Dystopian and Utopian Novels, Oct. 2017

Last October, impending nuclear war was dominating the national news, so I organized a group of eight retired English teachers to read Alas, Babylon, an upbeat dystopian novel about life in central Florida after the Bomb.

The plan was actually for us to read three novels–two dystopian and one utopian.  We began with H. G. Wells’s short novel The Time Machine (1895) to consider the author’s Fabian socialist political arguments as he dramatized them by depicting how human culture could develop thousands of years from now with a dependent group of Eloi living carefree lives above ground while living off the Morlocks who work underground.  Wells worried that continued oppression of workers would lead to a dependent leisure class which would eventually be brutalized by the oppressed.  Our discussions included Wells’s notions of evolution, social Darwinism, politics, and economics. We also read the deleted chapter, “The Grey Man,” which editor William Ernest Henley had “interpolated” into the serialized initial printing of Wells’s novel.  Henley’s ostensible goal was to add a scene of the “ultimate degeneracy” of humankind.  Wells, however, deleted this from the later book edition.

After The Time Machine our group discussed Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887, one the top-selling books of nineteenth America, which was the impetus of the Bellamyite Movement with hundreds of progressive-utopian socialist political clubs (Bellamy Clubs) from Massachusetts to California.  This novel apparently outsold all other American novels of the 1800’s except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur.  Our group agreed that Bellamy’s novel of ideas sometimes seems labored as the dialogue explains in-depth how social values can improve society, but the topic is timely today; and the novel opened the conversation to political discussion that was elevated above the combative election-focused politics we always hear in the news.

For the final two Fridays our group enjoyed the optimism of Pat Frank’s after-the-bomb novel, Alas, Babylon (1959) which is set within an hour’s drive from us.  We noted the cinematic quality of this novel and how the characters became real for us.  Some of us agreed that several times when we were not reading the novel we would feel eerily that what we were experiencing at the moment was the same as if we were in the novel; for example, a jet would fly over, and we would “be” in a moment in the novel, as if the novel were what was actually happening in the world and not just in a book.  Our discussions ranged from the novel itself to our experiences with fallout shelters in the 1960s and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as we lived it in Central Florida in October 1962.  All of us became caught up in this novel, and we were sorry to have it end.

 (If you live near Ormond Beach and think you would like to join a future group, e-mail me at dennybowden@bellsouth.net.)

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The Short Story from pre-Romanticism through Today’s Postmodernism, June 2017–Sept. 2017

Last summer I gathered six English teachers (four of whom teach AP Literature) for us to read 36 representative short stories during June and July to experience the development of the short story genre from its inception to today’s Postmodernist experiments.  Our primary text was James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories (Dover), and we met each Monday afternoon for six weeks.

I was spurred to find early short fiction that typifies what was being read before the short story genre was established by Washington Irving, so I selected two stories published in 1774 in the British magazine Town and Country and three stories published in 1794 in The Massachusetts Magazine.  My expectations were confirmed that this early fiction lacks plot development, characterization, plausibility, and dialogue.  The titles themselves gave us an indication of the incipient nature of this late-sixteenth-century fiction: “The Half-Sister,” “The Merited Disappointment,” “Charlotte, or the Power of Virtue,” “Adelisa, a Tale,” and “The Instantaneous Impression.”

The second week we discussed the influence of Romanticism as the genre of the short story was “born” with endeavors for artistry, especially with an effort in the development of plot and the use of symbols.   We used Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824), Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” (1837), and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846).

The third week we discussed how Realists reacted against Romanticism after the horrors of the American Civil War.  We noted the authors’ developing techniques in the crafting of characters, the more intricate shaping of plots, and the use of materials that the reader could accept as “real.”  Our readings were Bret Harte’s  “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1875), Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1876), Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” (1886), Charles Waddell Chestnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” (1887), and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A New England Nun” (1891).

The fourth Monday we discussed the attributes of Naturalism and Impressionism by writers who wished to move even further than Realism.  To do so, we read stories representative of the literary period’s grimness, jadedness, and fatalism:  Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898), Crane’s “The Veteran” (1896), Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” (1893), Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings” (1897), Jack London’s “The White Silence” (1900), London’s “The Leopard Man’s Story” (1903), and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891).

For our fifth Monday we examined Modernists’ rejections of Realism and also Late Modernists’ extension of interior narrative which eschews Realist chronology as naive failure to create Reality through plot.  We had some animated discussions of  Willa Cather’s “A Wagner Matinee” (1905), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Cottagette” (1910), Gilman’s “If I Were a Man” (1914), Djuna Barnes’s “Smoke” (1913), Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg” (1921), Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” (1921), and Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (1922).

We closed out our six weeks of short stories with discussion of Postmodernists’ rejection of plot, characterization, and even dialogue, which caused us to consider that in 1774 authors had not mastered these elements of short fiction and in 2016 Postmodernists were demonstrating their ability to parody those elements, sometimes with flippancy and sometimes with a knowing grasp of the shortcomings of fiction altogether.  The Postmodernist short stories we used were Vonnegut’s “2BR02B” (1962), John Barth’s “Frame Story” (1968), Donald Barthelme’s “At the End of the Mechanical Age” (1973), Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” (1981), Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (1987), David Foster Wallace’s “Everything Is Green” (1989), Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” (2011), and Robert Coover’s “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm” (2016).

I felt great satisfaction in arranging for current-day teachers to explore chronologically the evolution of the short story genre through the various literary movements–pre-Romanticism, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.

I enjoyed our engaging conversations so much that I gathered eight of us retired English teachers to do the same stories in August and September.

 (If you live near Ormond Beach and think you would like to join a future group, e-mail me at dennybowden@bellsouth.net.)

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Conversations about Great Literature

“It’s like being in college again!  But without the tests!”

I couldn’t have heard a better praise of our literature discussion groups.

Each Friday is like a college seminar with no pressure–eight of us gathered around a table at a local pizza place for an hour and a half of enthusiastic conversation about serious literature.

Before I retired, my office mates asked me what I would do with myself, and I said that I’d like to follow Milton’s path:  He had said that his plan after completing college was to retire to his father’s estate for seven years of private studies.

I’m blessed now to be absorbed in the insights of others about literature of significance.   And without tests!

Currently, we’re reading Aldous Huxley’s first two novels, Crome Yellow and Antic Hay, which are nothing like his Brave New World.

I plan to post an update with brief comments about the books we’ve read since June 2017, after which I’ll post comments about the books we’re discussing this month.

(If you live near Ormond Beach and think you would like to join a future group, e-mail me at dennybowden@bellsouth.net.)


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Puritan Background to Hawthorne

As I mentioned in the meeting on Monday, Hawthorne misrepresents Puritanism in “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter.  In fact, Hawthorne depicts Puritans as the opposite of their actual faith and practices.

Puritans believed that faith is a gift from God: faith is not something you can obtain by your own will.

Puritans believed that “good works” have nothing to do with salvation.

Puritans believed that you cannot earn salvation–it is a gift of God’s (free) grace.

Puritans believed that everyone is born a sinner, and the only salvation is through the perfect righteousness of Jesus (his sinless life, as well as his death).  No “good work” (being good) has anything to do with God freely saving people.  God saves (out of mercy) because He loves.

Puritans believed that Christians are known by their love.  (When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, he said to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and might, and to love your neighbor as yourself).

Puritans believed that they must love God and love people.

Puritans believed that if they would not forgive someone, then God would not forgive them either (as in Jesus’s “Lord’s Prayer”).

Puritans believed that daily repentance and prayer shows love to God, and the focus of repentance and prayer is always to make the person to become more like Christ.

Hawthorne does not represent Puritans as having any of their true beliefs.

As I mentioned in Mondays’ meeting, Hawthorne felt guilt that his ancestor Judge Hathorne was the only Salem Witch Trials judge who never repented.  Hawthorne even changed the spelling of his own last name to distance himself from Judge Hathorne.  Interestingly, Judge Hathorne was the only Salem Witch Trial judge who did not do what Puritans were taught to do–pray for God to reveal their sins to them in prayer so that they could repent to live in God’s favor and blessing (not in guilt–as Hawthorne represents Puritans).

By the way, tens of thousands of witches were killed (by non-Puritans) in England, Germany, and other European countries, but only 19 were killed by the Puritans in Massachusetts.  Hawthorne helped to embellish the myth that the killers of witches were Puritans.

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Chekhov Comic One-Acts

The eight people in our Chekhov Group will begin our “cold readings” of comic one-acts, choosing up parts to read aloud in the restaurant.  It should be lots of fun to become like the students we’ve had in our classes.

We’ll probably start with a whimsical Chekhov play about a “spirited widow” who is being pressured to pay a debt, but the play takes an unexpected turn.

If we have time, the eight of us may also separate into tables-of-two to read aloud (at 4 separate tables) a 15-minute play that has only two characters.

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Romanticism–British and American

Steve sent this to me by e-mail, and he has permitted me to post it on the blog.  I hope you’ll submit a reply/comment and also send me by e-mail a piece you’d like to have posted as a “new” topic on the blog.

Steve’s comments on Romanticism:

Wordsworth’s Prelude (published posthumously in 1850 a full seven years after his appointment as Poet Laureate in April 1843) captures an essence of Romanticism in the following verse from its first Book, lines 340-356:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows

Like harmony in music; there is a dark

Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, makes them cling together

In one society. How strange that all

The terrors, pains, and early miseries,

Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused

Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,

And that a needful part, in making up

The calm existence that is mine when I

Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!

Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;

Whether her fearless visitings, or those

That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light

Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use

Severer interventions, ministry

More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

 Not only has our poet engaged in a quest to determine the patterns of the natural world as he predicts Darwin’s November 24, 1859, publication of his Origin of Species, but he has also re-cast the role of observer and message. From Wordsworth’s vantage point, he imbues his message with psychological dissonance, and his discourse reduces to a key element that of his becoming worthy of his own existential understanding. Either Nature teaches him through semiotics or his emergence within himself portends a road to enlightenment. Akin to Darwin, Wordsworth exercises a unique form of natural selection—one of ideas, hypothesis testing, and participant observation—and his product is that of humanity’s search for its place in nature. In similar yet devolved fashion, Milton’s muse, at least his homage to inspiration in the first book of Paradise Lost, is the essence of the Holy Spirit, while Wordsworth evolves and invokes the grace of the  “[w]isdom and Spirit of the Universe! Thou Soul that are the eternity of thought.”

 I believe that the foundations of Romanticism are in Wordsworth. Critics and scholars have argued for centuries whether American Romanticism evolved spontaneously or as a learned social imitation. Similarities among: Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller (Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli) to Wordsworth and to the early British “punk rockers” like Byron and the Shelleys and others are obvious—now— in the same way that a finch and an ostrich, a dog and a wolf, a goat and an antelope all seem to fit within Nature’s (and man’s) pattern and plan.

 As for this week’s readings, we are beginning to see the emergence of: alternatives to mindless veneration of God and County (Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller), psychological literature (Poe and Hawthorne), horror and Gothic (Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe), scientific inquiry (Hawthorne and Poe’s detective works), and settings that are more-or-less quasi-unique to America. Unfortunately, the American Romantics wrote in genre-specific formula for the most part; this may be a product of critics and editors’ selections, learned behavior, or simply the zeitgeist. As fun as it is to tease through the truth and beauty of the message, one must continually seek evolution of genre—IMO. 


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Literary Romanticism

During the late 18th century and the 19th century, Europe and America rejected the formalism of Neoclassicism in painting, music, literature, and even gardening.  Attention moved from interests in nobility and the “proper-ness” of powdered wigs and geometrically designed formal gardens.  Instead, concerns turned to the common man–his life and language, his emotions and yearnings for individual freedom.

The formalism of Neoclassical painting can be seen on the back of the $2 bill: two-dollar bill

In contrast, this is an example of a Romanticist painting: Romantic painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” is an example of neoclassical formalism:  Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent, as more suitable;
A vile conceit in pompous words express’d,
Is like a clown in regal purple dress’d:

In contrast, Walt Whitman’s romanticist freedom is seen in the opening of his “Song of Myself”:                                                                                                                                                     I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as well belongs to you.

I’m over-simplifying, of course, but I hope my informality will encourage you to submit a comment about Romanticism.

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Bloomsday, June 16, 1904

Steve sent me an e-mail, noting that today is Bloomsday, and I asked him to tell us more about it.  Here’s his posting about Bloomsday.  (I hope you’ll submit a reply.)

Many authors have critiqued Joyce’s Ulysses. There is a decent list here: https://joycefoundation.osu.edu/joyce-copyright/fair-use-and-permissions/bibliography

Personally, I feel that my days as a pedant have waned, so I will suffice it to say that Ulysses offers us a remarkable view into episodic narrative, Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Einstein’s Relativity, Jung’s Synchronicity, and a practical framework for assessing “knowing” and “doing” in letters. Revisionists with obvious social agenda lay claim to Modernism’s foundation, and since I am no longer in the fray, I assert that Ulysses shows ALL of us what we can do with the novel as a medium and an art form; it contorts the aesthetic while tempering it. Finnegan’s Wake confoundingly “broke” the novel, and as we read it, the thunder-words portend an on-coming storm and subsequent death– of the ideal.

Years of formal reflection on Ulysses have led me to the undeniable conclusion that art is alive, despite critics, courts, and schools’ attempts to strangle it into submission, re-state it in the simplest terms, or translate it into something commercial. The opening and closing masturbatory scenes serve as an indictment of Edwardian and Victorian letters, and in an attempt to “make it new,” Ulysses found disparagement among the likes of Virginia Woolf (http://www.openculture.com/2013/09/virginia-woolf-writes-about-joyces-ulysses-never-did-any-book-so-bore-me-and-quits-at-page-200.html) and T.S. Eliot, though both took inspiration from it and worked directly with it. The Honorable John M. Woolsey’s 1933 US District Court, Southern District of New York, decision to lift the ban on the work says it best: “Joyce has attempted– it seems to me, with astonishing success– to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penubral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by associating from the domain of the subconscious.  He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the characters he is describing. What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double, or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.”

In our post-post modern era, we have little time or attention for the periphery, unless, of course, it suits our pre-determined or established agenda or leads to commercial reward or recognition. Social construct has co-opted nearly every aspect of our lives– showing us through competition and FOMO how we must defecate, hibernate, masticate, masturbate, procrastinate, ruminate, AND terminate. Ulysses is as much about the fuzzy, amorphous periphery as it is about a day on June 16 when man both ascended and descended and found his way home.

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Pre-Washington Irving Short Stories

I’m hoping that you’ll want to post informal comments about the stories we discussed yesterday–maybe something you thought about later or something you want to share with the group.

I enjoyed the approaches that you offered in analyzing the pre-Washington Irving stories–Steve’s insight about how the stories of the late 1700s depict America’s secular move from a Christian society and Sheila’s and Leia’s insights about how students could see these 200-year-old stories as addressing similar relational experiences in the lives of teens today.

We didn’t really talk about the view that New Criticism would have had in evaluating these stories, so I want to mention that the stories lack some basic elements of story structure (as valued by New Criticism).  Plot development, for example, is minimal with limited rising action of conflict that builds to a climax and resolution (denouement).  As we said yesterday, the stories do more “telling” than “showing” the action.  Also, characterization fails to “round out” the characters, leaving them to seem like “cardboard” images rather than real people.  Similarly, the stories fail to delineate the setting and time period, sometimes leaving me to speculate about whether the story takes place in the time of ancient Greece or in a pastoral setting of the early 1700s.

What surprised me was how each of you found enjoyment in reading the stories.

I hope you’ll post a comment for others in the group.

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