A Poem Describing Literature Lovers

Friday

I’ve shared this poem by my father a couple of times, including in the early days of the Covid pandemic. In March, 2020, when many of us were locked down and wondering when the plague would pass, books seemed particularly attractive. We could always curl up and lose ourselves in an old favorite.

Scott Bates’s poem is a riff off of Jesus’s injunction not to hide your light under a bushel basket. Or as he puts it in Matthew 5:15-16,

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

I must say that my father spent much of his life spreading his light far and wide, sometimes through the poems he wrote. In other words, he didn’t always follow his poem’s advice. But he also loved to withdraw into a work of poetry or fiction, a luxury that he also encouraged in his wife and his four sons.

I’ve always been struck by the works on the candle’s booklist. As I wrote in a previous post,

I’m open to anyone who can find a pattern in the books mentioned in the poem. Maybe the connecting thread is that all, with the exception of the Elizabethan sonnets, are contrarian. Russian poet Yevtushenko and social theorist Thorstein Veblen challenge the State; fairy tale author Charles Perrault, nonsense author Lewis Carroll, and utopian author Samuel Butler challenge conventional reality; and La Rochefoucauld, through his maxims, challenges conventional wisdom. Maybe the sonnets are thrown in because they seem irrelevant to a modern world obsessed with practicality.

As I also noted in a previous post, Jorge Luis Borges once said that he “always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” When my father’s candle flickered out and he went to sleep, I imagined him making his way to that library.

The Retiring Candle
By Scott Bates

A Candle
 Burned under
 A bushel

He did not let his light shine forth
 Among Men
 He did not even let his light shine forth
 Among Potatoes
 The bushel was empty
 (Being upside down)
 And somewhat stuffy besides

They all called down to him
 To come up on deck
 And get some air
 They wanted him to be the life of the party
 To shine
 Illuminate eternal verities
 Set the world on fire

But no
 He politely declined
 He didn’t want to set the world on fire
 All he wanted to do was stay down in the hold
 And smoke
 And curl up with a good book

Which he did

He smoked and curled up with
 The poems of Yevtushenko
 The Theory of the Leisure Class
 Perrault the Duc de la Rochefoucauld
 Erewhon and Through the Looking Glass
 Also assorted Elizabethan sonnets

When he had finished
 He put himself out
 And went to sleep

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Are the Liberal Arts Automatically Liberal?

Matthias Stom, Young Man Reading by Candlelight

Thursday

Today’s radicalized GOP is teaching me that a literary education is a vital tool in resisting tribalism. In the days when I used to think that respecting difference was a commonly held value in our multicultural democracy, literature didn’t seem to have the urgency it has since acquired. Poetry and fiction were nice things to have, I thought, but not essential to our political survival.

After Donald Trump came along and gave a significant portion of our electorate permission to demonize and otherwise write off many of their fellow Americans, however, my view changed. Teaching Composition and Literature, as I’m currently doing at Sewanee after a two-year hiatus, suddenly feels like a political act.

For instance, when I was teaching Lucille Clifton’s poem about her autistic grandson the other day, I couldn’t help but think of the time when Trump made fun of reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition affecting the joints. When I was teaching her “note to self,” about ways in which I and others as St. Mary’s College failed to understand why our black students were angry and confused (read my account of that here), I thought of those Republicans who don’t want schools engaging in difficult race conversations. When I taught her “wishes for sons,” where she wishes men would be more sensitive to the biological challenges that women face, I thought of how the Supreme Court appears ready to wipe away (or severely curtail) a woman’s right to choose—as though the state knows better than women what is right for them.

As I noted the other day, I realize that what the right now means by “critical race theory” is actually “race conversations that make us uncomfortable.” And I think how Clifton used to introduce her poetry readings with the declaration that her job was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Her poetry, in other words, is often written to make people uncomfortable. In the eyes of the right, then, to teach Clifton’s poetry is to teach critical race theory.

And lest you think that older white writers are more comfortable than contemporary black authors, think for a moment about how readers in the current climate will experience Shakespeare’s Othello, which I’ll also be teaching in the course. The most logical explanation as to why Iago hates “the moor of Venice” is that he is a black man who has been promoted over him. Iago at one point casts a slur that we recognize only too well. “Even now,” he says to Desdemona’s father after the two lovers have run off, “an old black ram is topping your white ewe.” Othello may be a magnificent military leader but this white underling puts him in his place by reducing him to a sexual stereotype.

That’s not the only currently sensitive issue that the play tackles. In Othello-Desdemona it captures the complex dynamics of interracial relationships, and in Othello the insecurities of a black man who desperately wants to be accepted and who believes his military victories and his white wife mean that he’s arrived. He can’t imagine how deep white resentment goes. That’s a good reason why Iago can manipulate him so easily.

I know ahead of time that these issues will come up in our class discussions. That’s the thing about a liberal arts education: it liberally explores all kinds of things. That’s why rightwing extremists hate it so much.

It’s not that professors are leftwing radicals indoctrinating students. Like many, my own politics are fairly moderate and I go out of my way to avoid imposing my views on my students. Not that attempting to shape them politically would do much good even if I tried: in my experience, students, having their own minds, go their own ways after they leave us. But it is true that I insist that they seek to understand people unlike themselves and accord them a degree of respect. This goes for both the characters in the works we read and for the people who are their classmates.

In the eyes of people who dwell within tribal animosities, this is unacceptable, which means that they often regard literature itself with suspicion. And indeed, literature is powerful force that is not easily controlled. They are right to fear it.

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Book Bans Again on the Rise

Tony Diaz in 2012 bringing in Mexican-American books banned by a Tucson, Arizona school district

Wednesday

I chanced upon Langston Hughes’s essay “My Adventures as a Social Poet” when I was writing Sunday’s essay and was so intrigued by it that I return to it for today’s post. It brings to mind the book bans that are beginning to crop up in various states, with many more sure to follow.

At issue, in the words of a Texas legislator, are books that make people uncomfortable. “Critical race theory” has now come to mean “uncomfortable discussions about race.” Also targeted are books on LBGTQ issues since those too make people uncomfortable.

Writing for the Texas Observer, activist Lupe Mendez recalls a time in March, 2012 when it was Arizona that was initiating books bans. At the time, Mendez was involved in an effort to get kids books that school authorities had removed from school libraries and school curricula:

The state’s lawmakers had recently passed a bill making the teaching of “Ethnic Studies” illegal, along with banning courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people” and “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” The bill also created a list of banned books. Of the more than 80 books that were eventually added to the list, many of the authors were Black and Latinx.

At that time, Mendez and other Texans came to the rescue. Calling themselves librotraficantes, meaning “book smugglers,” they went to work:

We used all of our book nerd talents to create an old-school freedom ride, collecting 35 bus riders and caravanning to six cities: Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Tucson. We collected more than 1,000 copies of Arizona’s banned books and disseminated them to community libraries through book bundles to Arizona high school students. The Librotraficante Movement has been crucial in giving a voice to students of color across the nation.  

Recalling the Arizona trip, Mendez reports a powerful story:

As we arrived in Tucson, where the school district had shut down a Mexican American Studies course, a few of us were assigned the task of sorting the more than 1,000 books amassed during the caravan. It was early morning—7:30 or so—when we noticed that a tiny group of teens had come by. They quietly approached to see the books and grabbed some, retreating without a word. Later, a young lady grabbed a book and took it away to the corner to read it. 

As the day went on, the young lady returned, saying, “Thank you for giving me this moment. I was just about to finish this book on the day the district personnel came to forcibly take the books away from us.” Wise beyond her years, she left us with some parting advice: “I want you to have this book back. Give it to somebody else. I hope somebody can learn from this book.”  

Now the problem is in Mendez’s own state. The legislature’s lists, he observes,

seem to target non-white and LGBTQ authors. This much is clear: The Republican Party intends to deny children access to books, authors and an education that would spur their intellectual growth. And in an effort to satisfy their base, Republicans in Texas are pushing away the one population that needs their attention the most: youth—and more pointedly—youth of color. 

Back to Hughes and his own encounters with repressive authorities. It all began, he reports, when he chose not to write lyric poems about the moon and flowers but rather about the problems of the African American community:

 The moon belongs to everybody, but not this American earth of ours. That is perhaps why poems about the moon perturb no one, but poems about color and poverty do perturb many citizens. Social forces pull backwards of forwards, right or left, and social poems get caught in the pulling and hauling. Sometimes the poet himself gets pulled and hauled – even hauled off to jail.

I have never been in jail but I have been detained by the Japanese police in Tokyo and by the immigration authorities in Cuba – in custody, to put it politely – due, no doubt, to their interest in my written words. These authorities would hardly have detained me had I been a writer of the roses and moonlight school. I have never known the police of any country to show an interest in lyric poetry as such. But when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police.

After recounting various incidents, Hughes concludes,

So goes the life of a social poet. I am sure none of these things would ever have happened to me had I limited the subject matter of my poems to roses and moonlight. But, unfortunately, I was born poor – and colored – and almost all the prettiest roses I have seen have been in rich white people’s yards – not in mine. That is why I cannot write exclusively about roses and moonlight – for sometimes in the moonlight my brothers see a fiery cross and a circle of Klansmen’s hoods. Sometimes in the moonlight a dark body swings from a lynching tree – but for his funeral there are no roses.

The Young Adult Writers whose books are under attack by school boards might be comforted to know that the proposed bans are a compliment: their books must be having an impact. In fact, they might be justified in seeing their omission from such lists as an insult. I think of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem “The Burning of the Books,’ inspired by the Nazi book burnings:

When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.

Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged: he’d been excluded!

He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fierce letters to the morons in power —
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen —
Haven’t I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!
Burn me!

Quoting the Book of John (8:32), Martin Luther King used to call out, “And ye shall know the truth,” to which his Biblically knowledgeable audience would respond, “and the truth shall make you free.” That’s why truth-telling books are essential for our lives. But as King also knew, the truth is dangerous and under constant assault.

Educators, be warned. There’s a lot more to come.

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Skiddeth Bus and Sloppeth Us

Everett Shinn, Snow Storm

Tuesday

If snow is currently blasting you and paralyzing all your movements, I have just the poem for you. To fully appreciate Ezra Pound’s “Ancient Music,” however, it helps to first read the poem he is parodying. “Summer Is Icumen In” is one of my favorite medieval poems, largely because its intense nature imagery makes it feel so alive. For a moment, therefore, imagine yourself in warmer circumstances. Then you can return to your cold reality:

Sumer is i-cumin in—
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth—
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik thu naver nu!

If you want a translation, you can go to my blog post on the lyric. “Bullock leaps, buck farts, merry sings cuckoo,” however, is probably all you need for the moment.

Ready for some winter storm therapy? Take it away, Ezra:

Ancient Music
By Ezra Pound

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

And there you have it.

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His Word Still Burns the Center of the Sun

King in Charleston, 1967, delivering the speech I heard him give

Monday – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

When I was 17, my father took me to Charleston to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. The year was 1967, the summer before King died (July 30), and Esau Jenkins, a successful Black businessman and key civil rights figure in his own right, was sponsoring a workshop on John’s Island. We arrived the day before, spent the night at Jenkins’s school, and the morning discussing issues that the activists in attendance were experiencing, and then went into the city that afternoon for King’s speech/sermon.

A lot of the details are hazy. At the workshop, I remember someone talking about using the non-violent tactics of Saul Alinsky to pressure banks to invest in minority communities. I remember singing freedom songs. Someone was recording the affair and I would love to get my hands on the cassettes. As it was, I was too young to really know what was going on.

I remember King’s speech, however. Charleston County Hall was surrounded by national guardsmen. Local officials were sure there would be violence, seeing no difference between King and the rioters who had burned Newark and Detroit a few weeks before. But there was not even a hint of anything amiss. In fact, it was a pretty tame crowd. Many people had come straight from church as most of the women wore hats, white gloves and white dresses and the men coats and ties.

In fact, the words I remember most from King were his pushback against those activists to his left. Using the call and response style, which I’d never encountered before, he pointed out that the Black communities were the real victims of the riots, not Whites. He noted that he was against violence, whether in America or in Vietnam. The moment I remember most is when he said, “Therefore I say to you, not Burn, Baby, Burn, but Build, Baby, Build.” As slogans go, it wasn’t the catchiest. It revealed that he felt himself outflanked by Black radicals. They saw a difference between him and them, even if white segregationists didn’t.

I witnessed the segregationist mentality the following spring after King was shot. I remember walking into my American history class at the Sewanee Military Academy, taught by an ardent segregationist, who said, “He lived by the sword and he died by the sword.” I didn’t get up and walk out, as maybe I should have. I just pretended that I hadn’t heard him.

Anyway, today we remember a man who gave his life to make our country better. King saw the best in us, even when we couldn’t see the best in ourselves. As he said at one point in the talk I heard, “Ye shall know the truth,” to which the audience came back with, “and the truth shall make you free.” Gwendolyn Brooks understands all this in the poem she wrote about him:

Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Gwendolyn Brooks

A man went forth with gifts.

He was a prose poem.
He was a tragic grace.
He was a warm music.

He tried to heal the vivid volcanoes.
His ashes are
     reading the world.

His Dream still wishes to anoint
     the barricades of faith and of control.

His word still burns the center of the sun
     above the thousands and the
     hundred thousands.

The word was Justice. It was spoken.

So it shall be spoken.
So it shall be done.

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The Lynching of Jesus

Julius Bloch, The Lynching

Spiritual Sunday

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (yesterday his birthday, tomorrow the day we celebrate it), it’s worth reflecting on how oppressed groups have found sustaining narratives in Christ’s message, even as purported Christians have used those same texts to keep them down. (Check out how Harriet Beecher Stowe describes this happening.) With this in mind, I turn to Langston Hughes’s “Christ in Alabama,” written during the Scottsboro affair.

The “Scottsboro boys,” as they were called, were nine African-American teenagers, from 12-19, who were accused to raping two white women in 1931. Although they were innocent of the charges (there was medical evidence that no rape had been committed and one of the accusers later recanted), they would be dragged through the courts for years and barely escaped being executed. It was during this time that Hughes wrote his poem:

CHRIST IN ALABAMA

Christ is a Nigger,
Beaten and black –
O, bare your back.

Mary is His Mother –
Mammy of the South.
Silence your mouth.

God’s His Father –
White Master above,
Grant us your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth:
Nigger Christ
On the cross of the South.

Hughes later recounts the reception the poem received in his essay “My Adventures as a Social Poet.” He wrote the poem after visiting the men in prison, after which some students published it:

Contempo, a publication of some of the students at the University of North Carolina, published the poem on its front page on the very day that I was being presented in a program of my poems at the University in Chapel Hill. That evening there were police outside the building in which I spoke, and in the air the rising tension of race that is peculiar to the South. It had been rumored that some of the local citizenry were saying that I should be run out of town, and that one of the sheriffs agreed, saying: “Sure, he ought to be run out! It’s bad enough to call Christ a bastard. But when he calls him a nigger, he’s gone too far!”

Hughes reports a mixed reaction from the university:

The next morning a third of my fee was missing when I was handed my check. One of the departments of the university jointly sponsoring my program had refused to come through with its portion of the money. Nevertheless, I remember with pleasure the courtesy and kindness of many of the students and faculty at Chapel Hill and their lack of agreement with the anti-Negro elements of the town. There I began to learn at the University of North Carolina how hard is to be a white liberal in the South.

Of course, African Americans growing up in the Jim Crow south had far more in common with Christ than white sheriffs. In his imagery, Hughes bestows a kind of sainthood on those crucified by lynch mobs. “Most holy bastard of the bleeding mouth” could well be a riff off of Christ’s bleeding heart—bleeding for fallen humanity—while Mary has become the “mammy of the south” who mourns her son.

“God the Father” comes off less well in the poem, standing in for the white slave masters who raped their slaves, producing mixed race (and profitable) bastards. If God is an old man in a white beard, Hughes wants nothing to do with him.

Jesus and Mary, however, he can relate to. And once one fully acknowledges that Jesus is God incarnate, then the human narrative about God starts changing as well.

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A Comic Tweeter in Love with Lit

English professor Tobias Wilson-Bates

Friday

Tobias Wilson-Bates, my youngest son, is a 19th century British Literature specialist who teaches in the English Department at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is also the funniest member of our family and one who has mastered the art of Twitter. I combed through some of his best literary tweets over the last few months and lament that I must pass up the ones with visuals, which are among his best. You can find him at Tobias Wilson-Bates@PhDhurtBrain.

Some of my favorites are imagined conversations with famous authors or characters. For instance:

Tolkien: I’ve got some great character names, Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf
CS Lewis: Nice! Really getting into the spirit of fantasy!
Tolkien: Right?! Also Sam.

Tolkien (brainstorming): Names are tough, hmm, what would a secretive influential political actor be called who wants to ingratiate himself with a ruler. Something inconspicuous. I’ve got it! Wormtongue!

Gollum: …
Therapist: I see, yes, so, is this “precious” in the room with us right now?

Toby has a lot of fun with the Brontes. For instance, this one on Jane Eyre:

Editor: so it’s like the Bluebeard story but in the end Jane marries Bluebeard?
Charlotte Bronte: yes.
Editor: do you think the readers will like it?
Charlotte: yes. because I will tell them to.

And on Villette:

Editor: I think we need to have a romantic ending
Charlotte Brontë: like, he dies at sea and she gets to run a school however she likes and read all day?
Editor: well
Charlotte: also her enemies suffer enormously

You can kind of see why Anne Bronte is Toby’s favorite Bronte from the following allusion to Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

Anne Bronte: the story needs something exciting
Emily: a ghost?
Charlotte: a mad ghost?
Emily and Charlotte: a mad person disguised as a ghost but there’s also really a ghost!
Anne: look, I’m just gonna make the husband have a drinking problem

At one point Toby gets into a twitter exchange with Liz Miller, who was his dissertation director at the University of California at Davis. Miller is referring to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s famous thesis that heroines in Victorian novels only have two options, marriage or death:

Liz Miller – Ladies, if he proposes in Chapter Three, wants to marry before the novel is over, and isn’t particularly concerned w/ waiting til novelistic closure to consummate your relationship, either he’s a villain or you’re about to die of consumption.

Toby: Chuckling for the thousandth time of @ecmille1’s observation that getting married before the end of a novel is the worst thing a character can do.

And then later in the thread:

Toby: At this point, if two central characters seem headed towards matrimony, I compulsively check how many pages are left and shake my head sadly if it’s a lot.

Speaking of villainous husbands, here’s Toby in a twitter thread on fairy tales:

Bluebeard is the best fairy tale bc it’s about extreme domestic violence and is so clear in the location and logic that even Disney hasn’t figured out how to sanitize and monetize it.

Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty are all iterations of the same morphological structure that almost always had a rapist king or the woman’s own father intent on raping her and the fairy godmother allowed her to escape in disguise. All profoundly sanitized by Disney.

All that’s left is the phantom of nonconsensual intercourse now romanticized as a kiss that awakens the princess from slumber.

I like how, in another tweet, Toby imagines the eye test in the movie Bladerunner being administered to Victorian authors. In the movie, if the eyes don’t emotionally widen at the question about a turtle getting hit in the road, then it’s a replicant and not a human:

Bladerunner agent using the Voight-kampff test on Victorian authors
Agent: would you kill a child for a greater social good?
Gaskell: little Tom goes first from starvation, then I get both twins with typhus before moving onto the-

To which another tweeter imagined Thomas Hardy’s response:

Thomas Hardy: question: does it *have* to be for the greater good?

And Toby following up on the Thomas Hardy suggestion:

If they suffer through childhood and then die as adults? Or, alternately, what if one of the children kills all the others? Do I still get those points?

In another tweet on Hardy, Toby mentions the very dark George Gissing:

“Nobody in the 19th century is as bleak as Thomas Hardy”
*George Gissing cracks his knuckles menacingly

Here’s an imagined interchange between the author of In Memoriam and the famous author who snatched her husband’s heart out of the funeral fire:

Tennyson: my grief was so great that I —
Mary Shelley: kept his preserved heart in a box!
Tennyson: — wrote a poem
MS: erm, oh, haha, yes, that’s, uh, how we grieve…

And here’s another imagined interchange, this one between the author of Christmas Carol and the noted social realist novelist Elizabeth Gaskell:

Dickens: and when he looked in, he saw the tiny crutch, but Tiny Tim was gone
Gaskell: because the opium wasn’t enough to conceal his collapsing immune system and his smallpox infection was inevitably escalated by chronic malnutrition, right?
Dickens: umm, well

And another Dickens reference:

Scrooge: what day is it, boy?
Boy: tis Christmas Eve 2021
Scrooge: and what is the minimum wage?
Boy: $7.25, sir
Scrooge: wow. This really seems more of systemic issue than something that can be solved with guilt philanthropy
Boy: right??

Here’s one I like:

Dickens (staring into the camera): $1 million dollars by midnight tonight or I add another character.

Moby Dick makes an appearance from time to time:

Ahab: guys, guys, I, uh, wanna apologize about that whale business
Crew: whew!
*scattered applause
Ahab: from now we’re Bitcoin mining and investing in crypto!!!
Crew: Noooo!! *screams, *sound of bodies hitting the water

Here’s another, which every teacher will relate to:

*nailing a gold doubloon to the wall “to the first one that sees the end of the semester!”

Here’s an interchange between Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous characters:

Dr. Jekyll: chain me here to end this madness!
Utterson: I shall!
Dr. Jekyll: also, just a small note, under no circumstances should you call him Dr. Hyde. That’s my credential!

Sometimes Toby imagines himself in the conversations:

Patient: doctor, I’m feeling depressed
Me: read Samuel Beckett’s Endgame
Patient: wait a second, what kind of doctor are you?!
Me: *smoke bomb!

And another with a similar ending:

Me: not all books are novels!
Student: how do you define the novel?
*the student looks up to find the classroom empty. wind whispers through the open window.

And then there are a number of stand alone observations, witty and smart both:

Charge of the Light Brigade is a poem about a lot of people dying for no reason that gets people excited about the prospect of dying for no reason. Like if Eye of the Tiger were a song to get you excited about being eaten by a tiger.

The more I think about the terrible fates of everyone on Odysseus’ crew, the more I think the Lotus Eaters had it right.

Will never not be impressed by Samuel Johnson saying the canon is made up of the works that have stood the test of time, while writing prefaces for a publisher to convince people that the works the publisher owned were in fact the canon.

Among its many interesting features, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair combines the author’s prodigious ability to skewer character flaws against the background of social class with an almost childish naïveté about how debt and empire function.

Make William Blake part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you cowards!

In response to the Virginia student who complained about Toni Morrison’s Beloved giving him nightmares—put in an ad, this incident helped Republican Glen Youngkin win his gubernatorial race—Toby made a point I make in my book. Sometimes literature is not supposed to be comfortable:

Begging the media to do interviews with Reader Response theorists. Literally an entire field ready to tell you about how having nightmares from reading Beloved is not a “bad” response.

To an article entitled “The Easy Seven-Word Phrase Every Woman Needs to Know to Exit Uncomfortable Conversations,” Toby responded with a line from Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

And finally, looking at the medium of Twitter itself:

Twitter is a lot like being a grad student bc it’s a lot of watching people have intense conversations about things you have only heard of in passing.

Toby doesn’t only write about literature. Since he’s the father of four, there’s a lot about parenting, and also about student debt, the state of academe, Covid, politics in general, and other interests of his. I’ll end with a tweet about my two oldest granddaughters because—well—they’re my granddaughters:

Was a bit confused this morning until my kids explained that they call words written in cursive “curse words”

Shades of Art Linkletter, for those of you old enough to know who he was.

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Rogers, Covid, and Atlas Shrugged

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rogers lauding Atlas Shrugged

Thursday

I see that Novak Djokovic has joined the company of those elite athletes who are intent on extending the Covid pandemic.  Like Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rogers, Djokovic thinks he is justified in playing fast and loose with the truth when it comes to vaccinations. While Rogers misled people into thinking he’d been vaccinated, Djokovic assured Australian authorities he hadn’t been traveling, when in fact he’d been flying around the world—as well meeting sans mask with various reporters and fans, even though he knew he had Covid.

From a literary point of view, Rogers interests me more since he recently revealed his favorite novel. In light of his behavior, I should have been able to guess that he is a fan of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

I’ve written multiple times about Rand (for instance, here and here) so I won’t go into detail. The novel’s hero John Galt thinks that rules are for wusses and that real men pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. At one point he declares, “I swear—by my life and my life of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The successful entrepreneur is a combination of victim complex (“They don’t appreciate me”) and revenge fantasy (“The world’s going to fall apart when I’m gone and then they’ll be sorry”). Blogger John Rogers has delivered one of the great indictments of Atlas Shrugged, noting how it appeals to stunted fantasies:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I can somewhat understand how premier athletes like Rogers and Djokovic are aided by megalomanic, Galt-like illusions of their superiority over others. That supreme confidence—which comes to their aid when even the least little smidgen of self-doubt could result in defeat—also leads them to shrug off their responsibilities to lesser mortals. It took such confidence for Djokovic to overcome two match points, with Roger Federer serving, to win Wimbledon in 2019.  If the world falls apart when Rogers and Djokovic shrug, well too bad for the world.

I contrast them with Lebron James, who—as much of a health nut as Djokovic—was also initially hesitant about taking the vaccine. James changed his mind, however, when he realized that getting the shot would protect the people that he loved. Because thoughts about others balanced out his focus on himself, he became a model to be followed rather than a pariah.  

John Galt doesn’t acknowledge the many ways that society contributes to the success of people like him. Nor, according to reports, did Ayn Rand. According to Gene Bell-Villada’s excellent book on her, Rand received all kinds of aid from others, even though she proudly proclaimed, “No one helped me, nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.” Bell-Villada details this aid, including (I quote from one of my earlier posts),

her mother’s jewels that financed her trip to the United States; the free room and board, money and reference letter she received from her American relatives; the subsidized housing she got at the Hollywood Studio Club; to… The list goes on and on, all the way to the cancer surgery that would have bankrupted her had it not been for Medicare.

I’m willing to grant that Rand’s novel contributes to Rogers’ preternatural calm when 250-pound linebackers are bearing down upon him. But I also think of those whom he influenced who have ended up in ICU wards and on ventilators.

Does he just shrug?

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The Fearsome Georgia Bulldogs

Bull’s-eye and Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist

Wednesday

Congratulations to the University of Georgia for winning the national football championship Monday night, holding back Alabama’s “Crimson Tide.” In other words, they did what King Canute was unable to pull off. (Let me know if you get this reference, which I explain below.) I’ve written in the past about Alabama’s impressive run of championships (here), applying the Lord Byron’s line, “Roll on though deep and dark blue ocean roll,/Ten thousand ships sweep over thee in vain.” Saying something about the Georgia Bulldogs is a little tougher.

That’s because I can’t find any literary references to bulldogs. Now, I have a personal story about one: when I was growing up in Sewanee in the 1950s, a bulldog named Hrothgar (Beowulf alert!) roamed the campus, sometimes entering classrooms and once my family’s apartment. I guess he felt that every mead hall was his. There are stories of classroom doors being slammed left and right when professors heard Hrothgar’s snuffling in the hall. I also remember Hrothgar being painted purple once (Sewanee’s team color) during Homecoming weekend. Anyway, it was years before I learned that he was named after a fictional Danish king.

But back to Georgia. The closest I can get to a bulldog in literature is a bull terrier. They’re not the same but indulge me because this dog, like the team, is truly fearsome. His name is Bull’s-eye and he belongs to the brutish Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Sykes at various times uses Bull’s-eye to terrify Oliver. In one episode he serves as an accessory in the boy’s kidnapping:

“Give me the other [hand],” said Sikes, seizing Oliver’s unoccupied hand. “Here, Bull’s-Eye!”

The dog looked up, and growled.

“See here, boy!” said Sikes, putting his other hand to Oliver’s throat; “if he speaks ever so soft a word, hold him! D’ye mind!”

The dog growled again; and licking his lips, eyed Oliver as if he were anxious to attach himself to his windpipe without delay.

“He’s as willing as a Christian, strike me blind if he isn’t!” said Sikes, regarding the animal with a kind of grim and ferocious approval. “Now, you know what you’ve got to expect, master, so call away as quick as you like; the dog will soon stop that game. Get on, young’un!”

Bull’s-eye wagged his tail in acknowledgment of this unusually endearing form of speech; and, giving vent to another admonitory growl for the benefit of Oliver, led the way onward.

At another point Nancy, Sykes’s lady friend who assists in the kidnapping, unexpectedly reveals a soft side as she protects Oliver against the dog:

“Keep back the dog, Bill!” cried Nancy, springing before the door, and closing it, as the Jew and his two pupils darted out in pursuit. “Keep back the dog; he’ll tear the boy to pieces.”

“Serve him right!” cried Sikes, struggling to disengage himself from the girl’s grasp. “Stand off from me, or I’ll split your head against the wall.”

“I don’t care for that, Bill, I don’t care for that,” screamed the girl, struggling violently with the man, “the child shan’t be torn down by the dog, unless you kill me first.”

And then there’s the scene where Bull’s-eye actually goes after his master, which Dickens observes doesn’t happen often:

Dogs are not generally apt to revenge injuries inflicted upon them by their masters; but Mr. Sikes’s dog, having faults of temper in common with his owner, and laboring, perhaps, at this moment, under a powerful sense of injury, made no more ado but at once fixed his teeth in one of the half-boots. Having given in a hearty shake, he retired, growling, under a form; just escaping the pewter measure which Mr. Sikes levelled at his head.

“You would, would you?” said Sikes, seizing the poker in one hand, and deliberately opening with the other a large clasp-knife, which he drew from his pocket. “Come here, you born devil! Come here! D’ye hear?”

The dog no doubt heard; because Mr. Sikes spoke in the very harshest key of a very harsh voice; but, appearing to entertain some unaccountable objection to having his throat cut, he remained where he was, and growled more fiercely than before: at the same time grasping the end of the poker between his teeth, and biting at it like a wild beast.

This resistance only infuriated Mr. Sikes the more; who, dropping on his knees, began to assail the animal most furiously. The dog jumped from right to left, and from left to right; snapping, growling, and barking; the man thrust and swore, and struck and blasphemed; and the struggle was reaching a most critical point for one or other; when, the door suddenly opening, the dog darted out: leaving Bill Sikes with the poker and the clasp-knife in his hands.

Unlike the Georgia Bulldogs, however, Bulls-eye comes to a bad end. After Sykes, in a strange turn of affairs, accidentally hangs himself in an attempt to escape, the dog fatally seeks to rejoin his master:

A dog, which had lain concealed till now, ran backwards and forwards on the parapet with a dismal howl, and collecting himself for a spring, jumped for the dead man’s shoulders. Missing his aim, he fell into the ditch, turning completely over as he went; and striking his head against a stone, dashed out his brains.

Many in the past have dashed out their brains—metaphorically—against Alabama’s fabled teams. Not this time.

Canute episode: Legend has it that the 11th century English king Canute, piously worried that his courtiers were worshipping him as a god, had them place him on the beach. When, despite his commands, the tide kept rolling in, he had made his point that earthly power is vain compared with God’s supreme power.

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