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Archive for May, 2010

The State of the State of Connecticut

with 3 comments

I don’t know how many of you reading this have been paying attention to the US 24 hour cable news channels, but those of you who have probably know that the Attorney General of the State of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, is in career freefall.

I’ve mentioned Dick Blumenthal on this blog before.  I don’t share his politics–he’s far to the left of me on certain kinds of issues–but I do think, from experience with his office, that he’s a very decent human being, and that office was of considerably help to me while I fought off insurance companies when Bill was dying.

Blumenthal could probably have gone on forever as AG of the state, but he decided to run for Senate for the seat Chris Dodd is vacating this year in order to become President of the University of Connecticut, and that’s where things got sticky.  One of his opponents decided to put her staff to the task of checking his record, and right there out in front they found a big problem.

Bios of Blumenthal in the Connecticut media over the past decade or more have consistently referred to him as serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, when it turns out he only served in the Marine Corps during the war in Vietnam, without ever actually getting over there or seeing combat.  On top of that, before serving, between 1964 and 1970, he took a total of five deferrments. 

Although, interesting enough, for somebody as completely left-liberal as he is, he did spend some time working in the Nixon White House.


Blumenthal was virtually a shoo-in for the Senate seat before this, and now it’s not even clear he’ll still be running by next week.  The Republicans have the first shot they’ve had at a Senate seat in Connecticut since Weicker retired.  And there’s talk of getting Dodd to change his mind and stay put.

Then, to make matters worse, Susan Bysiewicz, now Secretary of the State, who has been trying to run for AG since Blumenthal is supposedly going to run for Senate, has been told by our State Supreme Court that she isn’t eligible. 

There’s a law in the state of Connecticut that says that anybody who runs for AG must have ten years experience practicing law, and although Bysiewicz is a lawyer, she spent only a couple in regular practice and after that held a series of political positions, including her present one, which the SSC says doesn’t count as “practicing.” 

So now the Republicans have the first decent shot at state AG they’ve had since Blumenthal first started running.

I suppose it’s some kind of consolation that Bysiewicz didn’t pad her resume–but then, I’m continually flabbergasted by the extent to which so many truly and legitimately accomplished people do pad their resumes.  And often for reasons that make no real sense.

Blumenthal graduated from Harvard, got a law degree, studied in England and worked in the White House before he was thirty–for God’s sake, what was the point of that particular lie (or failure to correct a misstatement, which is how it seems to have started}?  This is Connecticut, not Nebraska.  Most of the people who vote for the man are going to have found a way not to serve in Vietnam or be the children of men with that particular, uh, distinction.

I’ve been telling myself all morning that maybe Blumenthal thought he would run for President some day, because that at least would make a certain amount of sense, but he’s never shown any sign of it.  I think I’m just trying to make the piece fit into some semblance of common sense.

And it brings me back to something I’ve talked about before, and that somebody once posted an article on some months ago–that is, wondering if meritocracy is really good for us.

The problem is that meritocracy does not only say that the rich and powerful earned their positions and have a natural right to them, it also says that anybody who does not end up rich and powerful deserves his failure–failure becomes a judgment on the worth of the person in a way it is not in a world which assumes that other things besides “merit” go into making for success.

Ack.  I’m doing this badly.  I did it badly the last time. 

But right now I’m mostly just depressed about the situation here.  It’s going to be a long haul to November.

Written by janeh

May 19th, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Second Post of the Day

with 3 comments

Becauase, of course, as soon as I got out of my office, everything went to hell.

At any rate, in honor of the end of the term, I thought I’d pass along the following:


God, that looks awful.

Anyway, it’s about colleges and remedial courses, and isn’t anything I haven’t said before. 

It does make me wonder, though, why nobodycomes out and says that what’s going to have to happen is a huge change in the high schools.

The Democrats get excused as being in the pockets of the teacher’s unions, but the Republicans never suggest things like doing away with the schools of education, requiring higher grades and board scores for people who want to be teachers along with subject matter degrees, and all the rest of it.

All the merit pay and charter schools in the world are not going to do any good as long as all your teachers come out of the same sausage factory, low-entry-standard, pseudo-scientific “social science” model of how to train teachers.

Okay, not in a good mood today.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Missing Persons

with 2 comments

So, the new book has finally calmed down, as I think of it–it finally feels like a book.  I often have to write entire first drafts and starting cutting into the final before it does that, and the last book didn’t do it at all until I rewrote it from scratch.

But this one has, and I wonder how much of it has to do with the fact that my inspiration for it was a real case, right here. 

I want to stress inspiration–I’m not writing a novelized version of the real case, which hasn’t been solved and which has a number of convoluted elements to it.  The elements are so convoluted, that several of the true-crime shows on television have taken up the case, and the FBI finally got involved a week or so ago.

My book is a lot simpler, the FBI couldn’t care less, and the general people are different. 

But  the case is interesting. 

It concerns a guy named Billy Smolinski, and there’s a web site here


meant to give an overview of the case and to help in the search. 

And there’s a local newspaper article here


from the alternative, rather than the standard, publication in the immediate area.

I’ve got no idea how this is going to work out.  There are a lot of elements to it that would make it perfect murder mystery material, but I’m used to seeing those on the news and having the whole thing end up as just another drug deal gone bad.

On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this guy was into drugs.


Okay, it’s a rainy Tuesday, Matt is stuck in Philly until Saturday, and I’ve got my head in my book…

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2010 at 7:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Peanut Butter Fights

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So, here’s the thing–

I’m having one of those days when I should probably give up and go back to bed.  I got up late, later than I like to.  Then I came in and turned on my electric kettle and set up for tea. 

That would normally have been fine, but this morning there was a glitch.  I fill the tea kettle at night before I go to bed, and my sons usually check it before they go to bed, because we have all come to accept a simple truth:  when I first get up in the morning, I’m “up” only in the sense that vertical is the up of horizontal.  I’m not actually awake.

This means, among other things, that I do not see too well, and that I have several times looked at the water gauge on the electric kettle, thought there was water in it, turned it on, opened the top (so that it will boil longer) and proceeded to kill it.

Well, you know, here we are.  Except that I don’t seem to have killed it this time, so there will be no need to go chasing out somewhere this morning to buy a new one.

But still.

I’m pretty sure that the reason this snafu happened was that yesterday, Greg and I had one of those screaming matches that occur with adolescents for no reason except that the adolescent wants to fit with his parents now.  I know about that, because I can remember staging quite a few of them myself at Greg’s age.

I was, I admit, always careful to stage them with my mother, because my father could outargue me on any point at all until I was about thirty.  And he also had a tendency just to walk out on things and to get the kind of angry that made me wonder if he’d be angry with me forever.

My guess is that I’m incapable of getting that kind of angry–or that Greg is just so secure in the fact that I’m going to love him forever, he doesn’t care what I sound like.  At any rate, he can stage a nuclear-level hissy on any subject at all.

Last night, the nuclear level hissy concerned whether I was going to cook curry or something called whooshkapfeffer for dinner.

Whooshkapferrer is something completely unoriginal that I invented one night when the boys were small and Bill had just died.  I’d had one of those days when I didn’t want to cook anything elaborate, and I was still paying of medical bills, so I didn’t want to get delivery.  I looked around in the house and came up with hamburger, elbow macaroni, onions and Parmesan cheese. 

That would have been that, but Greg was about two, and he kept insisting that the thing had to have a name, and I came up with “whooshkapfeffer” because I thought it would make him laugh.  It did, everybody was happy, and a few years later we switched to Cheddar because we all liked that better.

Yesterday, when I suggested making whooshkapfeffer for dinner, Greg wanted to know if I could make curry instead.  I like curry a lot, but not the way Greg likes it, so I’d have preferred the whooskapfeffer.  So I told him that, he argued a little for curry, I said what the hell, I didn’t really care. 

And at that point, everything was all right until about half an hour before I should have started cooking..

That was when Greg asked me what I really wanted for dinner, and I said, not really thinking about it, that I’d prefer the whooshkapfeffer, because I liked it better, but I didn’t really care, so I’d make the curry.

At which point all hell broke loose, and the kid yelled at me for forty-five minutes straight about how he hated it when I lied to him, I really did care, I wanted the whooskapfeffer, why didn’t I say so,  and on and on and on and on and on.

Bill used to call this kind of thing a “peanut butter fight,” as in:

Two people have been in a relationship for a long time.  They love each other.  They’re committed to each other.  But lately, a lot of things have been going wrong, and both of them are increasingly unhappy and angry.  But they don’t  want to say anything, because they’re afraid if they start talking they’ll end up having the fight that ends their union.

So, one day, they go to the grocery store–and end up having a screaming fight in the peanut butter aisle about whether to buy smooth or chunky.

Anyway, like I said, I remember having these kinds of fights with my mother.  To use the term a few of you supplied me with a couple of days ago, what they’re really about is achieving escape velocity.  There just comes a point in adolescence when you feel ready to get up and go before you’re actually able to get up and go.  There’s also a point where you get scared you’ll never get up and go.

I’ll admit, though, that the entire idea of escape velocity from the family has started to insterest me.  We tend to think, as modern parents, that something is wrong if the kid doesn’t go out and get an apartment of his own.  And kids themselves tend to define each other as “losers” quite handily by explaining that that guy, no matter what kind of job he has, “still lives in his mother’s basement.”

But the wisdom of that isn’t really all that clear if you look at the situation historically–in other words, outside the twentieth and post-twentieth century West, and even inside certain parts of it, the assumption was that children stayed with their parents until they were married.  Even male children stayed, and they stayed even if they were forty.

You still get quite a lot of that, even now, in Italy and Greece. 

Now, I’m not anxious to keep the boys at home.  They both have colleges they want to go to and careers they want to make for themselves and doing those things will definitely require leaving.

It still seems to me to be odd that the prejudice is so strong.  I know a student at my place–not one of mine, unfortunately–who has launched, incoroporated, gotten all the state-sales tax stuff, etc, two Internet businesses, which are doing well.  I know another who’s been freelancing as a video designer for three years and making more than he’d make if he got his degree and got a straight middle management job.

Both of them are launching lives, living with their parents makes that more possible than it would have been if they’d struggled on their own–but they, and their parents apparently, both feel that there’s something wrong since they’re still at home. 

I just found out when Matt will be coming home.

I think I’ll go listen to some music–jazz this morning, I’m not sure why.  But Thelonious Monk plays the only piano I really like to hear.

Written by janeh

May 16th, 2010 at 8:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Every once in a while I have an idea for something and mean to write about it, and then other things get in the way and I forget all about it.  I don’t know what brought this back to my mind.   It’s not like there’s anything about today that’s conducive to thinking about anything.  It’s Friday, the last formal day of classes.  It’s going to thunderstorm right and proper in a few minutes.  I’ve got frantic students everywhere, most of whom haven’t bothered to hand in any work for weeks and are now panicking. 

I mean, for God’s sake.

But for whatever reason, I am thinking about this, so I figured I’d have a go.

A few weeks ago–it might be months–I posted a bit on a book by an Eastern Orthodox theologian named David Bentley Hart, and commented in passing how interesting it was to see such an Anglo-Saxon name attached to an Orthodox Church.

Somebody responded by saying that there were now quite a few such names attached to Orthodox churches, that a lot of evangelicals have been converting to the Orthodox churches in recent decades, and that Orthodox churches in the US these days often call themselves “American” Orthodox instead of Greek or Russian or whatever, and have their liturgies in English.

I’ve got a rather complicated relationship to the Orthodox Churches, but before I get there, let me give a few pieces of information for people who don’t know much about them.  And especially for people who are used to the Roman Catholic way of operating things.

As Christianity spread north from Jerusalem in the decades and later centuries after the death of Jesus Christ,  not only churches, but Churches, were founded in cities like Alexandria, Damascus, Antioch and Athens.

These churches were headed by bishops, and they were what is called “autochthonous,” meaning freestanding or self-governing.  That is, the Church at Antioch might send out a mission to Athens and establish a church there–but once it did, the Church at Athens would be independent of the control of any other Christian Church.

The Romans did it differently–when they founded a church in a different place, it was just a church, and bishop or not, it remained under the control of Rome.  The Roman model was therefore universalizing.  It demanded a common language (Latin) in all its churches, as well as common rituals and common disciplines.

The rest of the Churches, though, decided these things for themselves, and although they might adopt something another Church did (say, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), but they might develop their own.

And there was no common language.  The Greek Orthodox Church conducted its liturgies and its business in Greek.  The Russian Orthodox Church conducted its liturgies and its business in Russian. 

Add this to the fact that the Eastern Churches–which is what these are called–were always more closely allied to the political power of their native countries than the Roman Church ever was or could be,  and by the time you hit the 20th century, what you have are Churches strongly identified with their home countries.

Well into my young adulthood, Greek Orthodox Churches in the United States conducted their services in Greek, Russian Orthodox churches conducted theirs in Russian, and even more obscure smaller churches conducted theirs in even more obscure languages.

When I first left graduate school, I worked for a while at a small magazine called Greek Accent, which was a project of the Ethniko Kirix (the “National Herald”), the largest Greek-language daily newspaper in America. 

We covered the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and it was definitely Greek.  Its Archbishop had, as all the Archbishops of North and South America, been sent out from Greece to run the Church here.

What’s more, the Archdiocese was insistent that “Greek” was a necessary part of being Orthodox–that ethnic identity was an important part of the religious identity of church members.  And it violently opposed the few member churches who were trying to call themselves “American.”

I went looking around on the web and found a site for the Orthodox Church in America, but ended up being confused–the church in Danbury, CT, out of which my father was buried, although it calls itself an “American Orthodox Church,” isn’t listed as one of its parishes, and seems to be still a Greek Orthodox Church in everything but the name on its church sign. 

It’s hard to determine if this is a legitimate Orthodox Church or not, since there is nothing like a Pope or a Vatican to give it a stamp of approval.  It also seems to be an outgrowth of the Russian Orthodox Church, and to have, at least at one point,  been part of that organization.

What I’m getting at here, I think, is that, for most of my growing up, and well into it, Orthodoxy was a statement of one’s ethnicity as well as a statement of one’s religion, and it both offered and in some ways required a whole list of customs that were distinctly tied to a particular country and culture.

The Greek Orthodox Church, when I was growing up, was more Greek than Orthodox, and the impression the priest gave when I asked was that a Greek Orthodox communicant would not be allowed to receive Communion in a Russian Orthodox Church, or vice versa.

This information might have been wrong, or even a lie, but if so, it is even more telling than it would be otherwise. 

It also meant that the Church was, in my mind and the minds of plenty of people whose families were more religious than mine, tied inexorably to “Greekness,” by which I mean new and recent immigrants from Greece. 

Which, as you may imagine, was not a positive thing for adolescents already second or third generation American.  We liked the food well enough, but we didn’t want to be associated with the old lady from Lesbos who got in trouble with the town for keeping a goat in the garage of her son’s house in a tightly-packed little subdivision.

All of that said, I can see the attraction of Orthodoxy to evangelicals. 

I’ve always thought Protestantism carried the seeds of its own self-destruction.  For one thing, sola scriptura only remains credible as long as you know little or nothing about the history of Christianity.  For another, the clear line of descent from Christ through the Apostles through the Bishops–which the Orthodox Churches claim as fully as does Rome–makes the foundation of those Churches look more stable than that of any Protestant Church.  For a third, a Patriarch is at least a stab at setting up something in the way of maintaining doctrinal purity, or even coherence.

Orthodoxy is, in its way, more Catholic than the Pope–a form of Christianity that can claim everything Rome does about being a direct connection to Christ through the legitimacy of Bishops, but without the baggage of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Of course, when it comes to pomp and circumstance, the Greeks can outdo Rome any day of the week, and my guess is that the Russians probably can, too–but maybe pomp and circumstance matters less when  your denomination has just declared the virgin birth to be a metaphor.

One way or the other, I’d be interested to know how things are now in the various Orthodox Churches in America.

The Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America is still from Greece, and the Orthodox Church in America does not have its own Patriarch.

Written by janeh

May 14th, 2010 at 10:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

In Praise of Hyacinth Bucket

with 3 comments

When I first started this blog, I said that narratives build moral universes and ask us to live in them. 

That is, narratives create a structure that assumes a set of judgments on the behavior of the characters in them, and invites us to (at least implicitly) accept those judgments, to live for a while as if what is morally right and what is morally wrong is what the narrative assumes they are.

An obvious example of the thing of thing I mean are the Ocean movies, where George Clooney, Brad Pitt and half the rest of Hollywood play master theives out to make big scores by stealing from casinos or stealing rare art.

In real life, we do not (most of us) condone this sort of thing.  Placed on a jury, we’d send their asses to jail in two minutes flat.

Within the movies, however, these characters and what they do are not only morally acceptable but admirable, and with less fussing than you’d think they’d need.  The people they’re stealing from are vaguely assumed to be “bad guys,” and that’s enough.

For Donald E. Westlake in the Dortmunder novels, you don’t even need that.  Dortmunder is a thief, and his status as a hero rests on the simple fact that he’s not also a murderer.  Since he’s often trying to catch one of those, well, we forgive him for the stealing.

Or just forget about it.

Successful narratives draw you into their moral world seamlessly, without your even noticing that you’re being led into moral territory at all, never mind moral territory you might not approve of if  you knew what you were doing.

That’s why Plato hated poetry, why he wrote about morality as being first and foremost the countering of the works of Homer.  Homer’s moral universe was everything Plato thought was bad, and Homer was more effective at recruiting people to  his side, because narrative is more effective for that than argument.

But it occurred to me that not all narratives are successful in this way, and not all narratives are successful with everybody who is exposed to them.  Part of that is the skill of the author.  Part of that is the strength of the surrounding moral culture. 

Which brings me to the title of this post, and the British sitcom it refers to.

The British sitcom is a silly little thing, called Keeping Up Appearances, and it was never one of the ones that really caught on in the States. 

I’ve got my suspicions as to why, but let me outline the situation in the situation comedy first.

Hyacinth Bucket is one of four sisters from a very poor, very downmarket family.  She’s married to Richard, who is a good, straightforwardly middle class professional man who works for the local council (the local government).  They have a nice house in a nice neighborhood that is also very solidly middle class, next door to Elizabeth, who is yet again solidly middle class, and her brother Emmett, who is the same.

I may have mispelled Emmett.

Anyway, Hyacinth is, in many ways, a thoroughly awful woman.  She’s pretentious in the extreme, always pretending to know things she does not, always “putting on airs” and making herself out to be practically an aristocrat.  She also never listens to anybody. and never shuts up.  Worse–in British eyes–she tends to talk about personal things and intrude herself into personal spaces.  Richard’s last name, she insists, is pronounced “Boo-kay.”

The awfulness of Hyancinth is contrasted repeatedly with the good, down-to-earth authenticity of her sisters, especially Daisy and Rose.  Daisy is married to Onslow and Rose screws everything that moves, but the real point is that they’re all on the dole, and have been for all their lives.  Their house is a mess, their yard has a derelict car in it, and the front gate is rotted and falling apart.  All the middle class characters like them, however, because the middle class characters aren’t really class snobs, they just prefer people who are “real.”

As I said before, KUA never did as well as some other British sitcoms in the states, and I think I know why.  The strength of the surrounding culture does matter, and I think Americans instinctively feel uncomfortable with the fun being made of Hyacinth Bucket.  Yes, the woman is ridiculous, but…but it looks like class snobbery anyway. 

I actually like Hyacinth Bucket, and when I sat so on an Internet forum, a guy from Australia announced that that figured, that was just the kind of person I’d like.

Well, I agree with him, but that’s because I see Hyacinth as a different “kind of person” than he does.

Think about it:  here is a woman born not just into poverty, but into squalor and generational welfare dependence.  She not only got out–her sister Violet did, too, by marrying a very successful “turf accountant” (bookie, legal in England)–but she has managed to maintain the essentials of middle class life every since.

She has a lot of energy, which is presented as awful–but lack of energy leads to that broken front gate back at her sisters’ house, and the dirt and garbage that is everywhere there.  Lack of energy is why Onslow spends his life either betting on horses or watching the races on television, all on the government’s dime, and dressed in scruffy, torn and worn garments that wouldn’t get him past the front door at a job interview.

I keep trying to remember the term for the energy it takes to achieve liftoff into space, and I can’t come up with it–but the fact is that sometimes you need more of it than you do at other times.

Elizabeth and Emmett can be relaxed and casual about their lives because they’ve always been middle class.  Hyacinth has to achieve middle-classness by actively fighting a contravaling tendency, the thing she was born into, the thing she can never fight too hard against.

The other stuff–the silly social pretentions, the pretense at knowing and understanding the things educated people are supposed to enjoy (like classical music)–seem to me to be essentially spin off from the other thing.  The British educational system being what it is, Hyacinth can’t go back and get the education she missed, so she pretends to it.  Like Oscar Wilde’s hypocrisy, Hyacinth’s pretentions are the tribute ignorance pays to education.

Sometimes this show does things that take me aback, and that seem to hint at deeper assumptions at work.

For instance, there is an episode in which Hyacinth and Richard are booked on the Queen Elizabeth for a ‘luxury cruise,” something Hyacinth has always wanted.  They have a good but not spectacular stateroom, but it is a good one, and they can afford it.  Years of work on both their parts–Richard’s at his job, Hyacinth at the house, both of them raising their son–have made this possible for them.

Hyacinth, of course, wants to be at the Captain’s table and invited to the Captain’s cocktail party, neither of which she gets. That’s for first class passengers only.

The joke is–Onslow and Daisy do get invited to both, because their on the ship in the most luxurious of the first class cabins.  Onslow won a radio contest, and there they are. 

The first time I saw this, I was almost shocked.  The underlying message seemed to be that hard work and dedication matter not at all–you’re more likely to get nice things and privileges by luck.  And that is, in fact, essentially what this series is about.  Hard work and energy are to be deplored, not celebrated.  They make you stupid and obnoxious,  not admirable.  If you were born into the kind of family that spends its time drinking beer and watching telly, you’re a better person if you stay right there and don’t go chewing up the scenery trying to be better than you are.

I think Americans found it possible to laugh at Hyacinth’s pretentions, but did not find it possible to laugh at her aspirations.  When I watch this thing, I’m always rooting for Hyacinth to get what she wants.  And I really don’t understand why she’s the one we should have contempt for and Daisy and Onslow the ones we should admire, when she’s paying Daisy and Onslow’s phone bill.

I do want to note, though–I own several DVDs of this series.  I do not want to change it, and I do not want to censor it.

I do want to analyze it, though, and in the end my strength of my moral culture is too much for the underlying premise.

It’s freezing here, and I need tea.

Written by janeh

May 12th, 2010 at 6:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Poor You Have Always With You

with 9 comments

So, I wasn’t going to post today–too much to do, it’s literally freezing outside, whatever.

But I couldn’t help myself.

Thomas Hardy.  Thomas HARDY.  Now, there’s somebody I’d call gritty.

Robert says I’m the only “English teacher” he’s ever heard admit that she doesn’t like something in the Canon, but now I can double or triple that, because I truly hate the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Okay, I’m not in love with the poetry, either.

And yes.  I do know that Hardy is, in fact, a Great Writer, in that his novels, objectively evaluated, are better than very good on any technical level, and interesting on every other level. 

But I’ve said it before:  what is objectively good is not the same as what is subjectively enjoyable.  

I’m with Jem–Hardy’s themes are a lot easier to pinpoint than James’s are, or even than Dickens’s are, but that’s mostly because Hardy’s approach to fiction was to bash his readers over the head with a mallet on the subject of what we would now call “social justice.”

With James, I seem to have missed a lot of the social realism because I was entranced by settings and characters.  I wanted to be Isabel Archer–not to have her life, but to be the kind of woman she was.  She seemed to me, and I think James meant her to be, a kind of icon of perfection, a woman who managed to be neither a frilly feminine child nor a scowling harridan, who had intelligence and culture and grace. 

Anybody who knows me in person will understand that this was a stretch, but it was a stretch I wanted to make at fourteen.

With Hardy, I like nothing about the settings, and nothing about the characters.  And although I do not shrink at social realism, what he provides is less realism than a downer that makes thorazine feel like speed.

Hardy’s idea of realism was to present characters who are neither admirable nor attractive, and to put them insituations so hopeless that suicide comes as a relief at the end–and at the end of more than one novel, too.  The only thing I really remember about Jude the Obscure is that scene of Jude and Susan’s children hanged and dead all at once. 

And, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t remember that all that well.

The life of the poor was grinding and harsh, and there was no escape–that was Hardy.  I think Dickens was a more popular writer because he did provide the possibility of escape, even if the possibilities he provided were a lot more like winning the lottery than pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

But it’s more than that.  Hardy’s poor characters live in misery, anxiety, and want, surrounded by stupidity and hopelessness, forever on the edge of despair.  Dickens’s poor characters have life and warmth and joy and are often quite happy in spite of their lack of luck in the socioeconomic lottery.

Which leaves us with the question of which are closer to the truth–Dickens’s quick-witted, enterprising scamps making the best of a bad situation and having a good time doing it, or Hardy’s downtrodden lower classes, to whom intelligence is a curse because it does nothing but make it impossible not to know how bad one’s life really is.

Dickens had, in fact, been grinding poor as a child.  Hardy was the son of a master mason, and later the protégé of  the local minor aristocrat–in other words a son of the working class who had indeed made the climb out, and therefore somebody who knew that that climb need not be doomed from the start.

On the other hand, Dickens’s escape from that grinding poverty came through his own work and professional success, something no main character in his books ever seems to do (although plenty of minor ones do it all the time). 

I wonder how accurate any writer’s depiction of the life of the poor even can be, even if he grew up as one of them. 

I recently saw the movie Precious, which comes from a novel by an African American writer who calls herself Sapphire, and it came as close as I’ve ever seen to the lives some of my students live–not just the poverty but the endless lassitude, the almost undistubable passivity.

But although Sapphire herself lived in Harlem and other inner city neighborhoods, she also graduated from college and went on to a master’s degree–as Hardy went on to a good school and Dickens went on to write novels.

In other words, no matter how they started, none of them were the kind of people they seem to want to write about.  The very fact that they were able to do these other things means they were, in themselves, different in character and temperament. 

I keep getting the feeling that they have as hard a time as I do trying to think themselves into the people who walk past the stairwell lightbulb every day, cursing the fact that the super doesn’t change it, and never think of changing it themselves.

There are no poor people in Henry James–but, unlike Dickens and Hardy, he didn’t grow up poor.  Write what you know.

I think I’d better go eat something before I fall over.

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2010 at 8:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Manners, Morals, Muddle, Mystify

with 9 comments

Let me get back to something I’ve talked about before, which actually has a lot to do with my reading Henry James at all, and of my reading The Wings of the Dove at the present half second.

I’ve almost always read first and foremost for characters and their relationships with each other, but also for a sense of place.

When it comes to Victorian novels, or their equivalents in American literature, the sense of place I’m looking for is not so much the physical place itself as the emotional atmosphere of it–the heightened formality, the sense of men and women living with each other by rules that force them into civilization whether they want to go or not.

I am not a very formal person, in real life.  In fact, I’m almost the complete opposite.  But there is something about modern life that grates on me, and that grating is what I tend to thing of as the “animalism” in it.

No, I don’t mind animals.  I mind the way so many people treat themselves as animals.  I don’t know if they’d actually put it that way themselves.  It’s the sexual exhibitionism, the crudeness of the language, the constant and unending Anglo Saxonisms, the culture of flaunting it both economic and sexual, the assumption that everybody and anybody is ready to do it at a drop of the hat and for no particular reason.

In other words, the Lady Gaga Paradigm.

I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who reads Victorian and Regency novels for that particular kind of a sense of place.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of the women who read Regency romance novels do it almost entirely for that.  Some of them also read Jane Austen, but when they do they tend to glide over the sharp edges and warm themselves in the glow of formality and civility.

If this was another post of another kind, I’d explain why those sharp edges are what make Jane Austen great literature and Regency romances not–but for right now, I can’t really blame the readers here, because I did the same thing with actual Victorian novels for years.

Mique said something about, having read Dickens in his twenties, he didn’t think younger people would actually “get” most of it. 

I’m here to say I didn’t “get” most of Henry James until very recently.

The sense of place is definitely there, in The Wings of the Dove, put there is no sense in which James can be said to be writing a novel in which that sense of place is affirmed as true.

Quite the contrary.  For James, formality and civility, that strong Victorian emphasis on fine felling and delicacy, are a very thin veil over a very brutal reality, fully as brutal as anything Lady Gaga has come up with yet.

The Wings of the Dove concern the lives of three people:  Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale.  Kate Croy is a young Englishwoman with “important” relations and absolutely no money of her own.  Her father has brought the family to ruin in some unnamed way.  Her mother is dead.  Her sister married a poor man, had several children by him, and was then widowed.  All these people expect Kate–the most beautiful and accomplished among them–to make a Great Marriage, and in so making it support the rest of them.

Kate is being enabled to make such a marriage by her aunt, Maud Lowder, who married a very successful man of business and was then widowed with a fortune.  She’s quite willing to hand that fortune to Kate, if Kate will make the kind of marriage she wants–a marriage to a Lord, or another  Great Man, such as the sort of person who might one day be Prime Minister.  This man does not have to have a fortune of his own, but he has to be Great, because Greatness is what Maud is buying.

Merten Densher is a young Englishman, well educated, with the manners of a gentleman, and a very successful journalist–but a successful journalist is not a Great Man, and he doesn’t make enough money to keep Kate in a state that would satisfy Maud.  And it’s not just Kate he has to think of supporting, but Kate’s entire family, father and sister and nieces and nephews, if Kate marries in a way that does not please her aunt.

Milly Theale is a young American woman almost all of whose relations are dead, and who is in possession of a truly enormous fortune.  She is rich enough to make Maud Lowder’s money look modest, and she is also dying of tuberculosis.  She met Merton  Dresher when he came to America to write for his newspaper for a while.  She meets Kate Croy in London, since Aunt Maud is a friend of Milly’s traveling companion.

Milly Theale is in love with Merton Densher.

Merton Densher is in love with Kate Croy.

Kate Croy is in love with Merton Densher.

Kate Croy and Merton Densher get together and work out a scheme–Densher will marry Milly.  Milly will die in a short time (this is inevitable).  Densher will inherit Milly’s fortune and then be able to marry Kate no matter how many poor relations she has to support.

It’s a litte more complicated than this, but not much more, and what strikes me about it is how enormously, unrelentingly brutal it all is.

As Eliza Doolittle tells Henry Higgins when he suggests that, now that she has become a lady, she will have to make her way in the world by getting married:  “We were above that sort of thing in Covent Garden.  I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself.”

In the world of the Victorian novel, though, men and women are forever selling themselves–and in James, unlike in Trollope or Dickens, there is no pretense about it, no overarching fiction about how in spite of being threatened with such a thing, people actually end up finding a way to marry the people they love, and to marry for love. 

There is no marrying for love in Henry James.  To belong to the class of people for whom and about whom he writes is to belong to a class of people who must make themselves commodities first and foremost.

And wealth does not get you out of the trap.  Milly Theale is rich, but she’s sold as a commodity just as surely as Kate is.  So is Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. 

Working and having a profession doesn’t change the situation, either.  Merton Densher works hard and has a profession and is fairly close to being at the top of it, but he is unable to escape the requirement that he order his private affairs on the basis of the commodification of his own and his lover’s persons.  He cannot marry for love any more than Kate can.

I’ve been sitting here reading this thing and thinking that it is first and foremost a book about prostitution, that the lives of all these people have been reduced to prostitution. 

I don’t know why this wasn’t clear to me when I read James when I was younger, and I read a lot of James when I was younger.  I think  I tended to take his work the way I did Trollope’s or Dickens’s or Jane Austen’s, even, as somehow making it all all right because it worked out “for love” in the end.

And a great many Victorian novelists do make it work out for love in the end.  I have a suspicion that that may be why Trollope and Dickens were so much more popular than James.  

But it seems odd to me that I literally did not notice how consistently James portrays the Victorian world as the arena of barely disguised–if disguised at all–emotional brutality. 

I think I may, like readers of category romance Regency novels, have mistaken the superficial and quaint formalities for the substance, but that’s odd, too, becuase I’m n ot somebody who usually has patience with the superficial formalities.  And I’m really not somebody who usually has patience for people’s concern with respectability when it appears anyplace else BUT the Victorian novel.

One of the writers I have recommended here from time to time is V.S. Naipaul–but what I’ve recommended has been his nonfiction.  Naipaul is the writer par excellance on tourists to the revolution.  If you don’t believe me, see The Writer in the World.

But a few years ago, I decided that since I liked Naipaul nonfiction so much, I ought to read his fiction, because it was his fiction he was known for, and for which he got the Nobel Prize.

So I read it.  And I hated it.  I hated all the characters, all poor immigrants to London from the old colonies and all obsessed with status and respectability.  They made me completely and utterly insane.

So it’s not that I’m interested in that sort of thing intrinsically.  And it’s not that I am or want to be a formal person.

In the meantime, though, I’ve managed to gain a great deal more respect for James–and I respected him anyway.

If great literature is the truth, even if it didn’t happen–then James is definitely great literature.

Written by janeh

May 10th, 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Popularity Contest

with 9 comments

I should start with a couple of things here, just for form’s sake.

First,  Mique, who likes Dickens and read him without having to have it assigned at school, is not female.  He’s an Australian male and, if I’m remembering this right, ex-career military. 

My point about Dickens has been that you can’t have it both ways–he’s either a popular writer or something snobby English teachers adopted as “good taste”  just to beat you over the head with it. 

Dickens was not just popular in his time, he was a genunine phenomenon the like of which had not been seen before him and that would not be seen after him until Stephen King’s career got going.

What’s more, he was popular for fifty years before anybody thought to assign one of his books in an English course, and he continues to be popular in a way that can’t be explained by CATs.  A bit of Dickens assigned here and there does not account for the fact that a good dozen of the man’s books are in print from major houses as well as minor ones.

The man is a popular writer, today as well as in his own time.  That doesn’t mean you have to like him–I don’t like most popular writers–but it does mean that the reason he’s on the RRL sometimes is not that he’s something nobody likes so that teachers can push him at you to make themselves feel superior.

The other thing I wanted to get into is the thing about what people who read this blog read, or don’t.

I’ll admit I never thought of the writing of this as being something I’d do to recommend books.  I do recommend them sometimes, but when I do I come right out and say that’s what I’m doing.

I will admit I’m the opposite of John–literary recommendations tend to mean I am going to like something, at least when applied to writers from past eras (contemporary ones are complicated).  But I’m the opposite of John in a lot of ways.  John pointed out on the comments once that he’d liked the television series House until it became more about the private lives of the main characters than the medical mystery.  I started to like House when it ditched reliance on the medical stuff to focus on the main characters. 

What we like is what we like.  I never expected anybody to read this and go running out to read Dickens, or James.  And that’s especially true of James, because he can be difficult to read even for somebody, like me, who honestly enjoys him.

I will say this:  I do tend to think that books that are wildly popular are not going to be any good.

That’s not snobbishness about popular taste, or some desire to hold myself up as better than and smarter than anybody else.

It is a nod in the direction of reality.

People with intelligence, education and good reading skills read books well below their ability to understand them, but people without any of the three do not in general read books above their ability to understand them. 

There is, therefore, automatically a wider audience for simplistic, uncomplicated fiction than there will ever be for something that requires that you be able to handle literary forms (think third person multiple viewpoint), know a few references (Pearl Harbor, say, or the Canterbury Tales), and make connections (Susan went to bed with Dan and now she’s throwing up.  That means she’s…)

The more the writer demands of the reader, the fewer readers he will necessarily have–but most really good books do demand something from the reader, often quite a bit.  Even Stephen King couldn’t write what he writes without that third person multiple viewpoint, and even half of hip-hop music runs on allusions.

So much of what comes in as advice about writing here sounds to me like:  stop writing anything you’d want to write, and hope that all writers write the kind of thing you’re never going to want to read.

I like difficulty, I like ambiguity, I like nuance–and I really hate having to plod through explanations when a simple reference would have been all  I needed to understand what was being said. 

And the thing about “don’t assign real literary classics in English class, assign things people are going to like to read,” sounds to me like “only assign things in English class that YOU’LL really hate reading, because YOUR pleasure in reading doesn’t count, it’s just odd and nobody else shares it.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who really like reading the literary canon tend to be people who also end up majoring in English and sometimes becoming English teachers.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that people who really like math tend to be people who end up majoring in math or math-heavy subjects and that most people who set out to be math teachers really like math.

It’s not some sort of conspiracy, it’s the obvious nature of things–you’re attracted to those fields that interest you.  If they don’t interest you, you do something else. 

It doesn’t have to be some kind of conspiracy to make people feel bad–the content of the literary canon is what it is, the content of mathematics is what it is, if you’ve got an aptitude and an attraction to it you do it, if not, not.

There’s a sentence for you.

But it’s Sunday, and I’ve got harpsichords and Henry  James.

Written by janeh

May 9th, 2010 at 8:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Vulgar, Common and Low

with 4 comments

One of these days I’m going to have to say something about Dickens–although  I’m happy to see that by now, three people who have never been English majors OR English teachers have chimed in to say how much they like him.

And by the time Dickens died, he was not only the best selling novelist of his generation, but the best selling novelist of all time, and his works stayed in print and sold briskly for fifty years before any English department was ever established in universities–and in that time he most certainly was not taught in high schools in England or America. 

Like it or not, he always has been and is now a popular writer, not a writer just for English majors.  For that, you have to look to Joyce, maybe.

What’s more, what teachers say to students may not be what they actually think, because I know lots and lots of PhDs in English Literature who can’t stand Dickens, and who are uncomfortable even to have him in the Canon.

But that’s something for another time.

Right now, I want to circle back and get a couple of things clear, because they matter.

The big one is this–neither I, nor the Victorian novelists I’m writing about, is talking about the aristocracy.

I think the confusion comes because the sort of people somebody like James or Trollope puts at the center of his work would be, in America, “upper class.”

In England, these people are not upper class, but MIDDLE class. 

And some of them are in trade.  If they’re men, there’s really no shame in it, especially if they make money.

If they’re women, the situation is different, because at the time, to go out into the world and do that kind of work would have marked any woman as sexually compromised–she would have been considered an immoral little tramp, and she would not have been accepted into the homes of “nice” people.

The nice people themselves, however, although sometimes rich, were not usually so.  They were, instead, what my mother’s generation would have called “comfortable.”  They had means, but not to the extent that they need do nothing at all for a living. 

These are doctors, lawyers, even men of business–sometimes men of very good business indeed–who made a decent living and had something in reserve to enable them to send their sons to a particular kind of school, often one that had been in the family for generations. 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were this sort of person, from the class about which Trollope and James and most of the rest of the Victorian novelists wrote. 

This class is often inately suspicious of the aristocracy, as being a group of people likely to get into a lot of debt and act dishonorably.  The fathers would rather have their daughters married to a solid man of business in the City or a lawyer with a good practice than to a lord.

Some of the women tend to be something else, impressed beyond reason with titles. But such women are not  presented favorably in these books.  Think of Lizzie Eustace (in The Eustace Diamonds), and the contrast with Mary Gray (of Can You Forgive Her).

But at issue here, and especially in the James novel I’m reading, is a particular way of life and a particular way of being in the world.

The first requirement of this way of being in the world is a highly refined sensibility about just about everything–a sensitiveness to cleanliness, taste and civility of a kind that is difficult to maintain in poverty.

(Although not impossible.  Dickens presents a number of characters over the course of his books who in fact are able to maintain such things in poverty, and sometimes even while working as governesses or hiring out as seamstresses.  See  Esther Summerson in Bleak House.)

It is this refinement of senstivity–the “gentleness” in “gentleman” and “gentlewoman,” that is at issue for all the characters in all these novels. 

And that’s true in Austen as well–the instinctive recoil against the “vulgar,” which is not a matter of money but of manners, of understanding, and of feeling.

What interests me about James, not just in the novel I’m reading but in almost all the ones I’ve read, is that he is quite clear that the means necessary to maintain such a status for a good hunk of the people in it completely destroy just that “gentleness” that they are supposedly so desperate to preserve.

And for women, the “gentleness” is always an illusion, a matter of not looking at the reality of their lives. 

Like I said yesterday, in James, there is no gauze veil cast discretely over the fact that the women of this class, whether rich or poor, are simply and brutally bought and sold. 

So–Kate Croy and Milly Theale tomorrow.

Which is Mother’s Day.

Written by janeh

May 8th, 2010 at 5:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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