twain series, I have a new understanding of Huckleberry Finn that is exciting me […]

Posted in Conrad (Joseph), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Metaphors and the Brain

I read a fascinating article in yesterday’s New York Times on metaphors and the brain. If I understand Robert Sapolsky’s piece correctly, the insula—which is the part of the brain that processes, say, disgust with rotten food—also processes “rotten” when it is used as a metaphor (as in “the very deep did rot” from Rime […]

Posted in Dickinson (Emily) | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Palin, Mama Grizzlies, and the Wife of Bath

There was a lot of talk about Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies” this past election season. The image, which conjures up mothers fiercely defending their threatened young, has never made logical sense to me as a rightwing symbol. After all, shouldn’t mothers be fighting fiercely for social safety net programs (which Sarah Palin attacks) and against […]

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Gifts that Come with Sitting in Church

Spiritual Sunday When I was young, I could never understand why someone would want to sit for 90 minutes in church.  But when I became a man (to quote Paul) I got it.  There is something in the experience that grounds one, a peace that descends.  This can occur even if one’s mind is wandering […]

Posted in MacLeod (J. Annie) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Basketball’s Lyric Slipknot of Joy

We can become jaded with professional sports.  This past off season saw LeBron James creating a three-ring circus out of his move from Cleveland to Miami.  The grand entrance of players into the arena on any given night seems almost parodic, more in the spirit of P. T. Barnum than epic invocation.  Therefore it’s good […]

Posted in Komunyakaa (Yusef) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

The Greatest Clown of Them All

Film Friday I have wonderful childhood memories of going to the movies with my parents. That’s why I am particularly fond of the opening scene of James Agee’s novel Death in the Family (1957), where six-year-old Rufus is shown attending a Charlie Chaplin short with his father. The year is 1915. I have seen many […]

Posted in Agee (James) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Fixing the House that Jefferson Built

I offer my apologies to my regular readers for having written a series of very long posts this week. To give you some relief, I offer up a political poem by my father, who is a master of light verse. As he did in a poem that I ran in a previous post (you can […]

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Obama, Don’t Mess with My Kitsch

I have been continuously bewildered by the state of political discourse in this country over the past two years. The vituperation that normally reasonable conservative intellectuals have unleashed against President Obama has struck me as, at times, unhinged. In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Czech author Milan Kundera has provided me with […]

Posted in Kundera (Milan) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Soul-Selling for Dummies

    How do I sell my soul? Let me count the ways. I wrote in Sunday’s entry how the ego and the soul are pitted against each other in an unending battle. Just think how much better off we’d all be if humans listened to their higher selves and ego took a back seat. […]

Posted in Marlowe (Christopher) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Into Valley of Death Rode the Democrats

The Democrats’ “shellacking” at the hands of the Republicans last week (the description is President Obama’s) has me thinking about Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.  But perhaps not in the way that you think. Tennyson’s memorable poem commemorated the insane charge by the British cavalry against Russian machine guns at Balaclava in […]

Posted in Tennyson (Alfred Lord) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

The Hell of Ego, the Heaven of Love

Spiritual Sunday A reader’s response to Friday’s post on the Faustus story has me thinking more about Marlowe’s marvelous play. Marlowe informs us that we don’t need to die to go to hell. If we refuse to listen to the voice of our soul, we can find hell right here on earth. If there were […]

Posted in Marlowe (Christopher), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

The Suicidal Beauty of Football

Sports Saturday I’ve always been haunted by James Wright’s poem about high school football in working class Ohio. Wright’s fathers, living ruptured lives, hope for some kind of escape, some kind of renewed virility, through the football prowess of their teenage sons. Perhaps picking up on their parents’ desperation, their sons “gallop terribly” against each […]

Posted in Wright (James) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Films that Mishandle the Faustus Story

Film Friday The baseball playoffs, which concluded with a San Francisco win over the Texas Rangers this past week, have had me thinking about the Faustus story and how many modern renditions of the story get it wrong. If this seems like a leap, let me explain. The Texas Rangers used to be the Washington […]

Posted in Marlowe (Christopher) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

Tuesday’s election gave us a chance to assess the effectiveness of the American Tea Party movement, which has fascinated not only the American media but people around the globe. For liberals like me, at times Tea Partiers have seemed to resemble less the American colonialists dumping tea into the Boston Harbor and more Lewis Carroll’s […]

Posted in Carroll (Lewis) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Political Campaigns, Unbearably Light

We have heard a lot of heated rhetoric in the course of this election season. Words have soared and people have become impassioned. Now that voting has occurred, we can only hope that our newly elected representatives will make the transition from (in the famous formulation of Mario Cuomo) the poetry of campaigning to the […]

Posted in Kundera (Milan) | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Election Got You Down? Read Johnson

By the end of today in the United States, some will be celebrating and others will be rending their garments and gnashing their teeth. While I am not one to underestimate the significant of elections—I think voting is one of a citizen’s most important responsibilities—I also caution everyone not to become (in the words of […]

Posted in Johnson (Samuel) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

The Bard Weighs in on the Election

One curious aspect of this very loud election season has been that the two largest political rallies were staged by entertainers: Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally of August 29 and John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” this past Saturday. A rightwing pundit and two liberal comedians (one of them who […]

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete