Not Your Father’s Apple Cider

The Rickers's apple cider processing operation

The Rickers’ apple cider processing operation


It took my mother and me two days to fly from New England to Tennessee after storms canceled flights out of LaGuardia Monday evening. Other than the unpleasant experience of paying for a New York hotel, however, the trip was a success. Among other highlights, I got to sample “Mainiac” apple cider, which my Maine cousins the Rickers are currently making. Harry Ricker informs me that sales are still climbing and that they placed high in a national tasting contest.

My cousins invested a million dollars in their apple cider operation—the Rickers never do anything halfway—and the highly mechanized operation is a lot different than that mentioned by John Keats and Robert Frost.

Here’s the reference to cider from Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.” Keats’s life, like the year, is waning or oozing away. But rather than pity himself, he marvels at how precious and vivid everything is. The lethargic (or sickly) speaker lounges around, appreciating the touch of the wind, the smell of poppies, and the slow oozings of the cider press:

Who hath not seen thee [Autumn] oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep|
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

The process moves at a considerably more rapid pace today. The cider also has to be treated.

I asked my cousin-by-marriage Jeff Timberlake, who also runs the farm, what he thought of the Frost reference to cider in “Apple Picking”:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

Jeff said that, while they do indeed use a lesser grade of apple for cider, they don’t rely on apples that have hit the ground. But their machinery is such that they can remove bruises from the apples that they do use. Jeff also said they have been planting new trees that yield a better cider apple.

The machinery is impressive. I can’t begin to describe all the intricate devices they have or the complex chemistry involved. Jeff says that the single greatest challenge is ensuring that every can of cider tastes like every other can of cider.

The operation made the poem’s images of a farmer reaching out and plucking apples seem a long-ago relic from the past:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

And further on:

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.

Not everything has changed. Jeff tells me that the farm still uses ladders for the tall trees and one still hears during harvest season the “rumbling sound of load on load of apples coming in.” But the ladders now are easier on the instep, being made of aluminum, not wood. They are also used less and less as the farm turns to dwarf trees and trees espaliered on wires. And then there is that processing plant, which looks like a science fiction setting.

Farming, in other words, has changed drastically. But that being said, it’s also still the case that a single hailstorm can wipe out a year’s crop. For all their technological control, farmers are still vulnerable when it comes to the weather.

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The Tern from Turner, Maine

Ricker HillOrchards in Turner, Maine

Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, Maine


I was traveling yesterday and so am reposting an earlier post that got dropped from my blog last year as I was transitioning from one server plan to another. During the trip, my mother and I visited an old friend in Topsham, Maine,who turns 100 in August. My mother is 90, and we also traveled to our family cottage at Ricker Hill Orchards, built by my great grandmother Sarah Ricker over a hundred years ago. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time talking about the past.

Ricker Hill Orchards, which is still run by my cousins, is located just outside the small town of Turner, Maine, which gives me an excuse for posting this poem by my father about a tern from Turner. My father loved birds and he loved puns, both of which are in evidence here. The poem appears in Lupo’s Fables, a collection of animal stories with startling morals. I can’t figure out the moral to this poem, but I like its playfulness. Use it to brighten your day.

The Fat and Unliberated Female Tern

By Scott Bates

A fat and unliberated female Tern was trying to turn
     through a ternstile
To take a train
To Turner Maine
She was dressed in the very latest Tern style
She turned and turned
She turned in vain
She turned her ankle stomach tail
To no avail
She even turned
The other cheek
She would turn that ternstile
If it took all week
Or all night
Or if she had to turn into a Termite
A Termite had stolen her purse
Things were looking worse and worse
When who should turn up
but a Turnip
Who had always wanted to do a good turn
So he took her in his plane
To Turner Maine
Where they married and lived happily ever after
Until he gaffed her
With a rafter
Until he hit her
With a baby sitter
Until he got her shot
On pot
(Since it was his principle
never to leave a Tern
Until she left him one night to take a little Tern around the bend
A friend
Who had always wanted to do a good turn
Because as he always said one good Tern deserves another
She soon became a Mother
Of twenty-eight
I am here to state
She was done to a turn
She was done in!
Which was as it should have been
Or which is as it should be
Because birds of a feather deserve a Father

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Mustering Courage To Become Jane Eyre

Edward A. Wilson, "Jane Eyre"

Edward A. Wilson, “Jane Eyre”

Friday I recounted how my great-grandmother Eliza (Lizzy) Scott turned to the sentimental novels of Susan Warren and Charlotte Yonge to negotiate a difficult childhood that included the death of her mother and baby brother. (She also found solace in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “May Queen.”) Today I write about a book that she doesn’t specifically mention but that I’m pretty sure was an inspiration: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

What tipped me off was a particular word that Lizzy uses when she decides to leave her father and become a governess. Here’s the passage from her memoir:

Father made strenuous objections at first, but I was glad to have the prospect of a change and of earning a little money. I was not needed at home and was restless at having nothing to do.

There are few words more important in Jane Eyre than “restless.” Janes uses it when she is a governess at Thornfield and is chafing against domestic restraints:

I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line—that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen—that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach.  I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adèle; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

Who blames me?  Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented.  I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes

Because women of the time were supposed to find complete fulfillment within the home, Jane’s reflections were revolutionary—so much so that reviewer Elizabeth Rigby attacked the novel for being unfeminine, antichristian, and communist (“chartist”). I can imagine Lizzy Scott, like many women of the time, recognizing her own inner longings in Bronte’s passage, which concludes with Jane complaining about the gender double standard:

Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it—and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.  Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot.  Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth.  Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

This passage echoes an earlier one that, while it doesn’t use the word “restless,” nevertheless captures the same sentiments. Jane is teaching at Lowood school and sees herself going nowhere. She longs for contact with the “real world” where “hopes and fears,” “sensations and excitements,” await those who have “courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils”:

 My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out.  There were the two wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon.  My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks; it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits.  I traced the white road winding round the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between two; how I longed to follow it farther!  I recalled the time when I had travelled that very road in a coach; I remembered descending that hill at twilight; an age seemed to have elapsed since the day which brought me first to Lowood, and I had never quitted it since.  My vacations had all been spent at school: Mrs. Reed had never sent for me to Gateshead; neither she nor any of her family had ever been to visit me.  I had had no communication by letter or message with the outer world: school-rules, school-duties, school-habits and notions, and voices, and faces, and phrases, and costumes, and preferences, and antipathies—such was what I knew of existence.  And now I felt that it was not enough; I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon.  I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer…

Jane Eyre was tremendously popular amongst governesses and prospective governesses throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. It was practically a Bible for some. I think the novel gave my great-grandmother the courage to venture out into the world. In Jane’s case, she ratchets her desires down but can be seen as making a bold demand nonetheless. Here she is requesting a second and then a third choice:

…[liberty] seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing.  I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”

I think such a passage supported my great-grandmother in making her own bold decision to leave her family. Like Jane, she succeeded in finding a “new servitude”: she became a governess with the Martin family.

There were more books on the way. Lizzy discovered that her new mistress had literary connections:

Mrs. Martin was the eldest daughter of Mark Lemon, the well known editor of Punch, an intimate friend of Charles Dickens, Macauley, and all the literary men of the day.

If Jane Eyre helped Lizzy launch herself into the world, however, Lizzy found herself unable to imitate Jane in every particular. Jane is fairly confident in her ability to manage Adele whereas Lizzy found the job to be tougher than she had anticipated:

I realized almost at once that I was not qualified to teach those children. My education was so limited, and they were very bright. I knew only a little of music and French, whereas Mrs. Martin was an accomplished musician and spoke French and Italian fluently.

When she expressed her self-doubts and offered to resign, however, the Martins persuaded her to stay another year. She resolved to do so and then experienced the happy ending that concludes most governess novels, including Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.”

She didn’t marry the lord of the manor, however, but my great-grandfather Edwin, who had dated her before he left for America. In fact Lizzy, like Jane, received two marriage proposals in one week. Edwin’s marriage proposal came by letter, as did a proposal from another man who had been reticent about expressing his love.

Lizzy didn’t accept the man with the steady job. Instead, she took the one who, to borrow from the Bronte passage above, would allow her to follow, and follow further, the white road that vanished in a gorge. Edwin would take her to America and South Africa and back to America again and they would suffer periodic reversals of fortune. It’s a love story worthy of the romances that Lizzy loved, and she never expresses any regrets.

When I would visit my “Granny Bates,” Lizzy’s eldest daughter, I was impressed with all the editions of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, and many, many others on her shelves. I’m pretty sure they came from my great-grandmother rather than from Edwin, who viewed Dickens as a man who lived a scandalous life. Lizzy Scott passed her love of literature along to Granny, who passed it along to her youngest son, my father Scott, who passed it along to me.

I in turn have passed it along to my children, one of whom last year completed his dissertation in Victorian literature.

Further thought: One of the most useful ideas in Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic is that the madwoman functions as Jane’a alter ego, acting out her restlessness and her anger at being pent up. One sees the connection especially vividly in the following passage, which follows the “restless” passage cited above:

When thus alone, I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh: the same peal, the same low, slow ha! ha! which, when first heard, had thrilled me: I heard, too, her eccentric murmurs; stranger than her laugh.


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Stillness, One of the Doors of the Temple

Vermeer, "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha"

Vermeer, “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”

Spiritual Sunday

Thanks to the blog Journey to Jesus for the poem that I share today. Daniel Clendenin says that the story of Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary reminds him of a Mary Oliver poem.

The Mary and Mother story rouses strong reactions in our work ethic culture, with many siding with Martha. Here it is:

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42).

Rudyard Kipling finds himself drawn to Martha. In his poem “Sons of Martha,” he sees Mary as a version of the gentry class, getting a free ride provided by the working class. A couple of stanzas give you his take:

THE Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

Here’s the final stanza:

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!

Clendenin disagrees, however, and focuses instead on the word “distracted.” Discussing our tendency to get sidetracked by busyness when we should be centered on God, he compares the story with the Good Samaritan, and one can see resemblances between Martha and the elder brother. Just as the brother must learn the second of the great commandments, Clendenin says, so must Martha learn the first.  Above all, Jesus tells us, we are to love God and love our neighbor. Just because we work hard doesn’t automatically mean that we are virtuous.

Luke contrasts Martha’s “distracted” life — a word he uses twice, with Mary’s “centered” life. How ironic that Martha’s earnest acts of devotion precipitated aggravation and annoyance.

Clendenin then turns to Oliver’s poem, which he says helps him follow Mary’s path rather than Martha’s:


By Mary Oliver

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the gardening rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

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My Great Grandmother Read for Courage

Florence Fuller, "Inseparables" (circa 1900)

Florence Fuller, “Inseparables” (circa 1900)


I’m currently in Maine, where my mother, Julia and I are visiting our Maine cottage and also an old friend who turns 100 in August. Julia and I have been reading over some of the old family histories in the cottage, including the memoirs of Edwin Fulcher and Eliza Scott, the parents of my grandmother Elinor Fulcher Bates. (In other words, my great grandfather and mother on my father’s side.)

As this is a literature blog, I won’t regale you with the stories of Edwin’s encounters with Cecil Rhodes, the great imperialist, when he was an accountant in a Kimberly diamond mine. (As the keeper of the books, he saw up close a couple of Rhodes’s shady dealings as he gained monopolistic control of Kimberly’s diamond and gold mines.) Nor will I report on the many, many business failures, bouts of sickness, and deaths that Edwin and and Eliza suffered as they made their way from England to America to South Africa and back to America, ending up finally in Evanston, Illinois.

I will recount, however, how literature entered their lives, especially Eliza’s. From her memoir I have a better sense of the origins of my own love of literature, and I am also moved by how she used literature to get through tough times.

The first literary connection is one that Eliza doesn’t make but that the rest of us will. Her father, my great great grandfather Thomas Scott, was the manager of Lord Bunbury’s estate. Yes Bunbury, which is also the name of Algernon’s fictional friend in The Importance of Being Earnest.

I assume Wilde chose the name because it sounds so whimsical. Also, given that “buns” and “bum” are slang for buttocks and Algernon’s excursions into the country can be read as an account of life in the closet, “bunburying” hints at anal sex.

I don’t know if Wilde knew the actual Lord Bunbury, but in her memoir Eliza says that other significant figures visited him, including novelist Charles Kingsley:

Some distinguished peopled visited the Bunburys, whom it was Father’s privilege to meet, amongst them Lord Napier, Sir Charles Dyell, geologist, and Charles Kingsley, who usually took a walk with Father, and preached at our church if he was there over Sunday. He had a nervous twitch in one eye, which resembled a wink, and caused much amusement to the young members of the congregation. Our Vicar had been one of his curates, and had imbibed many of his broadminded views. We all enjoyed Mr. Kingsley’s books, especially Water Babies and Two Years Ago. We were too young to appreciate Hypatia and other works.

Eliza was a sickly child and so did not begin her formal education until age 12. Her recently widowed Aunt Polly, however, taught her how to read, and Eliza also picked up some knowledge from her brothers. She later drew on the protagonist of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss to describe life at that time:

I picked up a little knowledge from helping the boys with their work. They went to a private school at Bury, being driven there by Trudgett in the mornings and walking home. They had to memorize a good deal, and were glad for me to hear them repeat their assignments. I also enjoyed working at their arithmetic problems. When, some years later I read The Mill on the Floss I saw myself in Maggie Tulliver, running wild, thinking my own thoughts imaginative and somewhat secretive, delighted when the boys would let me follow on one of their bird nest or rabbit hunting expeditions, and playing cricket. I could climb trees, walk on high walls, jump as high as any of them, and run as fast, but only for a short distance, a pain in my side always interfering with my reaching the goal.

Unfortunately, tragedy was ahead for little Eliza. Her mother was sickly and, when she was undergoing confinement following a pregnancy, she and her daughter read Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World (1850), described by Wikipedia as “a work of sentimentalism based on the life of young Ellen Montgomery.” The plot parallels the trials that Eliza was about to undergo:

The story begins with Ellen’s happy life being disrupted by the fact that her mother is very ill and her father must take her to Europe, requiring Ellen to leave home to live with an almost-unknown aunt. Though Ellen tries to act strong for her mother’s sake, she is devastated and can find solace in nothing.

Eventually the day comes when Ellen must say goodbye to her mother and travel in the company of strangers to her aunt’s home. Unfortunately these strangers are unkind to Ellen and she tries to leave the boat on which they are traveling. An old man sees Ellen crying and tells her to trust in God. He teaches her about being a Christian, as her mother had done, and asks her if she is ready to give her heart to Jesus.

Ellen’s mother ultimately dies and so did Eliza’s. Eliza’s mother may have had a premonition that this would happen and used Wide, Wide World to prepare her daughter to be brave and not to cry during her coming ordeals:

On my 10th birthday, Mother gave me the Wide, Wide World and as a new baby arrived a few days later, she and I read it together while she was confined to her room. We both thought Ellen cried too much, but I thought she was very wonderful. Mother did not get well and during the summer went to the seashore for awhile, Nellie coming home from boarding school to help care for the little ones.

 Both Eliza’s mother and her baby brother died, Thomas Scott hired a housekeeper, Mrs. Wyburn, to raise the children. Eliza wishes that he had married Aunt Polly but alludes to a law, annulled a few years later, forbidding a widower to marry his wife’s sister. (The law is mentioned in one of Trollope’s novels.) There was a clash between Mrs. Wyburn and Aunt Polly, and Eliza turned to books to help get her through the emotional turmoil:

Miss Wyburn’s influence upon me was not good. She took an unreasonable and entirely unwarranted dislike to Aunt Polly, and tried to set me against her. Nellie, Richard and Robert being away at school, I had no companions of my own age, excepting in vacations. I had little to do that was interesting. I read all the books I could get and amused myself with the young children, but had to spend most of the time with Miss Wyburn, for whom for diplomatic reasons I pretended to have an affection, which I did not feel. I really mistrusted and disliked her, and was becoming as deceitful as she, but Charlotte Yonge’s books, particularly The Daisy Chain and The Heir of Redcliffe, our good Vicar’s preparatory lessons before confirmation, and later Miss Drake’s influence [a teacher] helped restore me to normal thinking. Miss Yonge’s characters were human and natural, with faults which by persistent efforts, though with frequent failures, they were finally able to overcome. They lived with me and were a continual inspiration. I was also reveling in Dickens’ and George MacDonald’s books at that time.

Like Susan Warner, Charlotte Yonge was a sentimental novelist whose stories are filled with courageous, principled, and unacknowledged sacrifice. The Daisy Chain features a bookish heroine while The Heir of Redcliffe (1853), a favorite of the March sisters in Little Women, has an heir (Guy) who works secretly to pay off the debts of a profligate uncle. He unjustifiably gets the reputation of being a gambler, which keeps him from getting the heroine. Then, when he is cleared and they marry and go off to Italy on a honeymoon, he nurses his cousin Philip back to health—the man who spread the nasty rumor in the first place—but dies in the process. Philip inherits his estate but is so moved by what Guy has done that he reforms. The novel was supposedly the most popular of the age, surpassing Dickens and Thackeray.

I suspect that Yonge helped my great grandmother to see her own suffering as noble and to rise above resentment and a sense of injustice.

Eliza mentions one other work. Her father, with the three older children in boarding school, couldn’t afford to send Eliza there as well. “He seemed to think that I could acquire sufficient knowledge by reading and observation as he had done,” Eliza observes.

She therefore applied herself to memorizing poetry and at one point recited for him all eleven verses of Tennyson’s May Queen , the tenor of which you can get from the second stanza:

There’s many a black, black eye, they say, but none so bright as mine;
There’s Margaret and Mary, there’s Kate and Caroline:
But none so fair as little Alice in all the land they say,
So I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

I can imagine Eliza reciting this to cheer him up and assure him (and herself) that she can put a bright face on things. Between Ellen Montgomery, Maggie Tulliver, and Alice the May Queen, one sees Eliza forging an identity for herself as a strong woman in the face of adversity.

I’ll report next week on how this strong identity, along with Jane Eyre, helped her leave her home to become a governess.

Posted in Tennyson (Alfred Lord), Wilde (Oscar) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Helms’s Attack on Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”

Jesse Helms (R)

Sen. Jesse Helms (R)


Last week, when I was telling an old family friend, Zell Hoole, about an assignment I give my students in my “Theories of the Reader” class, Zell responded with a fascinating account of a Jesse Helms (R) attack in 1966 on Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Zell heard about the attack while at the University of North Carolina Medical School.

In my class I instruct my students to choose a literary work that has become an “event.” They are to describe what happened and figure out what the episode teaches us about literature and society. I once had a student explore why Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was loved by teenagers and hated by their parents in 18th century Germany. Another explored why Catcher in the Rye is banned by many school systems around the country.

A 17th century carpé diem poem getting attached by a 20th century political commentator is just the kind of “event” I want my students exploring. That this diatribe helped Helms launch his political career makes it more interesting.

The story of Helms’s attack was recounted by an exhibit at the University of North Carolina entitled “A Right To Speak and To Hear: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at UNC.” According to the exhibit, Helms’s radio commentary targeted a student literary magazine for exposing students to “filth” and “unadulterated trash.” Here’s what happened next:

His 13 October commentary prompted a viewer to telephone WRAL-TV on 14 October and complain that her child, a student in a freshman English class at UNC, had been assigned to write an essay on how to seduce a member of the opposite sex. The station contacted UNC administrators, who then questioned several instructors. None confirmed having made such an assignment. The station persisted in its claim, identifying Michael Paull as the instructor. Shortly thereafter Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson removed Paull from the classroom and assigned him to other duties in the English Department.

A subsequent investigation determined that Paull had not made such an assignment. Instead, the investigation concluded, he had asked students to use Andrew Marvell’s seventeenth-century poem “To His Coy Mistress” as the basis for an assignment using imagery and several figures of speech. A few students misunderstood the assignment, according to the investigation. Paull was eventually reinstated as an instructor.

The incident led to a Life Magazine article, which included the poem and also the following account. I particularly like how the article ends with lines from “The Garden”:

The course is freshman English, the poet Andrew Marvell, and the poem one of the finest and most quoted in English literature, “To His Coy Mistress.” The subject is seduction, a lover’s plea that his mistress yield to him. “Had we but world enough, and time,” Marvell wrote, “This coyness, Lady, were no crime,” and pointed out that “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace…let us sport us while we may…” This is mild stuff compared with some things freshmen read. But at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a sophisticated center of the South, the poem started a campus to-do with no rhyme and not much reason.

 Instructor Michael Paull had told his class to rephrase Marvell’s 17th Century poem in 20th Century prose. Some of the themes turned in showed an expectable enthusiasm for the poet’s felicitous arguments, but the rephrasing was sometimes pretty blunt. After several papers were read aloud in class, somebody snitched to a local TV commentator, Jesse Helms, an ultraconservative who things academic freedom has gone too far. “No doubt,” he stormed in a telecast, “the boys enjoyed the vicarious frolic of talking about erotic matters in the presence of girl students.” Nobody was surprised at Helms’s reaction. But almost everybody was astonished at the university’s. The chancellor relieved Instructor Paull of his teaching duties pending a “full investigation.” Perhaps the investigators would find the best answer to the whole fuss in lines from another Marvell poem, “The Garden”: “The Mind, that Ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find.”

While I am (of course) on the university’s side here, I think Helms is closer to the truth about what occurred in Professor Paull’s classroom. To be sure, Paull may well have wanted his student to uncover images and figures of speech. Formalism, after all, ruled English departments at the time, and the authorities certainly could tell themselves that the students had misinterpreted the assignment.

However, by asking the students to rephrase the poem, Paull unleashed its scandalous power. His assignment was better than he imagined. Helms probably was right that “the boys enjoyed the vicarious frolic of talking about erotic matters in the presence of girl students.

 I think of Professor Keating explaing to his students in Dead Poets Society why poets write poetry. They do it, he tells them, “to woo women,” and once of his students start experimenting with it, they discover does indeed have such power.

I’m not constrained by 1960s formalism when I teach such poems as “To His Coy Mistress,” Robert Herrick’s “To Virgins To Make Most of Time,” and John Donne’s “The Flea” and therefore can be more direct. I ask my students whether such wooing poems actually work. After all, what kind of argument is the following?

     But at my back I always hear 
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; 
And yonder all before us lie 
Deserts of vast eternity. 
Thy beauty shall no more be found; 
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound 
My echoing song; then worms shall try 
That long-preserved virginity, 
And your quaint honour turn to dust, 
And into ashes all my lust; 
The grave’s a fine and private place, 
But none, I think, do there embrace. 

I usually get two responses. The initial one is that such an argument couldn’t possibly work thanks to its gross-out factor. Upon further reflection, however, some conclude that Marvell’s use of humor is actually pretty effective. The lady knows that Marvell isn’t being serious and that helps break the ice.

Whether the two would then go on to become “amorous birds of prey” and “tear [their] pleasure with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life” is another matter. But at least they’re talking and she’s probably allowed him to buy her a drink.

But back to Helms. He actually accords the poem far more power than a dry formalist reading. His objections make “To His Coy Mistress” fresh again, even though most of us probably disagree with him about the propriety of young men talking about erotic matters before young women.

Too often we regard classic poems as dry and dusty museum relics. Exploring controversies like this reminds us that great poetry packs a punch.

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Tales of the Wayside Inn

Wayside Inn, in Sudbury, Massachusetts

Wayside Inn, in Sudbury, Massachusetts


I am currently with my mother visiting relatives in Acton, Massachusetts and have been impressed by how America’s literary past saturates the area. My cousin Phoebe Pine took us to visit the cemetery where Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcott are buried, and we had lunch at the Longfellow Wayside Inn (pictured above):

After his visit to that establishment, Longfellow wrote Tales from the Wayside Inn, which is a Decameron or Canterbury Tales-type of composition where different people gather together to exchange stories. The storytellers include the landlord, a young scholar (like Chaucer’s clerk), a Sicilian, a Spanish Jew, a theologian, a poet, and a musician. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, published previously, was folded into the collection.

The collection was written during the Civil War and is understandably nostalgic for a time when different people could come together in harmony. Longfellow opens with a “Prelude”:

One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,
Across the meadows bare and brown,
The windows of the wayside inn
Gleamed red with fire-light through the leaves
Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves
Their crimson curtains rent and thin. 

As ancient is this hostelry
As any in the land may be,
Built in the old Colonial day,
When men lived in a grander way,
With ampler hospitality;
A kind of old Hobgoblin Hall,
Now somewhat fallen to decay,
With weather-stains upon the wall,
And stairways worn, and crazy doors,
And creaking and uneven floors,
And chimneys huge, and tiled and tall. 

A region of repose it seems,
A place of slumber and of dreams,
Remote among the wooded hills!
For there no noisy railway speeds,
Its torch-race scattering smoke and gleeds;
But noon and night, the panting teams
Stop under the great oaks, that throw
Tangles of light and shade below,
On roofs and doors and window-sills.
Across the road the barns display
Their lines of stalls, their mows of hay,

Through the wide doors the breezes blow,
The wattled cocks strut to and fro,
And, half effaced by rain and shine,
The Red Horse prances on the sign.

Inside the inn we meet the storytellers:

Around the fireside at their ease
There sat a group of friends, entranced
With the delicious melodies
Who from the far-off noisy town
Had to the wayside inn come down,
To rest beneath its old oak-trees.
The firelight on their faces glanced,
Their shadows on the wainscot danced,
And, though of different lands and speech,
Each had his tale to tell, and each
Was anxious to be pleased and please.

Since the day was pleasant, we dined outside and looked out at the oak trees. I had the house ale and a nice cold cucumber soup. We were far off from the noisy town and life felt good.

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Toni Morrison’s Caution about Black Anger

Song of Solomon


Because I’m currently traveling and lack access to a library, I can’t quote directly from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon about black men who turn homicidal in response to racial injustice. I can say, however, that the man who murdered five Dallas police officers reminds me of Guitar, the best friend of Milkman, Morrison’s protagonist.

When he is a child, Guitar is orphaned when his father is sliced in two in a lumber mill accident. The mill’s boss doesn’t even have the sensitivity to put the pieces back together properly. Guitar’s mind is further turned by the brutal killing of Emmett Till for supposedly whistling at a white woman.

Morrison sympathizes with Guitar’s anger, but she also shows what happens when anger becomes violent. Guitar joins a secret organization called “the Seven Days,” which kills an innocent white person each time an innocent black is killed by whites. Although supposedly constrained by a set of rules, the gang is unhinged by its violence, and an increasingly paranoid Guitar goes after Milkman when he thinks his friend has double-crossed him. Trying to shoot Milkman, he instead kills his wonderful aunt Pilate. Violence meant to be retributive justice instead becomes a horror show, with other African Americans as its major victims.

Such was the case in Dallas. This police force in America’s seventh largest city was trying to clean up its act, with its police chief having his officers learn new ways to deescalate potential conflict. There were even instances of the Dallas police and protesters posing together for photographs before the shooting started. In other words, a relatively enlightened police department was targeted.

In her novel, Morrison gives us a positive alternative in Milkman. Initially adrift and uninterested in politics—as a privileged black man he can afford to be—he embarks on a roots quest and consequently develops a strong sense of black pride. He learns what it means to act powerfully and effectively in the world, and by the end of the novel he is literally soaring into his potential. He is a good model for the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Homer’s Warning about Revenge Killings

Slobodna Dalmacija, "Odysseus Kills the Suitors"

Slobodna Dalmacija, “Odysseus Kills the Suitors”


Far too many times in the past seven years of this blog have I turned to literature to process mass killings such as we saw Friday night in Dallas and police killings of black men such as we saw last week in Louisiana and Minnesota. Sometimes I have looked at Grendel’s Mother, who is the spirit of vengeful blood feuds in Beowulf, and sometimes I have looked at “the witchery” in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony.

I particularly like Ceremony because Silko makes it clear that witches don’t care who wins and who loses when whites and Indians turn on each other or when Indians turn on other Indians. Witches just want there to be as much bloodshed as possible. Thus, when publications like The New York Post or Breitbart News use the Dallas killings to call for a civil war between blacks and whites—or use the Orlando killings to stir up hatred between Muslims and Christians–they are doing the work of the witchery. As Slate’s Will Saletan said in a recent column,

[Dallas killer Micah Johnson] didn’t join the side of black people, any more than Bin Laden or ISIS joined the side of Muslims. He joined the side of tribal enmity and vengeance. He joined the side of Dylann Roof, Anders Breivik, and David Duke.

Silko’s protagonist Tayo is therefore heroic when he rises above his thirst for blood vengeance at a pivotal point in the novel. The man he chooses not to kill, Emo, is a thoroughly despicable character who has just tortured and killed a man:

[Tayo] moved back into the boulders. It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud…

In other words, regardless of the anger we may feel—at police for killing innocent black men, at a black man for killing police—we have to draw upon the better angels of our nature. Otherwise we just become witchery’s tools.

Furthermore, no matter how much we may long for a strong leader to come in and end racial feuding, The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has a good column about how no one in the current climate–not President Obama, not any public figure–can do so. Homer articulates our longing in The Odyssey and he is just as unrealistic as we are:

Homer’s poem ends with what threatens to become an endless Ithacan blood feud. Odysseus has just killed 108 young men, and all of them have families and friends. In fact, more killing has already begun in the closing pages as the friends and relatives gather and begin marching on Odysseus.

So what brings peace?  Athena, operating through the wise old man Mentor, is able to get everyone to agree to a truce. 

                                            “Now hold,
[Athena] cried, “Break off this bitter skirmish;
end your bloodshed, Ithacans, and make peace.”
Their faces paled with dread before Athena,
and swords dropped from their hands unnerved, to lie
strewing the ground, at the great voice of the goddess,
Those from the town turned fleeing for their lives.
But with a cry to freeze their hearts
and ruffling like an eagle on the pounce,
the lord Odysseus reared himself to follow—
at which the son of Cronus dropped a thunderbolt
smoking at his daughter’s feet.
cast a gray glance at her friend and said:
“Son of Laertes and the gods of old,
Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways,
command yourself. Call off this battle now,
or Zeus who views the wide world may be angry,

 He yielded to her, and his heart was glad. 
Both parties later swore to terms of peace
set by their arbiter, Athena, daughter
of Zeus who bears the storm cloud as a shield—
though still she kept the form and voice of Mentor.

Note how, initially, Odysseus is prepared to continue enacting revenge. Athena/Mentor has to call him out, telling him that Zeus will be angry. In other words, the order of the world will be shattered if bloodshed continues, just as it has been restored by Odysseus’s return home.

Can we come together and agree to terms of peace? Where is Zeus’s thunderbolt when we need it? Unfortunately, we have no Mentor who speaks with the recognized backing of Athena and Zeus.

Or maybe we do. After all, we have “we the people.” What if we voted out of office those who prey on our fears and our tribal hatreds? What if we refused to listen to those rabble rousers who seek the adrenaline rush of confrontation? Could we not then achieve a more perfect union?

We just have to realize that there’s no savior out there. As Lucille Clifton puts it in a poem written about life after Martin Luther King,

now i guess you got to save yourselves.

Our better future is up to us.

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The Simple Creed: Man’s Duty to Man

Aimé Moror, "The Good Samaritan" (1880)

Aimé Morot, “The Good Samaritan” (1880)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading is about the Good Samaritan, which gives me an excuse to share this Henry Lawson poem. Lawson was an Australian working class writer in the early 20th century century, and his Good Samaritan has the qualities of the rough and tumble men that Lawson encountered in the Australian outback and in his own family.

Lawson’s Samaritan also shares many qualities with Lawson himself, including money troubles, business reversals, an unhappy marriage, and a penchant for drink. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, both poetic format and wandering protagonist, appear to have been an influence.

I am puzzled by the line in the final stanza, “When color rules and whites are slaves/ And savages again.” Perhaps, since that stanza deals with the Final Judgment, it is a version of Jesus’s “those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.” Or maybe it reflects Lawson’s racial prejudices, common for his time period, that all hell will break loose in the end times, including an inversion of racial hierarchy. That false note aside, however, the poem gives a voice to Australia’s white working class, who were marginalized in their own way.

The Good Samaritan

By Henry Lawson

He comes from out the ages dim— 
The good Samaritan; 
I somehow never pictured him 
A fat and jolly man; 
But one who’d little joy to glean, 
And little coin to give— 
A sad-faced man, and lank and lean, 
Who found it hard to live. 
His eyes were haggard in the drought, 
His hair was iron-grey— 
His dusty gown was patched, no doubt, 
Where we patch pants to-day. 
His faded turban, too, was torn— 
But darned and folded neat, 
And leagues of desert sand had worn 
The sandals on his feet. 

He’s been a fool, perhaps, and would 
Have prospered had he tried, 
But he was one who never could 
Pass by the other side. 
An honest man whom men called soft, 
While laughing in their sleeves— 
No doubt in business ways he oft 
Had fallen amongst thieves. 

And, I suppose, by track and tent, 
And other ancient ways, 
He drank, and fought, and loved, and went 
The pace in his young days. 
And he had known the bitter year 
When love and friendship fail— 
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear 
That he had been in jail. 

A silent man, whose passions slept, 
Who had no friends or foes— 
A quiet man, who always kept 
His hopes and sorrows close. 
A man who very seldom smiled, 
And one who could not weep 
Be it for death of wife or child 
Or sorrow still more deep. 

But sometimes when a man would rave 
Of wrong, as sinners do, 
He’d say to cheer and make him brave 
‘I’ve had my troubles too.’ 
(They might be twittered by the birds, 
And breathed high Heaven through, 
There’s beauty in those world-old words: 
‘I’ve had my sorrows too.’) 

And if he was a married man, 
As many are that roam, 
I guess that good Samaritan 
Was rather glum at home, 
Impatient when a child would fret, 
And strict at times and grim— 
A man whose kinsmen never yet 
Appreciated him. 

Howbeit—in a study brown— 
He had for all we know, 
His own thoughts as he journeyed down 
The road to Jericho, 
And pondered, as we puzzle yet, 
On tragedies of life— 
And maybe he was deep in debt 
And parted from his wife. 

(And so ‘by chance there came that way,’ 
It reads not like romance— 
The truest friends on earth today, 
They mostly come by chance.) 
He saw a stranger left by thieves 
Sore hurt and like to die— 
He also saw (my heart believes) 
The others pass him by. 

(Perhaps that good Samaritan 
Knew Levite well, and priest) 
He lifted up the wounded man 
And sat him on his beast, 
And took him on towards the inn— 
All Christ-like unawares— 
Still pondering, perhaps, on sin 
And virtue—and his cares. 

He bore him in and fixed him right 
(Helped by the local drunk), 
And wined and oiled him well all night, 
And thought beside his bunk. 
And on the morrow ere he went 
He left a quid and spoke 
Unto the host in terms which meant— 
‘Look after that poor bloke.’ 

He must have known them at the inn, 
They must have known him too— 
Perhaps on that same track he’d seen 
Some other sick mate through; 
For ‘Whatsoe’er thou spendest more’ 
(The parable is plain) 
‘I will repay,’ he told the host, 
‘When I return again.’ 

He seemed to be a good sort, too, 
The boss of that old pub— 
(As even now there are a few 
At shanties in the scrub. 
The good Samaritan jogged on 
Through Canaan’s dust and heat, 
And pondered over various schemes 
And ways to make ends meet. 

He was no Christian, understand, 
For Christ had not been born— 
He journeyed later through the land 
To hold the priests to scorn; 
And tell the world of ‘certain men’ 
Like that Samaritan, 
And preach the simple creed again— 
Man’s duty! Man to man! 

‘Once on a time there lived a man,’ 
But he has lived alway, 
And that gaunt, good Samaritan 
Is with us here to-day; 
He passes through the city streets 
Unnoticed and unknown, 
He helps the sinner that he meets— 
His sorrows are his own. 
He shares his tucker on the track 
When things are at their worst 
(And often shouts in bars outback 
For souls that are athirst). 
Today I see him staggering down 
The blazing water-course, 
And making for the distant town 
With a sick man on his horse. 

He’ll live while nations find their graves 
And mortals suffer pain— 
When colour rules and whites are slaves 
And savages again. 
And, after all is past and done, 
He’ll rise up, the Last Man, 
From tending to the last but one— 
The good Samaritan.

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Marriage & Tennis, One and the Same

Federer at Wimbledon

Federer at Wimbledon


 Whether or not he wins today, Roger Federer is making me feel young again after his stunning come-from-two-sets-behind win again Marin Cilic in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Cilic is the player who kept Federer from reaching the finals two years ago at the U.S. Open, but the Swiss player’s coolness under fire prevailed on Wednesday.

To celebrate Federer’s contributions to the sport, here’s a Maxine Kumin poem that compares tennis to a long and loving marriage. “Prothalamion,” a word coined by Edmund Spenser, means “song in celebration of a marriage.”

Note the elaborate dance between the two players. When two people are engaged in a game, or a marriage, the entire universe contracts to “the square I live in, measured out with lime.”  And yet, at the same time, we grow into an awareness of the depth of the other. “The far court opens for us all July” and the two improve each other. They come to see the sweat that they’re both made of:


By Maxine Kumin

The far court opens for us all July,
Your arm, flung up, like an easy sail bellying.
comes down on the serve like a blue piece of a sky 
 barely within reach and you, following,
tip forward on the smash.  The sun sits still
on the hard white canvas lip of the net.  Five-love
Salt runs behind my ears at thirty-all. 
At game, I see the sweat that you’re made of.
We improve each other, quickening so by noon
that the white game moves itself, the universe
contracted to the edge of the dividing line
your toe against–limbering for your service,
arm up, swiping the sun time after time–
and the square I live in, measured out with lime.

Further thoughts: This poem keeps growing on me as I detect further complexities. Kumin doesn’t romanticize marriage, even as she celebrates it. Your spouse, for instance, can come smashing into your space, and a lot of the action occurs in the brutal heat of noon, with no shade in which to hide. Your partner’s foot threatens to cross a line with a foot fault, and the lines, as the poem goes on to note, stake out your own private identity. You try to make clear your boundaries and the net between you is a hard white canvas lip, but that doesn’t mean that the partner won’t intrude. The two of you must be careful how you measure out the lime. (Lime lines indicate that Kumin’s contest takes place on grass.)

In other words, there is conflict as well as mutual improvement in a marriage. In fact, the two go together.

And if the marriage lasts, the same drama goes on and on, with the other continually swiping the sun in an action that is partially hostile. But note how we don’t know who wins this particular tennis game. True, after the first swipe, he is up five-love. But love is still present and then, a little while later, the score is thirty-all, suggesting that an equilibrium is reached. That equilibrium is suggested also in the fact that both the speaker recognizes that both she and her partner are sweating and that the poem considers it irrelevant who has won. More important is that the relationship has taken on a dynamic of its own: “The white game moves itself.” Your whole life is quickened–animated–and contracted into this relationship with the other.

A friend who refs games told me that, in tournaments, the central line can never be crossed for any reason other than to change sides on odd games. In other words, you can’t even reach over the net or cross the invisible line that extends beyond the net to retrieve a ball. The rule, we decided, is to keep people from manually confronting each other. In casual play, of course, players reach over the net to retrieve balls all the time (although your racket still can’t cross the plane of the net when the ball is in play). As a metaphor for relationships, however, it’s worth emphasizing again how important it is to communicate boundaries to your partner.

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Trollope’s Melmotte Anticipates Trump

Augustus Melmotte from "The Way We Live Now"

Augustus Melmotte from “The Way We Live Now”


I have been an Anthony Trollope fan for some years now, but he surpassed even my expectations with The Way We Live Now (1875), which I’ve just finished. More of a pure social satire than his other novels, to me it compares favorably with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

It is also very timely because there is a Donald Trump figure at the heart of it. Augustus Melmotte is a shady financier, always making deals and succeeding through sheer audacity. He gets people to believe he has more money than he really does, and they sell their souls to get close to this supposed money, even though they consider him crass and middle class.

While reading the novel, I gained insight into why the American media is so drawn to Trump: As long as Melmotte is shaking up stuffy British society, we can’t turn our eyes away, and a lot of the novel’s energy dissipates with Melmotte’s exit near the end. His success, like Trump’s, shows how grifters take advantage of society’s obsession with money.

Melmotte even makes money in ways similar to Trump. He will acquire property but not entirely pay for it, offering instead vague promises. These have credibility only because of his reputation for wealth. Once he has in hands on someone’s property, he will use it as leverage in other transactions. Here he is operating on a clueless member of the gentry, one Mr. Longestaffe:

It was a part of the charm of all dealings with this great man that no ready money seemed ever to be necessary for anything. Great purchases were made and great transactions apparently completed without the signing even of a cheque. Mr. Longestaffe found himself to be afraid even to give a hint to Mr. Melmotte about ready money. In speaking of all such matters Melmotte seemed to imply that everything necessary had been done, when he had said that it was done. Pickering [a family estate] had been purchased and the title-deeds made over to Mr. Melmotte; but the £80,000 had not been paid,—had not been absolutely paid, though of course Mr. Melmotte’s note assenting to the terms was security sufficient for any reasonable man. The property had been mortgaged, though not heavily, and Mr. Melmotte had no doubt satisfied the mortgagee; but there was still a sum of £50,000 to come, of which Dolly [Longestaffe’s son] was to have one half and the other was to be employed in paying off Mr. Longestaffe’s debts to tradesmen and debts to the bank. It would have been very pleasant to have had this at once,—but Mr. Longestaffe felt the absurdity of pressing such a man as Mr. Melmotte, and was partly conscious of the gradual consummation of a new æra in money matters. “If your banker is pressing you, refer him to me,” Mr. Melmotte had said. As for many years past we have exchanged paper instead of actual money for our commodities, so now it seemed that, under the new Melmotte régime, an exchange of words was to suffice.

Like Trump, Melmotte’s major leverage is his brand. He is reputed to be rich and whether he’s honest or not is immaterial:

It was at any rate an established fact that Mr. Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealings in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise,—but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that City too hot to hold him; that he had endeavored to establish himself in Vienna, but had been warned away by the police; and that he had at length found that British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry. He was now established privately in Grosvenor Square and officially in Abchurch Lane; and it was known to all the world that a Royal Prince, a Cabinet Minister, and the very cream of duchesses were going to his wife’s ball. All this had been done within twelve months.

One of Melmotte’s most lucrative schemes involves selling shares in a railway from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz which may never get built. Fisker is his American connection:

The object of Fisker, Montague, and Montague was not to make a railway to Vera Cruz, but to float a company. Paul thought that Mr. Fisker seemed to be indifferent whether the railway should ever be constructed or not. It was clearly his idea that fortunes were to be made out of the concern before a spadeful of earth had been moved. If brilliantly printed programmes might avail anything, with gorgeous maps, and beautiful little pictures of trains running into tunnels beneath snowy mountains and coming out of them on the margin of sunlit lakes, Mr. Fisker had certainly done much. 

This bubble begins to burst and railway stock prices plummet once people begin to doubt whether Melmotte has things under control. His reputation is the only thing holding everything together:

Nevertheless, Melmotte is elected to Parliament before his reputation altogether tanks. He sounds more than a little like Trump:

There was one man who thoroughly believed that the thing at the present moment most essentially necessary to England’s glory was the return of Mr. Melmotte for Westminster. This man was undoubtedly a very ignorant man. He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century,—nothing whatever of the political history which had made England what it was at the beginning of that half century. Of such names as Hampden, Somers, and Pitt he had hardly ever heard. He had probably never read a book in his life. He knew nothing of the working of parliament, nothing of nationality,—had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment’s trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.

Fortunately for England, Parliament is solid enough institution and can survive Melmotte, who is shown to be out of his depth once he takes his seat. The job of governing Britain, boring though it may be, takes precedence over bloviating. This is something we in America need to keep reminding ourselves as Trump seeks to persuade us that the presidency is all show biz.

Futher thoughts:

Matt Yglesias of Vox explains how Trump pulled a Melmotte with his Atlantic City holdings:

Trump made money in Atlantic City through two primary means. First, he extracted management fees from companies he was involved with, and second, he transferred personal debts to companies he controlled:

  • The pattern started with his very first Atlantic City venture, a partnership with Harrah’s for which he was paid a $24 million construction management fee.
  • Over the years, the Times reports, Trump “collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments.”
  • In 1993 the Trump Plaza casino sold more than $100 million in junk bonds, and “more than half of the new money went to pay off Mr. Trump’s unrelated personal loans.”
  • In 1995 the company staged an IPO, and then a week later “the new company began using some of the almost $300 million it had raised to clear Mr. Trump’s personal debts.”
  • Trump’s casinos paid $300,000 a year for the right to use Trump’s jet to transport celebrities to gigs.
  • Trump appears to have bilked the shareholders of Trump casinos and resorts out of the opportunity to share in a $1 million profit related to the sale of shares in Riviera Hotel and Casino, keeping the money for himself instead.
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Be Skeptical of Shakespeare’s Skeptics

William Shakespeare, the man and the author of Shakespeare's plays

Shakespeare, the man and the author of Shakespeare’s plays


I follow up yesterday’s post about Shakespeare’s social climbing with some further thoughts. I mentioned that a researcher has discovered “smoking gun” evidence that Shakespeare really was Shakespeare. After reading the New York Times article, I’m wondering whether many of the Shakespeare skeptics aren’t themselves driven by class anxiety. Perhaps they resent Shakespeare because they detect in him their own anxieties.

Regarding the smoking gun evidence, Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Folger Library, uncovered an attack on “Shakespeare the player” in a 1602 document at the College of Arms. There we see Shakespeare attacked by William Dethick, the “Garter King of Arms,” for having the audacity to apply for gentleman status and his own coat of arms.

Dethick recognized Shakespeare for who he was—a man connected with the theater—and wasn’t impressed. The many doubters have been impressed by the theatrical work but haven’t been willing to admit that Shakespeare wrote the plays. It would be reductive to paint all the doubters as driven by status anxieties, but that’s a strain that one can see in some of the more famous ones.

For instance, there’s Charlie Chaplin, who was raised in poverty and whose feisty little tramp longs to be something higher, even as he is kicked in the gutter. Chaplin’s genius lay in creating a figure that achieved dignity in the midst of his poverty, yet he doesn’t think that a commoner could achieve the “aristocratic attitude” found in the plays:

In the work of the greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare … I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare … but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.”

Then there’s the gentry-obsessed Henry James, embarrassed by his own identity as a vulgar American and therefore put off by the “few sordid material details” that we know of Shakespeare’s life:

The absolute extermination and obliteration of every record of Shakespeare save a few sordid material details, and the general suggestion of narrowness and niggardliness which ancient Stratford makes, taken in comparison with the way in which the spiritual quantity ‘Shakespeare’ has mingled into the soul of the world, was most uncanny, and I feel ready to believe in almost any mythical story of the authorship. In fact a visit to Stratford now seems to me the strongest appeal a Baconian can make.

And elsewhere:

The divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.

Mark Twain, for all his pride in being a homespun American, was defensive about his lack of a university education. Therefore, he believed an educated man like Sir Francis Bacon was more likely to have written the plays than Shakespeare:

So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.” … Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris. I only believed Bacon wrote Shake-speare, whereas I knew Shaxpere didn’t.

Walt Whitman’s certainty that he himself contains multitudes seems a little less certain—is he really as confident as he seems in Song of Myself?—when he doubts whether another baseborn man could have contained multitudes. Only a nobleman could have written the plays, Whitman concludes:

Conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparall’d ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic cast, its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendent and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded history.”

In the past I have argued that elitism prompted people to doubt the non-university trained Shakespeare, but upon further reflection I think people’s own defensiveness about not being elite triggers their doubting. Since Shakespeare at times exudes this same defensiveness, it’s not surprising that he would draw attacks from those he resembles.

Put another way, there is something about this “upstart crow” (to quote Robert Greene’s early assessment) that compels other defensive crows to pull him off his perch. That’s no reason to conclude that he didn’t write the works attributed to him, however.

Better to apply Occam’s razor than to engage in Donald Trump-type conspiracy theories involving Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere. Assume that the simplest explanation is the right one: the man from Stratford-on-Avon wrote those plays and poems.

Further thought: One thing that puts people off about Shakespeare is how career-minded he was. We have a romantic view that authors shouldn’t care about money, but Shakespeare always had an eye on the box office. If he didn’t make money on a certain kind of poem (Venus and Adonis), he wouldn’t try that genre again, and he would tailor plays for his audiences (such as Macbeth for the witchcraft-obsessed James I). This may be part of what Henry James found sordid, even though (or rather, because) he himself longed to write bestselling plays and novels.

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Shakespeare Was Malvolio

Stephen Fry as Malvolio

Stephen Fry as Malvolio


The New York Times recently reported on some fascinating new historical research into Shakespeare’s attempts to achieve gentleman status for his glover maker father and thus for himself. The research involved a deep dive into the archives of the College of Arms.

In addition to establishing—for those who still demand proof—that Shakespeare actually was Shakespeare, the research reveals how much of a social climber the author was. I find this of interest because of the light it casts on such figures as Malvolio and Othello—which is to say, on characters that want to rise above the status into which they have been born.

For that matter, we gain new insight into many well-known works of literature once we realize the anxieties about social class that dogged their authors. Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus and virtually all of Jane Austen’s characters come to mind. Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker and makes a big deal out of how Faustus is base born, which helps explain Faustus’s restlessness. Austen, whose family was uncomfortably situated between the middle class and the gentry class, makes heroines out of those who rise without seeming to desire it (Catherine Moreland, the Dashwood sisters, Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, Fanny Price) and villains out of those who are nakedly ambitious (Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele, Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Elton). The crime is not in desiring to rise but in allowing other people to see the desire.

Given Shakespeare’s ambitions, which were satirized by Ben Jonson and attacked by the Garter King of Arms, we can sympathize with Malvolio. If Shakespeare mocks him, it is in part out of self defense. He recognizes Malvolio’s vulnerability only too well and laughs at him to hide his own unease. Laughter is a sign of anxiety; by laughing at others, we attempt to shrug off our own pain.

I imagine that, like Malvolio, Shakespeare had fantasies of being on an equal playing field with the Sir Tobys of the world. After all, was he not superior to them in every way other than birth? (“I am not of your element,” Malvolio states at one point.) Shakespeare captures the pain of having one’s secret desires revealed in the hilarious scene where Sir Toby and his confederates spy on Malvolio and have to be held back from attacking him:

Having been three months married to her [Olivia], sitting in my state,–

Sir Toby Belch
O, for a stone-bow, to hit him in the eye!

Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown; having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping,–

Sir Toby
Fire and brimstone!

O, peace, peace!

And then to have the humor of state; and after a demure travel of regard, telling them I know my place as I would they should do theirs, to for my kinsman Toby,–

Sir Toby
Bolts and shackles!

O peace, peace, peace! now, now.

Seven of my people, with an obedient start, make out for him: I frown the while; and perchance wind up watch, or play with my–some rich jewel. Toby approaches; courtesies there to me,–

Sir Toby
Shall this fellow live?

Though our silence be drawn from us with cars [pulled apart by horses], yet peace.

I extend my hand to him thus, quenching my familiar smile with an austere regard of control,–

Sir Toby
And does not Toby take you a blow o’ the lips then?

Saying, ‘Cousin Toby, my fortunes having cast me on your niece give me this prerogative of speech,’–

Sir Toby
What, what?

‘You must amend your drunkenness.’

Sir Toby
Out, scab!

Nay, patience, or we break the sinews of our plot.

Shakespeare was well aware of how one could be mocked for aspiring above one’s station and how others would indeed enact the kind of mockery and punishment that is meted out to Malvolio. Shakespeare would have known of Jonson’s satire and of Robert Greene calling him “an upstart crow.” If Sir Toby has his way, Malvolio will never be released from his prison.

Malvolio does not participate in the happy celebration that concludes Twelfth Night and walks out swearing “to be revenged on the whole pack of you.” In part because of him, Twelfth Night is an autumnal comedy, containing a sour note. If we laugh uneasily, it is because we feel his hurt.

So be alert when you mock or castigate social climbers in literature. Your reaction may arise out of the author’s anxieties. And out of your own.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Marlowe (Christopher), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

July 4th: Boundless Chrysanthemums



Here are a couple for poems about fireworks to celebrate America’s national holiday. Happy July 4th!


By Babette Deutsch

Not guns, not thunder, but a flutter of clouded drums
That announce a fiesta: abruptly, fiery needles
Circumscribe on the night boundless chrysanthemums.
Softly, they break apart, they flake away, where
Darkness, on a svelte hiss, swallows them.
Delicate brilliance: a bellflower opens, fades,
In a sprinkle of falling stars.
Night absorbs them
With the sponge of her silence.


Fourth of July Night

By Dorothy Aldis

Just see those pinwheels whirling round
Spitting sparkles on the ground,
And watch that rocket whoosh so high,
Then turn to flowers in the sky—
Green and yellow, blue and red.
And look at ME still not in bed.

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Break Your Fast with Joy


Eid al-Fitr meal in Malaysia

Spiritual Sunday

Rumi wrote the following poem to mark the end of Ramadan—the Eid al-Fitr celebration–which occurs Wednesday. Millions of Muslims around the world will break their month-long fast, pray to Allah, and give alms to the poor. The poem celebrates the heightened connection with God that Ramadan has made possible and which Rumi describes as “the silence of bewilderment.”

The Zulaikah in the poem is Potiphar’s wife from the story of Joseph. As Muslims interpret the story, her lust for Joseph represents her longing for God. “Occlusion” means blockage.

Mercy Has Heard That “O Lord” and Has Come

By Rumi
Translated by A. J. Arberry

Do not despair, my soul, for hope has manifested itself;
the hope of every soul has arrived from the unseen.

Do not despair, though Mary has gone from your hands,
for that light which drew Jesus to heaven has come.

Do not despair, my soul, in the darkness of this prison,
for that king who redeemed Joseph from prison has come.

Jacob has come forth from the veil of occlusion,
Joseph who rent Zulaikha’s veil has come.

You who all through night to dawn have been crying “O Lord,”
mercy has heard that “O Lord” and has come

O pain which has grown old, rejoice, for the cure has come;
O fastened lock, open, for the key has come.

You who have abstained fasting from the Table on high,
break your fast with joy, for the first day of the feast has come.

Keep silence, keep silence, for by virtue of the command “Be!”
that silence of bewilderment has augmented beyond all speech.

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Poetry Turns Prisoner’s Life Around

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts


My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to this New Yorker article about how an anthology of poetry, slipped to a prisoner in solitary confinement, turned his life around

Reginald Dwayne Betts was arrested at 16 for carjacking and spent eight years in prison. Now, at 35, he is a graduate of Yale Law School and a published poet. Here’s the account of his getting the anthology:

During one of Betts’s stints in solitary confinement, someone—he never learned who—slipped the 1971 anthology “The Black Poets” under his cell door. The book turned him on to Nikki Giovanni, Robert Hayden, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and others. Soon, he was surreptitiously typing up poems in the prison’s law library, while also teaching himself the basics of the law. He learned to type fast, because library rules forbade personal use of the typewriters; being discovered would have landed him back in the hole.

 I’m disappointed that the article doesn’t mention particular poems that struck home with Betts, but here’s a poem that he wrote in response to a Cleveland policeman shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun. Betts now has two children, and in his poem he talks about the fantasy of shooting the officer who shot Tamir. At such moments, he writes, “all I have stomach for is blood,” and he finds himself resenting the peaceful protests on Tamir’s behalf. This fantasy, he acknowledges, is taboo. One isn’t allowed to admit to having such feelings.

If one part of him fantasizes about unacceptable violence, another part wishes that the whole affair would “go away” so that he wouldn’t have to do anything about it:

a part of me that wishes that it would go away,
the memories, & that I could abandon all talk of making it right
& justice…

Neither option is acceptable, however, and he looks for strength instead to Tamir’s parents and kinfolk, who refuse to surrender to the thirst for vengeance. Unlike people he saw in prison, they decide not to lash out in return. If they did, they would

turn everything
they see into a grave & make home the series of cells
that so many of my brothers already call their tomb.

Here’s the poem:

When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving

By Reginald Dwayne Betts

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of  Tamir Rice & shed tears, the weeping
all another insignificance, all another way to avoid
saying what should be said: the Second Amendment
is a ruthless one, the pomp & constitutional circumstance
that says my arms should be heavy with the weight
of a pistol when forced to confront death like
this: a child, a hidden toy gun, an officer that fires
before his heart beats twice. My two young sons play
in the backseat while the video of  Tamir dying
plays in my head, & for everything I do know, the thing
I don’t say is that this should not be the brick and mortar
of poetry, the moment when a black father drives
his black sons to school & the thing in the air is the death
of a black boy that the father cannot mention,
because to mention the death is to invite discussion
of  taboo: if you touch my sons the crimson
that touches the concrete must belong, at some point,
to you, the police officer who justifies the echo
of the fired pistol; taboo: the thing that says that justice
is a killer’s body mangled and disrupted by bullets
because his mind would not accept the narrative
of  your child’s dignity, of  his right to life, of  his humanity,
and the crystalline brilliance you saw when your boys first breathed;
the narrative must invite more than the children bleeding
on crisp fall days; & this is why I hate it all, the people around me,
the black people who march, the white people who cheer,
the other brown people, Latinos & Asians & all the colors of   humanity
that we erase in this American dance around death, as we
are not permitted to articulate the reasons we might yearn
to see a man die; there is so much that has to disappear
for my mind not to abandon sanity: Tamir for instance, everything
about him, even as his face, really and truly reminds me
of my own, in the last photo I took before heading off
to a cell, disappears, and all I have stomach for is blood,
and there is a part of me that wishes that it would go away,
the memories, & that I could abandon all talk of making it right
& justice. But my mind is no sieve & sanity is no elixir & I am bound
to be haunted by the strength that lets Tamir’s father,
mother, kinfolk resist the temptation to turn everything
they see into a grave & make home the series of cells
that so many of my brothers already call their tomb.


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Workers of the World, Read! (Then Unite)

Poster for German Social Democrats: "Young Workers, Knowledge Is Power"

German Social Democrat poster: “Young Workers, Knowledge Is Power”


Leon Wieseltier of the Brookings Institute made a strong case for arts education yesterday in a Washington Post column. The arts, he believes, help foster the moral imagination needed to address economic injustice in our society. Without them we risk getting trapped in the narcissism of personal grievance, which in turn can lead to votes for Donald Trump.

As much as I agree with Wieseltier about the importance of the arts, his column inadvertently reveals their limitations as well. The arts can’t do all the heavy lifting by themselves. To effectively address injustice, they must work in concert with smart political action.

Wieseltier focuses on those members of the white working class who have been supporting Trump and who, as he sees it, are personified by the characters in the 1978 Michael Cimino film The Deer Hunter. Our failure to care more about these people, he says, is a failure of imagination:

The partiality of our consciences, our inability to care about all who have a proper claim upon our care, is not the result of a constraint upon our budgets, or more generally upon our institutions of politics and government. It is the result of a constraint upon our imaginations. Ethical principles are most commonly ascribed to the operations of reason, but we need to remind ourselves of the role of the imagination in moral action. Without the imagination, we would act only against wrongs that we ourselves have endured. We would be prisoners of our experience — which is to say, the experience of people less lucky than ourselves would be incomprehensible to us.

Wieseltier goes on to echo Sir Philip Sidney that the arts can inculcate virtue:

Art, high and low, may play an indispensable role in the formation of virtue. One of the ways in which it does so is by picturing pain. Its pictures of pain may confer pleasure, but they also confer enlightenment about human fates unfamiliar to us; and it is not the case that the aesthetic satisfaction that we feel at the quality of a representation of evil destroys its moral meanings. Novels and poems and paintings and films and songs may bring the news of distant or hidden sufferings and abuses. By creating sympathy, art lays the ground, the internal condition, for moral behavior.

The Deer Hunter, Wieseltier says, proved far more effective than CNN in illuminating for him “the sources of the volatility and the fury that are mutilating contemporary politics.”

Wieseltier adds,

The imagination of other people’s pain extends the self beyond its own sensations, as [Adam] Smith said, and also beyond the confines of its assumptions and its surroundings; and this inner expansion, this mental and spiritual preparation, is what transforms justice from a fantasy into a cause. All this is very uplifting. 

Having described how the arts expand our moral imaginations, Wieseltier describes how our personal grievances shrink them:

The white working class differs in a significant way from the people who have discovered it. Our moment does not consist only in millions of Americans stepping outside themselves and proclaiming their sympathy for others. It consists also of millions of Americans staying inside themselves and proclaiming their sympathy for themselves. And just as the emphasis on other people’s tribulations expands us, the emphasis on our own tribulations contracts us.

We are all hobbled by the narrowness of inherited circumstances. In our bodies, in our communities, in our social classes, we are all provincials, all in need of correction and amplification by the encounter with other views and practices of life. In situations of adversity, moreover, our partiality becomes even greater. In hardship we discover, though we may not recognize it, the parochialism of pain. Pain is all that pain knows, its knowledge is supremely local, and it is for this reason an inadequate position from which to grasp the world.

Wieseltier then notes another view of the matter: those who are in such pain may have particular insights denied to the rest of us:

There are those who now think otherwise and regard the subjectivity of pain — the experience of social discrimination and marginalization, usually by race and gender — as a kind of ultimate authority in the analysis of society. They have invented a field called “standpoint theory,” according to which the social location of oppressed individuals enables them to see more and to know more, rather in the way that Marx believed in the epistemological superiority of the proletariat.

Wieseltier is not entirely unsympathetic with such thinking but argues that it underestimates how such people can become trapped by their pain:

There is some merit to the old idea that there are things that can be seen from the periphery that cannot be seen from the center, and privilege is certainly no guarantee of wisdom, but it is important also to remember that suffering does not confer infallibility, or even objectivity. Even victims, or especially victims, can become prisoners of their experience. They, too, can make mistakes — sometimes disastrous ones. Pain has no special access to truth. Reality cannot be correctly understood from the standpoint of a personal injury, individually or collectively.

Wieseltier here would benefit from the thinking of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who ended up dying in one of Mussolini’s prisons. Gramsci argues for the “organic intellectual,” someone who combines working class origins (and therefore has a valuable “standpoint”) with an education that allows him or her to understand that perspective. One author who could be regarded as an organic intellectual, however, is someone whom Wiesltier goes on to criticize: Ta Nehisi Coates. While the African American winner of a McArthur Genius Award is very good at conveying his own oppression, Wieseltier says that Coates ends up stereotyping all whites in a Malcolm X sort of way. In other words, he sense of grievance overwhelms his moral imagination.

I haven’t yet read Coates’s book—it is on my bedside table—but Coates’s background may lead us to question Wieseltier’s assertion that the arts open the mind. Coates, after all, is very well-read. For instance, amongst his top ten books are three novels and two works of poetry, some of which he describes as having stretched his moral imagination. They are:

–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
–Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence
–E. L. Doctorow, Waterworks
–“Neon Vernacular,” Yusef Kumunyakaa
–Carolyn Forché, The Country between Us

 About Age of Innocence, which I lauded last week, Coates writes,

I like this book for its willingness to embrace the tragic. No happy endings. The book is a defense of elitism, something I guess I oppose. But I found it credible, here.

Gatsby too, one could note, gives us a pretty good insight into the longings of people very different from Coates. Gatsby is the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” from North Dakota.

So by the terms that Wieseltier has set up, the arts and literature have given Coates the tools he needs to move beyond blind grievance. If Coates hasn’t done so, are the arts ultimately ineffective in this matter?

Wieseltier doesn’t pursue the matter but instead returns to the conundrum at the heart of his piece: while those white middle class leftists whose moral imaginations prompt them to sympathize with the working class have been voting for Bernie Sanders, members of the white working class themselves have been voting for Trump. This may prompt us to conclude that the expanded consciousness brought us by the arts is a chump’s game, at least in the realm of politics.

Wieseltier can’t solve the problem and ends his column with a despairing contradiction. After saying that we should sympathize with the plight of the white working class, he then says these people may end up hurting us all:

Liberals and socialists have been wondering for a hundred years why people in economic distress do not vote according to their economic interests. The answer should have been obvious long ago: People in adversity turn not to economics but to culture. They are fortified not by policy but by identity. They seek saviors, not programs. And as the direness of their circumstances appears to imperil their identity, they affirm it by asserting it ferociously against others. Hurt people hurt people. Against these hurt people, therefore, and against the profiteer of pain who shabbily champions them, it must be insisted that no amount of sympathy for their plight justifies the introduction of a version of fascism into American life. No grievance, however true, warrants the fouling of American politics by the bigotry and the brutishness peddled by Donald Trump.

Wieseltier needs Gramsci, who was very aware that workers can act this way. Gramsci’s solution was a robust educational program, which included the arts and philosophy as well as economics and labor history. Unlike Wieseltier, however, he also believed that the best educators come from the working class. His “organic intellectuals” combine both the standpoint perspective and the advantages of a classical education.

To bolster Gramsci’s point, I read somewhere that union members are far less likely to fall for Trump than unaffiliated workers. A friend who teaches at the school of the Machinists Union (the Winpisinger Education Technology Center in Hollywood, Maryland) told me that, while they don’t offer literature courses, they do make use of film (for instance, John Sayles’s Matewan). The workers emerge with a wider framework for understanding labor relations.

Unlike Wieseltier, Gramsci has a concrete plan for moving the workers beyond Trumpist myopia. One has to do more than throw books at them.

Posted in Fitzgerald (F. Scott), Sidney (Sir Philip), Wharton (Edith) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Envy, the Sin That Blinds

Hieronymus Bosch, "Envy"

Hieronymus Bosch, “Envy”


 My novelist and poker-playing friend Rachel Kranz is allowing me to share posts from her blog Adventures in Poker this summer. Here’s one of her latest, which is a substantive exploration of envy. She draws on Dante to get at the nature of this particular deadly sin. To further her point that envy is the one deadly sin that gives no pleasure at all, I turn to Christopher Marlowe’s description in Doctor Faustus, where Envy describes himself as never happy but obsessed with the success of others:

 Envy: I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt. I am lean with seeing others eat. O, that there would come a famine through all the world, that all might die, and I live alone! then thou shouldst see how fat I would be. But must thou sit, and I stand? come down, with a vengeance!

Envy: The One Deadly Sin That Gives No Pleasure at All

By Rachel Kranz

. . . envy is so integral and painful a part of what animates human behavior in market societies that many people have forgotten the full meaning of the word, simplifying it into one of the symptoms of desire. . . . But envy is more or less than desire. It begins with the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air. One has to be blind to perceive the emptiness, of course, but that’s what envy is, a selective blindness. Invidia, Latin for envy, translates as “nonsight,” and Dante had the envious plodding along under cloaks of lead, their eyes sewn shut with leaden wire. What they are blind to is what they have, God-given and humanly nurtured, in themselves.

                        –Nelson Aldrich, Old Money

 Scrolling through Twitter after busting from today’s WSOP tournament, I saw that two other players I know busted around the same time.  But instead of coming to the Wynn to have dinner, as I did, they dashed over here to buy into Day 1d of the $1100 event, the one with $500k guarantee.

I would have loved to have played that tournament! But by the time I found out about it, entry had just closed, and my sense of agonized loss is a bit startling.  Maybe that would have been my big score—and what a great structure—and all that dead money on Day 1d—and it would have been so much fun to play. . . Instead, I’m stuck with a night off tonight and a day off tomorrow, which, granted, I can make good use of—writing, food shopping, bill paying, poker studying, not to mention all the friends I’ve been meaning to call. . . Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I’d rather be in the tournament.

Envy isn’t my only emotion.  I really would have enjoyed playing, plus I wanted another chance to win some money.  No question, though, that knowing the names of two other players (not even friends!) sharpened my regret to a much deadlier point.  They get to—but I don’t…

Envy is probably as common a sickness during the WSOP as the infamous Rio flu.  Although people tweet their busts and bad beats and frustrations—increasingly so as the summer wears on—we don’t really grasp that the vast majority of players are doing as badly as or even worse than we are.  Instead we fixate on the five or eight or twenty who are actually winning events or at least bagging five-figure scores.  If we had substantial success last summer, we fixate on how we used to be winners but now we’re losing—that is, we envy ourselves.  Winning becomes not the one-in-a-thousand shot that math and common sense insist is our true chance of taking first in a large-field tourney.  Instead, it’s the will o’ the wisp that’s always just beyond our grasp. 

Will o’ the wisps are the emission of gases found in marshy land or swamps. Faintly glowing, they hang suspended in the air, as if alive and full of meaning.  In folklore, they’re the glowing coals carried by various lost souls (Drunk Jack or—I’m not making this up!—Will the Smith), men doomed to wander in a twilight world—neither day nor night, neither alive nor dead, neither heaven nor hell—as they lure unsuspecting travelers into the swamp.      

That big score each of us is chasing is no myth—it’s as solid as a gold bracelet, real as a retirement fund (unless the stock market collapses—but, hey, one will o’ the wisp at a time!).  And yet, there I am, a lost soul wandering into the swamp, my eyelids sewn shut, a leaden weight upon my heart.  As Aldrich says, I feel empty because I am blind, seeing not the moments of divine play, but only the missing result; seeing not the luminous decisions, the glittering strategy, the spacious, timeless realm of the Zone, but only the amount of money I might have won—but didn’t.  I don’t even see the less attractive possibilities—the story in which I rush over to the Wynn, fire two or three bullets, and end up playing two full days for a min-cash, $2000 poorer than when I began. Yes, I’d enjoy playing, maybe even more than anything else I’d do tomorrow. But it’s the lost fantasy that really rankles, all the more because other people still have a shot at it.

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins; the others are pride, avarice, lust, anger, sloth, and gluttony—which are at least fun! Only envy gives you no pleasure at all.  In vidia—not seeing—why can’t I open my eyes?

Ironically, my envy is probably sharper this year precisely because I am so much happier with my play.  For the past several years, every bust was a major drama. I’ve made a horrible mistake!  How can I learn not to repeat it?  What’s wrong with me? Why am I lost here in the swamp while everyone else is on solid ground?

Now I feel pretty happy with both my mental game and my strategy.  Obviously I have more to learn—I always will—but the drama is gone.  Most of the time, there’s no big problem to agonize over—I just didn’t get there.  Like every single other player, I couldn’t crack the math that keeps the best of us from cashing more than 15 percent of the time or winning more than one time in a thousand.  Okay, if I’m twice as good as the field, I’ve got two chances in a thousand—being three times as good gives me three chances.  Most of the time, though, I’m stuck among the 997 no matter how good I am; as a mere human, I can’t transform the math but only myself.  And transforming myself, while meaningful and worthwhile, is never really enough.

So maybe envy is there to help blind me to how powerless I am in the grand scheme of things, keeping me focused on the ones who seem to have enough power to beat the system instead of letting me see that, ultimately, none of us can.  We’re born, we play, we die.  That’s all we have—but when we stop following those will o’ the wisps and learn how to open our eyes, maybe that’s enough.

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Kipling Perfectly Describes Brexiteers

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson


Nick Cohen of The Guardian has made effective use of a Rudyard Kipling poem in castigating two rightwing journalists-turned-politician—Boris Johnson and Michael Grove—for their roles in Brexit. This is what you get, Cohen says, when you propose entertainment solutions for real world problems.

Given that America is currently watching a reality television star take over the Republican party, we can apply the poem equally to our own situation.

Cohen lays out what entertainment solutions look like:

Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game. Here is how they play it. They grab media attention by blaring out a big, dramatic thought. An institution is failing? Close it. A public figure blunders? Sack him. They move from journalism to politics, but carry on as before. When presented with a bureaucratic EU that sends us too many immigrants, they say the answer is simple, as media answers must be. Leave. Now. Then all will be well.

Johnson and Gove carried with them a second feature of unscrupulous journalism: the contempt for practical questions. Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness. The Leave campaign has no plan…Vote Leave did not know how to resolve difficulties with Scotland, Ireland, the refugee camp at Calais, and a thousand other problems, and did not want to know either.

Cohen says that, as a result, Johnson and Grove will have to answer to their followers:

The real division in Britain is not between London and the north, Scotland and Wales or the old and young, but between Johnson, Gove and [Nigel] Farage and the voters they defrauded. What tale will serve them now? On Thursday, they won by promising cuts in immigration. On Friday, Johnson and the Eurosceptic ideologue Dan Hannan said that in all probability the number of foreigners coming here won’t fall. On Thursday, they promised the economy would boom. By Friday, the pound was at a 30-year low and Daily Mail readers holidaying abroad were learning not to believe what they read in the papers. On Thursday, they promised £350m extra a week for the NHS. On Friday, it turns out there are “no guarantees”.

Kipling’s poem “The Dead Statesman” gets at this issue of accountability. The poem appears in “Epitaphs of the War,” a series of imagined epitaphs by people who died in World War I. Unlike most of the poems, however, “Dead Statesman” is about someone who sent others to their deaths. In other words, like the Brexit politicians, he’s playing fast and loose with other people’s lives:

I could not dig: I dared not rob: 
Therefore I lied to please the mob. 
Now all my lies are proved untrue 
And I must face the men I slew. 
What tale shall serve me here among 
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Notice how the Statesman’s major skill is making money by pleasing the mob. I told you that Kipling applies as much to Trump as to the Brexit politicians.

Cohen has another good literary allusion. Johnson and Gove are amongst the far right who pressured Prime Minister David Cameron to hold the Brexit referendum in the first place. When they won, thereby forcing Cameron’s resignation, they delivered glowing encomiums:

[T]hey gazed at the press with coffin-lid faces and wept over the prime minister they had destroyed. David Cameron was “brave and principled,” intoned Johnson. “A great prime minister,” muttered Gove. Like Goneril and Regan competing to offer false compliments to Lear, they covered the leader they had doomed with hypocritical praise.

Now that their lies are proving untrue, what tale will serve them as they face their “angry and defrauded” constituents?

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With Brexit, UK Betrayed Spirit of Chaucer

Canterbury Tales


 By voting to pull out of the European Union on Thursday, the United Kingdom violated the spirit of Geoffrey Chaucer. Allow me to explain.

In my opinion, no author captures what is best about the British as well as Chaucer, especially in The Canterbury Tales. One of the great works in the English language is about characters from every walk of life coming together in a common endeavor and sharing stories. This is all the more remarkable in that many are far from exemplary. While the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman are models to be emulated, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Reeve, the Merchant, the Miller, the Friar, and a number of others are real scoundrels.

Nor do they all get along. The Miller and the Reeve have an argument, as do the Summoner and the Friar. Each tells a tale denigrating his rival’s profession. And then there’s the Pardoner, who insults the Wife of Bath, while the Innkeeper tells the pilgrim-named-Chaucer that his “drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord!”

And yet they all manage to coexist. They are operating under a set of rules, set up by the Innkeeper, in which each gets to freely tell his or her tale while everyone else listens. The pilgrim who tells the best tale receives a free dinner at the end. Some of the tales are uplifting, some bawdy, some boring. The Wife, pleased to have center stage, delivers a prologue to her tale that goes on and on.

As my son Toby pointed out to me, they don’t live within information silos but gain insight into each others’ experiences. It’s as though (this again from Toby), they have “friended” on Facebook people with a wide variety of views. No one gets excluded.

And then there’s the author, who takes each character seriously. Chaucer knows how to listen, which is the ultimate form of respect. His listening explains the greatness of the work, how he is able to create such compelling and such detailed characters.

And since this is a post about Brexit, let’s note how much Chaucer owed to the continent, especially France and Italy. He traveled many times to France and Italy, became friends with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and borrowed heavily from Dante and The Romance of the Rose. He was thoroughly cosmopolitan and, as a result, changed the face of the English language. He made Shakespeare possible.

In short, Chaucer was generous, open-minded, and interested in everyone and everything. If the UK retreats into a very un-Chaucerian insularity, it will dwindle into a second rate country.

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Footprints on the Sands of Time


Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 9:51-62, includes Jesus’s seemingly harsh admonition to a young man to “let the dead bury their own dead.” This occurs after the young man asks Jesus for an extension. A famous Longfellow poem makes reference to the passage, and when one examines the conversation between poem and scripture, one comes to a deep understanding of both.

First, here’s the passage from Luke:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And now here’s the poem. I’ve bolded the passage that alludes to Luke:

A Psalm of Life

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the young man said to the psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
  Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

It may be, in the Gospel passage, that Jesus is picking up on half-hearted commitment and replying in dramatic fashion to accentuate what is at stake. Presumably even Jesus wouldn’t begrudge allowing someone to go and bury a parent if that person really meant to return and wasn’t just engaging in evasive action. Jesus is pretty good at reading actual motives.

And there may also be an element of Jesus’s famous injunction (Luke 14:26) to leave father and mother to become his disciple. As cold and heartless as that sounds, it is a way of thinking about God’s presence in the world in a new way. One can be blinded by traditional ways of thinking.

Longfellow’s young man is certainly challenging the “wisdom” of his elders. He may have in mind Psalm 39:5-7:

Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.

Perhaps he’s also thinking of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes (1:2-3):

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

To be sure, there is genuine wisdom in both the psalm and the Ecclesiastes passage that Jesus would acknowledge: if we place our faith in riches and in labor, then we ignore the spirit. But it is also true that these passages can be interpreted as calling us to reject the world altogether. If we do that, we will fail to find God in the here and now. There is a certain strain of fatalism in both passages that a young person very understandably would object to. Isn’t there something wrong with giving up on all the heaven-sent opportunities before us?

Therefore, when the young man says, “Let the dead Past bury its dead,” he is calling out those who, looking back over their lives, conclude that all our earthly efforts are futile. If we eschew human endeavor and simply wait for heaven in the hereafter, we spurn God’s gifts. The important thing, therefore, is to

Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Perhaps the young man will leave “footprints on the sands of time” and perhaps not. Note that he is not saying that he wants to build up riches. He does not know what the fruit of his labor will be.

Rather than casting his eyes over human endeavor and declaring it to be an empty dream, he will “learn to labor and to wait.” God is in the laboring.

Further note: My friend Sue Schmidt, who has contributed Spiritual Sunday posts in the past, sent the following e-mail. Her passage from Matthew meshes perfectly with Longfellow’s poem:

Jesus says at another point,  “The kingdom of God comes through forceful men and forceful men take hold of it” (Matt 11:12ff). Here’s a great article about that.* We all know that to change things is difficult, and one must be prepared to live and act.

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America’s Dream: We Contain Multitudes

Norman Rockwell, "Spirit of America"

Norman Rockwell, “Spirit of America”


Today is a red-letter day in our family as my Trinidadian daughter-in-law gets sworn in as an American citizen. Candice Wilson came to this country many years ago to study at Middlebury College, and she received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Pittsburgh last year. She begins a tenure-track position at the University of North Georgia in August.

To welcome Candice to her new country, I share a section of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, that most American of poems. Whitman, of course, celebrates the rich tapestry of America to which Candice will be contributing. “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,” he writes.

To be sure, Candice is not a stranger to multi-hued cultures as Trinidad too contains many nationalities and ethnicities. Candice herself, I believe, is a mixture of Carib, French and Spanish Creole, and African. The following excerpt is from Section 16:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, 
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, 
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, 
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine, 
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same, 
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live, 
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth, 
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian, 
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye; 
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland, 
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking, 
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch, 
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,) 
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat, 
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest, 
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons, 
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, 
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, 
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest. 

I resist any thing better than my own diversity, 
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, 
And am not stuck up, and am in my place. 

Unfortunately, there are many out there who are resisting American diversity. Here’s hoping that we can all learn to be as inclusive as Whitman. If you knew my smart, kind, and effervescent daughter-in-law, you would open your arms to her with Whitmanesque generosity.

Further thoughts:

Candice becomes a citizen at a challenging time with white ethnocentrism on the rise. A recent survey of Trump supporters discovered the following:

  •  77 percent say it bothers them to come into contact with people who speak little or no English.
  •  81 percent say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
  •  77 percent say discrimination against Christians in the U.S. is a major problem.
  •  83 percent say the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences.
  •  83 percent say the values of Islam are at odds with America’s values and way of life.
  •  80 percent say immigrants constitute a burden on American society. 
  •  68 percent say the country has changed mostly for the worse since the 1950s.
  • 72 percent say we need a leader who is willing to break some rules to set things right. 

Candice and Toby, in other words, will have to fight to protect their children from the forces of white reaction. The good news is that Candice gets to vote in the upcoming election.

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Bringing an End to Bernie’s Romance

Age of Innocence


Yesterday I was listening to The New Republic’s Brian Beutler interview of Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol about Bernie Sanders and the state of the Democratic Party. In the Primary Concerns political podcast (the “Two Houses Divided” episode), Skocpol discusses how Sen. Bernie Sanders was “elegantly and ruthlessly” informed that his campaign was over. Immediately I thought of the scene in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence where the New York Brahmin community subtly intervenes to separate Newland Archer from the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska.

Just as Sanders had the quixotic illusion that he could be the Democratic nominee, so Archer thinks that he can leave his insipid wife and run off with the countess, who has separated from her abusive Polish husband. Archer, perhaps like Sanders, discovers that the forces arrayed again him are far more formidable than he anticipated.

To let Sanders down slowly, President Obama met with him for two hours before releasing a statement. Although the president acknowledged in the statement the senator’s considerable contributions to the political dialogue, he went on to fully endorse Clinton. Then, that evening, progressive icon Elizabeth Warren endorsed Clinton on the Rachel Maddow Show. Clinton herself has had nothing but praise for Sanders while declaring herself the winner.  Sanders has still not conceded, but the air has gone out of his campaign.

The Age of Innocence is set in 1870s Gilded Age New York. We watch as the .1% goes into overdrive once it realizes that Archer has fallen in love with Olenska.:

Archer sat silent, with the sense of clinging to the edge of a sliding precipice. The discovery that he had been excluded from a share in these negotiations [with Olenska], and even from the knowledge that they were on foot, caused him a surprise hardly dulled by the acuter wonder of what he was learning. He saw in a flash that if the family had ceased to consult him it was because some deep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longer on their side…

Various machinations are put into play, including Archer’s wife May telling Olenska that she’s pregnant, even though she doesn’t know it to be true. This precipitates Olenska’s decision to return to Europe, and May hosts a special dinner to bid her farewell. The leading New York families, who previously have refused to associate with Olenska, show up:

There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these, in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe. There was nothing on earth that the Wellands and Mingotts would not have done to proclaim their unalterable affection for the Countess Olenska now that her passage for Europe was engaged; and Archer, at the head of his table, sat marveling at the silent untiring activity with which her popularity had been retrieved, grievances against her silenced, her past countenanced, and her present irradiated by the family approval. Mrs. van der Luyden shone on her with the dim benevolence which was her nearest approach to cordiality, and Mr. van der Luyden, from his seat at May’s right, cast down the table glances plainly intended to justify all the carnations he had sent from Skuytercliff.

In Sanders’s case, the meeting with the president may be the Democrats’ version of this meal. The senator dreamed of Countess Presidency, and now he has been told by the Democratic Party that he must return to his comparatively dull life in the Senate. They’ll accept him and praise him and let bygones be bygones if he promises not to cause waves:

In the drawing-room, where they presently joined the ladies, he met May’s triumphant eyes, and read in them the conviction that everything had “gone off” beautifully. She rose from Madame Olenska’s side, and immediately Mrs. van der Luyden beckoned the latter to a seat on the gilt sofa where she throned. Mrs. Selfridge Merry bore across the room to join them, and it became clear to Archer that here also a conspiracy of rehabilitation and obliteration was going on. The silent organization which held his little world together was determined to put itself on record as never for a moment having questioned the propriety of Madame Olenska’s conduct, or the completeness of Archer’s domestic felicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons were resolutely engaged in pretending to each other that they had never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible, the least hint to the contrary…

Wharton informs us that this is how New York society avoids scandal. It is certainly how the Democratic Party tries to maintain unity:

It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.

Having worked so hard, however, Sanders must be currently experiencing what Archer experiences: a sense of being boxed in by “the Establishment”:

As these thoughts succeeded each other in his mind Archer felt like a prisoner in the center of an armed camp. He looked about the table, and guessed at the inexorableness of his captors from the tone in which, over the asparagus from Florida, they were dealing with Beaufort and his wife [a couple brought low by scandal]. “It’s to show me,” he thought, “what would happen to ME—” and a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on him like the doors of the family vault.

The big question for people now is whether ardent Sanders supporters, after having experienced true love, can move on to a relationship with Hillary. In the novel, Archer feels for the rest of his life that something vital is missing, but he also becomes a model citizen who helps New York live up to it potential. He does his duty, even as he and the reader weep for what could have been. Will those who poured their hearts out to Sanders do the same?

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in HIS lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died—carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child—he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honored his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

We need to hold on to the vision that Sanders invoked, faint and tenuous though it may be. At the same time, “the old ways,” which in our case are traditional party politics, also have some dignity and some good. For several months we dwelt in an age of innocence, but now we must face up to our fallen world.


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The Sewanee Gentleman & Related Poems

Some Sewanee students still wear gowns to class

Some Sewanee students still wear gowns to class


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see an exhibit on “the Sewanee gentleman,” researched and put together by Professor of History Woody Register, my good friend and tennis partner. I grew up in Sewanee—my father was a French professor at the University of the South for 40 years—and Woody’s discoveries fascinated me. As he included poems by Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling in the exhibit, I have an excuse to write about the exhibit here.

Sewanee was an all-male liberal arts college when we moved there in 1954 (I was three), and I heard a lot about the Sewanee gentleman. The male students wore coats and ties and sometimes gowns, followed an honor code where they pledged not to cheat (exams were not proctored), attended Episcopalian services at All Saints Chapel, and aspired to some version of southern gentility. The tradition went back to when the college opened in 1868. (It was to have opened in 1861 but the war intervened and then union troops burned the campus to the ground.)

Although the tradition of the Sewanee gentleman appears to have remained constant over the decades, Woody discovered that it has evolved and taken several forms. Sewanee initially was supposed to have been proof that the American slave-holding society was capable of great learning and cultural achievements, just like the slave-holding societies of Greece and Rome. The Sewanee gentleman, therefore, was conceived to be the scion of plantation owners, and arrangements were in place for students to bring valets and horses to campus. Not much emphasis was put on physical prowess.

That would change in the later 19th century, however. As football raged through college campuses, Sewanee used the sport to show that it too was part of the modern era. In 1899 Sewanee had a legendary team—during a six-day road trip they defeated  Texas A&M, Texas, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss—and a rugged masculinity became an integral part of what made up the Sewanee gentleman. This can be seen by the invocation of Robert Browning’s “Prospice” when a student died during a football practice a few years later. The poem seems particularly appropriate with its mention of fog since Sewanee is frequently blanketed by heavy mists:


By Robert Browning

Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat, 
The mist in my face, 
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote 
I am nearing the place, 
The power of the night, the press of the storm, 
The post of the foe; 
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form, 
Yet the strong man must go: 
For the journey is done and the summit attained, 
And the barriers fall, 
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained, 
The reward of it all. 
I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more, 
The best and the last! 
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes and forbore, 
And bade me creep past. 
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers 
The heroes of old, 
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears 
Of pain, darkness and cold. 
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, 
The black minute’s at end, 
And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave, 
Shall dwindle, shall blend, 
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, 
Then a light, then thy breast, 
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, 
And with God be the rest! 

Eventually Sewanee, given its small size, would find itself unable to compete against other southern universities and dropped out of what had become the Southeastern Conference (the SEC). Then, in the 1950s, the “Sewanee gentleman” took a new turn, albeit a related one.

The Civil Rights movement had begun, Brown vs. the Board of Education was technically the law of the land (though not in practice), and “Sewanee gentleman” came to distinguish patrician racists from lower class racists. It was in this context that Kipling’s “Gunga Din” was quoted about the beloved—but also patronized—African American trainer Willie Sims:

Gunga Din

By Rudyard Kipling

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.
He was “Din! Din! Din!
You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
Hi! slippery hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”

The uniform ‘e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ‘eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted “Harry By!”
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ‘im ’cause ‘e couldn’t serve us all.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it 
Or I’ll marrow you this minute
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

‘E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ‘is mussick on ‘is back,
‘E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was “Din! Din! Din!”
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-files shout,
“Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
“I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone —
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

When the ultimate compliment you can give person of color is “E was white, clear white, inside,” there’s still some consciousness raising needed. Gunga Din may be “a better man that I am,” but his entire existence is defined by how well he serves the English soldiers. The “Sewanee gentleman” was expected to respect African Americans, but African Americans were also expected to know their place. A related drama occurred with women.

Sewanee is now integrated and co-educational, and the “Sewanee gentleman” has become a thing of the past. The poems too strike us as quaint relics of a bygone age.

Posted in Browning (Robert), Kipling (Rudyard) | 3 Comments

How Poker Resembles Novel Writing



I share today another post from my novelist friend Rachel Kranz’s poker blog. Even those of us who don’t play poker know that game requires risk taking, but we may not equate those risks with those taken by a novelist in the act of composing. As always with Rachel’s posts, you don’t need to understand the game to appreciate the larger applications to life.

Risk: Calculations of Risk-Reward Ratios in Life and Poker

By Rachel Kranz, novelist and poker player

Few things are worse than checking Twitter after a bustout and finding that the Day 2 you just busted from might theoretically have ended in a $400,000 first prize.  Although I netted a min-cash of just under $3,000 with my 18 big blinds, I did technically have a shot at that $400k, and now, busted, I don’t.  Even though my chances of winning were extremely low—with nearly 300 players left and a below-average stack, they weren’t much more than 0.33 percent—the loss isn’t just what was but also what might have been; the loss of a fantasy, as my old therapist would have said.

Fantasy is the stuff of live tournament poker, of course.  People who want the best risk-reward ratio multi-table online, where volume beats variance; or they play cash, where a skilled player will win 60 percent of their sessions as opposed to a skilled tournament player, who cashes only 15 percent of the time. A summer WSOP schedule has famously been compared to “a Sunday”—that is, roughly the same number of tournaments that an online player plays in a single day.

The variance is magnified if you stick to the low buy-ins, as I do, with their enormous fields—although they do have a lot of money at the top.  And because those big fields are so soft—filled with recreational players whose skill is nowhere near a match for my own—they’re ultimately my best choice. Where else can you spend $1,100 with an expected return of 40 percent—and the hope of winning $400,000?  Because skill actually does come into play, a poker tournament is not just a lottery ticket—it has what players call “positive expectation.” I show my investors the cold, hard figures—how often I win online, how often I’ve won before.  I’m a good investment, for both their money and my own.  But let’s face it: for most of us, fantasy sweetens the pot.

Fantasy sours, though, when the dream fails to come true—or, more accurately, when it feels as though I have failed to make it come true.  In the tournament I just played, I busted on a high-variance play, and I’m sitting here with my notes and stats, trying to decide if it was a smart risk or a stupid one.  On the stupid side:  I had enough chips to survive a while longer, and a better opportunity might have come along.  Plus, maybe it was a play that could never have succeeded, and maybe I was supposed to know that.  On the smart side: With nearly 300 players to go and 18 big blinds (which would have dropped to 12 in less than 15 minutes), maybe a high-risk play was warranted (always supposing that it wasn’t doomed to fail in the first place).

Dear readers, be grateful:  You’re getting one paragraph of rumination and analysis, but I’m going to be chewing this one over for the next few hours and discussing it with my coach for another hour or so after that.  (Unless he just says, “Nope, easy fold,” in which case I’ll have to spend some more time figuring out why I didn’t know that and how to know it the next time.)  Underneath the poker analysis, though, is some personal analysis:  What else was going on today that might have colored either my actual decision or my feelings about it?

And so I come to the notion of risk.  In poker, we try to make that term cut and dried.  Exactly how much are we risking, and by how much might we be rewarded?  Get the risk-reward ratio right, and you’re a winning player.  Get it wrong, and you’re likely to be unprofitable in the long run, even if you occasionally get lucky.

Even in poker, risk-reward is hard to quantify, especially when you’re playing a tournament.  I can’t just look at how many chips I risked and how many I might have won; I also have to look at how likely it was that I could win them (depending on my opponent’s range, his skill level, his likelihood of taking the actions he took with a hand that could allow me to win).  Plus, I have to look at opportunity costs:  Given that I had a playable stack and a mainly soft field, busting out is a bigger loss than if I had fewer chips and a table of guys who outranked me.  If I’m fairly likely to lose anyway, risking my chances isn’t such a big deal.

If these kinds of calculations are hard in poker, how much harder do they become in life?  As my novel nears completion—the revision will probably be done by this fall—I think about what I’ve risked to write it.  I began it in 2000, just as my first novel appeared, to underwhelming acclaim.  I spent years—and probably several thousand dollars—doing research in South Carolina, Louisiana, Jamaica, Senegal, as well as buying dozens of books and poring over hundreds of online documents.  When I finished my first draft in 2008, my friends thought it was brilliant, though even they didn’t fully understand what I was doing, probably because I didn’t, either.  My agent, publisher, and the editor I hired (another expense!) totally didn’t get it.

Back to the drawing board.  It took months to figure out how to re-address the material and several years to rework it.  False starts.  Lost friendships.  Broken relationships.  Cancer.  My mother’s illness and her death.  Family ruptures.  Lost faith—almost, but not quite.  Even when I no longer understood why I was still working on it, I couldn’t quite bear to let it go.  In poker, do they call that throwing good money after bad?  Or do they call it a profound faith in the long run, the dogged, willful, stubborn grit to outlast a losing streak that goes on far longer than you ever thought it could, that hurts worse than you ever imagined, that undermines your faith in yourself and your life’s purpose to a degree that seemed, literally, incredible—until there you are, faith lost, hope lost, purpose lost…until there you are, still writing.

What did I risk, all those years I devoted to that book?  What else might I have done?  What other achievements might now be listed under my name?  Who else might I have become?

Risk is a closed door, thick and impermeable.  You use all the tools at your disposal to guess at what’s on the other side—what hand your opponent holds, how likely he is to fold, how much you’ll win if your hand comes in, how much you’ll lose if it doesn’t.  Even if you know you’re risking your tournament life, how much is that life worth, really?  Even if you know you’re more likely to lose than to win, is the reward great enough to justify the risk?

We love poker because, at least sometimes, we can find the answers.  And maybe because it teaches us to love a life in which, often, we can’t.

Posted in Kranz (Rachel) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Trump’s “Truth” Is Like Big Brother’s

Still from "1984" (1984)

Still from “1984” (1984)


I suspect we will see an increasing number of allusions to George Orwell’s 1984 as Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency unfolds. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine uses the 1948 novel to figure out what differentiates Trump from other politicians.

Chait mentions Trump’s “promiscuous” lying and his authoritarian tendencies but acknowledges that mendacity and authoritarianism aren’t unique to Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee stands out, however, in the way that he combines the two and then takes them to levels we haven’t seen before:

Trump’s many critics have seized upon both traits as his two major disqualifications for the presidency, yet both of them frustratingly defy easy quantification. All politicians lie some, and many of them lie a lot, and most presidents also push the limits of their authority in ways that can frighten their opponents. So what is so uniquely dangerous about Trump? Perhaps the answer is that both of these qualities are, in a sense, the same thing. His contempt for objective truth is the rejection of democratic accountability, an implicit demand that his supporters place undying faith in him. Because the only measure of truth he accepts is what he claims at any given moment, the power his supporters vest in him is unlimited.

Chait points out that if Trump’s supporters grant him special dispensation to define truth however he desires, then the normal political laws no longer apply:

The normal rules of political lying hold that when the lie has been exposed, or certainly when it has been confessed, the jig is up. You have to stop lying about it and tell the truth, or at least retreat to a different lie. Trump bends the rules of the universe to his own will, at no apparent cost. His brazenness is another utterly unique characteristic. His confidence that he can make the truth whatever he wishes at any moment, and toggle back and forth between incompatible realities at will, without any cost to himself, is a display of dominance. Possibly Trump’s most important statement of the campaign was his idle boast that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes.

Orwell’s novel, Chait observes, captures the relationship between dictatorial authority and “the power to manipulate any fact into a binary but permeable scheme”:

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. He had never seen the photograph that disproved their guilt. It had never existed, he had invented it. He remembered remembering contrary things, but those were false memories, products of self-deception.

Chait concludes that, while “truth and reason are weapons of the powerless against the powerless,” Trump has found ways to neutralize these weapons:

There is no external doctrine he can be measured against, not even conservative dogma, which he embraces or discards at will and with no recognition of having done so. Trump’s version of truth is multiple truths, the only consistent element of which is Trump himself is always, by definition, correct. Trump’s mind is so difficult to grapple with because it is an authoritarian epistemology that lies outside the democratic norms that have shaped all of our collective experiences.

It is vital, therefore, that those whose professions call for high ideals and a commitment to truth–journalists, educators, religious leaders, judges, politicians, and public servants of all kinds–do their jobs. Donald Trump’s emergence is what we get when we fall short.

Posted in Orwell (George) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Listening for the Still Small Voice

Washington Allston, "Elijah in the Desert"

Washington Allston, “Elijah in the Desert”

Spiritual Sunday

Today in Washington, Iowa we are holding a memorial service for my mother-in-law Jeanette Miksch, who died at 94 on the eve of Mother’s Day. I link the occasion with today’s Old Testament reading about Elijah feeling lost and depressed in the desert.  God visits Elijah in his desolation but not in the form that Elijah expects (1 Kings 19:9-15).

No version of the passage rises to the level of the “still small voice” found in the King James translation. (The New International Version’s “gentle whisper” doesn’t have the same punch.) Charles Wesley’s simple but powerful poem captures the quiet meditative state we must aspire to in order to hear God’s voice.

Here’s the passage from 1 Kings:

And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?

And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?

And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria…

Wesley’s poem is marked by a childlike simplicity that does justice to the image:

The Still Small Voice

By Charles Wesley

Open, Lord, my inward ear,
And bid my heart rejoice;
Bid my quiet spirit hear
The comfort of thy voice:
Never in the whirlwind found,
Or where earthquakes rock the place, —
Still and silent is the sound,
The whisper, of thy grace.

From the world of sin and noise
And hurry I withdraw;
For the small and inward voice
I wait with humble awe:
Silent am I now and still,
Would not in thy presence move:
To my waiting soul reveal
The secret of thy love!

We miss you, Jeanette.

Posted in Wesley (Charles) | Leave a comment

King’s Clown Rampaged in Orlando

Pennywise, the clown in IT

Pennywise, the clown in IT


Perhaps no one understands what happened last weekend in Orlando better than Stephen King. The largest mass slaughter of Americans since 9-11 could easily appear in the pages of IT. I’m particularly thinking of the White Council’s attack on a nightclub called The Black Spot.

Have you noticed that killers often target people who are having a good time—or at least, who appear to be living contented lives? The killers’ rage is fueled by their sense that they are somehow excluded. Although we can never entirely understand a killer’s motivation, Omar Mateen’s homophobia may have arisen out of his own repressed homosexuality and his guilty desire to be partying with those he killed.

Previous poets have diagnosed the condition. For instance, here’s the Beowulf poet describing Grendel:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet . . .

And as I noted in a past post on the Tucson killing, such is also the case with Milton’s Satan as he gazes upon Adam and Eve:

[A]side the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines . . .

The incident in IT involves a bar set up in the woods of Maine by black servicemen in the early 1930s. They assemble a good Dixieland jazz band that begins drawing white and well as black customers. This catches the attention of the local white supremacist group:

[W]e underestimated how bad things might get. We all knew that Mueller and his friends must have known what was going on, but I don’t think any of us realized that it was drivin em crazy—and I mean what I say: crazy. There they were in their grand old Victorian houses on West Broadway not a quarter of a mile away from where we were, listening to things like “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” and “Diggin My Potatoes.” That was bad. Knowing that their young people were there too, whooping it up right cheek by jowl with the blacks, that must have been ever so much worse. Because it wasn’t just the lumberjacks and the barbags that were turning up as September came into October. It got to be a kind of thing in town. Young folks would come to drink and to dance to that no-name jazz-band until one in the morning came and shut us down…You could see fraternity boys from the University of Maine at Orono cutting capers with their sorority girlfriends, and when the band learned how to play a ragtime version of “The Maine Stein Song,” they just about ripped the roof off.

Eventually the white supremacists set fire to the nightclub and what follows sounds like a version of what happened last Saturday in Orlando. King, of course, is famous for conveying such horror and, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll spare you the description. Our own horror is still too fresh in my mind.

I’ll just note the manic clown who is behind the fire—IT—is a dark streak of violence that runs through American history. At other points in the novel, IT is behind the mauling of a child, the savage killing of a young gay man, the slaughter of a group of gangsters, and other horrific bloodlettings. IT is the force that the protagonists must confront, first when they are kids and then again when they are adults. King regards homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and other such expressions of fear and hatred as American as apple pie.

King also believes that a significant number of Americans tolerate the National Rifle Association’s extremism because the gun group appeals to a deep rage. Although we are told that most Americans want common sense gun reform, the behavior of our politicians tells a different story. They are doing what many voters, at their core, want them to do.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, King (Stephen), Milton (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Women vs. Unicorns in Poker, on Dates

"The Hunt of the Unicorn," Cloisters tapestry

“The Hunt of the Unicorn,” Cloisters tapestry


Julia and I are on our way to attend her mother’s memorial service so I’ll be away from my computer for a couple of days. Fortunately, my novelist friend Rachel Kranz, who is currently participating in the poker world series, is allowing me to post an essay she wrote recently on women in poker, unicorns, and the Stanford student recently found guilty of raping an unconscious woman (and then receiving the mildest of sentences). 

Rachel remembers encountering the myth of the unicorn–how it can be tamed by a virgin–in the horrifying incident in T. H. White’s Once and Future KingThere three boys tie a virgin to a tree to lure a unicorn and then cut off its head.

The article is the first of several that will be appearing in Adventures in Poker, Rachel’s blog which she is resuming again after a lapse of several years. I’ve read several of these forthcoming essays and they are superb. It doesn’t matter whether or not poker interests you as Rachel’s essays go far beyond the game. Make sure that you check them out.

Taming the Unicorn: Can We Make a World Where It’s Not Necessary?

By Rachel Kranz, novelist and poker player

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.

–Leonardo da Vinci

The other day I was sitting at the poker table and had occasion to ask a male opponent to arrange his stack in such a way that I could see his big chips.  The man was wearing earbuds and when I asked him the first time—I was sitting right across from him, 6 seat to 10 seat—his face didn’t change, so I asked him again.

He glared at me.  “Settle down!” he said disgustedly as he slowly began to rearrange his stack.  “Just settle down.”

Startled, I found myself responding before I could stop myself.  “You don’t need to be rude—I thought you couldn’t hear me.”

From the other end of the table, another male player burst out laughing.  “Settle down?  Who says that?”  His laughter was the perfect way to diffuse the situation, the play went on, and eventually someone else busted Settle Down Guy.

After he left, I thanked the man who had laughed.  Other players agreed—Settle Down Guy had overreacted.  But a man to my left took issue.  “Look, if the guy who told you to settle down didn’t do any other bad thing, maybe we should all give him a break.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But it’s hard being spoken to that way.”

“Well,” said the second guy, “maybe there’s something in your aura that attracts that kind of treatment.”

This is a great example of the kind of no-win microaggression that women face at the table—the niggling little incidents that so often keep you from being able to devote 100 percent of your energy to poker.  I’ve tried a range of responses—silence, arguing, explaining—and none of them are terrific.  Talking back can easily escalate an incident, but silence often invites escalation, too, until you finally give them a response.

This time I laughed and said, “Wow, what a terrific compliment!  Thank you!”

“No,” the guy insisted.  “It wasn’t a compliment.”

“Oh, so it’s an insult?  Should I be insulted?”

“No, it’s just an observation.”

“I think I’ll take it as a compliment then.”

“Are you being sarcastic?  It sounds like you’re being sarcastic.”

Cue a new burst of laughter from the original laughter, and we all went on to talk about something else.  I did what I could to ignore the hostility now emanating from this second guy, lost a race, and left the table.

Fast-forward to another tournament in a different casino, when a table change put me and Aura Guy at the same table once again.  Before I noticed him, I’d already started joking around with two guys at my end of the new table, so my mood was light and happy.  And when the whole table started gossiping about a famous prop bet, Aura Guy and I both joined in.

Then, on break, he came over.  “I really enjoyed playing with you today,” he said.  “I know we’ve had unpleasantness in the past, and I’d like to get past it and just move forward.”

“That’s terrific—me too,” I said, holding out my hand.  We shook on it, and that was that.  I thought, taming the unicorn. 

A few years ago, I was at a table with a drunk, angry guy who was in the big blind when I was in the cutoff.  He started yelling at me for “picking on his blind every time” until finally I said, “I’m not picking on you, I’m playing.  Stop it.”  He settled down into a sullen silence, and life went on.

Fast-forward to that summer, when I ran into the guy at a WSOP tournament window. “I’m so glad to see you again!” he said.  “I’ve been wanting to apologize to you ever since that time I yelled at you in December.  I was drunk, I was out of line—and of course you were just playing, not picking on me.  I’ve thought a lot since then about losing my temper and how I act when I get drunk.  I’ve stopped drinking while playing, and I’ve really been working on keeping my temper.”  I thanked him warmly for his kind words, and we shared a hug.

Taming the unicorn. 

For women players who trigger unwanted responses at the table—which is just about all of us—the fantasy is strong that if we could just find the right way to respond, we could somehow transform the environment within which we play.  This is certainly a fantasy shared by many good guys.  I can’t tell you how many of my male friends have told me, “Maybe if you just ignored it,” “Maybe if you made a joke out of it,” “Maybe if you tried being nicer,” “Maybe if you projected a tougher image,” “Maybe if you projected a softer image,” and my personal favorite, “Maybe you misunderstood.”

And so, when a man does seem to get that he is the one who’s behaved badly—or at least, that there’s another way to handle his feelings about me—it feels like a miracle.  Look, I want to tell myself, you did it!  You must have a terrific aura, because you have actually tamed the unicorn. 

Unicorn tapestry, Cluny MuseumThe myth of the unicorn—a hypersexual, violent beast with a huge phallic horn—goes back millennia in Western culture.  With all other humans, the unicorn is a dangerous monster, his horn a powerful weapon.  With a kind and gentle virgin, however, the wild beast becomes sweet and submissive, laying his head in the maiden’s lap and going peacefully to sleep.

I’ve thought a lot about this myth, especially when I read the story of the Stanford college student who was found raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.  The rape was interrupted by two Swedish grad students on bicycles, who chased the man until they caught him and called for help.  One of the Swedes was sobbing so hard by the time the police arrived that he could barely describe what he had seen.  (You can read the story here, the man’s father’s response here, and the woman’s extraordinary courtroom statement here.)

The woman had gotten drunk at a party and passed out.  Then the man had taken her behind a deserted dumpster and raped her.  These facts were not at issue.  The only issue was whether the sexual act—witnessed by the Swedish students—was consensual.  After the defense lawyer’s usual attempts to discredit the woman and her sexual history, a jury found the young man guilty.  The judge sympathized with the young man’s youth and inexperience, however, and sentenced him to a mere six months in jail.

It’s so hard, in talking about this horrific case, not to use the language of balance, to create parallel sentences linked by that seductive phrase, on the other hand. 

“He shouldn’t have raped her.  On the other hand, she shouldn’t have gotten so drunk she passed out.”

“He shouldn’t have raped her.  On the other hand, he had been drinking.”

“He shouldn’t have raped her.  On the other hand, maybe he really thought she wanted it.”

On some level, if you’re a woman in this culture, you have two choices.  You can take as default that the world is basically safe and welcoming, enough to allow you to loosen up at a party or sit down comfortably at a poker table.  Or you can take as default that the world is hostile and dangerous, so that you never, ever let your guard down.

The first strategy leaves you unprepared for the kinds of extra precautions that, as a woman, you have to take.  A guy can get drunk and pass out at a party—you can’t.  A guy can ask to see another guy’s chips without provoking an incident—you can’t.

But the second strategy leaves you defensive, angry, and likely to miss out on a lot of great opportunities.  The guy you meet at the party that you actually do want to date.  The guy at the table who really wasn’t insulting you, just offering you an opportunity to joke around, tease him back, be one of the guys.

The fantasy of taming the unicorn seems to resolve the two.  You think, If I can just be good and sweet and gentle enough. . . if I can just project the perfect combination of vulnerability and toughness . . . , if I can just rise above insults and hostility, completely impermeable and yet invitingly open. . Then the dangerous beast will turn into a sweet, gentle creature who lays his head in my lap and goes to sleep. 

Obviously, it’s not always a fantasy.  Sometimes we emerge from the situation with new possibilities.

Obviously, too, there is an on the other hand for me.  “Maybe I could have waited a little longer before asking that guy to show his stack?”  “Maybe I was a little too anxious—a little too controlling—a little too nudgy?”  “Maybe there really is something annoying in my aura which does attract that negative energy?”

The problem is, you don’t always want to tame the freakin’ unicorn.  Sometimes you just want to go to a party, have a few drinks, flirt with a few guys.  Sometimes you just want to see the other guy’s stack so you know how to size your bet.  Sometimes you just want to play poker.

So here’s to the Swedish students, who heroically intervened in a horrific assault.  Here’s to the guy who laughed—twice—intervening in a much less serious but still draining and demoralizing situation.  Here’s to the men who believe me when I tell them these stories, and to the women who share their own stories with me.  Here’s to me, on the days when I can be my best self with my clearest view of reality, and to me, on the days when I just don’t handle things well (but still—he should show me his stack!).

Here’s to a world where we don’t have to tame the unicorn—where all our mental energy is free for strategy and bet-sizing and thinking about ranges and frequency and game theory and odds.  I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime.  Still, I can hardly wait.

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Push a Button, Get a Free Short Story

Short stories dispensed via vending machines

Short stories dispensed via vending machines


The news has been so grim recently that I offer up a light story for diversionary relief. Apparently the French city of Grenoble, situated in the Alps, has installed eight vending machines that dispense free short stories for anyone interested. My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to the article.

Writing for the blog Mental Floss, James Hunt reports, 

The strange, screen-less contraptions are the brainchild of Christophe Sibieude (the co-founder and head of Short Édition) and Grenoble’s mayor, Éric Piolle. The pair hope that commuters and bystanders will make use of these stories to expand and enrich their minds while waiting around, rather than tapping their way aimlessly through Facebook or Twitter. Stories are dispensed according to how much time you’ve got to spend reading (one-, three-, and five-minute options are available), and the stories are printed out on long receipt-like paper.

The vending machines can be found in the various popular spots throughout the city.

Of course, I now want more details. Are these classic or contemporary short stories? Do new authors get a chance to introduce themselves through this venue? Could the vending machines be further refined so that you can choose the genre you are interested in?

But maybe it’s better to keep patrons guessing. At any rate, I like the message that gets sent: fiction is just as important to us as food and drink

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  • 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.

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