Monday, August 31, 2009

The Cremation of Sam McGee

The Cremation of Sam McGee
by Robert W. Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'taint being dead - it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows - O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared and the furnace roared - such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked;" . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm -
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

- from Best Tales of the Yukon by Robert W. Service

Where's the substance?

There is an article in today's (August 31, 2009) New York Times, The Future of Reading A New Assignment: Pick Books Yourself. The more attention paid to literacy and the love of reading, the better. However, it is easy to see why people become frustrated with the quality of journalism today. When you ask, What is the point of the article, what is new that is being reported, where is the data to support the reportage, is the information in the article and it's argument consistent with either the author's point or their premise, etc.? there is little to answer those pertinent questions and much confusion.

As quickly becomes apparent in reading the article, despite the headline, the story is not about the Future of Reading. It is actually about the balance between free reading in schools versus assigned reading. Both approaches have been around forever under one name or another. That is not news.

As the article acknowledges in passing, these approaches actually serve two different, though not incompatible goals. Free Reading is associated with creating a habit and love of reading. Assigned Reading is associated with establishing a common cultural base (and the capacity for critical reading). Two different goals. In an ideal world, you would spend plenty of time on both. In the real world (where you are always constrained by the number of hours available with the children) you can set one goal (and therefore approach) to the exclusion of the other or you can allocate some time to each approach.

So the article is not reporting any new approach. They substantially gloss over the fact that each approach serves a different end. There are no numbers in the article to suggest that one approach is superseding the other in school systems, merely anecdotal reportage that some systems are moving one way, some the other and most haven't changed.

And just to be clear, I think it is marvelous that the teachers reported on are striving to find ways to be more effective. My issue is not with their efforts or the techniques they are using, but with the reportage.

It almost feels as if this article were a deliberate set-up to generate heated discussion in the culture wars with some ruing the banishment of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the promulgation of shallow, indulgent, popular contemporary books while others take the opposite view, celebrating the freedom of reading and self-expression. I suspect that the reality is that both parties would agree that we want children to love reading and that they ought to have some modicum of a shared culture.

The real question, which the article neither poses nor attempts to answer, is How do we inculcate a love of reading in our children and provide them a common culture all the while constrained by time, budgets, widely divergent home environments, and competing school system goals (oh yeah, physical health through athletics, cultural pursuits, mathematical facility, social studies, standardized tests, etc.)

So the article is an interesting reminder that there is an unresolved issue of how we might achieve this and it does give a couple of anecdotal stories about schools/teachers trying each approach. And that's about it. Call me a curmudgeon, but surely they could have done better than that.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Visiting Charlemagne

From Italy and Her Invaders: Frankish empire, 774-814 by Thomas Hodgkin and published in 1899.
In the year 1000 the young and romantic Emperor Otho III, accompanied by two bishops and by his captain of the guard and count of the palace, Otho of Lomello, opened Charles's tomb. Of this fact there is no doubt, nor that the deed excited the disapproval of some of his subjects, who believed that the vengeance of God fell upon the Emperor for this desecration of his predecessor's sepulchre. But the question is what the explorers saw when they opened the vault. The chronicler of Novalese, a nearly contemporary writer, tells the following story on the alleged authority of Count Otho of Lomello himself: ' We went in unto Charles, and found him, not lying, as is the manner of other dead bodies, but sitting on a chair as if still alive. He was crowned with a golden crown, and he held a sceptre in his hands. These were covered with gloves, through which the growing nails had forced their way. Above him was an alcove; wonderfully built of marbles and mortar; into which we made a hole before we came to the Emperor. As soon as we entered we perceived a very strong smell. We at once fell on our knees and did him reverence, and the Emperor Otho clothed him in white garments and cut his nails, and made good all that was lacking around him. But none of his limbs had fallen away through decay: only there was a little piece gone from the tip of his nose, which the Emperor caused to be replaced with gold. Then having taken one tooth out of his mouth and rebuilt the alcove, so we departed.

It seems that some of the marvelously ghoulish legends and myths of the Middle Ages, so appealing to an early reader's imagination, have fallen out of circulation. A pity. Who could top a gold tipped nose to hold a child's interest.

Independent Reader

The Life And Times Of Charlemagne by Jim Whiting Potential

Young Adult

Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch Suggested

Saturday, August 29, 2009

White House Stories

From a Wall Street Journal article by Peggy Noonan regarding a speech by Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1985 at a fund raiser for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. He tells of the White House as a repository of history and stories.
"I have been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, 'And another thing, Eleanor.' Turn down a hall and you hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, 'Bully! Absolutely ripping!' Walk softly now and you're drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room, where a crowd surrounds a bright young president who is full of hope and laughter.

"I don't know if this is true, but it's a story I've been told, and it's not a bad one because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. . . . History is not only made by people, it is people. And so history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be, as heroic as you are."

Friday, August 28, 2009

From the Nothing New Under the Sun Department

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, has brought to light a fascinating document from 1799. It is essentially a reasoned political polemic against the Adams administration and its proclivity for centralizing power at the federal level. I find the document fascinating on two counts.

The first is that it reads so comprehendibly some two hundred years after it was written. This is a very accessible narrative with little of the stiltedness that one comes across in other contemporaneous documents. That is a testiment to Cooper's authorial powers.

The real fascination though, is that the opinions expressed are so contemporary. In fact, when I first came across the document, it was out of context and I assumed that it was simply a modern day polemic cast in an older style. Only when I went searching for some background on Thomas Cooper, (also by Volokh) did it become apparent that this was a real historical document by a real contemporaneous person expressing logical and reasoned arguments against political actions occurring close to the birth of our republic which he felt threatened our traditions of liberty and freedom.

It is very easy to take this document and drop it into our current political squabbles and see it as being as relevant today as it was 210 years ago. Regardless of the parties and the individuals, it brings home that part of what we are witnessing is yet one more tidal movement of the interaction between human nature (the desire for power) and idealism (a form of government of free people). There is little that is new under the sun.

What Should Colleges Teach

An interesting post, What Should Colleges Teach, by Stanley Fish in August 24, 2009 New York Times, reacting to this report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The report has an agenda to advance but the analysis they present supports that too many universities are offering too many courses that are not what they purport to be. Professor Fish leads with:
A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college's composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses?

I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues - racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

HMS Seraph

The HMS Seraph, upon which Rear Admiral Sir David Scott (from the Ferdinand the Submariner Bull post) served was a storied British naval vessel not only as an attack submarine but also for its various secret missions. Among these was the famous Operation Mincemeat by which the British successfully misdirected the Germans regarding their war aims. Ewen Montagu wrote a popular account of the mission in 1954, The Man Who Never Was, which is usually still available in libraries and is a good WWII action read for seventh grade readers and above, akin to Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and God Is My Co-Pilot.

Ferdinand the Submariner Bull

The October, 2009 Naval History magazine has an article by British submariner Rear Admiral Sir David Scott, recounting his experiences patrolling the Mediterannean in World War II, a theater where British submarine mortality rates approached 50%. He mentions the importance of humor, no matter how desperate the circumstances and relates:
Such were the puerile comforts in the face of imminent annihiliation. We even displayed a sense of humor when we painted emblems on the subs. In one case, for example, we avoided the obvious sharks with huge teeth and avenging devils and instead emblazoned our boat with an image of The Story of Ferdinand, who preferred to stay home and sniff the flowers rather than face the combat of the bullring. In any case, we knew that, like Ferdinand, we were the muscular best of the breed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Burying the Lede

The New York Times carried an article, A Library's Approach to Books that Offend by Alison Leigh Cowan on August 19, 2009.

While the article opens with the instance where Brooklyn Public Library has rather shamefully bowed to pressure from a patron to hide a Herge book, "Tintin au Congo", there is actually good news when you read through the whole article. The most embarrasing quote in the article "'It's not for the public,' a librarian in the children's room said this month when a patron asked to see it." It breaks your heart to see such craveness. On the other hand there is the marvelous quote from the American Library Association, "Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable." That is wonderfully heartening.

What is even more reassuring is how relatively few people ever actually follow-up their heated words or outrage with actual action. The fact that the New York Public Library, serving several millions of people, only receives six or so formal written objections a year to particular books is a wonderful statement to everyone's general broadmindedness. Alternatively one could conclude that the noisemakers are just that, makers of noise but not really serious about their nominal concerns.

At a national level, the ALA reports an average of about 700 written objections a year to particular titles. In the context of roughly 120,000 libraries serving some three hundred million Americans, that is a marvellously low number. Granted that there are probably many more complaints made verbally that are resolved without action simply by librarians explaining library policies. But still: only 700? That's great. On almost any metrics you might use (formal complaints per population, complaints per volume of books held, complaints per circs) the number is vanishingly small. That's good news that ought to be highlighted.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chandler and The Simple Art of Murder

Speaking of Chandler, I have a number of times come across reference to what was apparently a seminal essay by him, The Simple Art of Murder. Follow the link to a copy of his critical evaluation of the detective or mystery writer and his stories. The most often quoted portion of the essay I have seen is:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

But there is more in the essay than that. I was interested, from a children's literature perspective, to find a disquosition on A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie the Pooh books) and a mystery book of his from 1922, The Red House Mystery, still in print eighty-seven years later. You never quite know what those children's authors are going to get up to next.

And then there are a series of barbed opinions and one liners that are classic, whether or not they are merited.
There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull. This is very annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked "Best-Sellers of Yesteryear," and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it that "really important books" get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the news-stands of the country, and is obviously not there just to say goodbye.

And then there is this:
The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.

Again, Ouch!

Finally there is this assessment of his mystery writing predecessor, Dashiell Hammett.
He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quotable Chandler

I only came across Raymond Chandler in the past five years and have scooped up everything I can find of his. I really enjoy his rich, descriptive language. Something I came across this week reminded me of his marvellous description of the Santa Ana winds in California.
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When stories are the story

An interesting article in the June 1, 2009 edition of the New Yorker, It's Spreading; Outbreaks, media scares, and the parrot panic of 1930 by Jill Lepore.

While we reflexively think of reading with children in terms of books, it does of course encompass newspapers, magazines, etc. While there is much in common, between the formats, there is a difference. Newspapers are the first rumor of history, magazine articles the rough draft, and books eventually reflect the collected (somewhat) settled record. Newspapers, magazines and books are the conveyor belt of history.

While one should always read with some degree of respectful skepticism, there is much more of a need to do so with papers and magazines where bias, trendiness, incompleteness, and ignorance are perhaps much more prevalent than in books and where passion and fervor are more predominant than clarity and inspiration. That is not to say that these issues are absent from books, just less prevalent.

Lepore uses a case study from 1930 in the US as newspapers first wildly propagated a story of the dangers of parrot fever before just as enthusiastically debunking it. In fact there was never much of a story in the first place. Her whole article, though, provides an example of the power of storytelling for good or ill and provides a catalyst for our helping our children to understand how to read newspapers and magazines differently and with a heightened attunement to the standard empirical rationalist questions - What's the problem?, how big is it?, how do we measure it?, how will we know when it is resolved?, what's the proposition?, who is pushing the proposition?, how do they benefit? what are the consequences? who will be affected?

Whether discussing mad-cow disease, global warming (2000's), new ice age (1970's), healthcare, or any of a huge portfolio of controversial issues, these are perfectly good questions to always have in mind. The more our children put together the picture that words are powerful but not sacrosanct, the better and clearer thinkers and questioners they become.

From Lepore's article:
Epidemics follow patterns because diseases follow patterns. Viruses spread; they reproduce; they die. Epidemiologists study patterns in order to combat infection. Stories about epidemics follow patterns, too. Stories aren't often deadly but they can be virulent: spreading fast, weakening resistance, wreaking havoc.

Can the Kindle really improve on the book?

In the August 3rd, 2009 edition of the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker has an article A New Page Can the Kindle really improve on the book?

He covers the pros and cons of electronic reading, focusing on the Kindle. He makes some interesting digressions into the history of the development of the technology. He talks about some of the alternative readers that are available.

I find nothing to contradict my working assumption that electronic-readers are an occassionally useful supplement to reading but will neither replace or even displace real reading.

Monday, August 10, 2009

William Blake

From William Blake's Proverbs from Hell.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Jan Morris A Writer's House in Wales

A collection of Welsh tidbits from Jan Morris' A Writer's House in Wales.
I try not to believe in race, only in the effects of history and environment, but sometimes I cannot help feeling that the age-old strain of the Celts, the original Welsh, is still apparent here. Certainly Welsh people are still proud to be thought of as Celts - it differentiates them from the English - and the pageantry of the National Eisteddfod is deliberately, if imaginatively, modeled upon the supposed rituals of the Druids. Celts are always said to have been convoluted people, volatile, enthusiastic but easily discouraged, expressing themselves in art forms that were full of circles, knots and peculiar circles, and today our people are undeniably fluid and flexible too. They are careless about names, sometimes spelling them one way, sometimes another - two of my own children spell themselves Morys, the other two Morris, and I forget which way my grandchildren have gone. Time is scarcely an exact science among my neighbors. Their reportage can be unreliable. As a shrewd American once wrote, if truth elsewhere is more or less like a straight line, among the Wlesh it is "more in the nature of a circle"; to my way of thinking, for I have sufficient Celt in me too, only another way of saying that imagination is as real as reality.

For one of my temperament all this makes life agreeably sinuous and slippery. Occassionally indeed it can be so laid back as to be maddening. The mail may be a bit late because the postman has stopped off for a cup of tea up the lane. Iwan and his family, whom we are expecting for drinks this evening, may not bother to turn up because Megan has homework to do, or alternatively may cheerfully arrive half an hour early. Sweet Blodwen, having assured us she would be here on Thursday morning for coffee, rings on Thursday afternoon to say she was so sorry to have had to go to Pwllheli for a haridressing appointment. How many times have we telephoned dear Mr. Edwards to come and cure the leak in Elizabeth's ceiling? What a relief it would have been if Mr. Roberts the plumber had put the taps on consistently, so that we could be quite sure that hot water was going to emerge from the left-hand tap, cold water from the right. Do you see that wooden corner cupboard? Wil the carpenter made that for us ten years ago. Although I often meet him in the street he still hasn't bothered to send the bill, but a Christmas or two ago he did send us a framed poem imagining how much happier the world would be if it were inhabited entirely by friends.

It was a dark and stormy night on the California coast

From Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Dana has left harbor on a new ship and with a new crew. As a reader long isolated from ready access to books, he scrounges what he can from whatever source he can find.
It being the turn of our watch to go below, the men went to work, mending their clothes, and doing other little things for themselves; and I, having got my wardrobe in complete order at San Diego, had nothing to do but to read. I accordingly overhauled the chests of the crew, but found nothing that suited me exactly, until one of the men said he had a book which "told all about a great highway-man," at the bottom of his chest, and producing it, I found, to my surprise and joy, that it was nothing else than Bulwer's Paul Clifford. This, I seized immediately, and going to my hammock, lay there, swinging and reading, until the watch was out. The between-decks were clear, the hatchways open, and a cool breeze blowing through them, the ship under easy way, and everything comfortable. I had just got well into the story, when eight bells were struck, and we were all ordered to dinner.

After dinner came our watch on deck for four hours, and, at four o'clock, I went below again, turned into my hammock, and read until the dog watch. As no lights were allowed after eight o'clock, there was no reading in the night watch. Having light winds and calms, we were three days on the passage, and each watch below, during the daytime, I spent in the same manner, until I had finished my book. I shall never forget the enjoyment I derived from it. To come across anything with the slightest claims to literary merit, was so unusual, that this was a perfect feast to me. The brilliancy of the book, the succession of capital hits, lively and characteristic sketches, kept me in a constant state of pleasing sensations. It was far too good for a sailor. I could not expect such fine times to last long.

I was struck by this passage because it captures that so familiar feeling of a reader becoming caught up in a welcome new find. But who was this author Bulwer and what of the brilliant book, Paul Clifford, of which I was unfamiliar?

Turns out that I, and probably most people, know at least a little about the book Paul Clifford, or at least how it starts. The opening words of Paul Clifford are the now iconic, "It was a dark and stormy night". While this has become the catchphrase for a florid, trite and cliche laden style of writing, Edward Bulwer (or Edward Bulwer-Lytton to give him his full name, 1803-1873) was, in his time, quite a popular British author, playwright, poet and a succesful politician. He crowded a full life of authorship (more than twenty books and at least three plays) with many years in parliament where he influenced a number of bills, sometimes through his parliamentary speeches and sometimes through his writings and pamphleteering. He had a gift for phrasing as well, being the originator of still extant phrases such as "the almighty dollar" and "the pen is mightier than the sword."

While today little recollected by the general reading public, his style of writing is celebrated (mockingly) through the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest conducted annually by Scott Rice, a professor at the San Jose State University in Claifornia. The contest is self-described as "a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Rice has now branched out and includes a new section, Sticks and Stones, where followers of the contest can post and discuss real life opening sentences or just strikingly bad sentences in popular or major works. For example, from Danielle Steel's Star, "She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco."

Here is an article reporting the most recent contretemps about Bulwer-Lytton as reported in the Guardian, August 19, 2008. Surely Bulwer must have the last laugh though. While his books may not be readily available any longer, he is still discussed and indirectly celebrated six generations after his passing and that is not all that bad an accomplishment.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Jan Morris's House in Wales

A collection of Welsh tidbits from Jan Morris' A Writer's House in Wales.
I was once talking to our local roadman, in the days when there were such folk, and happened to mention that some of our stones must have come from the Cwm Pennant quarries. At once he launched dreamily into the classic lyric of the valley, by the local poet Eifion Wyn:
Pam, Arglwydd, y gwneuthost Cwm Pennant mor dlws,
A bywyd hen bugail mor fyr?

O Lord, why has thou made Cwm Pennant so beautiful,
And the life of the shepherd so short?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Foxe's Book of Martyrs

I found in a used bookstore last week, a copy of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Written and published in the mid 16th century as Protestant history/propaganda, Foxe's Book of Martyrs was intended to both celebrate the faith and courage of said martyrs as well as to document the perfidy and heinous crimes of Queen Mary. I had read of this book from an historical perspective, i.e. the influence that it had at that time on the course of Reformation and the development of the Anglican Church, but had not ever seen a copy of it. Curious, I purchased it.

It is a fascinating read: partly for the baroque language (written in a period immediately before Shakespeare and when English language, phrases, and spellings were still a pretty riotous, weedy garden), partly for the passion, partly for the history, partly for the individual stories. It is in some ways fairly heavy going, with many passages requiring some mulling to comprehend what his intended message might be given archaic phrases and language structure.

But the stories are fascinating and even more so the language. There are strong opinions expressed strongly with no hedging about or concern for delicate ears. Here is Foxe on agents of the Roman Catholic Church whom he castigates for their:

exceeding pride, ambition, simony, avarice, hypocrisy, sacrilege, tyranny, idolatrous worshippings, and other filthy fruits, of those stiff-necked pharisees.

Foxe is full of such marvelously comprehensive indictments and I love that phrase - a stiff-necked pharisee. That puts them in their place.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The thread of learning

The thread of learning is thin and spindly and yet so strong. It shows itself in the oddest ways in the remotest places.

From Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Dana's ship, the Pilgrim, has been trading goods for hides on the California coast (which at this time in 1835 is still Mexican so that they are foreigners on a foreign shore). He and a couple of companions have been left ashore for a month or so to prepare hides while the ship and crew trade up the coast. Upon the Pilgrim's return, Dana discovers that there is a new (and better) captain aboard.

This is definitely good news. The captain soon comes ashore, compliments Dana on the work done and, knowing Dana to be an educated man and no mere common sailor, comments "Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi" part of a line from Virgil, "Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena." In English, "Tityrus, reclining beneath the cover of a spreading beech tree, you practice a woodland melody on the slender pipe."

I love this mind's-eye picture of me, in 2009, reading of two Bostonians in the 1830s, strangers to one another, meeting on a distant and scarcely populated foreign shore, quoting a nearly 2,000 year old poem, from Virgil's Eclogue to one another with the confidence that the allusion and compliment will be comprehended. That would seem to be so incomprehensibly improbable, but there you are: the strand of learning stretches far and wide.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Y garreg a lef o'r mur

A collection of Welsh tidbits from Jan Morris' A Writer's House in Wales.
Most of the Trefan Morys [the name of her home] stones obviously came from the countryside around, which is rocky and littered with boulders, sometimes standing on end so that they look like holy megaliths. Some of them are holy megaliths, sacred down the aeons to the people who lived in these parts, and a bit sacred to me still. They can be eerie things - not far from here, in a churchyard wall, an ancient stone looks out across the gravestones with the chill inscription Y garreg a lef o'r mur, "the stone cries from the wall."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Exuberant excess as the prelude to progress - Hmm

From William James' The Will to Believe:
Man's chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, - his pre-eminence over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life, and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Benjamin Franklin's The Way to Wealth

Benjamin Franklin made part of his fortune through his trade as an author and publisher and is principally known in the literary fields for his more than quarter century publishing of the annual Poor Richard's Alamanck , a collection of essays, weather forecasts, poems, puzzles, home truths and more. The adages and sayings were culled from the Bible, folklore, Aesop and many other sources but most often recast in Franklin's own words. Poor Richard's Almanack was so popular that in proportion to the population of the colonies at the time, it would be the equivalent of selling a million copies each year today.

In 1758, Franklin gathered many of the adages from all the earlier editions of Poor Richard's Alamanck together and published them as an extended essay, The Way to Wealth which can be read online here.

Of course much of this folk wisdom both reflects our culture and helped form it as well. What is striking is just how common-sensical most of it is and to what degree most ordinary Americans live, or attempt to live by its precepts. It is hard to argue with most of the principles underpinning these adages and sayings. Now if we could only get our politicians, risk-taking bankers and negligent borrowers to sip from the cup of Franklin's accumulated wisdom!

On a whim, I have gone through The Way to Wealth and have stripped out all the narrative to leave only the adages and rules for wealth (and right living). I may have omitted a couple but I think the list looks something like the following. I was prepared to find that a good portion were dated or inapplicable in a more modern and complex world. Instead, I think they have all dated extraordinarily well. Think how much financial misery might have been averted if all had adhered to these ideas.

A couple of the sayings are hard to make sense of. A couple use phrases with which we are no longer familiar (since you ask, a mickle is a Scottish term for much or a lot). Many of them are cast in such a way as to cause you to think a minute to catch his gist (e.g. "Industry need not wish") but it is obvious once you think about it and make adjustments for how terms were used then and now. Some are so on the mark as to almost make you laugh out loud ("Laziness travels so slowly, that poverty soon overtakes him").

Each time I read through these, I keep mentally exclaiming "of course." Here, from a quarter of a millineum ago, are the words of advice of one of our greatest founding fathers, self-made man, scientist, diplomat, and elder statesman; Benjamin Franklin.
A word to the wise is enough

Many words won't fill a bushel

God helps them that help themselves

Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright

Dost thou love life, then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of

The sleeping fox catches no poultry

There will be sleeping enough in the grave

Lost time is never found again

Time-enough, always proves little enough

Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy

He that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night

Laziness travels so slowly, that poverty soon overtakes him

Drive thy business, let not that drive thee

Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Industry need not wish

He that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains,

Help hands, for I have no lands

He that hath a trade hath an estate, and he that hath a calling hath an office of profit and honor

At the working man's house hunger looks in, but dares not enter.

For industry pays debts, while despair encreaseth them

Diligence is the mother of good luck

God gives all things to industry

Plough deep, while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep,

One today is worth two tomorrows

Have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today.

Be ashamed to catch yourself idle

Let not the sun look down and say, inglorious here he lies.

The cat in gloves catches no mice

Constant dropping wears away stones

Diligence and patience the mouse ate in two the cable

Little strokes fell great oaks

Employ thy time well if thou meanest to gain leisure

Since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour

A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things

Trouble springs from idleness, and grievous toil from needless ease. Many without labor would live by their wits only, but they break for want of stock.

Fly pleasures, and they'll follow you. The diligent spinner has a large shift, and now I have a sheep and a cow, everybody bids me good morrow

I never saw an oft removed tree,
Nor yet an oft removed family,
That throve so well as those that settled be.

Three removes is as bad as a fire
Keep the shop, and thy shop will keep thee
If you would have your business done, go; if not, send
He that by the plough would thrive,
Himself must either hold or drive.

The eye of a master will do more work than both his hands

Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge

Not to oversee workmen is to leave them your purse open

In the affairs of this world men are saved not by faith, but by the want of it

Learning is to the studious, and riches to the careful

Power to the bold, and Heaven to the virtuous

If you would have a faithful servant, and one that you like, serve yourself

A little neglect may breed great mischief

For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the rider was lost

Keep his nose all his life to the grindstone

A fat kitchen makes a lean will,
Many estates are spent in the getting,
Since women for tea forsook spinning and knitting,
And men for punch forsook hewing and splitting.

If you would be wealthy, of saving as well as of getting: the Indies have not made Spain rich, because her outgoes are greater than her incomes
Women and wine, game and deceit,
Make the wealth small, and the wants great.

What maintains one vice, would bring up two children

Many a little makes a mickle

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship

Who dainties love, shall beggars prove

Fools make Feasts, and wise men eat them.

Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries

At a great pennyworth pause a while

Many have been ruined by buying good pennyworths.

'tis foolish to lay our money in a purchase of repentance

Wise men learn by others' harms, fools scarcely by their own

Felix quem faciunt aliena pericula cautum. [Fortunate the man who learns caution from the perils of others.]

Silks and satins, scarlet and velvets, as Poor Richard says, put out the kitchen fire

For one poor person, there are an hundred indigent

A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees

A child and a fool, imagine twenty shillings and twenty years can never be spent

Always taking out of the meal-tub, and never putting in, soon comes to the bottom

When the well's dry, they know the worth of water

If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some, for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing
Fond pride of dress, is sure a very curse;
E'er fancy you consult, consult your purse.

Pride is as loud a beggar as want, and a great deal more saucy

'tis easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it

And 'tis as truly folly for the poor to ape the rich, as for the frog to swell, in order to equal the ox.
Great estates may venture more,
But little boats should keep near shore.

That dines on vanity sups on contempt

Pride breakfasted with plenty, dined with poverty, and supped with infamy
What is a butterfly? At best
He's but a caterpillar dressed.
The gaudy fop's his picture just,

Think what you do when you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty

The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.

Lying rides upon debt's back.

'tis hard for an empty bag to stand upright,

Creditors have better memories than debtors

Creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days and times

Those have a short Lent, who owe money to be paid at Easter

The borrower is a slave to the lender, and the debtor to the creditor
For age and want, save while you may;
No morning sun lasts a whole day,

'tis easier to build two chimneys than to keep one in fuel

Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt.
Get what you can, and what you get hold;
'Tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold,

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that

We may give advice, but we cannot give conduct

They that won't be counseled, can't be helped

If you will not hear reason, she'll surely rap your knuckles."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Li-Young Lee and stories in childhood

A couple of marvelous poems by Li-Young Lee. A Story tells of "the man who is asked for a story and can't come up with one." The Gift tells of one of those archtypal moments that I suspect happens between most fathers and sons when "my father recited a story in a low voice" while rescuing his young son.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

William Blake

Heck, they are all interesting. Here is the complete list of William Blake's Proverbs of Hell.
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

The cut worm forgives the plow.

Dip him in the river who loves water.

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.

The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.

All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth.

No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

A dead body revenges not injuries.

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

Folly is the cloak of knavery.

Shame is Pride's cloke.

Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.

The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.

The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.

Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.

Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.

The selfish, smiling fool, and the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.

What is now proved was once only imagin'd.

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.

The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.

One thought fills immensity.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth.

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.

Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.

He who has suffer'd you to impose on him, knows you.

As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Expect poison from the standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool's reproach! it is a kingly title!

The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.

The weak in courage is strong in cunning.

The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.

If others had not been foolish, we should be so.

The soul of sweet delight can never be defil'd.

When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius; lift up thy head!

As the caterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

To create a little flower is the labour of ages.

Damn braces. Bless relaxes.

The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.

Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!

Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.

As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.

The crow wish'd every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white.

Exuberance is Beauty.

If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.

Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

Where man is not, nature is barren.

Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd.

Enough! or too much.