I Hear America Singing
By Walt Whitman
By Walt Whitman
By Honoré Balzac, Eugenie Grandet had a plot that surprised me. A friend suggested reading and discussing this novel online and I’m glad he did. For most of the book I wondered why it was entitled Eugenie Grandet because for 85-90% of the book is dominated by her father’s character.
Set in the provinces, early on readers meet Monsieur Grandet a miser who counts every egg and sugar cube in his pantry. He’s a shrewd businessman who constantly cries poor. His neighbours distrust and dislike him and pit his wife, daughter Eugenie and servant Nanon, who live like peasants in a cold, dark house eating meagre rations and going along without complaint as justified as it would be.
Since Eugenie is of marriageable age, and clearly would inherit father’s fortune, two families compete so their son will win her hand — and possibly heart. The marriage race is neck and neck and Papa Grandet enjoys the futile race, which he knows no one can win since he has no plans to agree with either proposal.
When a rich Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, Eugenie falls in love and her father wonders how the Parisian social status can help him. When papa gets a letter from his Parisian brother admitting that he’s lost all his money and since he’s bankrupt will commit suicide, the Grandet’s household is turned upside down. Eugenie, whose grown up more or less in seclusion sympathises and falls for her cousin (marrying cousins was okay back then). Though he’s got a high class love back in Paris, he’s struck by Eugenie’s pure love. Still Charles must go to the New World to earn some money and restore his father’s reputation.
Balzac gives us a witty insider’s view of each character taking us down an original story path. Monsieur Grandet dominates the story and his daughter’s life even after he’s dead.
Though Papa Grandet is a one dimensional character, the story is witty and absorbing, well worth reading.
I’m working on a project for a rare books class I took two weeks ago. It’s an annotated bibliography of books on Chicago. I discovered, and promptly bought on Amazon,
Dybwad, G.L., and Bliss, Joy V. Annotated Bibliography: World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. Albuquerque, NM, 1992.
Organized by type of item, this bibliography includes a brief history of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (WCE), a fold out map of the WCE and its organization chart. This source includes chapters on fiction, poetry and children’s books, exposition publications, federal publications, guides, periodicals, music, salesmen’s samples, recent books and unpublished unique works. The introduction is written by Dybwad and explains why he started this project.
The entries in this source date from before the fair to 1991.
The bibliographers designed the format and organized the source with a view to ease of use. Abbreviations and citations are clearly explained and the indexes cross-reference items so if users don’t know the author’s name or the title of an item, they can still find it relatively easily. Each entry is concise and provides a brief description of each item. When available, the bibliographers list price information, however, following the Introduction, there’s a note on price stating principles in pricing and reasons for variance. (No doubt since 1992 these prices have changed.)
For books, there is minimal collation* information. This book is a comprehensive source, which would aid researchers and collectors.
(*Collation information describes the paper, binding, etc.)
Written by Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall goes into uncharted territory for novels of the 19th century, I’ve read. The story follows Helen, a smart, beautiful heroine who sets her cap for Arthur Huntington, a handsome rake. Despite her aunt’s warnings, Helen insists on marrying this manipulative cad.
Most of the book is narrated by Gilbert Markham a prosperous landowner. I thought this was original as most stories of this sort either have an omniscient or female narrator.
When the story opens there’s a great deal of mystery. Mrs. Graham, an aloof woman moves into the countryside with her young son. She keeps a distance from the people in the community, but attracts Gilbert Markham. As he tries to get closer to Helen, she pulls back though it’s clear she’s attracted. To explain herself, she gives Gilbert her diaries so that he can understand why she tries to live so secretively. It also gets her to take the narrative reins.
We learn that Helen’s husband has been abusive and callous from the start of their marriage. Arthur is an alcoholic, gambler and philanderer. Brontë, who’s brother fought several addictions, shows the darker side of 19th century. It was a time when there was a lot of addiction, gambling, and disrespect towards women, who had little freedom or options.
While the heroine was sometimes too Puritanical and rather icy, it’s an understandable response to her husband’s behavior. I appreciated how different the story was from an Austen or Gaskell book. For more commentary on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, you can listen to the Midday Connection Bookclub podcast.
In November my book club read Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames which Bill Gallagher’s BBC TV series The Paradise was based on. I loved this book!
It’s quite a bit different, and darker than the BBC program. Denise, the heroine, comes to Paris after her father dies with her two brothers. They’d tried to make ends meet for a year after their father died, but finally had to see they’d never stay afloat in the countryside. Besides Jean, Denise’s teenage brother was dabbling in some dangerous liaisons that were getting him into trouble. Throughout the novel Denise faces greater hardships with higher stakes since her brothers depend on her financially than Denise Lovett on TV.
When they arrive at their uncle’s home cum shop, they find out he’s been having tough times like all the little shops due to the emergence of a white marble monster that’s revolutionizing and ravaging commerce. The Paradise keeps growing and Zola depicts it as a machine that almost has a life. It’s a machine that consumes — its employees, its rivals and in some cases its customers who spend more than they can afford. The machine creates strife and desire and seems unstoppable.
Denise is intrigued by the store and there is no where else for her to work. The uncle has a wife, daughter, shop assistant, who’s engaged to his daughter, and some servants. Zola shows a lot about the toll that the price wars with The Ladies’ Paradise, much more than in the TV program. Here lives are a t stake as I’m sure they really were.
In the store, the rivalry and back stabbing is high pitched. Most of the staff sleeps around and plot to get promotions by betraying colleagues. There’s little friendship in the store. The shoppers also seem to jockey for social position, which is all the more noted and crucial based on what you buy and where you shop. Those at the top of the social stratum have their own dressmakers and feel a sting when they learn that these dressmakers now get their silk from The Paradise.
Stealing is a huge problem and even wealthier women can’t resist and get caught. Pregnant women were drawn to stealing the most. Yet there is an attraction to the lush fabrics and fashions. Zola masterfully sets up a tension between the enticing beauty of the goods and the disastrous consequences the emporium has on the other shops. The Paradise gobbles up the neighborhood as it expands. We also see how wonderful the handmade goods were, how you could buy an umbrella with a hand-carved handle that looked like a parrot or some whimsical creature.
While I’ve enjoyed the BBC series, I found Zola’s writing, which I’ve been told isn’t his best, to be absorbing and exciting. I now want to read all 20 of his novels in his series Les Rougon-Macquart which chronicles the history of the legitimate and illegitimate sides of a French family.
According to my sources (i.e. Wikipedia) Octave Mouret’s family figures into the earlier books. Yet you can pick this novel up and not feel you missed anything.
I’d heard of rags to riches stories a.k.a. Horatio Alger stories, but I’d never actually read a book by Horation Alger — till now. I raced through Ragged Dick in two days, not just because it’s short, but because it’s funny. Alger reminds me of Dickens or Twain as he has jokes on every page.
Ragged Dick is a 14 year old orphan, a shoe shine boy who must sleep on the streets in a box of straw or old wagon if he can find one. He’s got wit and pluck and amuses and impresses his well-to-do customers. Time and again he shows his hilariously funny, honest, kind and brave. Yes, it’s a morality tale and the ending is happy, but it wasn’t as pat as I’d expected.
Dick doesn’t wind up as a millionaire by the stories end. He does start out in actual rags which he explains he would get rid of but since George Washington and Louis Napolean (sic) gave him those close he felt he couldn’t.
While Dick’s a good lad, he’s not an angel with a dirty face (though he does have a dirty face). The narrator and Dick tell us that he smokes cigars, goes to the Bowery Theater a lot, doesn’t save money and gambles. Yet he corrals his vices in due time.
Much of the story consists of Dick showing Frank, a country boy who’s uncle is busy with business all day around the streets of New York, where there’s a con artist around every corner. Frank and the uncle get Dick a new suit for the day and suddenly Dick’s treated with great respect wherever he goes (well, almost) and a lot of folks don’t recognize him. Through Frank we learn that Dick’s in a jam. Because he’s so good and diligent about getting business, he makes $3 a day. If he worked at a counting house or store he’d just get $3 a week. He doesn’t pursue other work because that would mean a short term loss. Also, these clerk jobs tend to go to boys from in tact families. The book then is more than just a series of funny adventures, it does show aspects of 19th century urban America.
Like Dickens Ragged Dick will appeal to readers of all ages.
Ernest Poole‘s The Harbor is tied for the most exciting book I’ve read this year (with The Count of Monte Cristo). Written in 1915, The Harbor tells the story of New York’s harbor from the late 19th century till WWI through the eyes of Bill, whose father has a lucrative business. The Harbor gripped me from page one when seven year old Bill shares how he hates the harbor. Though crude to a sheltered rich boy, this harbor is filled with sailing ships, exotic foreigners, spices, silks, and riches. Yeah, there’s plenty of spitting and cursing and the odd fist fight as Bill learns when he meets a Dickensian boy, Sam who’s something of a “harbor-urchin” leading a back of wildish boys who scare and fascinate Bill. He’s never the same after meeting Sam. The rich kids in their starched shirts with their gentle games lose whatever charm they had.
We follow Bill from his often adventurous childhood through college when he meets Joe Kramer, a worldly politically active man, whose family became destitute after his father unknowingly gave tainted medicine to children with small pox. Though the fault was with the drug company, Dr. Kramer and his family were driven out of town and had to move from town to town as rumors caught them. Joe is full of the straight dope. He sees through society’s shams and thinks most of college is a “tour through the graveyard.” Joe comes and goes always making Bill and his sister Sue question their views and life.
The Harbor has the tone of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that vivid, robust tone from the turn of the century. Poole’s not as polemic or biased as Upton Sinclair (whom I do like). The middle class and upper class views are presented honestly. It was amazing and sad to see how work and life on the harbor got harder when sailing ships were replaced by bigger steel ships.
Poole was the first writer to get a Pulitzer Prize, which he got for his second novel, The Family. From what I’ve read The Harbor‘s the better book and the new prize wanted the author of The Harbor to get credit for the fine writing in that book.
I’ve got that joy of discovering a new favorite writer whose every book I want to read. I’ll get to The Family after I finish his Giants Gone about “the men who made Chicago,” which I’m getting from the library this morning.
Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge provides the context and biography of H. Gordon Selfridge, Harry or Chief to his loved ones or employees. Woodhead chronicles Selfridge’s life from his youth when both his brothers died and his father deserted the family to his death. “Mile a Minute Harry” was a dynamo who started working at age 15 and made his way to Marshall Field’s in Chicago where his innovations in display and showmanship revolutionized shopping. It’s thrilling to read of this era when there was so much change and when drive and imagination could, for some, propel them to great wealth. (That still happens but so many fields have matured and aren’t new frontiers. Certainly retail isn’t half as exciting as it was when Selfridge started.)
Selfridge became a partner at Field’s due to his own chutzpah by just directly asking the much more reserved Marshall Field, who was going to offer it down the road. But when Field’s was choosing a successor, Selfridge knew it wouldn’t be him so he left Marshall Field’s and tried to start a store in Chicago. While it failed because the city just did not have enough sales staff of the ilk that Field’s had, Selfridge did make money on selling his store to Carson, Pirie, Scott. Too young to retire, he opened a store in London, a city that was stuck in time with fuddy duddy floorwalkers who’d expel any browsers. As the itv/PBS program shows Selfridge’s was part department store, part theater (an a hell of a lot like Marshall Field’s down to the evergreen bags). I enjoyed the book’s detail and rooted for Harry as he devised creative means to make shopping fun and his store bigger and amazingly service-oriented (like Field’s was).
After 1918, when his wife Rose dies, Harry’s life starts to slide for me. The store was still successful, but Harry’s proclivity for women got him mixed up with such apparently shallow women. He lavishes them with jewels and money to gamble/lose that you feel the impending financial ruin coming. It’s sad because had Rose lived longer, Harry probably would not have wound up in a two bedroom flat after selling all his property and losing most of what he built up. (I so hope the TV show takes its time running through history. The man’s life is just so sad at the end.)
Woodhead offers a lot of context including what was going on in entertainment, politics and city history for both Chicago and London. She shares what his friends and relatives thought about Harry, what allies and adversaries he had. Yet I felt there was a distance between Selfridge and me, the reader. So many questions may not be possible to answer. Harry did burn a lot of his letters when he got older. It’s rather cloudy how Harry and his wife met and what their courtship entailed. I didn’t feel I knew Harry the way I knew Proust after reading his biography. That might not be fair since Proust was a writer and probably more self-absorbed than most. Woodhead’s very thorough in her research so I grant if there was information to be had she would have found it. But perhaps Harry was the sort of life of the party that no one really knows well.
I found these in a digitized children’s book on the Library of Congress’ website.
Ah, sweet Lucinda, best of girls,
How quick to take advice.
Behold her with unpapered curls,
And frock so rich and nice!
Her haughty stare! Who would suppose
That dress would change her so
Oh, blessed influence of fine clothes,
How much to thee we owe!
The poems are written by Carolyn Wells, who was a rather prolific writer of children’s poetry and prose. These appeared in a collection called Children of Our Town, published in 1902. She was born in 1902, two years after Rose Selfridge.
Lucinda’s tastes are so depraved;
She likes to play and romp
With children poor and ill-behaved,
Who boast no style or pomp.
Their costumes are not quite correct,
They have no pretty tricks;
Lucinda! pray be more select,
In higher circles mix.