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:


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!


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.


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 .


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

Robert Frost: After Apple-picking

Robert Frost 18741963

After Apple-picking

MY long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

And the 45th President of the United States MIGHT be….


Now lest you think I searched for the scariest, dopiest picture I could find… not so! This is the one Rupert Murdoch’s is currently using to top its feed Republican National Convention, day three: Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence feature.

Thanks to ABC News 24 we have been, if we chose, exposed to more of this American circus than we ever wanted to know. I watched quite a bit of it yesterday and wondered if it was real. Reality TV? A Nuremberg rally? A mix of the two? Or a remake of Citizen Kane? And so I was drawn back to some of the genuine touchstones of 20th century American culture, for which I am duly grateful.



And I thought of this:

Death of a Salesman has always been gripping, but our current economic climate makes it all the more devastating for modern audiences. The dream of success remains the American Dream, but the idea that success is more likely to end in disappointment is a reality of our times. The notion that people are disposable is terribly difficult to swallow, but it’s true.

Every artist recognizes a little of Willy Loman in himself, and I don’t think my father is an exception. Willy is selling himself, but also a vision of himself. Essentially, he’s selling air. There’s no rock bottom for Willy. Any artist or businessman who makes something out of nothing has been there at one point or another.

That’s Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca on the great Death of a Salesman.


“Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and your finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman has got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.”

“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.”

“When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich.”

Uncle Ben for President?


“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Do I need to tell you that one?

And I am so so glad that our recent election was, comparatively speaking, free  of some of the nauseating bullshit I witnessed on ABC News 24 yesterday. I am even rather pledging allegiance in gratitude to Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, and her heirs and successors. For one thing I look really dreadful in a red bandanna.

Saturday Updates

You really must read this fact-check: Donald Trump Promises Not To Lie, Right Before Lying A Bunch Of Times. Sadly, though, the subheading is too true: But don’t expect his supporters to care.

In news that will come as little surprise to anybody who has followed the campaign closely, Trump’s [acceptance] speech was littered with misleading claims and even a few flat-out untruths.

Some were obvious, like when he said, “America is one of the highest-taxed nations in the world.” It isn’t. In fact, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is among the least-taxed nations in the world…

Of course, deception has been a hallmark of the Trump campaign. Independent, nonpartisan organizations like Politifact and have called out Trump over and over again for his misrepresentations, many of them blatant and obvious.

And while they’ve cited misrepresentations by Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, they’ve found her deceptions to be both less frequent and less extreme than his.

Will Trump’s supporters care? Probably not.

And then I saw that wonderful Aussie marvel First Dog on the Moon: Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight and don’t bring facts to a Republican convention.

And then! Today’s Cathy Wilcox cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald.


In 1908…


This was one of a massive series. It is interesting that a fundamentalist home-schooler called Miss Maggie commends the series as a valuable resource.

Another quality found in older books is that they were written at a time when God and the Bible were an assumed part of daily life.  This contrasts sadly with our current situation where the mere mention of God, Jesus, Christianity or the Bible will get a book banned from the public school curriculum in a heart-beat. 

Morality in most older books is based firmly upon the Holy Inspired Scriptures.  Heroes and heroines in these books, both fictional and historical, often quote bible verses and refer to bible stories. Qualities such as honesty, cooperation, perseverance in times of trouble, respecting one’s elders, forgiving others, and being kind to one’s siblings are encouraged and rewarded.  We see characters struggle with everyday temptations; then we discover how they overcome their situations and rise above their carnal nature.  What a refreshing change this is compared to modern literature.  I want my children to have good examples of moral behavior.  I want them to read books that show the consequences of immorality on a level that they can grasp, remember and ponder in their quiet moments.  These books give children something to aspire to as they grow older and set standards that will be remembered for the rest of their lives.  If I limited myself to recently published books for my children’s education I’m afraid that I would have to look long and hard to find modern equivalents with similar moral standards.

The book begins thus:


Australia, though a continent, is a part of the Empire of Great Britain. A few years ago it was a wild country, where no white people lived, filled with Blacks, who were man-eating savages. These are fast dying out, but in this story you will learn something about them, and of the lives of your Australian Cousins.

Isn’t that sweet?

Read on:

“What kind of a place is Sydney?” asked Fergus.

“It is a fine city, my boy, and very different from what it was when Botany Bay was peopled with felons.”

“What are felons?” asked Jean.

“Felons are people who have done wrong and must be kept in prison for punishment in the hope that they will learn to do right,” answered Mr. Hume. “Botany Bay was named by the botanist Joseph Banks who was with Cook when he made his first voyage in 1770. It is an inlet near Sydney and the English sent their criminals there until 1840. Such men as behaved well when they reached the colony were allowed to leave the penal settlement upon tickets, and were called ‘ticket of leave men.’ They could be followed up and brought back if they misbehaved in any way. Many of them were good men who had been led into wrongdoing and were glad to have a chance to be good again. They went out into the ‘bush,’ cleared farms or sheep stations, and many of them grew rich. Quite a number of the good citizens of Australia to-day, could, if they would, trace their descent back to ‘ticket of leave’ men.”

“I shouldn’t think they would like to do that,” said Fergus. “I wouldn’t like any one to know that my people had done wrong.”

“Everybody does wrong,” said Jean sagely.

“Yes, but every one isn’t found out,” her brother answered. “When they are, it hurts.”

“But if it’s found out that they’re sorry and are going to do good for ever and ever,” the little girl looked puzzled, “then does it matter?”

“Dear little childish point of view,” said her mother, with a smile, and her father added,

“It would be a good thing if older people felt so.”

Sydney looked beautiful enough as their ship steamed into the bay to pay them for their troublesome voyage. The harbour is one of the handsomest in the world. The city is picturesquely situated upon the bold and rocky slopes which rise from the water’s edge and is defended from any possible attack by bristling forts and batteries…

Here is Jean:


And here is Jean getting a bit of a scare in the bush:


The leaves parted and a black face peered through the bushes, fierce black eyes gazed at the child, as she stood speechless with astonishment, gazing at a perfectly strange Black. She did not speak, she was too frightened to scream, and the Black too was silent. With her floating, golden hair, her wide blue eyes, her fair cheek turned to gold by the rays of the setting sun, which shone full upon her, the rest of her body concealed by the branches with which Kadok had filled the mouth of the cave, she looked like a creature of air rather than earth, and so the Black thought her. With a wild cry of “Kurru! Kurru!” he let go his hold of the branches, and Jean could hear him crashing through the bushes in mad haste to get away….

My mother was born in 1911, when this book was the latest thing pretty much. She was also Jean. Just thought I’d mention that…

Yes, there are even YouTubes of the book! Does that make it a classic?

“Kadok found cup for little Missa,” he said, pulling from his belt a battered tin cup. “Think white man drop it, little Missa can have honey-water to drink.” He cut a piece of the honeycomb and put it in the cup of water. Jean drank the sweet drink and almost smacked her lips.

“It is ever so nice, Kadok,” she said. “It tastes like the sugar-water the American children’s black mammy used to give us.”

“Who was that?” he asked curiously.

“There were three children of America came to stay at my uncle’s place, oh, a long time ago before we came to Australia. They had a nurse, a black woman. She was ever so black, not brown like you, Kadok, and so good and nice. I used to like her very much. That was the reason I was not afraid, when the black man told me to come and see the gin who was sick. I thought he would be good like Dinah and bring me right back.”

“Black people very much like white people,” said Kadok. “Some black face white heart, some black all way through. Some white face very black heart,” and the boy shook his head.

“Think yopolo cooked. Him smell fine,” he said, sniffing the scent which came from the fire.

The yopolo was indeed done and delicious. It was very tender and tasted like spring chicken. It was a queer supper for the little Scotch girl, seated cross-legged on the floor of the cave, as she drank honey-water and cut off bits of meat for herself and Kadok.

Mind you, if you want vintage Oz kiddie lit go to some much more authentic stuff than that, for example 1899’s Dot and the Kangaroo by Ethel Pedley.


Or 1918’s wonderful The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay.


On the other hand, at least Mary Nixon-Roulet has Indigenous Australians in her book, even if they are “fast dying out”… See also Clare Bradford (pdf):  “Representing Indigeneity: Aborigines and  Australian Children’s Literature Then and Now“.

And speaking of OzLit, check out Whispering Gums, which I have only just found!

Gatsby revisited

I guess you probably know that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, opens next month.

It may well be really good. The 1974 one wasn’t all that bad either. So I have been rereading The Great Gatsby and really savouring it – not for the plot, but for totally gobsmacking writing like this, which no film could ever really emulate:

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues. while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

The hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues…


Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the book – but nor did I the first time I read it, because I had to teach it in an HSC some time in the 1970s.  Not absolutely convinced being on the HSC entirely does the book a favour either.  For the skeptics about the novel see Neither love nor loathing…a review of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Great Gatsby is a strange book for me to review. Exciting neither great love nor great loathing, even I find my own opinions of it rather dull. I read the story in a rather matter-of-fact frame of mind and finished it without feeling any great emotion or shock. The story simply began, padded along and then rolled serenely to a close. As I clapped the covers together, having finished, I didn’t feel any strong emotions, rather just an “oh, so that’s how it ends” reaction. It seems odd to me that a book such as The Great Gatsby should feel more alien to me than, say, a book set hundreds of years ago like Middlemarch or a story about a gender-shifting Duke like Orlando…but it does.

That reviewer, it appears, was reading for plot and life lessons. This time round I wasn’t. Rather like Melina Marchetta, whose introduction to the new Text film tie-in was published in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, I was rather savouring the brilliance of the language which can make even lists sing.

On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.

“He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass.”

Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.

Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember. He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden. From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells. Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand. The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga’s girls…


7 May 2013

Compare Schulz: Why I Despise The Great Gatsby.