Henry Fielding Explains Witness Flipping

Redmond Phillips as the lawyer who flips in “Tom Jones”


As I watch Donald Trump’s National Security head, his lawyer/fixer, and his one-time campaign manager seek plea deals with the Mueller investigation, I find myself thinking of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. There we find a classic example of someone flipping on his boss and, in the process, revealing extra information that turns the entire case upside down. Will Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort do the same? The suspense, as in Fielding’s masterpiece, is intense.

Coleridge declared that Tom Jones had one of the three most perfect plots in literature (the other two were Sophocles’s Oedipus and Ben Jonson’s Alchemist), and I remember staying up all night reading Part 18 of Fielding’s 900-page novel. Everything’s a mess, including the possibility that Tom has slept with his mother, and then we get our happy ending in an immensely satisfying finale.

Key to resolving the confusion is an attorney loyal to no one’s interests but his own. We first encounter Dowling when he shows up at Squire Allworthy’s house with a letter from his dying sister. In it Bridget Allworthy reveals that she is Tom’s mother, but we don’t know that until the final chapters. Tom’s half brother Blifil, who hates him, persuades Dowling to give him the letter and conceals it so that Tom will not reap any advantages from the connection.

From then on, Blifil uses Dowling to do all his dirty work, including getting people to swear falsely about Tom’s part in a sword fight that almost kills a man. Think of him as Blifil’s fixer. Unfortunately for them, however, a crack opens: Allworthy discovers Dowling’s skullduggery and confronts him on it.

Before I describe the scene, I quote an earlier observation about the power of surprising a witness. Keep in mind that Fielding was a judge and so knows what he’s talking about:

There is nothing so dangerous as a question which comes by surprise on a man whose business it is to conceal truth, or to defend falsehood. For which reason those worthy personages, whose noble office it is to save the lives of their fellow-creatures at the Old Bailey, take the utmost care, by frequent previous examination, to divine every question which may be asked their clients on the day of trial, that they may be supplied with proper and ready answers, which the most fertile invention cannot supply in an instant. Besides, the sudden and violent impulse on the blood, occasioned by these surprises, causes frequently such an alteration in the countenance, that the man is obliged to give evidence against himself. 

Now for the scene, in which Dowling tries to avoid a straightforward answer when Allworthy confronts him with a woman who has witnessed his plotting:

Allworthy, without making any answer to this, bolted the door, and then, advancing with a stern look to Dowling, he said, “Whatever be your haste, sir, I must first receive an answer to some questions. Do you know this lady?”—“That lady, sir!” answered Dowling, with great hesitation. Allworthy then, with the most solemn voice, said, “Look you, Mr Dowling, as you value my favor, or your continuance a moment longer in my service, do not hesitate nor prevaricate; but answer faithfully and truly to every question I ask.——Do you know this lady?”—“Yes, sir,” said Dowling, “I have seen the lady.” “Where, sir?” “At her own lodgings.”—“Upon what business did you go thither, sir; and who sent you?” “I went, sir, to enquire, sir, about Mr Jones.” “And who sent you to enquire about him?” “Who, sir? why, sir, Mr Blifil sent me.” “And what did you say to the lady concerning that matter?” “Nay, sir, it is impossible to recollect every word.” “Will you please, madam, to assist the gentleman’s memory?” “He told me, sir,” said Mrs Waters, “that if Mr Jones had murdered my husband, I should be assisted by any money I wanted to carry on the prosecution, by a very worthy gentleman, who was well apprized what a villain I had to deal with. These, I can safely swear, were the very words he spoke.”—“Were these the words, sir?” said Allworthy. “I cannot charge my memory exactly,” cries Dowling, “but I believe I did speak to that purpose.”

Then the flipping begins. Imagine Robert Mueller asking versions of this question to Flynn, Cohen or Manafort:

“And did Mr Blifil order you to say so?” “I am sure, sir, I should not have gone on my own accord, nor have willingly exceeded my authority in matters of this kind. If I said so, I must have so understood Mr Blifil’s instructions.”

Since Dowling is still evasive (“If I said so, I must have so understood”), Allworthy lays out what he is offering in return for the truth:

“Look you, Mr Dowling,” said Allworthy; “I promise you before this lady, that whatever you have done in this affair by Mr Blifil’s order I will forgive, provided you now tell me strictly the truth; for I believe what you say, that you would not have acted of your own accord and without authority in this matter.

Dowling at this point comes clean, quoting Blifil’s own words. When prosecutors look for intent—did Trump intend to collude with the Russians? did he intend to obstruct justice?—this is the kind of evidence they are looking for. And then Dowling drops another bombshell: he mentions the letter to Allworthy that Blifil has concealed.

If I’m on the Mueller team and suddenly get information like this, I do a little dance, at least in my head (or behind the one-way mirror):

“What letter?” cries Allworthy.—“The letter, sir,” answered Dowling, “which I brought from Salisbury, and which I delivered into the hands of Mr Blifil.”—“O heavens!” cries Allworthy: “Well, and what were the words? What did my sister say to you?”—“She took me by the hand,” answered he, “and, as she delivered me the letter, said, `I scarce know what I have written. Tell my brother, Mr Jones is his nephew—He is my son.—Bless him,’ says she, and then fell backward, as if dying away. I presently called in the people, and she never spoke more to me, and died within a few minutes afterwards.”

For all his truth telling, however, Dowling is still ducking and dodging. Perhaps Flynn, Cohen and Manafort have done the same although I have more faith in Mueller than in Allworthy to see through evasions. Dowling may say that Blifil imposed on him, but Fielding notes that he knew exactly what was going on:

We have remarked somewhere already, that it is possible for a man to convey a lie in the words of truth; this was the case at present; for Blifil had, in fact, told Dowling what he now related, but had not imposed upon him, nor indeed had imagined he was able so to do. In reality, the promises which Blifil had made to Dowling [to become his personal attorney] were the motives which had induced him to secrecy; and, as he now very plainly saw Blifil would not be able to keep them, he thought proper now to make this confession, which the promises of forgiveness, joined to the threats, the voice, the looks of Allworthy, and the discoveries he had made before, extorted from him…

In other words, Dowling calculates that it’s time to make one of those plea deals we’ve been hearing so much about. In Dowling’s case, however, he has to do it on the spot, given that he has been “taken unawares, and had no time to consider of evasions.” One can’t help but admire his dexterity.

So justice prevails, with the virtuous lifted high and the guilty cast low. Tom is released from prison, becomes Allworthy’s heir, and marries the fair Sophia.

And Blifil? Well, he goes into politics.

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Smollett: Country Water over City Water

William Heath, “Mermaids at Brighton”


My mother’s house is about to undergo a major change that is bothering her a great deal: once the plumbers have done their work, she will switch from lake water to city water. To understand why she is upset, I turned to Matthew Bramble’s ravings about city water in Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphry Clinker.

My mother, while not prickly like Bramble, shares his suspicion. Unfortunately, her pump is 40 years old and embedded in a lake bottom that has become muddier over time. As a result, it has been sending sediment into our pipes, faucets, shower heads, and appliances. Our filtering system has not been able to keep up.

Pipe clogging has led to uneven water pressure for a while now, but a washing machine failure is what finally alerted us to the crisis. A visiting plumber showed me the assault of lake sediment on our house. We have no choice but to surrender.

Doctor-turned-novelist Smollett, my dissertation subject, seconded my mother’s preference for country water over city water. He prescribed sea baths to his patients (see picture above) and was suspicious of any water traveling through urban environments. Such views are expressed by Bramble as he journeys to Bath to both drink and bathe in its supposedly healing waters. Here’s his cranky assessment of what he finds:

Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch—, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye, was a child full of scrophulous ulcers, carried in the arms of one of the guides, under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight, that I retired immediately with indignation and disgust—Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin, when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence?—Good Heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! we know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s-evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating. To purify myself from all such contamination, I went to the duke of Kingston’s private Bath, and there I was almost suffocated for want of free air; the place was so small, and the steam so stifling.

Bramble then discovers that Bath’s legendary waters aren’t any more fit for drinking than they are for bathing:

But I am now as much afraid of drinking, as of bathing; for, after a long conversation with the Doctor, about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the Pump-room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below.

Leaving the public baths, Bramble heads out for the spring that supplies a private bath but finds it no better:

In order to avoid this filthy composition, I had recourse to the spring that supplies the private baths on the Abbey-green; but I at once perceived something extraordinary in the taste and smell; and, upon inquiry, I find that the Roman baths in this quarter, were found covered by an old burying ground, belonging to the Abbey; through which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage; so that as we drink the decoction of living bodies at the Pump-room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath. I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach!

Matthew does see “natural springs of excellent water” gushing from the hills, but complains that, when it gets to town, it is collected in an open basin that is

liable to be defiled with dead dogs, cats, rats, and every species of nastiness, which the rascally populace may throw into it, from mere wantonness and brutality.

Now, my mother’s problem is not exactly this. Nature herself, not humans, is mucking up her water source. She must use not only a filter but ultraviolet light to ensure that it is drinkable. Still, the symbolism of drinking from the lake is powerful.

One must take Matthew’s complaints with a grain of salt. While he does indeed suffer from gout, he is also a hypochondriac, not to mention a grumpy old man. He directs much of his venom against cities in general—not just their water—and complains about the fast pace and class intermingling.

He sees the world much differently than his niece and nephew, who revel in the crowds and commotion. Because the novel comes to us through letters written by the different characters—old and young, upper class and lower—we see vividly how different people were experiencing England’s momentous transition from a rural to an urban society.

My 93-year-old mother lives alone (or did so until we arrived) in the middle of 18 acres of thick forest, which itself is three miles from the small town of Sewanee, Tennessee. Bramble’s reflections help me understand how lake water factors into her world view and why abandoning it feels like giving up an important part of her identity.

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Kavanaugh as Privileged Teen

Derek as Tom Stark in “All the King’s Men”


After recently writing that we need Jack Burden investigating Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the kind of dirt that Burden unearths in All the King’s Men has been discovered on Kavanaugh. While the judge in Robert Penn Warren’s novel is guilty of bribery, this judge has been accused of attempted rape when he was a high school student. Since then he has been operating under the maxim (these are Kavanaugh’s own words in a speech three years ago) that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.”

Actually, Kavanaugh’s alleged transgression more resembles another violation in the novel, this one involving Boss Stark’s son. Kavanaugh and Tom Stark are both examples of how privilege protects the children of the elite. Here’s the incident in All the King’s Men:

Tom Stark, a sophomore, had made quarterback on the mythical All Southern Eleven and had celebrated by wrapping an expensive yellow sport job around a culvert on one of the numerous new speedways which bore his father^s name. Fortunately, a Highway Patrol car, and not some garrulous citizen, discovered the wreck, and the half-empty bottle of evidence was, no doubt, flung into the night to fall in the dark waters of the swamp. Beside the unconscious form of the Sophomore Thunderbolt lay another form, conscious but badly battered, for in the big yellow expensive sport job Tom had had with him a somewhat less expensive yellow-headed sport job, named, it turned out, Caresse Jones.

As so often is the case, the privileged one suffers no consequences whereas the victim carries around scars for the rest of her life. For Christine Blasey Ford, the scars are psychological whereas for Caresse they are physical. Tom, we are told, “wasn’t hurt a bit,” but Caresse “wound up in the operating room of the hospital.” Burden writes that, while she “obligingly did not die,” “in the future she never would be much of an asset in a roadster.” In other words, she has been maimed for life.

So how do protectors operate? Kavanaugh’s GOP defenders are resorting to a number of different tactics, which Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz has summed up in a tweet:

Kavanaugh wasn’t at that party.
If he was, he didn’t do anything.
If he did, it was just “horseplay.”
And if it wasn’t, he shouldn’t be held responsible for something he did so long ago.

They are also going after Dr. Ford. Sen. Orrin Hatch said she may be “mixed up,” a lawyer on Fox News called her a loon, and death threats have forced her to hire security and move her family. Fearing such an outcome made her reluctant about telling her story in the first place.

Boss Willie Stark, whom I’ve compared to Trump, applies his own forms of pressure. He just spends money (as Trump did with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal) and uses his leverage as governor:

[Her father] stamped and swore that he was going to have blood, and breathed indictments, jail, publicity, and lawsuits. His fires, however, were pretty soon banked. Not that it didn’t cost some nice change. But in the end the whole transaction was conducted without noise. Mr, Jones was in the trucking business, and somebody pointed out to him that trucks ran on state roads and that truckers had a lot of contacts with certain state departments.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement and a lot of angry women voters, the GOP leadership can’t apply such heavy-handed tactics against Dr. Ford. We can thank our system that the rule of law still prevails. Trump and some of his GOP enablers would like to have Willie Stark’s power, but we’re not there yet.

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Can Lit Save American Democracy?

Walt Whitman


Like many people, I’ve been reexamining what makes American democracy work and how to keep it going. The Atlantic has run many articles on the subject, and one in the October issue particularly hit home. Hillary Yoni Appelbaum worries that “in recent decades, Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habit of democracy in the first place.”

Appelbaum calls for increased civic participation and describes the damage caused by sitting on the sidelines. For instance, she notes a startling fact about Donald Trump’s support during the GOP primaries:

But among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent. In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support.

So how does one motivate citizens to become civically engaged? In 1871 Walt Whitman said that the arts needed to step up their game.

Writing when the United States was still trying to pull itself back together after the Civil War, Whitman describes a crisis of self belief that we can relate to today:

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, …nor is humanity itself believ’d in. 

Whitman believes that literature holds the key:

I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences….Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known…

Whitman, of course, made his own literary contribution in Leaves of Grass, especially the magnificent celebration of our diversity in Song of Myself. Some argue that this is the most important American poem ever written and it certainly calls for us to acknowledge the full variety and complexity of ourselves as an immigrant nation. Literature and the arts, Whitman says, will consolidate “the nationality of these States” and allow each one to step into its potential:

The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.* As the top-most claim of a strong consolidating of the nationality of these States, is, that only by such powerful compaction can the separate States secure that full and free swing within their spheres, which is becoming to them, each after its kind, so will individuality, with unimpeded branchings, flourish best under imperial republican forms.

Earlier in the essay he writes,

Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy.

When I look at American literature today, I see “native authors” who, if not “higher in grade than any yet known” (how would one judge?), nevertheless make rich contributors to the American mosaic. To choose just a few at random, I think of Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Philip Roth, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Strout, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Philip Levine, Lee Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Natasha Tretheway as authors who help us understand better what it means to be American and what it means to be human.

Any civic reclamation project would be given a great boost by a full bath immersion in American literature.

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Trump Lying, Modern Day Shout-Boasting?

Illus. from “Life on the Mississippi”


I was just explaining to my very smart brother at the university of Iowa—David teaches finance there—about the various literary con artists that Donald Trump resembles. When I mentioned the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, he said he thought Trump was more like the keelboat shout-boasters. I was instantly impressed.

That’s because these boasting contests very much resemble the boasting we hear from the president. He has the highest IQ, his response to Hurricane Maria rates an A+, he saved the American economy, he has been the most productive U.S. president in history, his inauguration crowds were the biggest ever, and so on. The fact checkers have been going crazy over all the false claims, and journalists, policy makers, and others wonder why people can’t see through all the falsehoods.

But seeing him engaged in shout-boasting would explain why his fans go along. No one believes the boasters either. They just love their effrontery.

The episode, which appeared originally in Life on the Mississippi, was meant for Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s publisher dropped it from the latter, worried that people would think they were getting the same book twice. In recent years, Twain scholars have argued for its inclusion in Huckleberry Finn.

Here’s a sampling of a shout-boast brawl that breaks out on a raft:

Then [one of the contestants] jumped up in the air three times and cracked his heels together every time. He flung off a buckskin coat that was all hung with fringes, and says, ‘You lay thar tell the chawin-up’s done;’ and flung his hat down, which was all over ribbons, and says, ‘You lay thar tell his sufferin’s is over.’

Then he jumped up in the air and cracked his heels together again and shouted out—

‘Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!—Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing! I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m bout to turn myself loose!’

All the time he was getting this off, he was shaking his head and looking fierce, and kind of swelling around in a little circle, tucking up his wrist-bands, and now and then straightening up and beating his breast with his fist, saying, ‘Look at me, gentlemen!’ When he got through, he jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, and let off a roaring ‘Whoo-oop! I’m the bloodiest son of a wildcat that lives!’

Then the man that had started the row tilted his old slouch hat down over his right eye; then he bent stooping forward, with his back sagged and his south end sticking out far, and his fists a-shoving out and drawing in in front of him, and so went around in a little circle about three times, swelling himself up and breathing hard. Then he straightened, and jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, before he lit again (that made them cheer), and he begun to shout like this—

‘Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow’s a-coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! whoo-oop! I’m a child of sin, don’t let me get a start! Smoked glass, here, for all! Don’t attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen! When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightning, and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! When I’m cold, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I’m hot I fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I’m thirsty I reach up and suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when I range the earth hungry, famine follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread! I put my hand on the sun’s face and make it night in the earth; I bite a piece out of the moon and hurry the seasons; I shake myself and crumble the mountains! Contemplate me through leather—don’t use the naked eye! I’m the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life! The boundless vastness of the great American desert is my enclosed property, and I bury my dead on my own premises!’ He jumped up and cracked his heels together three times before he lit (they cheered him again), and as he come down he shouted out: ‘Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the pet child of calamity’s a-coming!’

These boasters may have been based on the semi-legendary figure of Mike Fink.To see Trump operating out of this tradition helps explain why not everyone dismisses him as a pathological liar. Of course he doesn’t believe everything he says, one imagines his supporters saying. He’s just engaged in modern-day shout-boasting.

So bow your neck and spread, America, for the pet child of calamity’s a-coming!

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Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter

Isidor Kaufmann, “Yom Kippur”

Spiritual Sunday – Yom Kippur

For today’s post about Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement (or the Sabbath of Sabbaths), I turned to the luminescent blog Velveteen Rabbi for assistance. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat finds three magnificent poems that capture the spirit of the holy day, one of which I share here.

As people will do this coming week, the Jewish Stanley Kunitz looks back over his life and reflects upon it. He realizes he is not who he was although he can detect some bedrock of identity, “some principle of being,” “from which I struggle not to stray.”

The poem plays off of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” although, unlike Frost, Kunitz doesn’t regret his choices. To be sure, he is tempted to regret them. When he looks back he sees the smoke of “abandoned campsites” visited by “scavenger angels,” which doesn’t suggest a triumphant march forward.

Although he may have been been committed to these campsites at one time or another—though he may even have assumed a tribal identity based on them (say, on a relationship or a job or a cause), now his tribe is scattered.The image of a scattered tribe would be particularly poignant a Jewish poet.

So how does the heart reconcile with all these losses. In “The Road Not Taken,” Frost imagines that, in the future, he will obsess about his past decisions, perhaps not in a good way. Kunitz acknowledges the potential for bitterness:

In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

But, as is appropriate for Yom Kippur, he uses this reflection in a positive way. The “manic dust” becomes the cloud that God used to guide the Israelites in the wilderness. In a dramatic turn that remind me of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” (Eliot writes, “Because I do not hope to turn again,” Kunitz, “Yet I turn, I turn”), the speaker exults. The stones, while they bruise the feet, nevertheless become precious. The vision he gets from the nimbus cloud is to “live in the layers, not on the litter.”

I like Barenblat’s analysis of this advice:

[H]ere is what I think it means, or at least, what it meant to me this year as we approached Yom Kippur. “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Embrace the different layers of your story, embrace all the different selves you have been and will be. Open your heart to the you of childhood, the you of young adulthood, the you of maturity, the you of old age. Don’t take the path of living “on the litter,” on the trash-heap of the broken aspirations you’ve discarded. Go deeper than that.

Barenblat informs me that the poem’s final image is very much consistent with the Yom Kippur message. I turn to Wikipedia to make sure that I get it right:

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against other human beings (bein adam lechavero). The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt (Vidui). At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

Barenblat notes,

At the end of the poem, Kunitz writes, “no doubt the next chapter / in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.” I can’t think of a better sacred text for Yom Kippur, when our liturgy tells us that the next chapter in our book of transformations is written and sealed on our hearts. None of us is done with our changes.

Here’s the poem:

The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned campsites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Previous Yom Kippur posts:

A Ninth Century Prayer for Yom Kippur

Adrienne Rich Reflects on Yom Kippur and Conflict

Disordered Souls Thirsting

Believe in the Utter Sweetness of Your Life

A Pure Heart to Speak without Fear

Entering the Days of Awe

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More People Reading Poetry

Sir John Lavery, “Miss Auras: The Red Book”


The Washington Post yesterday had a good news-bad news story about literature: The good news is that more people are reading poetry than ever before. The bad news is that fiction reading is down.

First, the good:

The share of adults reading poetry grew by an astounding 76 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to a newly released study from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Some 28 million adults reported reading poetry in 2017.

The results are even more dramatic for young people. The percentage of poetry readers age 18-24 doubled during that period.

The bulk of the article focuses on the reasons for this increased interest. I’ve talked in the past about literature providing a powerful counter to assaults on truth. (Salman Rushdie is particularly eloquent on this subject.).Young people especially appear hungry for authenticity:

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, who teaches at Princeton University, wonders if the unsettled tenor of our times is drawing people, especially young people, back to verse. “In my teaching of undergraduates, I see them turning to the art form in their attempts to grapple with questions related to forced migration, shifting gender norms, the environment, mental illness and technology — along with old standbys of love, loss and the changing of the seasons.”

Smith continues,

Poetry, which breaks from the shorthand vocabulary of tweets and sound bytes, offers them a necessary recourse to depth, strangeness, vulnerability and imaginative possibility. Poetry also invites them to take their time, to move slowly, to process things gradually, which is an impulse counter to the breakneck pace at which so much else occurs.

Other reasons given in the article are:

–the rise of social media and technology platforms promoting poetry;

— the NEA’s outreach activities to publishers, writers and schools;

— the success of spoken word and performance poetry; and

— the fact that “establishment American poetry is finally looking and sounding like America: people of color, queer people, people with disabilities and activist poets are telling about their own lives and struggles and joys.” (This from Sarah Browning, who heads a national poetry and social justice organization called “Split this Rock.”)

The article ends with the bad news:

Sadly, the good news about poetry in the NEA report is not part of a general increase in reading. The share of adults who read any books not required for work or school remained about the same as in 2008. And, more alarming, the percentage of people who read novels or short stories “is now lower than in any prior survey period.” The NEA promises to address this issue in a forthcoming study.

I look forward to that study. In the meantime, it appears that we turn to poetry, in part, to push back against the endless manipulation of reality.

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Baldwin on Making Education Relevant

James Baldwin


Teachers desiring inspiration as they launch into a new year should check out New Yorker essay that appeared a year ago. An English teacher explains how a Baldwin essay propelled him to use classroom literature to address pressing social issues.

As Clint Smith saw it last September, here’s the dilemma that teachers face:

Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?

Regular readers of this blog know how I would respond: literature has always addressed the most “urgent matters of the day” and can continue to do so if we think of poems, plays and novels as living documents. In other words, the lessons shouldn’t be pushed aside but redirected. Smith says that Baldwin’s 1963 essay “A Talk to Teachers” shows how American history can be taught so that we come to a more honest reckoning with it:

“I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”

Smith says that, after reading this essay, he “altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world”:

I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

Smith links to his own New Yorker essay on the applicability of Invisible Man to our times, and it’s a work I too have turned to it time and again—how it could be used to process the killing of Trayvon Martin, the DACA kids hiding in the shadowsthe excesses of the rightwing Congressional “Freedom Caucus,” the white backlash against Barack Obama, and even whitesplaining.

 I wish Smith had been more specific about how he taught Julius Caesar, but scenes of community violence can be found in the stabbing of Caesar and the mob killing of the innocent poet Cinna. Following the Boston Marathon bombing, I invoked the play on how not to respond to terrorist attacks.

Smith concludes,

“A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.

One cannot always know how a work will touch upon issues students care about—a fair amount of serendipity is involved—but, by listening to one’s students and listening to the work, one will find many occasions to bring the two together. Then the world will become larger and genuine learning will occur.

Posted in Baldwin (James), Ellison (Ralph), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lucius Malfoy, Voldemort Enabler

Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy


The satiric website McSweeney’s has the measure of those Republicans who complain about Trump while embracing all that he makes possible for them. What are we to make of the anonymous White House staffer who wrote to The New York Times or of Congress members like Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, and Susan Collins who complain but never do anything? They are like Lucius Malfoy had he complained about Valdemort. Since the Death Eaters are obviously supposed to run everything, why can’t Voldemort clean up his act and stop embarrassing them.

The starting point for Thea Raymond-Sidel’s satire is Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse saying “that he thinks about leaving the GOP every morning.” But it could have been those in the White House who, so the Times editorial writer assures us, are protecting us from Trump crazy as they can pass the good stuff (ruinous tax cuts, reactionary judges, comprehensive deregulation). Or Sen. Corker, who admits the truth of Bob Woodward’s damning revelations about the White House but shrugs his shoulders with resignation, as though he’s helpless. Or Majority Leader Paul Ryan, who shakes his head in sadness.

If they were really interested in protecting us, why didn’t they stop the Muslim ban, the forced child separations, and the reversal of clean energy measures?

In the McSweeney piece, Lucius Malfoy wonders what it will take to make the wizarding world great again:

Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what it would be like to leave the Death Eaters. To walk up to the Dark Lord and say, “I’m through. This organization is not what it used to be. We used to stand for something — a pure Wizarding race, a fully, proudly insular society, the great black hope of the magical world. But now I just don’t know anymore.”

The leadership has lost sight of the purpose of our movement. This wasn’t about separating children from their families, or sorting people into categories — this was about Us: The Purebloods, the protectors of the magical community, our bloodlines, our livelihoods. We are the descendants of Salazar Slytherin, the party of Gellert Grindelwald, guardians of purity and alliteration. We believe in the promise of a fulfilling magical life for all wizards born with three magical grandparents. And we believe we deserve to live freely, out in the open, with our superiority ablaze for all Muggles to see.

And who is to blame for what has gone wrong. Not the Death Eaters’ vision of the world. No, sir, the problem is the Death Eaters’ leader:

But it has become increasingly clear that the leader of this organization doesn’t care about that. He just cares about taking shots at the Order, about fulfilling some prophecy, when we’ve already won! He’s living in my house, using my wand, just talking to his snake and spending all of my gold while we hunt down his precious Harry Potter. All he talks about is killing that boy and taking over that school, stewing up there in my office, by the way.

So what is Malfoy going to do about all of this? Exactly what members of the GOP have been doing:

Tomorrow, I will serve him as if nothing has happened, as if I had never had these subversive thoughts that I have shared with the Daily Prophet. But every day I will wake up with the conviction that something is deeply, terribly wrong within the Death Eater organization. That we have strayed down a dark path and we cannot turn back. That our values have been co-opted (so easily! It is astonishing) for something so mean and loud and ugly.

But I am not a quitter. I will fight to fix the Death Eaters from within — I will fight every day, I promise you. But, very quietly, I pray that one day a hero will come and vanquish it, so that I may instead fight him, because I am far more comfortable with that.

Incidentally, to read class politics into the Harry Potter books is hardly stretching things. One of my political science students made a compelling case, in a fantasy class I taught, that the Death Eaters stand in for old money folk who desire a return to the old class ranking system.

One other literary thought. A popular theory about the anonymous White House staffer is that we’re witessing Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that mystery, as I’m sure you know, everyone on the train has an alibi for the murder because everyone on the train collaborated in the murder. In other words, the column was collectively written.

Given that the staff member sounds like pretty much any Republican enabling with Trump these days. I’m open to the idea.

Posted in Christie (Agatha), Rowling (J. K.) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


  • 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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