Gatsby, Huck and another American classic

I have been reading a lot of free eBooks lately, including three American classics. The one I had not read before is Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which also exists as a stage play. It is impossible to read it today without thinking of Donald Trump. as this review of a recent stage performance notes.

As if the current political climate weren’t worrisome enough for many people, Foothill Theatre Arts presents “It Can’t Happen Here.”

It chronicles the rise of a populist presidential candidate who promises better times, wins the office and then oversees the country’s rapid demise into fascism and repression.

Sinclair Lewis wrote his prescient novel in 1935 when rabble-rousing Huey Long was running for president (he was assassinated before being nominated) against Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler’s Nazi regime was rising in Europe.

But it is also very much of the 1930s, so don’t expect too close a parallel. Worth noting nonetheless.

I reread with undiminished pleasure The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald. A few years ago I posted Gatsby revisited. My recent reading is rather more positive than that post. I just relished every sentence!

Finally, after what must be almost forty years I have reread Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I find myself agreeing with those who find the final chapter annoying. Without Tom Sawyer the novel had up to that point had passages of utter brilliance. For example:

CHAPTER XIX.

TWO or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely.  Here is the way we put in the time.  It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them.  Then we set out the lines.  Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come.  Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe.  The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

Beautiful!

On whether the last chapter is a let-down, see Ending of Huck Finn and Is Huckleberry Finn’s ending really lacking?

Here is something else I noticed in my rereading.

Soon as it was night out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.

And:

The waves most washed me off the raft sometimes, but I hadn’t any clothes on, and didn’t mind.

Here is a recent controversy deriving from that: ‘Huck and Jim’ Sculpture Too Nude For New York Debuts at Art Institute .

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What do you think?

Years ago there was a common view that Mark Twain was “henpecked” and that his work, including Huckleberry Finn, was censored by his wife. See this 1992 article which also objects to the theory.

When Resa Willis decided to study Olivia Langdon Clemens, the wife of Samuel L. Clemens (aka Mark Twain), she turned to previous biographies. She discovered that none existed.

How curious that the wife of Mark Twain, America’s best-known writer, should elude biographers until now, while the spouses and lovers of lesser lights have become cottage industries for academics and publishing houses. It is all part of the Twain mythology. We don’t want to know about Livy (Olivia’s nickname) because she was this typically repressive Victorian uber-mama who tried (with some success, according to this theory) to suffocate his fragile genius…

Willis asserts that Livy tried to “civilize” Clemens by trying to curb his swearing, drinking and smoking, but she makes it clear that Livy soon accustomed herself to her husband’s habits. And although during their courtship she planned to turn Clemens into a Christian, she instead followed her husband and fell away from regularly observing the Sabbath during their marriage.

As to Livy’s editing, Twain credited her with significantly improving his works. Willis notes that Howells wanted to cut out two “dirty” scenes in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that Livy hadn’t touched. She had not objected to the use of the word “hell,” even though Twain himself was troubled by it afterward…

See also on another controversy Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘n-words’ is unacceptable .

A new edition of Huckleberry Finn expunges its repeated use of ‘nigger’ for understandable reasons, but betrays a great anti-racist novel in the process…

Language counts here. As Twain himself said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I respect the motivation of Alan Gribben, the senior Twain scholar who is responsible for the new edition, and who wishes to bring the book back into easy classroom use, believing “that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s … novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.”

But it’s exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author’s words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.

Absolutely. Do read an unbowdlerised Huckleberry Finn!

For more on Mark Twain, go to History.com.

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Reading a lot…

I am still not online at home, so am only around the blog when I take my laptop to visit a free wifi somewhere. Fortunately there are a lot around.

Meanwhile I have really been digging back into the e-Books — over 2,000 in my Calibre library. For some reason I am revisiting D H Lawrence in a big way, including just lately the famous Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which actually is rather good. Really! Currently I am reading this:

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Yes, The Rainbow (1915). I suspect it is around fifty years since I last read it.

Also been reading The Book of Mormon. Politeness restrains me from giving too blunt an  opinion, beyond the fact that it must be one of the greatest unacknowledged works of 19th-century American fiction.

Been reading more besides. Alberto Ambard and  Amelia Mondragón, High Treason (2012), which I got free from Smashwords, is well worth discovering.

This passionate novel mixes the recent history of Venezuela, from the moment Hugo Chávez took power until he consolidated power. The novel helps understand the terrible situation Venezuela is experiencing today and it is an intimate image of the emotions felt by Venezuelan society in response to the radical changes the country has seen.                                                   

Living with the facts of our history

There has been a kerfuffle lately about this statue on Sydney’s Hyde Park.

Hyde Park Captain Cook

Obviously recent events in the USA have caused this current crop, notably the observations of Stan Grant in America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours. Grant’s key point is quite reasonable:

Think of those words: “Discovered this territory.” My ancestors were here when Cook dropped anchor. We know now that the first peoples of this continent had been here for at least 65,000 years, for us the beginning of human time.
Yet this statue speaks to emptiness, it speaks to our invisibility; it says that nothing truly mattered, nothing truly counted until a white sailor first walked on these shores.
The statue speaks still to terra nullius and the violent rupture of Aboriginal society and a legacy of pain and suffering that endures today…

Captain Cook’s statue stands in the centre of our biggest city. There are Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed.
Personally I accept that it remains; Cook is part of the story of this nation.
But surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he “discovered” this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook.
This was not an empty land.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defending Australia Day this week, said it is also a day we honour Indigenous Australians.
If he is serious then what could be more apt than to correct a monument that tells us, still, that in 1770 we did not exist?

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In 1879

Do have a look at Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Visions of Captain Cook.

Let rum-tanned mariners prefer
To hug the weather-side of yards,
‘Cats to catch mice’ before they purr,
Those were the captain’s enigmatic words.
Here, in this jolly-boat they graced,
Were food and freedom, wind and storm,
While, fowling-piece across his waist,
Cook mapped the coast, with one eye cocked for game.

And now we have a concern about a recent statue of Governor Macquarie.

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Keep in mind that Lachlan Macquarie was among the most enlightened and humane of our early NSW governors. Macquarie definitely deserves a statue, but on the other hand:

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See my post Bicentenary of Dharawal massacre in Appin area.

I say keep these statues, but correct their inscriptions where they are plain wrong. We should then face ALL our history.

Update

Typical! Here’s the OTT sensationalising of, essentially, Stan Grant’s article as filtered by the Daily Terror! Talk about “fake news!”

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So disappointing! 26 August

Referring to the news item on SBS: ‘Change the date’: Vandals attack statues in Australia Day protest. On Facebook I have said: “How disappointing! Turnbull —shame on him— is being a total arse, and is dead wrong himself, and these vandals are self-righteous pricks with no understanding of history either. Given my family history I am utterly opposed to ALL those right/left who have made such a hash of the perfectly sane and reasonable points made by Stan Grant. Why can’t we all just grow up? ”

Next day!

I stand by the everything from “these vandals are self-righteous pricks” on, though there may have been just one vandal. I have however been too harsh on Malcolm Turnbull, given what he actually wrote on Facebook. Shame about his “Stalinist” claptrap, but this is fair enough I think:

Tearing down or defacing statues of our colonial era explorers and governors is not much better than that. Of course Cook didn’t “discover” Australia anymore than Columbus “discovered” America or Marco Polo “discovered” China. I knew that when as a schoolboy I first read the inscription.

The statue gives a perspective of history from the time it was erected – 1879. Just as a history text in the Mitchell Library from the same era would do. Is the next step of this new totalitarianism to burn the 19th century histories of Australia as well, or should their yellowing pages be simply overwritten in crude graffiti condemning their long dead authors?

Old histories should not be burned, anymore than old statues should be torn down. Rather they should be challenged and complemented by new histories, fresh evidence and modern monuments.

And now to be really provocative, here is a thought that often crosses my mind:

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Re-reading Lawrence 55 years on

Using my Calibre reader on HP Junior I am rereading Sons and Lovers, having first read it in 1962. It holds up well. But how little of it did I really understand at the age of 18 in 1962?

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Hard to believe it was first published over a century ago! See Blake Morrison, Sons and Lovers: a century on.

Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the “great tradition” of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as “England’s greatest novelist” and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: “Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect.” The perfection wasn’t apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel’s reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence’s critical standing.

To anyone of my generation, that dip is a puzzle…

Poem of the day: W H Auden

Now what makes me think again of this poem, which has haunted me ever since I first read it at Sydney University when I was 16?

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SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

by W.H. Auden

 

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.