Monday, July 24, 2017

Dropped from the Canon: Lost Literary Classics

I was at a garage sale the other week, and I happened to find Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, and I figured that was certainly worth reading.  But it wasn't until I looked inside later that I discovered something truly intriguing: the publisher's list of titles at the back of the book.  This edition of Up from Slavery was put out in 1968.  Now, I've been reading stuff like Dover Thrift Editions and browsing lists like this for as long as I've been reading adult literature, so I've come to a certain understanding of what the classics are considered to be, those enduring books that are timeless and always worth reading, keeping alive in the public's imagination.

Yet, I found stuff I didn't recognize in this list.  Oh, one of them I'd just seen referenced in a newspaper Peanuts reprint, and it baffled me there, too.  (Although it's also worth noting that it was in Snoopy's vivid imagination where I first heard of The Scarlet Pimpernel.) 

Let's do a rundown:
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  This one, I think, happened because the Disney version has sort of taken over the public's imagination.  If it weren't for the movie Saving Mr. Banks, Disney might have done the same with Mary Poppins.  So this is an easy one to explain.
  • Erewhon by Samuel Butler.  Apparently a book that was first published in 1872, as a satire on Victorian culture.  Its legacy may have been extended by a time thanks to George Orwell.
  • Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson.  Originally published in 1904, it seems to have been replaced in the public's imagination by the works of Rudyard Kipling.  There was a movie adaptation in 1959 starring Audrey Hepburn, and the central character of the book, Rima, later entered DC comics lore.
  • Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge.   This is the one referenced in Peanuts.  It was published in 1865, and was responsible for popularizing both speed skating and the story of the little Dutch boy who plugged a dike with his finger.
  • Luck of Roaring Camp & Other Stories by Bret Harte.  The title story first appeared in 1868.  It was about the famous California gold rush.  Harte famously is a writer who was once wildly popular but has since all but vanished from the canon.  One wonders if his fate would've been Mark Twain's if Twain hadn't been such a successful shameless self-promoter (even if he was apparently a terrible businessman), much less Melville's if academics hadn't rediscovered Moby-Dick.  Worth considering.
We tend to think of classics as immutable, but they really aren't.  It's a fascinating subject, and these are clear examples of fortunes that obviously changed over time.  Usually you hear stories of the ones whose fortunes rose, like Melville.  It's humbling to think fortunes can sink, too.  When Harry Potter was at its hottest, you saw people trying to argue that the series was not destined to live forever regardless of its initial success, referencing other popular books that today are totally unknown (I wonder if they weren't thinking of series more akin to the many that have tried to cash in on J.K. Rowling's ideas in recent years, many of which have been modestly popular, just nowhere near the same level).  I still wonder if Harry hasn't already beaten that, but you never know.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

From a book about the American Revolution written in 1999

In his book The American Revolution: First Person Accounts by Men Who Shaped Our Nation, published in 1999, T.J. Stiles makes the following observation, presented with no further commentary:

"Revolutions often begin with backward glances.  A conservative impulse most often moves the mass of mankind -- a fear of change, a dread that what little one has will soon be taken away.  Rarely have governments been overturned by a bold vision of the future; rather, popular radicalism often rises from the churning tide of events.  A ruler's initiative prompts a protest; a protest sparks repression; repression stirs resistance; and on and on in a cycle of polarization, anger, and revolt.  Never has this process been more clear than in the American Revolution."

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 24, 1917 in Lewiston, Maine

This was from earlier in the week, but I still wanted to make mention of the Sun Journal's Looking Back again, because it's pretty darn fascinating.  First, here's the listing:

100 years ago, 1917

No flag among the many hundred which float from Lewiston and Auburn homes today, represents a truer patriotism and more genuine spirit of sacrifice than do the Stars and Stripes which fly from the Lewiston Home for Aged Women. Out of the widow's mite which each of the inmates of the home had possessed, a precious bit was taken until these aged women had collected enough to purchase a flag. A miniature flag raising was held. Most noteworthy of all was a patriotic poem written by Miss Mary A. Richards. Miss Richards, who is an inmate of the Home, is 82 years old, but the patriotic fervor which must have moved her in the Civil War days, came to life in a thrilling little poem of 1917 patriotism.

Now, it bears repeating that the Great War, WWI, was going on at the time, and that the United States had just entered the fray, which has been reflected in a lot of these entries recently, including one I previously wrote about here when the declaration itself was made. 

The next obvious element is Mary Richards, 82, had a chance to reflect on two major wars, the Great War as well as the Civil War.  She was born in 1835, and so was 30 when the Civil War ended, plenty old to know exactly what was going on at the time.  (Maine had particular reason to feel pride during the Civil War, with its own hero in Joshua Chamberlain, depicted by Jeff Daniels in the film Gettysburg and its follow-up, Gods and Generals.)  This may be a genealogical profile for Mary.

There's this somewhat famous instance of game show history of a witness to Lincoln's assassination, but Mary is an example of ordinary folk (presumably) and how they reacted not just to one war but to another.  Today we still have WWII veterans and survivors, but they tend not to comment on later wars.  Mary happily joined the support for the Great War even after experiencing the Civil War, surely still the most heartbreaking of all wars Americans lived through.  I don't know what exactly that says, if Mary was somehow unique in that regard, but I just thought it was worth noting, her reaction and the history she witnessed. 

I was really hoping I could somehow come across the poem itself, but I'm not even sure I was able to find Mary herself.  If I did, her daughter relocated to Ohio, and then...whatever became of the family from then on only they know, and only they know if Mary's memory still exists for them, much less her poetry.  This is one case where I hope someone with information sees this blog and volunteers what they know, because I'd love to extend Mary's legacy a bit.  She seems to deserve it.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 4, 1917 in Lewiston, Maine

The Sun Journal's Looking Back feature strikes again with this interesting nugget:

100 years ago, 1917

The resolve appropriating $80,000 for the construction of a National Guard Armory in Lewiston received its several readings and was passed to be engrossed in the Maine Senate Thursday morning. An amendment provides that sum shall be taken from any fund immediately available -- preferably the million dollars subscribed for War purposes. It is provided, also, that the work of construction shall be supervised by a committee appointed by the Governor and composed, in addition to the adjutant general, of two citizens of Lewiston and two of Bangor. An exactly similar resolve providing for the construction in Bangor was also passed to be engrossed.

What's most interesting to me about this, aside from what I'll be saying further below, is that the "National Guard Armory" later became a community hall known generally as the Lewiston Armory, where I along with many other students graduated high school.  I couldn't find any definitive history online, readily, of the Armory, which is a little odd, so at least I got to read, randomly, about its origins in the newspaper.  There's a raft of tax preparers who provide free service there each year, and in that context was my most recent visit to the building.

Here's today's Looking Back:

100 years ago, 1917

(Page One Headline) WAR IS DECLARED BY U.S. -- House Passed War Resolution at 3 O'clock This Morning. Young Men of 19 to 25 Years of Age To Be Called First. Service in the National Guard and Naval Reserves is encouraged in a bulletin issued to the employees of the Lewiston, Augusta & Waterville street railways and applied companies. While the company cannot guarantee to make up the difference in pay to all men, exceptions will be made in cases requiring special treatment by reason of dependent families. The positions and ratings of men that enlist will not be lost and absence from work will not be considered a break in service.

Obviously, the war in question was the Great War, otherwise known as WWI, which just as obviously had begun without U.S. involvement, and more obviously still did not stop Americans from preparing for involvement before the official declaration; see the above article from two days earlier for evidence of that.  Since so much focus has been put on WWII in recent decades, WWI has begun to slip from history, except maybe the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (who otherwise got a band named after him, and makes spectacular appearances in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day) and the excuses Germans made for rallying behind a monster like Hitler.  Last year I read a book by Teddy Roosevelt in which he complains bitterly about Woodrow Wilson's failure to confront the realities of the situation.  Sure, he was preparing to run against Wilson and therefore any remarks might be dismissed as campaign rhetoric, but reading the book, I can't help but agree with Roosevelt.  Today we know Wilson mostly from his proposal for the League of Nations, which eventually became the still extant United Nations.  We think Wilson on the whole was a visionary.  Roosevelt thought he was an idiot. One of them's on Mount Rushmore.  (Just saying.)  It's equally telling that Americans have internalized Wilson's reluctant approach to war rather than Roosevelt's pragmatic one.  We likely have no idea how that happened.  It began, oh, a hundred years ago, maybe.  Or at least, this was one of those definitive turning points.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

February 1, 1917 in Lewiston, Maine

My local paper, the Sun Journal, has a feature where it reprints news items from 100, 50, and 25 years ago, and I like to check it out to see what may have been of interest back then.  Today it paid off considerably with this gem from a century ago:

Better get to the Empire Theater early tonight, as Lewiston's Bill Carrigan, the great World Series leader, is only one of the great crowd which will turn out to welcome the Baseball Four, the quartet of baseball players who appearing in vaudeville this winter.  These four huskies are as much at home toying with the music and lines of their sketch, "Twenty Minutes in the Clubhouse," as they are chasing the festive fly or bumping the horsehide for a triple.  A box near the stage has been reserved for Mr. Carrigan. (Editorial note: One of the performers was Red Sox backup first-baseman Hughie Bradley, who hit the first-ever home run at Fenway Park on April 26, 1912.)

Now, you can usually find something quaint in the feature, but there's literally a ton of trivia just waiting to be unpacked with this one, so I figured I'd give it a try:

The Empire Theater was built in 1903, and demolished a little over a century later, in 2005.  Carrigan managed two World Series champion Red Sox teams (1915, 1916; the team won again in 1918, with a different manager, but it was famously the last time for 86 years).  Here's some information on Bradley, whose career highlight (he left the Red Sox the same year he made his historic home run) coincides with the year Fenway opened, naturally.  The Baseball Four are harder to track down, but here's a blog post about them, as well as vaudeville in general, an entertainment platform that's disappeared into the mists of history, and how baseball players figured into it and the culture at large.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

IWSG January 2017

The Insecure Writers Support Group meets on the first Wednesday of every month.  And the first Wednesday of every new year!  (Happy New Year!)

What writing rule do you wish you'd never heard?

My answer is going to be pretty ironic, because the ISWG email this question was included in also featured an article that directly contradicts what I'm about to say:

Don't write every day!  I mean, if you're doing something like NaNoWriMo, maybe this doesn't apply (although it still can), but seriously, the worst writing you'll ever do is if you push yourself to write for the sake of writing.

I would argue that reading every day is far more important than writing every day.  Reading is the writer's main tool of improvement.  Of course, this is pointless if all you ever do is read bad writing.  Challenge yourself: read the stuff other people consider classics.  I know, school kind of kills the classics, right?  But a funny thing happens to those things outside of the classroom: they're so much better!

Or read the stuff that will become a classic for you.  But either way, you can't be a good writer if you're a terrible reader.

And you can't be a good writer if you approach it like some kind of mechanical output.  Writing for the sake of writing kills the imagination.  Maybe you're the kind of writer who comes up with the absolute best ideas completely on the fly, as you're writing, but (and no offense to you, personally) this is probably not the case.  Ideas are things that happen when you're not writing.  Not all of them.  Really good ideas do occur during the process of writing, but you can't come up with all of them while writing.  This is frankly impossible.

Embrace writer's block.  Writer's block is your mind telling you that you haven't figured it out yet.  The inability to write is not a disease.  It is not something to be fixed, or shunned, or generally ostracized.  Writers aren't bullies!  I mean, not to their stories, anyway.  The story tells itself, but more of this happen off the page than on it. 

If you push yourself to write every day, you're robbing yourself of your best ideas.  Maybe this sort of advice is good when you're getting down the mechanics of writing, learning your voice, but I would consider that more akin to writing all the stuff that should never see the light of day.  The best writers ever also wrote some really terrible stuff when they were just starting out, because this is a craft where you learn as you go.  You constantly improve.  But at a certain point (and maybe you specifically are still learning?) it's time to let the writing take over.  Because any writer will tell you that writing takes over.  It really does. 

But the story happens when you're not writing.  So if you spend all your writing time actually writing, you're killing your story.  Killing it!  It becomes something anyone could have written.  Sure, you put down the words, you had the idea, but you didn't take the time to develop it.  I'm not talking about outlines, if you do that, if you do a lot of that, but what happens before that, after that.  Because you certainly shouldn't be waiting until some beta reader tells you something needs changing to change something before you even write it.

I've always found that the most satisfying writing I ever did was after waiting so long to write something that it positively bursts onto the page.  Sometimes I take so long to write a complete manuscript, weeks go by and I don't write something, but then the surge happens again, and it's really good that I didn't write during those weeks because the stuff I write after those weeks is unquestionably better than what I would've written if I had just pushed ahead.  I'm not talking about waiting for deadlines.  Heck, when I did NaNo for three years in a row, the first year I wrote once a day for all thirty days.  If I missed a day, I doubled up on another, and so kept to a routine.  But the second year and especially the third, I learned what it was like to work away from the routine, still succeed, and have writing that to my mind was by far more inspired than if I'd done a section a day for thirty days.  By that third year I had basically written for about half the month.  This is not bragging (for anyone who continues to find NaNo a huge challenge), but to further demonstrate what I've been saying.

Anticipation is one of life's great experiences.  This absolutely applies to writing.  So no, I don't endorse writing every day.  If you're at all confident in your writing, writing is not the enemy.  Writing is not a chore.  Writing is the freest occupation in the world.  You escape when you read?  You escape when you write.  If you're not thinking the same way as a writer that you do as a reader, you're doing something wrong.  Reading is the daily priority.  It takes a lot of concentration and commitment to read a book, but the funny thing is, it should take less time to write, cumulatively, but over a greater period...

Okay, now I'm just driving you crazy.  Read, don't write.  Until you have to write.  Not because of a deadline, but because if you didn't write it would hurt, hurt the story, hurt you, hurt the readers who subsequently find your work.  Forget popularity.  Forget what people say.  The writing will tell you.  It's not just about getting words down on a page.  If that's writing to you, you're doing it wrong.

Start the year recalibrating!  Read a book!  And then another!  And another!  If you're doing it right, while you're reading, while you're doing everything else you do, the writing is doing itself in the background.  And then you put it down on a page.  And smile.
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