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Category Archives: American Lit

The Wings of the Dove

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It seems like I’ve been grudging through The Wings of the Dove by Henry James forever. Every summer and winter my friend Bill and I read a classic novel and discuss it online. Our last book was Zola’s Germinal, which was full of blood, sweat and tears. James’ writing is the opposite in every way imaginable. Zola was earthy and real. James is ethereal and intellectual. Zola crafted characters with whom I sympathized, even his villains had their reasons and adversity. I don’t like a single character in The Wings of the Dove.

I haven’t finished and though I’m just 30 pages from the finish line and have now given myself permission to skim, I dread my daily reading. The situation in Wings of the Dove is that Kate Croy can’t marry her love Merton Densher because he’s too poor. She lives with a rich aunt who’s going to marry her off well. When Milly, an orphaned American heiress with a terminal mystery disease arrives, Kate plots to get her lover to cozy up to Milly. She figures if Milly leaves Densher her fortune, then after Milly dies, which hopefully will be soon, Kate and Densher can marry. How charming.

It bugged me that we never know what Milly has. If it’s in the book it’s hidden amongst the long-winded writing that includes few concrete description. James wanted to convey the psychology of his vapid characters. I could not care less about what they thought. Also, I don’t think he succeeded in conveying true consciousness since most the time when I’m thinking, my mind is wandering. I may think about a work situation when I’m bored in a conversation or unable to listen at church. Whenever we’re privy to Kate or Milly or some other characters’ thoughts, they’re in the situation.

I thought Densher was weak, and hence unattractive, for buying into this insipid plot. I’d say the same for Kate, who didn’t realize her plan might not go as she figured. Had she never heard the cliché, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”? Evidently not. Milly seemed like a will o’the wisp who floats through the story allowing herself to naively be taken advantage of.

I thought watching the movie would make reading easier or the characters more sympathetic, but it didn’t. I didn’t like the movie much either. While I read, I often just plowed through content to miss a lot. Sometimes I’d consult a reference on the story to see if I was missing something, but my take on the chapters captured all the key events.

I can’t wait to read something else. I know some people must love James or his work  wouldn’t be considered classic, but I don’t care for him at all.

Zzzzzzzz.

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Posted by on August 10, 2018 in American Lit, book review, classic, novel

 

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Pamplona

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I was lucky to get to see Pamplona starring Stacy Keach at the Goodman Theater. Set in a hotel room in Spain, Pamplona shows Ernest Hemingway struggle with writer’s block as the tries to write an article on bullfighting for Life magazine. As he struggles, Hemingway looks back on his life – all four of his marriages, his conflicts with his father and mother, his writing career and his love and respect for bullfighters and their sport.

Throughout the play, vintage photos are projected on the hotel walls placing the set in history. Pamplona is staged in Goodman’s smaller theater, which resembles Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater so every seat provides a good view in an intimate setting.

Keach brings Hemingway to life and is wonderful in this show. You have to be a powerful performer to captivate an audience for 90 minutes. Kudos to Keach, who made me want to read more Hemingway novels.

I enjoyed learning more about this writer and was pleased with the surprising ending. Just masterful. The play was one of the best of this year’s season.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2018 in American Lit, drama, historical drama, history, postaweek

 

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The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2018 in American Lit, film adaptation, novel

 

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From What I’m Reading

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I’m reading The Wings of the Dove by Henry James and this quotation stood out:

“Oh,” he laughed, “I like her so much; and then, for a man of my trade,
her views, her spirit, are essentially a thing to get hold of; they
belong to the great public mind that we meet at every turn and that we
must keep setting up ‘codes’ with. Besides,” he added, “I want to
please her personally.”

I liked that a reporter or journalist would so appreciate such a mind.

Has a quotation stood out in your reading?

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2018 in 19th Century, American Lit, classic, fiction

 

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From 1001 Afternoons in Chicago

I’m intrigued by a book I just discovered, Ben Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. It’s available on Project Gutenberg. It’ll have to go on my TBR (to be read) list for a time, but sample this:

FANNY

Why did Fanny do this? The judge would like to know. The judge would like to help her. The judge says: “Now, Fanny, tell me all about it.”

All about it, all about it! Fanny’s stoical face stares at the floor. If Fanny had words. But Fanny has no words. Something heavy in her heart, something vague and heavy in her thought—these are all that Fanny has.

Let the policewoman’s records show. Three years ago Fanny came to Chicago from a place called Plano. Red-cheeked and black-haired, vivid-eyed and like an ear of ripe corn dropped in the middle of State and Madison streets, Fanny came to the city.

Ah, the lonely city, with its crowds and its lonely lights. The lonely buildings busy with a thousand lonelinesses. People laughing and hurrying along, people eager-eyed for something; summer parks and streets white with snow, the city moon like a distant window, pretty gewgaws in the stores—these are a part of Fanny’s story.

The judge wants to know. Fanny’s eyes look up. A dog takes a kick like this, with eyes like this, large, dumb and brimming with pathos. The dog’s master is a mysterious and inexplicable dispenser of joys and sorrows. His caresses and his beatings are alike mysterious; their reasons seldom to be discerned, never fully understood.

Sometimes in this court where the sinners are haled, where “poised and prim and particular, society stately sits,” his honor has a moment of confusion. Eyes lift themselves to him, eyes dumb and brimming with pathos. Eyes stare out of sordid faces, evil faces, wasted faces and say something not admissible as evidence. Eyes say: “I don’t know, I don’t know. What is it all about?”

These are not to be confused with the eyes that plead shrewdly for mercy, with eyes that feign dramatic naïvetés and offer themselves like primping little penitents to his honor. His honor knows them fairly well. And understands them. They are eyes still bargaining with life.

But Fanny’s eyes. Yes, the judge would like to know. A vagueness comes into his precise mind. He half-hears the familiar accusation that the policeman drones, a terribly matter-of-fact drone.

Another raid on a suspected flat. Routine, routine. Evil has its eternal root in the cities. A tireless Satan, bored with the monotony of his rôle; a tireless Justice, bored with the routine of tears and pleadings, lies and guilt.

There is no story in all this. Once his honor, walking home from a banquet, looked up and noticed the stars. Meaningless, immutable stars. There was nothing to be seen by looking at them. They were mysteries to be dismissed. Like the mystery of Fanny’s eyes. Meaningless, immutable eyes. They do not bargain. Yet the world stares out of them. The face looks dumbly up at a judge.

No defense. The policeman’s drone has ended and Fanny says nothing. This is difficult. Because his honor knows suddenly there is a defense. A monstrous defense. Since there are always two sides to everything. Yes, what is the other side? His honor would like to know. Tell it, Fanny. About the crowds, streets, buildings, lights, about the whirligig of loneliness, about the humpty-dumpty clutter of longings. And then explain about the summer parks and the white snow and the moon window in the sky. Throw in a poignantly ironical dissertation on life, on its uncharted aimlessness, and speak like Sherwood Anderson about the desires that stir in the heart. Speak like Remy de Gourmont and Dostoevsky and Stevie Crane, like Schopenhauer and Dreiser and Isaiah; speak like all the great questioners whose tongues have wagged and whose hearts have burned with questions. His honor will listen bewilderedly and, perhaps, only perhaps, understand for a moment the dumb pathos of your eyes.

As it is, you were found, as the copper who reads the newspapers puts it, in a suspected flat. A violation of section 2012 of the City Code. Thirty days in the Bastile, Fanny. Unless his honor is feeling good.

These eyes lifted to him will ask him questions on his way home from a banquet some night.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty.”

“Make it twenty-two,” his honor smiles. “And you have nothing to say? About how you happened to get into this sort of thing? You look like a good girl. Although looks are often deceiving.”

“I went there with him,” says Fanny. And she points to a beetle-browed citizen with an unshaven face. A quaint Don Juan, indeed.

“Ever see him before?”

A shake of the head. Plain case. And yet his honor hesitates. His honor feels something expand in his breast. Perhaps he would like to rise and holding forth his hand utter a famous plagiarism—”Go and sin no more.” He chews a pen and sighs, instead.

“I’ll give you another chance,” he says. “The next time it’ll be jail. Keep this in mind. If you’re brought in again, no excuses will go. Call the next case.”

Now one can follow Fanny. She walks out of the courtroom. The street swallows her. Nobody in the crowds knows what has happened. Fanny is anybody now. Still, one may follow. Perhaps something will reveal itself, something will add an illuminating touch to the incident of the courtroom.

There is only this. Fanny pauses in front of a drug-store window. The crowds clutter by. Fanny stands looking, without interest, into the window. There is a little mirror inside. The city tumbles by. The city is interested in something vastly complicated.

Staring into the little mirror, Fanny sighs and—powders her nose.

 

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2018 in American Lit, fiction, postaweek

 

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The Education of Henry Adams

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Today our Great Books club discussed The Education of Henry Adams written by John Quincy Adams’ grandson (John Adams’ great grandson). It’s a memoire of Henry Adam’s youth with tales of a boy, who like many, didn’t see a lot of benefit to schooling.

Throughout Adams’ includes reflections on how he first thought everyone had presidents in their family, that that was no big deal. He spoke of how around his home his father Charles Adams, a diplomat, would discuss high-minded ideas with virtuous men. As you’d imagine his family socialized with the best and the brightest.

One story I liked was how one day while visiting his grandparents, little Henry refused to go to school. His mother was having no luck with the feisty Henry. Suddenly, the door to his grandfather’s office opened. John Quincy Adams put on his hat, took the boy by the hand and without a word delivered the boy to school. After that, Henry went to school though he didn’t feel it improved him much.

At one point his family moved from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. He was shocked an appalled by the state of things in this slave state. The streets were dirty, the place smelled and the poverty was shocking. He was overwhelmed by the injustice of slavery all around him.

When he was 16 he went to Harvard, of which he thought little. There were no admission standards at the time and the school was something of a club for the elite. He wrote of himself in the third person:

Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but, disappointment apart Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other University then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple . . . what caused the boy the most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. Speaking exactly, he got less than nothing, a result common enough in education.

According to Adams, and I generally agree, is that the more people you pack into a class, the less you’ll learn. I’m no fan of the lecture courses with 100 or more students, which is what Adams had at Harvard. I do think one on one or small group interaction. Adams was lucky to be born into a family and circle that had so many great thinkers I wasn’t surprised that Adams learned more at the dinner table than in a classroom.

The book was lively and a wonderful glimpse into an important era in U.S. history. Adams’ style was brisk and engaging.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, non-fiction, Pulitzer Prize

 

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The Magnificent Ambersons

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Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons witty observations on the Gilded Age. The first passages grabbed me.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.

The story’s hero is George Amberson Minafer, the most egotistical fool I’ve ever read about. When George is a boy in the small Middle American town his grandfather developed from what seems to have been prairie, he fights with every boy who looks at him the wrong way. He’ll pound the pastor’s son to a pulp and curse at the pastor when he pulls the boys apart. George defines entitlement. From his childhood, he was well aware that as his family is the “First Family” of Midland, that everyone else was riffraff and should kowtow to him.

As a boy terrorized the town with his carelessness and the good citizens could do nothing but raise their fists in anger and shout that one day that so and so would get his comeuppance.

What made George such a public nuisance? His mother. Isabela Amberson Minafer doted on George as no woman ever doted on her child. This was her Achilles’ heel, which like in any Greek tragedy is guaranteed to lead to a character’s downfall. Isabela prized dignity. As a young woman, the most wealthy woman in town, she was humiliated when Eugene Morgan came to serenade her and since he’d been drinking fell flat on his face, a spectacle that Isabela assumed the whole world witnessed. That was enough for her to banish Eugene from her heart and to marry a safe, drab accountant, Wilbur Minafer. As the gossip in town predicted, Isabela would lavish her affection on her child, George as Wilbur wasn’t the sort of man to stir up much passion in a wife.

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Posted by on November 26, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, book review, fiction

 

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