Friday, December 18, 2015

"A Thanksgiving Visitor" and "One Christmas"

Truman Capote published three holiday stories based on his childhood experiences. 

“A Christmas Memory” (see previous post Dec. 2011) appeared in 1956 and is probably the best known.  It is the most nostalgic of the three, recalling his relationship at age seven with an elderly distant cousin, who is “herself a child.”  The two have formed a bond as outsiders in their household.  Buddy, as the older cousin calls him, helps his “friend” gather pecans, make fruitcakes, and prepare Christmas gifts.  Years later, when he receives word of his “friend’s” death, he recalls the kites they made for each other and imagines, “rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

“A Thanksgiving Visitor” was published in 1967 and “One Christmas” in 1982.  Buddy is seven or eight in the second story and six in the third.  These later stories are more complex than the first.  Though there is still some sentimentality surrounding Sook, the elder cousin’s name, as we learn in the second story, they both convey a greater sense of moral complexity, as young “Buddy” experiences more of the dark side of life.

From these two stories we learn that Buddy and Sook had both been taken in by relatives, who are busy running several businesses while Sook stays home, does the cooking and housework, and serves as a surrogate mother to Buddy, whose birth mother, having married young, had divorced the father, and left Buddy with family while she went off to pursue college and career.  In “One Christmas” Buddy makes a brief reference to her suicide by drug overdose in later life.

Having been abandoned by both parents at an early age, Buddy has already seen the dark side, but he is happy in his adopted family and especially in his relationship with Sook.  Both of these two later stories can be viewed as initiation narratives, as the young, innocent Buddy encounters the cruelty and selfishness in the world, including in himself.

In “One Christmas” it is questionable whether he recognizes the darkness in his own heart, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” he learns a painful lesson in the cruelty that he is capable of.

Though it was published last “One Christmas” takes place earliest in Buddy’s life.  He is unexpectedly invited to travel alone 400 miles from his home in rural Alabama to spend Christmas with his father in New Orleans.  Buddy barely remembers his father and is terrified of leaving his comfortable home with Sook to spend Christmas in a strange city with a strange man.

He makes the journey, though, and discovers first-hand his father’s somewhat profligate urban lifestyle of big-spending, partying, and pursuing older rich women, who subsidize him.  It is on this trip that Buddy also learns that there really is no Santa Claus, but he plays innocent and manipulates his father into buying him an expensive airplane with pedals.  Thus is Buddy not only initiated into his father’s profligacy but into his own ability to deceive and manipulate others for his own selfish ends. 

It’s unclear how aware the child Buddy is of his own capacity for taking advantage of others, but the adult Buddy, who is narrating the story, clearly presents the episode as a kind of fall from childhood innocence.

The story also suggests a kind of reversal of the prodigal son parable, as before leaving Buddy at the train station, his prodigal father begs his six-year-old son to kiss him and declare his love before returning home. 
Later, Sook reassures Buddy: “Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do.  So the Lord has spread the task among us all.  That’s why everybody is Santa Claus.”

If Santa Claus is no longer quite the same, though, Buddy’s belief in God remains intact, and he imagines “the voice of the Lord telling me something I must do.”  He sends his father a postcard, in which he writes, “…I am lurning to pedal my plan so fast I will soon be in the sky so keep your eyes open and yes I love you Buddy.”

Is this our reassurance that, while Buddy may have lost his innocence at one level, he is able to reclaim it at another?  Or is Buddy deceiving himself about the state of his own heart?

One wonders too if, like that other son, Icarus, Buddy might be in danger of flying too close to the sun.

In “A Thanksgiving Visitor” a slightly older Buddy suffers the daily torments of an older bully in school, a boy named Odd Henderson, “the meanest human creature in my experience.”  Buddy confides in Sook the cruelties he is subjected to, but Sook, a developmentally challenged adult, refuses to believe anyone could be that evil.  She knows the large Henderson family and their struggles in rural Alabama during the Depression with a father in prison.  She decides to invite Odd to join their family for Thanksgiving. 

Buddy is mortified, treats Odd rudely when he arrives, and takes an opportunity for revenge.  While hiding upstairs he observes Odd steal Sook’s cameo from the bathroom.  As the family gathers for dinner, Buddy loudly and publically accuses Odd of he theft.  Sook immediately goes upstairs to check and returns to cover for Odd, stating that the cameo is safely in place.  Buddy is shocked, but even more so when Odd stands up, confesses the crime, returns the cameo, and excuses himself, thereby shaming Buddy, who had hoped to shame Odd.

Feeling that Sook has forsaken him, Buddy retreats outside to the smokehouse, where he fantasizes about hopping a train or committing suicide.  Later Sook consoles him, but imparts a hard lesson: “Two wrongs never make a right.  It was wrong of him to take the cameo…(but) what you did was much worse: you planned to humiliate him.  It was deliberate…. there is only one unpardonable sin—deliberate cruelty.”

As a six-year-old in “One Christmas,” Buddy may not have the self-awareness to recognize his own culpability in manipulating his father, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” at seven or eight, he is forced to confront his own capacity for cruelty.

What Buddy is not aware of but Sook had discovered when talking to Odd’s mother is that, however cruel Odd may be at school, he is a great help and comfort to his mother at home.

Years later, just before Odd joins the Merchant Marines and Buddy is sent off to a military academy, Odd happens by the house and stops to help Sook and Buddy lift a heavy washtub of blossoming chrysanthemums up the steps onto the porch.  Odd ignores Buddy but is polite to Sook, who hands him a bouquet of flowers to take to his mother.  She calls to him as he walks away, “…be careful! They’re lions, you know.”  Odd would not have understood, but Buddy would recall how Sook often compared chrysanthemums to lions: “I always expect them to spring. To turn on me and roar.” Somewhat as Odd had sprung on Buddy in school, and Buddy, in turn, had sprung on Odd at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

This image of the dual-natured chrysanthemums, both beautiful and menacing, embodies the duality of human nature, capable as it is of both charity and cruelty.

Both stories function as quasi-confessionals from the adult narrator, looking back on his innocent and not-so-innocent childhood self.  Both portray the moral complexity of human nature.  Both testify to the wisdom and compassion of a developmentally challenged adult, whose own moral character surpasses that of a precocious child.

Both “A Christmas Memory” and “One Christmas” use the image of flying, two kites “hurrying toward heaven” and a toy plane in which Buddy imagines himself lifting into the sky.  These images convey a sense of transcendence over the darkness of death and human failure, just as, at the time of the Winter Solstice, we look forward to the return of the light at the darkest time of year.

Friday, November 6, 2015


I had panned Michelle Huneven's 2014 novel Off Course as “Loser Lit” (see Aug. 19, 2015, post), but Blame (2009) deserves to have been nominated for the National Book Critic’s Award, not only for its thought-provoking variation on a literary convention, but also for its unusual structure and noteworthy style.

One of her friends refers to Patsy's story as a cautionary tale or recovery narrative. I don't really equate the two, however. A cautionary tale usually ends in disaster, thus underscoring the story's warning against certain behaviors. A recovery narrative, on the other hand, typically ends positively after the protagonist has overcome illness, bad fortune, or poor choices. And usually the recovery is self-directed, testifying to the protagonist's strong character.

Blame is a recovery narrative with a twist, in that the poor choices and bad fortune turn out to be not quite what Patsy thought she was recovering from.  The title could just as well have been Guilt, since the novel mostly focuses on Patsy's efforts to make amends and redeem herself from a terrible mistake resulting in the death of two people. In the end she discovers she is less guilty than originally thought.

The most interesting question in this situation is what you would do if you suddenly discovered the assumption you had based your life on was false.  Would you second-guess every decision you had made? Would the false assumption negate the validity of the life you built based on it? Would it undercut your very authenticity?  Pasty doesn't take it that far, but she does make some changes as the truth of the past reveals some truths in the present.

Unlike the typical recovery narrative, this one leaves us, not with the sense of redemption so much as a sense of uncertainty, uncertainty about our responsibility for the past, our self-knowledge in the present, and our prospects for the future.

I say "our" because we all base our life choices on certain assumptions, which may or may not be true; we've all had the experience of suddenly "seeing the light" as the truth is revealed to us, of suddenly realizing what we thought was true was false all along, or conversely that what we thought was false was in fact true.  And we all know what it's like to have to question our lives, our expectations, and ourselves.  Just when we think we've got our act together, something unexpected throws us off balance. Real lives just don't easily fit the neat formulas of literary convention.

The first chapter of Blame is narrated from the point of view of a minor character, who introduces us to Patsy and later becomes the means by which Patsy learns the truth that has been withheld from her. The rest of the novel is recounted from Patsy's point of view. I found this shift awkward and puzzling, but it does provide some foreshadowing and a glimpse of the main character from another perspective.

Michelle Huneven is a good writer.  Her style is not particularly distinctive, but it’s not pedestrian either.  On almost every page there a striking image or turn of phrase that makes the reading experience worthwhile, even when you’re not terribly keen on the character or plot.

But what is most noteworthy about the novel is its haunting question: What if the assumption you had based your life on turned out to be false?  As one character says, “It does kind of set you up for a major life review.”

In Patsy’s case it leads to a newfound freedom in the present, uncertainty about the future, and lots of ambiguity about the past.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Quaker Cafe

Summer seems to be a good time for reading B novels. I mentioned Off Course as an example of "Loser Lit" in the previous post (English Lit Newly Lit). Quaker Cafe by Brenda Bevan Remmes is a less painful read, at least in terms of content. Off Course is stylistically superior, but Quaker Cafe is definitely more fun to read.

For one thing, there are lots of hilariously entertaining scenes involving family and social dynamics in a small Southern town, which was founded by Quakers, but is now dominated by mainstream Christian denominations, both black and white.  The white population is largely conservative; the few liberals in town stick together and represent both Quakers and Methodists.  The differences make for good humor, but the core of the story is very serious, involving family secrets, racial injustice, and a community with deep divisions.

Liz Hoole is from St. Paul, MN, but married a Quaker and has lived for decades in her husband's North Carolina hometown.  Husband Chase runs the family pharmacy, and Liz works for the Red Cross, where she discovers some medical information about a friend, which she must keep confidential.

Without revealing too much, let's just say Liz gets tangled up in her friend, Maggie’s, medical situation, which has implications, not only for Maggie, but also for Liz’s family and the whole community. As history that has been covered up for years gradually unravels, Liz struggles to help Maggie, support her own family, and maintain her professional confidentiality.

The truth opens up old wounds of racial injustice, threatens the fabric of relationships, and calls for confession and penance.  At this point we see a process of restorative justice work its way through families, churches, and community, a process based in Quaker and African American church traditions, as well as shared human experience.

What makes it a B novel? Well, there is nothing really noteworthy about the style, the plot, or the characters, not that there's anything terribly bad about them either. The dialogue sounded a bit artificial to me in places, though occasionally, having grown up in the South, I thought I heard a Southern style and cadence that sounded very authentic. A structural masterstroke is telling the story from the point of view of a quasi-outsider. Though Liz has lived in the South for many years, she's not a native and is more removed from the town's history than the other characters. As such, she invites the non-Southerner into the narrative and provides a more distanced, balanced perspective. So, a good novel, not a great one, but a good one.

Even a B novel, though, can verge on greatness. Read at face value, it doesn't rise to that level, but if one takes a slight imaginative leap and reads it allegorically, it takes on measurably more significance. 

What if we read it as, not merely the redemptive narrative of one individual and one community, but as a kind of call for restorative justice in the whole South? Of course, the racial injustice in the history of the South is no secret, but we have only to reflect on the recent defense of the Confederate flag as a symbol of "heritage" and "regional pride" to consider the depth of Southern denial about its own history.  Could the individual story of injustice and redemption in Quaker Cafe represent a call for regional assumption of historical responsibility, confession, and atonement?  Does the model of restorative justice represented in the novel offer the vision for a path by which the stark divisions of the American South might be healed?

Perhaps that is a stretch, but surely no more so than acknowledging the human universality of the redemptive story and the shared human yearning for healing and wholeness.

We should also acknowledge that at the end of Quaker Cafe, not all are redeemed; the dead are still dead, and they died without learning the truth.  Not all justice can be restored, but the novel holds out hope for the human capacity of accepting responsibility, making amends, and achieving some measure of peace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

English Lit Newly Lit

Academic irreverence is nothing new. When I was a college student, we had a study guide called English Lit Relit. As the traditional curriculum evolved and the canon expanded to become more inclusive, courses were developed in Women's Lit, Black or African American Lit, Native American Lit, Latino/Latina or Hispanic or Chicano Lit, even Working Class Lit. I personally used a sabbatical to develop an LGBT Lit course, which I taught several times before retiring.

One of my colleagues, who was not too keen on all the new "Lits," had been in a wheelchair since he was twelve years old as a result of childhood polio. He once sarcastically offered to develop a “Crip Lit” course to include disabilities in the curriculum.

Such are the stresses and strains when social change meets academia.

As a teacher of early American literature, I found it useful to classify texts by such genres as personal narrative, success story, sentimental romance, gothic tale, mock romance, coming-of-age story, frontier adventure, moral journey, cautionary tale, etc. While it sounds formulaic, it provided a way for students to see how writers can achieve tremendous variety while satisfying certain cultural expectations in their readers, not to mention enrich their texts by tacitly referencing a whole range of other texts.

Recently, I've come across a couple of new, irreverent genres in popular culture. The memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert inspired an essay on “Priv Lit,” the kind of self-indulgent literature produced by those who can afford to finance travels, adventures, experiences, or pilgrimages that provide fodder for their writing. (See  I can imagine the academic argument for expanding the curriculum to include Priv Lit. Just as mediocre office-holders were once defended because "even the mediocre deserve representation," so it might be argued that even the shallow and immature deserve inclusion, especially if they can afford to finance their exploits.

The redemptive narrative is the quintessential American story. We prefer the happy ending, no matter how unrealistic or unrepresentative, to a tragedy, no matter how probable or typical. We'd rather read the rare American Dream story than the more common narrative of failure, disappointment, or resignation.

One example is the recovery narrative, in which the protagonist suffers from illness, or victimization, or destructive behavior, but eventually recovers, escapes, or reforms, and achieves a healthy, productive life. 

Usually there is a degree of balance between the suffering and the recovery. Most recently I read a novel of this type, in which the bulk of the narrative is devoted to a long, drawn-out account of obsessive, destructive behavior. Off Course by Michelle Huneven lives up to its title by narrating in tiresome detail the mistakes, missteps, and misjudgment of a character who most definitely should know better. The recovery occurs in the final chapters with little explanation or motivation.

Why did I bother to finish it? Well, I was curious to see how it would turn out, but I ended up shaking my head in disappointment. Curious, I went online to see if anyone liked it. Surprisingly (to me), there were a lot of positive reader reviews. Among them I found a new literary term, "Loser Lit." And a lot of readers obviously either identified with or sympathized with the main character, whereas I had been rolling my eyes and shaking my head at her from the first chapter.

Of the various definitions for “loser” in the urban dictionary, the one that seems to fit best here is “Someone who generally sucks at life."  I guess this is the genre for the inept and misguided, who may or may not recover. No doubt, even they deserve to be represented and included in the curriculum. 

Such are the stresses and strains when popular culture meets academia.

Lest anyone think I’m mocking the expansion of the literary canon, let me assure you that I have always been a supporter and practitioner of curriculum transformation, including the study of “popular,” as opposed to “classical,” literature. 

Whether it be “Crip Lit,” “Priv Lit,” or “Loser Lit,” they all give English Lit Relit a whole new meaning.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Whether you’ve read this recently published “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, you’ve no doubt already read about the “ugly.”  Yes, Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s, is exposed as a segregationist and a racist in the 1950s.  Some have deplored and mourned this toppling of the white Southern hero; others have defended Go Set a Watchman’s representation of white supremacy in the Civil Rights era South as much more realistic than its well known, popular predecessor.

In either case, the novel, actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, offers a historical explanation for the difference in character.  It seems that in the segregated South of the 1930s it was perfectly possible for a white man to be on reasonably good terms with his black servants (young Scout was raised by a black maid, as well as her single father, after her mother’s early death) and other African Americans, since in those days “Negroes” knew their place and mostly stayed in it.

With the rise of the NAACP and the Civil Rights movement, however, white paternalists such as Atticus Finch were threatened enough to assert their racial “superiority” and resist all efforts to achieve integration and equal rights of the races.

This ugliness, however realistic, is countered by the outrage of 26-year-old Jean Louise (Scout), when she discovers a racist pamphlet in her father’s desk and witnesses his attendance at a Citizens’ Council meeting, which is hosting a virulently racist speaker.  Jean Louise’s horror when she discovers her father’s racism, her willingness to confront him, as well as her boyfriend (who also attended the meeting), and her support for Civil Rights could be considered the “good” that somehow redeems the novel’s ugliness.  At least that is one way to read it.

There is another example of ugliness, however, at the end of the novel that goes unredeemed, and another way to read the novel as a whole that may disappoint those wishing to somehow salvage Harper Lee’s reputation.  More of that later.

What about the “good”?  For all the talk about race, no reviewers I’ve read have mentioned the feminist plot of Jean Louise rebelling, not only against the small-minded racism of her hometown and her family, but also against the traditional small town expectations for how women should dress, speak, and act.

Go Set a Watchman takes the form of a coming of age narrative in which the protagonist is a woman, who, after graduating from college, has left the South and moved to New York City.  She returns for a family visit some time after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, which ruled segregation unconstitutional.  She wears slacks instead of dresses, talks back to her aunt, and resists attempts by her father’s law clerk to get her to marry him and settle down into a small town, Southern, domestic role.

As is typical in a coming of age story, Jean Louise encounters “evil” in the form of the racist pamphlet and speaker that her father and boyfriend seem to be supporting.  As in such stories Jean Louise’s shock and outrage at the evil in the world can lead her to cynicism and despair or into some kind of healthy maturation, in which she comes to terms with and makes her peace with the world as it is without sacrificing her own values and principles.

Although Jean Louise, having strung her boyfriend along, finally and firmly rejects his offer of marriage, she does make peace with her father.  It is not clear whether she will return to New York or stay in Maycomb and make her peace with the small town provincialism that she despises.

Her Uncle Jack encourages her to stay, not to “join em,” probably not to “beat em,” but possibly to improve them with her more enlightened point of view.  Paraphrasing “Melbourne” (presumably Queen Victoria’s prime minister), Uncle Jack says, “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

Uncle Jack emerges as the wise, if somewhat addled, sage, advising Jean Louise, “…it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days.”  Perhaps it is the same kind of maturity that enables us all to put up with the racist uncle who always seems to show up for Thanksgiving.

In any case, it is no doubt healthier for Jean Louise to come to some semblance of peaceful terms with her family and community, even if she doesn’t stay there, than to become isolated and estranged from them.

Scattered through this coming of age narrative are three flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, episodes that reinforce the youthful innocence from which she must “fall,” as in all coming of age stories.  These flashbacks, taken by themselves, are hilariously entertaining, though not necessarily well integrated with the narrative as a whole.  Reading them, one can understand why her editor suggested she rewrite the manuscript from Scout’s point of view as a young child.

So much for the “good.”

The “bad” is simply the rough draft quality of the text, structurally, as suggested above, as well as in content and language.  For one thing, 26 seems a bit old to be discovering that her father is not the paragon of virtue she had thought him as a child.  Most of us experience this disillusionment with, not only our parents, but also our family and community, during our late teens or early twenties.  It doesn’t seem very credible that Jean Louise doesn’t discover her father’s racism, even if it was more paternalistic than aggressive, at an earlier age.

When she does confront her boyfriend and father, she is far more virulent than one might expect.  Having just heard the Sunday preacher speak from the text of Isaiah 21: 6 (“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth”), Jean Louise melodramatically declares that she needed someone to “set a watchman” to warn her of the bigotry lying in hiding beneath the moralistic façade of her father, family, and community.  Having grown up in the South, surely she can’t be that shocked to find Southern racism and even the KKK lapping at her own door.

The structure of the narrative is also flawed.  The plot doesn’t really begin to thicken until half way through, when Jean Louise discovers that pamphlet, and, as suggested above the flashbacks are not well integrated.  Much of the second half is taken up with long inner and outer monologues and diatribes, as Jean Louise confronts herself and others.  Uncle Jack, a Faulkneresque eccentric, tops all with his meandering, barely coherent, orations.

It is Uncle Jack that calls Jean Louise “Childe Roland,” quoting parts of Robert Browning’s poem, lifting Jean Louise’s coming of age to the mythic level of a hero’s quest narrative.

But it is also Uncle Jack who, shockingly, slaps Jean Louise near the end, drawing blood and then plying her with whisky to ease the pain.  The ugly racism in the book is countered by Jean Louise’s outrage, but this ugly act of violence is presented uncritically.  It is presented as literally slapping some sense into an irate Jean Louise, and, more shockingly, she accepts it.  The only thing lacking is her actually saying, “Thanks, I needed that.”

After this act of violence Jean Louise suddenly calms down, accepts her uncle’s advice to make peace, apologizes to her father, and seems to resign herself to the moral imperfection of her family, community, and the world in general.

This resolution is consistent with the coming of age story, but another, uglier, way to read the ending is as Harper Lee’s apologist treatment of Southern racism.  Atticus attended a KKK meeting, not to participate, but to see who was under those hoods.  He attended the Citizen’s Council meeting and listened to the racist speaker in order to maintain working relationships with his fellow citizens.  He had the pamphlet in his desk in order to study the rhetoric and reasoning of the segregationists.  He holds racist opinions, but is still a kind and forgiving father.  Hank, as an up-and-coming lawyer who started out as “trash,” cannot risk his upward social mobility by bucking the powers that be.

Is this realism or is it apologism?  You decide.

In any case, Go Set a Watchman is not of the same caliber as To Kill a Mockingbird.  While there’s some “good,” there’s more “bad,” and a lot more “ugly” than in the well-known classic.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Signature of All Things

When I read about Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, on which the 2010 film is based, I had little interest in what sounded more like a journey of self-indulgence than an authentic spiritual quest.  Perhaps that was unfair.

When a friend recommended Gilbert’s 2013 novel, I decided to give it a try.

The Signature of All Things is also a quest narrative.  The first part reads like a classic success story, as her father rises from poverty in 18th century England to wealth in Philadelphia through his application of botanical knowledge to the development of early pharmaceuticals.  His daughter Alma is born into wealth and focuses her 19th century quest on the acquisition of botanical knowledge, not only for practical application, but for its own sake, though she also seeks achievement and recognition in the scientific community.

Alma’s professional quest is paralleled by her personal quest for romantic and sexual fulfillment.  This quest leads her into a misguided marriage in which a mystery arises regarding her husband’s sexuality, and she is as bound and determined to solve that mystery as she is to solve the mysteries of the natural world.

 At this point the narrative becomes like a detective story, as Alma, after her father’s death, gives up her inheritance to her adopted sister and devotes herself to tracking down her late husband’s secrets.  This journey takes her to Tahiti, where her professional and personal quests intersect.

She learns more about her husband (as well as the Polynesian people and the Christian missionary outreach), enjoys a moment of sexual fulfillment, and, through a personal experience, not scientific study, achieves an intellectual breakthrough in her understanding of nature.

Alma develops her own theory of the survival instinct and natural selection but fails to publish it because she feels the theory is incomplete.  Darwin, of course, publishes The Origin of Species in 1859 and later The Descent of Man, achieving world recognition for the theory that Alma had also formulated.

What was and perhaps still is incomplete about the theory is the problem of altruism.  Given evolutionary theory, why do humans individually and in groups, make sacrifices in order to assist and promote others’ well-being, even save others’ lives, often at their own expense?  Multiple theories have been developed to explain how human altruistic behavior might have evolved, but there is still no good account for how it might have pre-evolved in the non-human world. (

In the end Alma must accept the limits of human knowledge, not only in the intellectual, scientific realm, but also in her personal life.  As much as she discovers about her husband’s secrets, there are unanswered questions that remain shrouded in mystery. 

The historical backdrop to Alma’s story includes the role of women in the 19th century, the increasing reliance on science as an authority for truth, the colonizing outreach of Christian missionaries, and the conflict between religion and science, of which creationism vs. evolution is but one example.

Western imperialism and race relations also figure in the narrative.  Alma’s father participates in the European western expansion, making his fortune exploiting plant life around the world before settling in Philadelphia.  Alma’s adopted sister, Prudence, becomes an abolitionist, and Alma herself lives among the Polynesians in Tahiti, where Christian missionaries have established a Western foothold.

The novel moves from the Old World of Europe to the so-called New World of North America to the Third World of Tahiti and ends in Holland where Alma, having abandoned her estate in Philadelphia to Prudence, connects with her mother’s Dutch family. 

This movement parallels Alma’s own journey of exploration, expansion, and discovery, her almost imperialistic thirst for control through scientific and personal knowledge, and her final retreat and acceptance of limits to the power of knowledge and to her own ego.

But what of the title, The Signature of All Things?  It is borrowed from Jacob Boehme’s 1621 work by that title.  Boehme was a Christian mystic who argued that God had imprinted a message in every plant and flower, a kind of secret code that he called “the signature of all things.”  Similar to 19th century Transcendentalism, nature is an outward expression of spiritual truth.  In this view, science becomes a way of reading, not simply the material world, but the mind of God.

Alma is a scientific materialist, but she marries Ambrose, a Christian mystic who follows the teachings of Jacob Boehme.  Turns out Ambrose wants a chaste marriage, or as he calls it a marriage blanc, much to Alma’s disappointment.  It also turns out that Ambrose is most likely a repressed homosexual, who has displaced his sexuality into religion.

This dilemma results from a huge miscommunication between Alma and Ambrose, leading them to think they are both on the same page regarding the expectations for their marriage.

The friend who recommended Gilbert’s novel to me pointed out that this misunderstanding is only one of many mistakes Alma makes when it comes to “reading” other people.  As brilliant as she is when it comes to unearthing the (material) secrets of nature, she is clueless when it comes to understanding human beings.  And perhaps herself.  Her obsession with knowledge and control may well be a displacement of her own frustrated sexuality into science.  Does her blindness to humanity prevent her from seeing beyond the material world to spiritual truths?

Perhaps, but in the end, having been chastened by the recognition of her failures in human relationships, Alma comes to respect those, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, who see in science a religious revelation, and to accept her own limitations, neither converting to a religious world view nor denying spiritual reality.  In the final image of the narrative, Alma is leaning against a tree, held up by it really, as if nature were all she needed for support.

The Signature of All Things is a kind of historical novel in that it features actual historical personages, such as Captain Cook, Jacob Boehme, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as the backdrop of Western imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, women’s roles, sexual repression, and class privilege in the late 18th and 19th centuries. 

We know now that there were important women scientists, activists, and leaders in history who remained invisible until 20th century feminist scholars began lifting them up.  Gilbert’s novel offers an imaginary portrait of such an invisible woman, who resists almost every female stereotype of its time period.  Far from conforming to the Cult of True Womanhood (domesticity, piety, purity, submissiveness, Alma is professionally active, atheistic, sexually alive (if not fulfilled), outspoken, and assertive.  At the same time the novel presents a realistic version of the classic quest myth with a classically larger-than-life and classically flawed heroine.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Anything by Flannery O’Connor, including this short story published in 1953, should come with a warning label: “Proceed with Caution,” or something to that effect.  Especially if you are inclined to see the best in people and to view life with a more sunny than grim outlook, you might want to gird your loins before entering into her world, which has been variously described as “gothic,” “cynical,” and downright “grotesque.”  That this world is represented in a rather matter-of-fact manner makes it all the more hair-raising.

The title of this story actually comes from a popular blues song, performed by the likes of Bessie Smith, lamenting her no-good, cheating, abusive man and urging those who are lucky enough to have a “good man” to “Hug him every morning, kiss him ev’ry night…Cause a good man nowadays sure is hard to find.” 

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, the line is stated by Red Sammy, the owner of a barbecue spot, who laments that “These days you don’t know who to trust”:  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

An ordinary family, husband and wife, three children, and a grandmother, are on a road trip to Florida.  When they stop for lunch, the grandmother and Red Sammy commiserate together about the sad state of the world.  Earlier, when the family vacation is being planned, the grandmother warns against heading to Florida.  A escaped convict, called The Misfit, is “aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida.”  Overruled by the rest of the family, the grandmother, dressed in her best clothes, takes her seat in the back seat of the car.  “In case of an accident anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”  At Red Sammy’s the grandmother once again brings up The Misfit.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” says Sammy’s wife.  Everyone seems to agree, “A good man is hard to find.”

Except for a sideways glance at her husband when Sammy’s wife states, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust…And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” everyone seems to agree that the law-abiding, upstanding, respectable family vacationers and roadside business owners are among the “good” people on God’s green earth.

Yet, throughout the story, the family members are disrespectful, rude, and downright mean to each other.  The children talk back to their grandmother and the parents do not scold or correct them; the parents ignore the grandmother, who is herself a shallow, petty, and vain woman; Sammy interrupts his wife and bosses her around.

What does it mean to be “good”? 

Later, after a series of mishaps the family has a car accident and crosses paths with The Misfit.  Murder and mayhem ensue accompanied by a bizarre conversation between the grandmother and The Misfit, in which the grandmother tries to convince him that he truly is a “good” man from “good” family.  (He is not even wearing a shirt.)  “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit tells her politely and begins to relate his history.

“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said.  “I been most everything.  Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive onct…I even seen a woman flogged….”

He begins to emerge as a kind of Everyman.  Grandmother tells him to pray.  He says he was imprisoned for killing his father, but claims he did not do it, or, at least, does not remember doing it.  Having lost all faith in justice, he has decided it doesn’t matter what he does or how he lives.  The grandmother begins to murmur “Jesus, Jesus,” but it’s not clear if she is praying or cursing.  Such is the ambiguity of the story.  Is the Misfit truly an innocent man who has been twisted into evil by an unjust system of justice?  Is the grandmother truly a faithful Christian woman trying to save a sinner or is she using religion to manipulate a murderer in order to save her life?

In a sudden moment when The Misfit seems close to tears as he claims if only he had known the truth about Jesus, “I wouldn’t be like I am now,” the grandmother reaches out to him, exclaiming, “Why, you’re one of my babies…You’re one of my own children!”  The Misfit recoils “as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” 

We know from O’Connor’s own testimony that her work is a representation of her Catholic theology; as such, this scene is interpreted as a moment of divine grace when The Misfit appears to show remorse and the grandmother, recognizing his capacity for salvation, expresses compassion for his soul.  In this interpretation, the grandmother, despite the foolishness and superficiality of her life, reveals her own capacity for salvation.  The image of the grandmother “in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at a cloudless sky” is taken as evidence of her final deliverance into the arms of God.  The Misfit, on the other hand, has rejected the offer of grace, reacting to the grandmother as if she were an evil “snake” and reverting to his own evil, murderous ways.

So, why does O’Connor present this message with such ambiguity?  From another perspective, The Misfit is merely toying with an old woman’s desperate religious appeals and the grandmother’s supposed moment of compassion is yet another attempt to use religion to manipulate The Misfit into sparing her life.  Her image in death could just as well be seen as evidence that she is just as ridiculous dead as she was alive.

“She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the Misfit says.  Is this his recognition that it takes the shock of extreme circumstances to open a shallow person to divine grace or is it just evidence of his own perversion? 

When his companion Bobbie Lee says, “Some fun!” and The Misfit replies, “Shut up, Bobbie Lee…It’s no real pleasure in life,” is that evidence that he now renounces an earlier statement that there is “No pleasure but meanness” or is it a nihilistic rejection of any form of value in life, even the value of “fun.”

The one thing Flannery O’Connor is not ambiguous about is the sad state of the world and human nature.  It is a fallen world, a perversely fallen world in which there is not only the obvious evil of violence and murder but the everyday evil of foolish pride, petty meanness, and shallow faith. 

Why is she so ambiguous about the possibility of redemption?  If we take her at her word, then perhaps her fiction is intended to provide a shock of extreme circumstances designed to test our own capacity to recognize the potential for divine grace available to even the worst of us.

Another possibility is that underlying her own Catholic faith is the doubt and fear that there is no hope of redemption for this truly fallen world.

In any case, Flannery O’Connor uses dark humor and grotesque comedy to make this fallen world, redeemable or not, highly entertaining.   A few years ago there was an ad for fitness equipment that used the slogan, “A Hard Man Is Good to Find.”  That’s what happens when English majors go to work for advertising companies.  One imagines that O’Connor would have enjoyed that ad immensely.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World

In the last post (March 25) I made reference to this 1999 work by my friend Patrick Henry.  Previously I did a series of posts on Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (Sept. 2013 – June 2014), by turns admiring, questioning, and protesting his work.  My biggest beef with Dennett is his lack of appreciation for the power of imagination, symbolic truth, and what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”

Although it was published seven years earlier, Henry’s book is the best answer I’ve read, from a Christian perspective, to Dennett’s often arrogant atheism.

The word “ironic” refers to some kind of discrepancy in language, in experience or in thought.  An “ironic” statement may mean the opposite of what it says.  (Sarcasm is a type of linguistic irony with an edge of hostility.)  An “ironic” situation involves a confluence of events that don’t seem to go together, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, effect.  An “ironic” thought, similarly, brings together ideas that one would not normally expect to coincide.

Openness to, even appreciation for, the unexpected is central to Henry’s version of Christianity.

Whereas Dennett dismisses anything that does not pass a verifiable scientific or demonstrably rational test as delusion and insists on the most literal, fundamentalist understanding of religion, Henry locates his faith in the unverifiable, indemonstrable, dizzying realm of uncertainty, and understands religion in figurative, symbolic, imaginative terms.

The sub-title of his book offers a clue as to what the reader is in for.  It is not a “treatise” or “study,” but a field guide, like Petersen’s field guide to wild birds.  The phrase “finding the marks of God’s grace in the world” even has a poetic rhythm to it.  This will not be a “defense” of or “argument” for religion.  Instead, we are invited on an experiential field trip into the wilderness of faith, a wilderness with as many hazards as beautiful birds and scenery, where there is as much danger of getting lost as promise of being saved.

Furthermore, while this field trip has a beginning, middle, and an end, don’t expect them to occur in that order.  Thus, while there is progression in the overall structure from the felt sense of uncertainty to the equally felt sense of Christian faith, this field guide wanders by a kind of association from the uncertainty of “little brown jobs” (birds that cannot be identified), through cosmic time and space, unexpected calls to attention, Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” human connections and interdependence, post-modernist decentering, the non-linearity of grace and faith, to trust in the universe. 

The “ironic Christian” is an uncertain, independent, imaginative, and ecumenical thinker, as well as believer.

Patrick Henry is a religious scholar who taught at Swarthmore College for 17 years.  Most recently he served as executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, MN.  A thoroughgoing academic, he is able to cite theological, scientific, philosophical, psychological, and sociological sources with proficiency; however, his style is personal, down-to-earth, and emotionally appealing, lending itself not only to esoteric Biblical and literary references but also to popular culture, including such children’s literature as Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss.

In an age in which Christianity has come to be dominated by the literal, fundamentalist, narrow, evangelical, conservative brand, Henry seeks to break Christianity open in order to broaden its reach and enlarge its appeal—to save faith by testing it.  In the process, he opens Christianity wide enough to let non-Christians in.

“Once upon a time,” he writes, “the term ‘Christian’ meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  But these days ‘Christian’ sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow.  Many people who identify themselves, as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure.  When 'Christian' appears in a headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded.” (p. 8)

The final message of the book is the same for both conservative Christians and atheists alike:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”  (Hamlet, Act I, scene 5, ll. 167-8)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Eisenheim the Illusionist"

I was so fascinated by the 2006 film The Illusionist ( that I read “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a short story by Steven Millhauser (, on which the film is based.  Little did I know that this innocent act would lead me down a rabbit-hole of philosophy, art, literature, history, politics, and religion.  Anyone who has read much of this blog knows, of course, that all those topics are irresistible to me and are probably not be surprised.

In the film, I was struck by the way the story dramatizes the ancient saying that “All may not be as it seems,” not only in a magic show but also in real life.  Deception is at the heart of the illusionist’s craft and, in the film, deception is at the heart of a whole plot line that does not appear in the original.  Turns out that plotline is based on a historical event, which was itself and perhaps still is as mysterious as it is factual, but more of that later.

In any case, the proverbial philosophical debate over art vs. life, illusion vs. reality, and appearance vs. truth is thrown into sharp relief.  In the original story, there is more suggestion of the supernatural, at least in the minds of Eisenheim’s audiences and perhaps in that of the police inspector, who attempts to arrest the magician for “crossing of boundaries,” disturbing “the essence of things,” “shaking the foundations of the universe,“ and “undermining reality.”  When Eisenheim disappears it is “the faithful” who know “that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.”  Perhaps that “realm” is that of art and myth, perhaps of something even more timeless and “indestructible.”

In the film Eisenheim’s art is inextricably bound up with his life, indeed the love of his life.  He fashions a necklace for her with a trick chamber that later becomes evidence in her apparent murder, and, of course, the whole story of her murder is an artfully designed deception, which entraps her abusive fiancé (who also happens to be the Crown Prince) and enables the lovers to be reunited.  “All may not be as it seems.”  What seems real may be as illusory as a magician’s trick, and, likewise, the illusion is crafted with the materials of real life. 

When the police inspector realizes the trick and the scales fall from his eyes, I was reminded of that moment in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady when Isabel sees her husband in a particular pose with Madame Merle and immediately knows all that has been hidden from her in their relationship.  And that moment in Melville’s Benito Cereno when “across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day….” All may not be as it seems.

In Millhauser’s original story, I was reminded of Hawthorne’s oft-used device of “multiple choice” or “alternative explanation” (Washington Irving used it first but for purposes of mockery rather than speculation.).  Some spectators say that when Dimmesdale pulled back his shirt a scarlet letter clearly appeared etched on his breast; others claim to have seen no such thing, affirming that his flesh was as bare as that of a “new-born” infant.  Do we see what we want to see or do we see what is truly there?  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist” there are various theories to explain why “all may not be as it seems,” ranging from ingenious practical, perfectly natural methods of deception to more supernatural theories, such that he had “sold his soul to the devil for the dark gift of magic.” 

This theme of illusion vs. reality is prominent also in The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014 blog post), in which reality is permeated with illusion and every illusion is created out of factual material.  The painting of the title is a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion in which art objects are made to appear like real life.  The main character of that novel comes to believe that “there’s no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between ‘reality’ on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”  We might add, perhaps, it is that space where religion also exists, but more of that later. 

“Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

So, what about history in this rabbit hole of illusion and reality?

Both the film and the short story take place in Austria at the end of the 19th century when magic shows were all the rage.  The Eisenheim character may be based on Robert Houdin, from whom the 20th century Houdini took his name.  At this same time in Austria the Hapsburg dynasty was withering on its vine.  Could that be part of the police inspector’s anxiety over Eisenheim’s increasingly supernatural-seeming illusions?  “For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?”  Is the decaying Hapsburg Empire the “crumbling order of history” from which Eisenheim escapes?

One of Eisenheim’s illusions is the ghostly appearance of a young woman named Greta.  Among the speculations is that Greta “was really Marie Vetsera, who had died with Crown Prince Rudolph in the bedroom of his hunting lodge at Mayerling.”  There are other speculations, but the Mayerling Incident (, as it came to be called, may be the basis of the murder-suicide plot in the film.  To this day, the historical murder-suicide in Mayerling is shrouded in mystery.  All may not be as it seems.

Another political (and mythic) allusion should also be noted since Eisenheim is Jewish.  The anti-Semitism of the day may have fed the speculation that he had made a pact with the devil.  One commentator has suggested that Eisenheim’s disappearance into “the indestructible realm of mystery and dream” aligns him with the myth of the Wandering Jew (

Which brings us to the “boundary” between history and myth.  Is “official history “all that it seems?  To what extent is it suffused with illusion and myth, just as myth and legend may have a basis or origin in factual history, not to mention in symbolic truth?  To what extent are knowledge and imagination intertwined with one another? 

 “Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

Could that also be the case with religion?  To what extent do the “facts” of history become transformed into the mythic fears and aspirations of human dreams?  To what extent is life bound up with art, reality with illusion?  And to what extent does the blurring of these boundaries create anxiety and tension such as that which led to the inspector’s attempt to police those boundaries by arresting Eisenheim?  To what extent does our uncertainty over truth lead us to police those boundaries ourselves by insisting on reality over illusion if we are atheistic materialists or illusion over reality if we are religious supernaturalists?  And to what extent do such rigid boundaries result in the truth escaping us, just as Eisenheim himself disappeared.

Well, as often happens with rabbit holes, we may have wandered too far from the texts under discussion.  By coincidence, as I was working on this blog post I was also reading The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World ( by my friend Patrick Henry.  In the following passage Patrick is referencing the disorienting effect of theories in modern astrophysics:

“The more I read about cosmology…the more I am persuaded that Lewis Carroll is the most faithful guide to the world we live in.  As Alice remarks, things get “curiouser and curioser,” less and less commonsensical.  Every new discovery takes us down the hole to Wonderland once more.” 

In science, in religion, in life, in art, in reality, and in illusion, the rabbit hole may lead us where we least expect:  “All may not be as it seems.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins offers a variation on this pattern that undermines our faith in rationality as the means to truth and order, suggesting that the irrational can actually lead us to a restoration of rational order.

It begins, as the detective story (and gothic tale) usually does, with familiar reality.  What could be more ordinary than a young woman on a commuter train passing by the back side of suburban houses on her daily route?  As we get to know this young woman, however, with each layer that is peeled back, we discover less and less rationality and less and less order.  The sense of irrational disorder is well established before the crime occurs.

In this case the official police investigators of the crime, using their methods rational analysis are not very successful.  The successful “detective,” who solves the crime, is considered an “unreliable witness” by the police. 

Her involvement in solving the crime is motivated by her desire to recover her lost memory of something that occurred near the time and place of the crime, but also by her own personal obsessions, fantasies, and generally disordered psychology.

She solves the crime more or less by hit-or-miss accident based on her gradually emerging but hazy memories, rather than logical calculated analysis.

Most detective stories affirm reason and rationality, but this one seems to affirm the role of irrational processes; the official detectives in the case fail to solve the crime, while the irrational “unreliable witness” succeeds.

Most detective stories reassure us that the power of rational order can overcome the irrational, but in this case, we are left with no such reassurance; irrationality is pitted against irrationality and it is through confusion, fantasy, obsession, and disordered thinking/behavior that some semblance of rational order is restored.

Parallel to the detective story is a recovery narrative in which the “detective” moves from emotional instability to health during the process of solving the crime.  Recovery of her lost memories leads to recovery of her health as well as the solution to the crime.  And just as the process of solving the crime is messy, disorderly, and irrational, so is the process of recovery.

The effect is to suggest that the irrational has the power to lead us to truth and healing as much or more than the rational.

We tend to associate reason and rationality with truth and goodness, whereas we associate the irrational with our worst emotional excesses, destructive urges, and false beliefs about reality.  The Girl on the Train reminds us that human reason has its limits.  Not only is it subject to fallacies, it may not see far enough.  It may dismiss out of hand the positive power of emotional energy, imagination, hunches, even dreams, and thereby miss the whole story.

This is not to say that reason and emotion cannot work together but that one may not necessarily be superior to the other.

Philosophy and psychology aside, The Girl on the Train is a well-crafted, suspenseful page-turner with plenty of personal drama thrown in for good measure, just like a good potboiler should be.