The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

the age of innocence

The Age of Innocence: “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”

It’s 1870s New York, the Gilded Age of America, where substantial economic growth has bred a culture of wealth, class and entitlement.  There are certain ways you behave and certain ways you don’t.  The approval of the masses govern your actions and if you fall out of step, the resulting repercussions could be fatal to your social standing.  However as opulent as the “gild” may appear, gilding is often used to mask flaws, and Wharton, in this Pulitzer Prize novel, examines the cracks and blemishes of New York society underneath the glamour.

The Age of Innocence Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence (1785 or 1788) Joshua Reynolds source Wikipedia

Newland Archer is a young man who is firmly entrenched in the Gilded Age, the dictums of New York society inscribed in his soul with the expectations of the generation preceding his firmly entrenched in his behaviour.  Then enters Madame Olenska. Ellen Olenska is the cousin of his betrothed, May Welland.  While May is simple and uncomplicated, sort of a clear mirror of the society in which they move, Ellen is foreign and complex and holds an attraction for Newland that draws him outside of his societal shell, allowing him a new perspective on life. Suddenly the world he saw as sensible and practical now receives a critical appraisal from him as it appears small-minded, predictable and stifling.  As his attraction for Ellen grows, so does his dissatisfaction.  There is a possible turning point, but the break never materializes as Newland and May wed, beginning their married life.  Yet Ellen appears in their lives yet again and the uncomfortable unknown is always whispering around us: will Archer satisfy his longing and run away with Ellen or will old society New York curb his emotions and steer him on a more dutiful course?

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The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

(Warning:  There are spoilers galore in this review, but the story itself is quite obvious, not to mention the title, so I spoiled away!)

A few decades ago, I read this short story as an elementary school student.  From what I can remember from a fuzzy recollection is that the tale creeped me completely out and the image of a beating heart under the floorboards thumped around in my consciousness for weeks after.  However, for some reason I remembered the heart being in a box, which is not in the story.  Why, I wonder?  Was it some illustration I’d seen that had left that impression or simply my mind supplying details?

The Tell Tale Heart (1919)
Harry Clarke
source Wikipedia

In any case, The Tell Tale Heart was first published in the literary journal, The Pioneer, in 1843.  It is told in a first person narrative, with the narrator describing a helpless old man whose rheumy blue eye drives him to contemplate the murder of this vulnerable creature.  Although he claims to love the man and have nothing personal against him, the filmy eye is his main focus.  Each night at midnight, he attempts to shine a light on the eye, but each night it does not open and therefore, he claims, he cannot complete his homicidal deed.  Every day, he is kinder to the old man, but on the eighth night, the man calls out before the narrator is able to shine the light, however with patience our murder awaits our terrified victim and when he is able light up the eye, a sense of rage grows within him and he snuffs out the man’s life.  Dismembering him, he hides the body parts beneath the floorboards.  Soon after, a knocking is heard and the narrator opens the door to the police who have heard reports of a shriek and have come to investigate.  Elated with his perceived clever deed, the narrator invites them in and they converse right in the room where the murder occurred, the evildoer supposing the police will never discover his crime.  However ……. ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump …… a noise begins ….. a noise that comes from directly under the floorboards.  The tell tale heart …….  The pounding echoes the pounding in the murder’s head until he is convinced that the police now know all, and bleats out a wild cry:  “Villains!  Dissemble no more!  I admit the deed! —- tear up the planks!  —- here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The Veiled Heart (1932)
Salvador Dali
source Wikiart

Well, well!  And so I reveal the whole story.  Why?  Well, because at first, honestly, it was a huge disappointment.  It’s an interesting story, certainly, but a classic?  Bah!  It’s simply an implied scary story that is mildly shivery, and then soon forgotten.  What a disappointment! But not trusting my own judgement, I looked around to see what others had made of it.  It seemed like no one could draw any sort of deeper meaning from the tale.  There is talk of the unreliable narrator, who is obviously paranoid and psychotic right from the beginning. There is no explanation of the relationship of the narrator to the old man, or really even why he loves him but hates his eye.  So I let the story sit with me a day or two.  When I returned, I had a vague idea ……….. in the beginning the narrator is fixated on the eye of the man; we never are told why but it absorbs all his thoughts until it becomes an obsession.  He murders the old man because he’s convinced that he hates it.  Yet in the end, it is the heart of the man that gives the murderer away.  Could it be a commentary on the outside appearance of a person vs. their inner nature, the eye versus the heart?  We see and react to what is seen on the surface, yet is the heart of a person that is their true character, what will eventually “give them away” so to speak.

My conclusion still seems rather elusive and I’m grasping at a possible meaning that is still out of my reach.  Does anyone else have any thoughts on this or any other interpretations that you’ve discovered?  If so I’d love to hear them!

There is also the theme of the psychosis of the murder, which is rather fascinating.  He continually emphasizes the fact he is NOT crazy, and incessantly accentuates his clever machinations.  And notice in his final words, he calls the police, “villains”. Everything is backwards in his twisted mind.

My next Deal Me In Challenge choice will be the essay, Doodles in the Dictionary by Aldous Huxley.

Week 9 – Deal Me In Challenge – Five of Clubs

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.”

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925.  He was the fourth of seven children, his father being an outspoken Baptist speaker.  The family relocated to Lansing, Michigan where they were targets of attacks of the Black Legion, a racist group led by whites.  Before Malcolm’s seventh birthday, his father was killed in a streetcar accident, but rumours of the Black Legion’s involvement were rife.  When a relationship with a man she was dating deteriorated, Malcolm’s mother had a breakdown and was placed in a mental asylum where she remained for 24 years.  At fourteen, he began to get involved in all sorts of illegal activity, from gambling, hustling, drug dealing, racketeering, pimping, etc in New York City.  He became a thug and a criminal, hanging out at music halls and smoking “reefers”, living a wild life on the edge:

“Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind.  I viewed narcotics as most people regard food.  I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties.  Deep down I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently.  I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time.  But then, I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane ways.”

Finally at 20 years old, an attempted robbery landed the young man in prison, where he finally discovered through one of his brothers, the “natural religion of the black man”, the Nation of Islam.  Through their prophet Elijah Muhammed, a new history of the black man was revealed:  600 years ago everyone was black but a “Mr. Yacub”, a scientist with a large head decided to break the peace.  Exiled to Patmos (the same island were the Apostle John lived when he wrote Revelations), Yacub, embittered towards Allah, made a race of “bleached-out white people” through his followers.  In two hundred years the black people were eliminated, two hundred more and the brown people followed, then two hundred each for the red people and the yellow people (yes, the math doesn’t add up, but I’m just repeating the story).  The new white people were like animals, walking on all fours and living in trees and it was two hundred years before they returned to civilization and made it a living hell.  All the black people’s problems stemmed from this “devil white race”.  History had been completely rewritten by the white man.  X also figured out that because the King James Bible was considered the ultimate in English and the King had poets write it, Shakespeare must have written it.  So in Malcolm X’s mind, King James used the alias of Shakespeare and wrote the Bible to “enslave the world”.   And thus, Malcolm X began to correspond with his siblings & Elijah Muhammend, read any book he could to support his position and to recruit for the NOI (Nation of Islam).  He was successful with converting some followers, but the majority thought their tenants strange, to say the least, and rejected his overtures.

Malcolm X before a press
conference (1954)
source Wikipedia

Malcolm X despised the white race, but he also showed extreme antipathy towards the black elite, or any black person who did not agree with him, calling them brainwashed by the white people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he labelled a puppet of the white establishment.

“Why you should hear those Negroes attack me, trying to justify, or forgive the white man’s crimes!  These Negroes are people who bring me nearest to breaking one of my principal rules which is never to let myself become over-emotional and angry.  Why, sometimes I’ve felt I ought to jump down off that stand and get physical with some of those brainwashed white man’s tools, parrots, puppets.”

Yet with his evangelizing, NOI numbers slowly grew.  His met his wife, Sister Betty X, at his temple and after they were married, she became a good Muslim wife to him, caring for their children and supporting his ministry.  When questioned about his religious philosophy and its proclivity for spreading hatred, the people questioning him would immediately become “breathing living devils” and X would immediately go on the attack, claiming the white man was in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hatred, or he would accuse them of attacking his people because they were black.  As an artist might work in oils, Malcolm X worked in logical fallacies, painting his rhetorical and philosophical landscapes with circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, appeals to fear, tu quoque, and the straw man.

After years of working as Elijah Mohammed’s front man and “minister”, Malcolm X began to act more independently.  Praise was always given to Mohammed, but there were suspicions that his actions were not always pleasing to his superior and that the NOI head resented his subordinate’s popularity.  When Mohammed was accused of sexual impropriety with NOI secretaries, a serious breach of the rules of Islam, Malcolm X attempted to justify his behaviour.  However, with Malcolm X releasing inappropriate comments after John Kennedy’s assassination, in spite of a NOI ban on commenting, the leader felt X had become too independent and prohibited his public speaking for 90 days.  Malcolm X finally left the organization, founding Muslim Mosque, Inc. and in 1964 made a pilgrimmage to Mecca where he was astounded to see believers of all colours. It was the beginning of a change within the charismatic leader and when he returned to the States, there was tone moderation in some of his discourses.

“Yes —- I wrote a letter from Mecca.  You’re asking me ‘Didn’t you say that now you accept white men as brother?’  Well, my answer is that in the Muslim World, I saw, I felt, and I wrote home how my thinking was broadened!  Just as I wrote, I shared true, brotherly love with many white-complexioned Muslims who never gave a single thought to the race, or to the complexion, of another Muslim …….  In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people.  I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man.  The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against black ….. (it) was the first time I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America, and how their attitudes and their motives related to, and affected Negroes.”

He finally saw that it wasn’t “the American white man who is a racist, but … the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourished a racist psychology in the white man.” His inclusion now did not only cross the boundaries of race but also religion and political philosophy.  Suddenly Malcolm X began to get an inkling that his previous experiences which formed his views might have been based on ignorance, and he strove for a change.  Finally, we see a man struggling with new ideas that perhaps are trying to kick the old ones aside, as he tried to merge his new identity with the old one.  And we get a glimpse of some perhaps insightful self-examination:

“For the freedom of my 22 million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do beliee that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the short-comings that I have had.  I know that my shortcomings are many.”

Malcolm X defends his house
Photo from Ebony magazine
source Wikipedia

In spite of his new outlook and more moderate thinking, Malcolm X’s rhetoric did not noticably change, other than the added sprinkling of more impartial comments.  It would have been interesting to see where this new-wakening would have taken him but it was not to be.  He knew his time was running out, as his divide with NOI had stirred a pot of vipers.

“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.  In any city, wherever I go, making speeches, holding meetings of my organization, or attending to other business, black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.  I have said publicly many times that I know that they have their orders.  Anyone who chooses not to believe wht I am saying doesn’t know the Muslims in the Nation of Islam …..  each day I live as if I am already dead …..”

In an epilogue added by Alex Haley, we learn of Malcolm X’s demise.  At a conference in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American unity, Malcolm X was shot multiple times by three men rushing the stage.  He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital with 21 bullet holes in his body. The three men, Nation of Islam members, were arrested and imprisoned for his murder.

✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥

This book is brutally appalling and without encouragement from Ruth, I would probably not have finished it.  The vicious hatred and counter-disease of racial prejudice was so palpable it was nearly unbearable, being very similar to Hilter’s discourses in Mein Kampf.  Personally, while I could never condone hatred, I could at least understand animosity against a person who had perpetrated an horrible act against him.  But I couldn’t understand the savage hatred against people who had never done a thing to him but only shared the same colour of skin as those who had oppressed his people.  As I read his speeches and invectives, I did not feel like Malcolm X was speaking for his people; he was simply mentally creating a situation that he wanted to believe and acted on it, his own philosophy being more important than the people he was trying to vindicate.  It was only in the latter part of the book that his views began to be adjusted, and it would have been interesting to learn if they would have become even more moderate and inclusive with time.  Sadly, we will now never know.

The most interesting part of the biography was the epilogue written by Alex Haley. Through him we get a sense of Malcolm X, a man who was distrustful of everyone around him, including himself.  Even his friends were seen a partial enemies and his whole life was spent like a hunted animal, either from his own internal expectations, or real threatening circumstances.  Constant drama surrounded X and he appeared to need to feed on it, as one would food for sustenance.  His moods would swing from jubilant to sullen and back again.  Haley had often to lead and coax the black leader to tell about himself, luring him away frominstead of resorting to diatribes against whomever he felt conflicted with him or his views.  Yet even with the often unbalanced raving tirades and untenable attacks, there is no doubt Malcolm X had a compelling magnetism that garnered attention.

The violence through which Malcolm X lived and appeared to advocate, did not only culminate in his death but resonated throughout his family.  In 1995, his daughter Qubilah was arrested and tried for plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, then the leader of the Nation of Islam whom she felt bore the responsibility for her father’s murder.  Two years later, her twelve-year-old son set fire to his grandmother’s house (Betty, Malcolm X’s wife) which caused burns to over 80% of her body and caused her death.  In his 28th year he was found beaten to death in Mexico.

Perhaps Malcolm X did give a type of pride to black Americans but the stain of violence he contributed and left in his wake cannot be seen as a value to anyone as far as I’m concerned.  If those who are advocates for the oppressed act exactly the same as the oppressors, no one benefits and the prejudices and hatred are simply perpetuated.  If it is simply a matter of anger and revenge, we learn nothing.

Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

“I have taken Caliban’s advice.  I have stolen their books.  I will have run of this isle.”

With the first sentence, in his allusion to Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, Richard Rodriguez sets the tone for his memoir, depicting his life as the son of Mexican immigrants.  Is he a monster, an outcast who will use his adversaries’ own weapons to gain power, an identity, and a place in the kingdom?

An avid reader from a very early age, Rodriguez was what he called a “scholarship boy,” earning accolades for his intellect throughout his formative years.  He received his Bachelor of Arts, Master’s Degree and was pursing his Ph.D. when he dropped out of academia to pursue other avenues, finally working as a teacher, a journalist and a writer.  His biography, Hunger of Memory traces the paths of his journey, which took him from the life of an immigrant to his integration as an American citizen.

Each chapter is an essay, as Rodriguez first spoke of his childhood in Sacramento, California, and the beginnings of his education.  As child of Mexican immigrants, as soon as he left his parent’s home to attend school, the institution exerted expectations that slowly began to separate him from the culture from which he had grown, and therefore, his parents.  He recalls with clarity all the differences between the world he knew as a young child and his new American educational existence, from the competing sounds of English and Spanish, to the contrasting experiences between his home life and his life outside his family circle.  Yet Rodriguez’s observations of the transformation of the immigrant led him to criticize the tendency of schools to promote bilingual education so students were able to keep connected to their culture.  Instead, he states that the mere fact that the connection needed to be maintained, already implied that it was lost, and in Rodriguez’s eyes, it was irrevocably irretrievable.  Proponents of bilingual schooling wanted at the same time to help students to gain skills to ensure their public success, but they also wanted to give students an individual identity apart from the public success.  Rodriguez maintained that you cannot have it both ways.  By helping an immigrant maintain a bilingual immigrant status, one merely reinforced the feeling of public separateness, preventing the immigrant from accepting and conforming to his situation.  He is unable to find his public identity.

Downtown Sacramento
source Wikipedia

Rodriguez also explored the challenges of being a “scholarship boy”.  The praise that was earned through his admirable scholastic performances, became like a drug, although he made the ordinary classmates surrounding him uneasy.  He acquired the facts, but not the ability to use them.  However, he continued on, using education to re-shape his life.  It is yet another emphasis of the differences between his old culture and the new.

Raised as a practicing Catholic, church was a integral part of Rodriguez’s life, yet in this area too, he laments the shift in its cultural existence.  Rather than the ceremonial church that he was raised in, worshiping as one with other believes, the church shifted to a more Protestant model, “modernized … demythologized, deflated.”  In the church, too, he went from a private experience within a public group, to a more communal celebration that curiously left him feeling more isolated.

“I miss that high ceremony.  I am saddened by inappropriate music about which it is damning enough to say that it is not good enough, and not even the best of its authentic kind — folk, pop, quasi-religious Broadway show tunes.  I miss the old trappings — trappings that disclosed a different reality ……”

“In the abandoned Latin service it was the priest alone who spoke the affirmation of faith.  It was the priest who said, ‘Credo ….,” using the first person singular.  The differences between the old service and the new can be summarized in this change.  At the old mass, the priest’s Credo (I believe) complexly reminded the congregation of the fact that each person stands before God as an individual, implying at the same time — because the priest could join all voices in his —- the union of believers, the consolation of communal faith.  The listener was assured of his membership in the Church; he was not alone before God.  (The Church would assist him.)  By translating credo into the English first person plural, we believe, the Church no longer reminds the listener that he is alone …… We believe.  We believe.  This assurance is necessary because, in a sense, it no longer is true ….. 

……  I would protest this simplification of the liturgy if I could.  I would protest as well the diminished sense of the sacred in churches today.  I would protest the use of folk music and the hand-holding.  Finally, I cannot.  I suspect the reason I despise the new liturgy is because it is mine ….”

In spite of his dislike of the new practices, curiously, Rodriguez takes responsibility for his part in their development.  Once again, public obligation is emphasized in this philosophy.

source Amazon

The last couple of essays were on Rodriguez’s struggle with his colour, or “complexion”, and lastly his final years of schooling.  He vehemently protested again affirmative action, or the preferrential treatment he was given as a minority student.  The benefits he, and other minorities, received were not in keeping with the spirit of the assistance; he was not in need  —- the disadvantaged Americans where those who were poorly schooled in elementary and high school, many not even reaching the realms of higher education. While he spoke out against it at the time, he still partook in its benefits. Here, he asks for forgiveness from “those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed as a minority student.”

Finally, he revealed his struggles with his memoir, dreading the disapproval of his parents.  Rodriguez had learned to live a public life, but the private life of his upbringing, still conflicted with his reality.  On one hand, he appeared to have a yearning for what he had lost, and it wasn’t clear if the value of what he had gained overrode it. A feeling of collision and urgency were always within the pages, the dichotomy of living in the tension of what we call “life”.

Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

“Begin here.”

Introducing Journal of a Solitude, another out-of-order book for my WEM Biographies Project.  I’m finding the remaining biographies heavy on U.S. content, and being a Canadian I wasn’t at all familiar with May Sarton.  Born in Belgium, when German troops invaded the country, Sarton’s family fled to England, then to Boston, Massachusetts.  As a writer, she wrote a number of novels, poems and memoirs, mostly a commentary on her life and experiences on aging, friendship, depression, lesbianism, doubt, failure, the simple pleasures of life, and other personal musings.

Published in 1973, Journal of a Solitude is a response to her novel Plant Dreaming Deep.  Sarton stated that in the latter novel, people felt that in her they had found an intimate friend, but with Journal, she attempted to shatter that image and produce a reality of herself that was stark and intense, yet honest.  Sarton’s initial description holds a sincere, startling, simple candor:

“I am an ornery character, often hard to get along with.  The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often show itself in turn of phrase.  I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.  I hate small talk with a passionate hatred.  Why?  I suppose because any meeting with another human being is collision for me now.  It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time.  It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours.  It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work.  But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.  I will make every effort to find out the real person, but if I can’t, then I am upset and cross.  Time wasted is poison.”

 

“…. I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many.  My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.  I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears ….”

 

The Common, Nelson, New Hampshire, 1914
source Wikipedia

Sarton’s journal covers one year and gives the reader a warm, intimate view into her life in rural Nelson, New Hampshire.  As she paints her life with words, her thoughts go deep, exposing the beauty around her but also the turmoil inside her:

“I think of these pages as a way of doing that.  For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision.  I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation.  But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.  I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose —- to find out what I think, to know where I stand.  I am unable to become what I see.  I feel like an inadequate machine, a machine that breaks down at crucial moments, grinds to a dreadful halt, ‘won’t go,’ or, even worse, explodes in some innocent person’s face.”

In spite of her success as a writer, depression haunted Sarton; it was a companion that she could not seem to shake and she admits to thoughts of suicide:

“Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain.  I was attacked by a storm of tears, those tears that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning ………”

Yet, in spite of the adversity of her regular despondency, Sarton managed to decorate her life and the pages of her book with stories of the death of a friend, her bird, the battles with the neighbourhood racoons and her intense love of gardening.  The tales resonated with insight, as Sarton was always examining life.  Even the letter of a twelve-year-old girl, produced a philosophical rumination:

“In the mail a letter from a twelve-year-old child, enclosing poems, her mother having psuhed her to ask my opinion.  This child does really look at things, and I can write something helpful, I think.  But it is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn an art or a craft.  Instant success is the order of the day; ‘I want it now!’  I wonder whether this is not part of our corruption by machines.  Machines do thing very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at first try.  So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular value.”

While Sarton lived in solitude, she at times travelled for speaking engagements and in each place she received something to ponder, whether it was the struggle of women, the advent of materialism, or the sometimes suffocating pressure that life laid upon her in the form of human contact. The journal skips along from day to day, emotion to emotion, task to task, her reflections personal, yet one senses a soul reaching out for something just beyond its grasp.  I’ve read numerous works on religious contemplative living, and each has been rich with a vibrancy that is quite startling contrasted with the starkness of their existence.  Sarton’s journal reverses this observation; her existence is filled with what she craves — writing, gardening, solitude —- yet, her inner soul lacks peace.

 

While Journal of a Solitude was a mildly enjoyable book for me, I can’t say that I’m going to rush out and read another by Sarton.  Even though, there was intimacy in her words, I never really grew to know her, perhaps because she didn’t seem to know herself.  The searching quality of the work brought a type of disquiet, and while I had empathy for her struggles, there was a melody of despair that hovered around her and echoed long after the book was done.  Life was an unconquerable bête noire for Sarton, ever present and often discouraging.  Which was all rather sad.

In this book, there is an enlightening reference to Virginia Woolf, of whom Sarton was familiar, perhaps illustrating the unusual temperaments of authors such as herself:

“When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me — that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm.  She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention.  But I did feel at times as though I were ‘a specimen American young poet’ to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.  Then one had also the daring sense that anything could be said, the sense of freedom that was surely one of the keys to the Bloomsbury ethos, a shared secret amusement at human folly or pretensions.  She was immensely kind to have seen me for at least one tea, as she did for some years whenever I was in England, but in all that time I never felt warmth, and this was startling.”

Why are so many artists tortured souls?  Is it because of the solitude they need to hone their skills, and the lack of human contact diminishes their souls?  With their art, are they sharing of themselves, giving of themselves and therefore becoming less?  The act of creation should be life-giving to both the giver and receiver, yet in many cases, why does one seem to benefit and the other is hindered?  Or have I asked the unanswerable question?  Sarton didn’t know the answer and I believe this question was one of many that haunted her through her long yet productive life.

 

The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White

 

the world of tomorrow

I seem to be getting mostly essays lately for my Deal Me In Challenge.  This week, I read The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White, the famed author of Charlotte’s Web.  White wrote this essay about the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where visions of the future abounded and a bright tomorrow was laid before eager and credulous eyes.

“The eyes of the fair are on the future —- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.

To the visitors the Fair will say, ‘Here are the materials, ideas and forces at work in our world.  These are the tools with which the forces of the World of Tomorrow must be made.  They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way.  Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”
( ~ official New York World’s Fair pamphlet)

 

british pavillion
British Pavilion
source Wikipedia

Someone is obviously trying to sell something grand, and it was enlightening to read about White’s experience at the Fair.  Right from the start, we sense a disconnect between the two, as he personifies the event.  His first sentences read:  “I wasn’t really prepared for the World’s Fair last week, and it certainly wasn’t prepared for me. Between the two of us there was considerable of a mixup.”  White informs the reader that upon his visit, he had a cold and that “when you can’t breath through your nose, Tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday.”  He then gives a catalogue of the exhibitors with strangely impersonal names such as Kix, Astring-O-Sol, Textene, Alka-Seltzer and the Fidelity National Bank. White’s impressions do not inspire awe or a trust in Tomorrow.

“It is all rather serious-minded, this World of Tomorrow, and extremely impersonal.  A ride on the Futurama of General Motors induces approximately the same emotional response as a trip through the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  The countryside unfolds before you in $5-million micro-lovliness, conceived in motion and executed by Norman Bel Geddes. The voice is a voice of utmost respect, of complete religious faith in the eternal benefaction of faster travel ……..  When night fall in the General Motors exhibit and you lean back in the cushioned chair (yourself in motion and the world so still) and hear (from the depths of the chair) the soft electric assurance of a better life — the life which rests on wheels alone — there is a strong, sweet poison which infects the blood.  I didn’t want to wake up.  I liked 1960 in purple light, going a hundred miles an hour around impossible turns ever onward toward the certified cities of the flawless future.  It wasn’t till I passed an apple orchard and saw the trees, each blooming under its own canopy of glass, that I perceived that even the General Motors dream as dreams so often do, left some questions unanswered about the future.  The apple tree of Tomorrow, abloom under its inviolate hood, makes you stop and wonder.  How will the little boy climb it?  Where will the bird build its nest?”

White makes a few other observations which are very powerful statements:

“In Tomorrow, people and objects are not lit from above but from below”

 

“Rugs do not slip in Tomorrow, and the bassinets of newborn infants are wired against kidnappers.  There is no talking back in Tomorrow.  You are expected to take it or leave it alone.” 

 

“In Tomorrow, most sounds are not the sounds themselves but a memory of sounds, or an electrification.”

At the end of the essay, instead of remembering the Fair itself, White’s recollections are quite different:  the trees at night, eerie shadows, fountains in the light, a girl, remembered not just as passing impressions, but in generous detail.  The last line of the essay stabs home his point:

“Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aspetic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast.”

After my first read of this essay, I was left completely unmoved.  I had no interest in the 1939 World’s Fair, and White’s ramblings about his cold, standing in line, etc. which I found annoyingly pointless.  It was only when I read the essay for a second time, that his consummate skill as a writer drummed me over the head.  Though not stating his views outright, with each sentence White was building his case, having the reader experience the loss of humanness and empathy that the rapid rise of technology was moving towards.  When one places the value of machines and progress above the people they are supposed to be serving, you lose the human qualities of life and the simplicity, the wonder and human connection in life that make it so fulfilling.

Perhaps it’s telling that White moved from New York to Maine that very year.

Deal Me In Challenge #8

 

deal me in challenge
deal me in challenge

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia.”

This was my third book on slavery in succession that I’ve read for my WEM Project.  The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass were the first two, and while I enjoyed the history and information I gleaned on a subject of which I know little (I plead ignorance on the basis of being Canadian), I really did not feel touched by either book as a whole.  Really, I wondered if there was something wrong with me.  Yes, I felt sympathy for the plight of the slaves; just the thought of being owned and having stripped from you the many things that make one human, was horrifying.  The degradation and the suffering generated disgust. Yet there was something missing, for me at least.

In my Frederick Douglass review, Cirtnecce made a comment, and suddenly my mind opened up and I had it; the reason why I was left rather cold by the other two books.  This was my response to her:

What I’ve missed from these books so far, is a way to move forward in a human way. You can speak about practicalities and reason and that’s useful, but if one tries simply to protect one segment of the population or to legislate people’s behaviour, it almost seems as if nothing has truly changed. I’d love to read something that communicates ideas of how to make changes in the hearts and minds of people; imo, that’s the way to effect true change.”

That was it!  I was looking for a book that would precipitate a transformation, and in Booker T. Washington’s biography, I received more than I could ever hope for!

Washington briefly chronicled his experiences as a slave during the Civil War, where he gained his freedom through emancipation at the approximate age of ten.  Eventually he made his way to the Hampton Institute, earned an education through hard work, and because of his perserverance and a solid work ethic, Washington was chosen to become the first leading teacher of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school formed to promote the higher education of blacks in Confederate States.  Washington’s biography offers an in-depth history of his creation and formation of Tuskegee, which Washington built not only with his hands, but his rather creative mind and intellect.

This book is a fascinating portrait of not only a man who rose above slavery, but conquered the demons that it bred, to see a way forward for blacks and whites to live, not just in harmony, but in cooperation with each other to make a better community and a better world.  In spite of the racial prejudices he encountered, Washington never responded in anger, preferring to examine the issues and problems that caused the prejudice, and to respond in a way that was beneficial for both blacks and whites.  He never viewed himself as a victim and in his gracious and measured responses, won accolades and respect on each side of the divide, narrowing it with his quiet, yet determined, demeanour.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book that I hardly know where to start.  I’m going to choose to concentrate mostly on the Tuskegee school, since it was such a large part of Washington’s life and therefore his existence, and it really exemplified his philosophy for social change in a manner that was visual and effective.

Tuskegee Univeristy Panorama (1916)
source Wikipedia

Washington structured the Tuskegee school not only to promote learning but to entrench something possibly even more valuable …… hard work.  The students were given preference, not only because of their academic abilities, but their willingness to work hard.

“No student no matter how much money he may be able to command, is permitted to go through school without doing manual labour …….  From the beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings.  My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see, not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake.  My plan was not to teach them to work in the old way, bt to show them how to make the forces of nature —– air, water, steam, electricity, horse-power —- assist them in their labour …………  Mistakes I knew would be made, but these mistakes would teach us valuable lessons for the future.”

The Oaks – Washington’s home
on Tuskegee campus
source Wikipedia

However, while work and academia were important, Washington did not neglect the spiritual growth of his students including services and prayer, using a non-denominational model.  I know little about the times in this respect, but I can imagine that this was a revolutionary way of structuring an academic institution:

“If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.  In a large degree it has been the pennies, the nickles, and the dimes which have come from the Sunday-schools, the Christian Endeavour societies, and the missionary societies, as well as from the church proper that have helped to elevate the negro at so rapid a rate.”

And paramount to anything, Washington exemplifies forgiveness:

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what is colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.  With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that me hay have inflicted upon my race.  I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as when the service is rendered to a member of my own race.  I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

“I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.”

History class at Tuskegee Institute 1902
source Wikipedia

Washington rather fell into public speaking, feeling that it was more important “to do things than merely to talk about doing them.”  He first went north with his friend and mentor, General Armstrong,  a white educator dedicated to the education of blacks and a founder of the Hampton Institute, and spoke at a series of public meetings.  In 1895, Washington was asked to speak at the Atlanta Exposition, an important exposition to showcase products and new technologies.  His speech was received with accolades from both whites and blacks alike, and afterwards, Washington became a highly sought after speaker about the benefits raising black ingenuity, hard work and resourcefulness to the level of white America.  He promoted the improvement of race relations where blacks and whites both stood on level ground.  There is a fascinating section of the book where Washington expounds on his manner of public speaking and it includes some gems of advice:

” ……. It seems to me that there is rarely such a combination of mental and physical delight in any effort as that which comes to a public speaker when he feels that he has a great audience completely within his control.  There is a thread of sympathy and oneness that connects a public speaker with his audience, that is just as strong as though it was something tangible and visible  …… I never tell an anecdote simply for the sake to telling one ……  I believe that one always does himself and his audience an injustice when he speaks merely for the sake of speaking.  I do not believe that one should speak unless, deep down in his heart, he feels convinced that he has a message to deliver …..”

At the close of the book, Washington first gives a schedule for his Tuskegee school which is rather interesting from the view of posterity:

5 am.          Rising bell
5:50            Warning breakfast bell
6 am.          Breakfast bell
6:20            Breakfast over
6:20 – 6:50 Rooms are cleaned
6:50            Work bell
7:30            Morning study hour
8:20            Morning and school bell 
8:25            Inspection of young men’s toilets
8:40            Devotional exercises in chapel
8:55            Five minutes in the daily news
9 am.          Class work begins
12 pm.        Class work closes
12:15          Dinner
1 pm.          Work bell
1:30            Class work begins
3:30            Class work ends
5:30            Bell to “knock off” work
6 pm.          Supper
7:10            Evening prayers
7:30            Evening study hours
8:45            Evening study hour closes
9:20            Warning retiring bell
9:30            Retiring bell

And his teaching philosophy, while appearing relatively simple, is designed to have far-reaching results.  Washington strove to empower his students, not only academically, but to give them skills to serve them well in life.

“In our industrial teaching we keep three things in mind:  first, that the student shall be so educated that he shall be enabled to meet conditions as they exist now, in the part of the South where he lives —– in a word, to be able to do the thing which the world wants done; second, that every student who graduates from the school shall have enough skill, coupled with intelligence and moral character, to enable him to make a living for himself and others; third, to send every graduate out feeling and knowing that labour is dignified and beautiful —- to make each one love labour instead of trying to escape it.”

During this time, the Tuskegee school had so many applicants that they were forced to turn away half and could only supply one half of the graduates that were requested.  A huge accomplishment from twenty years ago when Washington started the school from sweat, common sense, an empathy for all people, and a firm belief in industry.

A final quote by Washington which I think encompasses much of his philosophy:

“Before the end of the year, I think I began to learn that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.  This lesson I have tried to carry with me ever since.”




The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

“I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.”

Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around 1817/1818, Douglass learned to read and write as a boy with the help of the wife of his master. In spite of his situation, he claims that he always had an implicit belief that he would not always be a slave.

“From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embarce; and in the darkets hours of my career in slavery, this living world of fath and spirit of ope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angles to cheer me through the gloom.  The good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and peace.”

At around twenty years old, he escaped to the north, married, and soon afterwards changed his name to Douglass.  Becoming involved in the abolitionist movement, Douglass was encourage to speak and tell the story of his experiences as a slave.

Yet while he was welcomed by the anti-slavery community, Douglass did not only find critics outside this movement, but also opposition from within.  He was limited by white abolitionists as to what he could say during speeches, attempting to avoid any reference to current issues or a way forward for black people as a race.  Yet upon the publication of his book, Douglass’ popularity soared and he gained a credibility he has not experienced previously.

Douglass elucidates on the cruelty of slavery that goes beyond the physical. He speaks of being shut up in a “mental darkness” by the refusal of masters to educate their slaves.  He relates how slaveholders would practice mental fraud on their slaves by allowing and encouraging them to drink to excess during their free holiday time, with the result that the conditions of slavery and liberty did not appear to have a decided difference.

Douglass also gives the recipe for making a content slave:

“…… I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.  It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.  He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”

Douglass has some interesting insights into slave masters:

“……. and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst  …… He was a slaveholder without the ability to hold slaves.  He found himself incapable of managing his slaves either by force, fear, or fraud.  We seldom called him, “master;” we generally called him “Captain Auld,” and were hardly disposed to title him at all ……. He wished to have us call him master, but lacked the firmness necessary to command us to do so ……”

There are apparently two editions of this narrative, this one being a rather shorter narrative, and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which is a third publication and expanded to give more detail about his life including some history of the period.

The next book in the WEM order is Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. While the first two slave narratives have been interesting, they certainly haven’t been gripping and I must admit I’m not really looking forward to this next book.  In any case, onward and upward!

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Ann Jacobs

“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery.  They think it is a perpetual bondage only.  They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”

Being Canadian, and unlike my U.S. counterparts, I have little knowledge of the details and intricacies of the history of slavery in the United States, so I was pleased to note that my The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project has a few books that cover this important, yet disturbing, period.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first book of this ilk on the list.  A book written in the tradition of the slave narrative and the sentimental novel, Jacobs strives to give a voice to the thousands of black men and women, who suffered abuse, injustice and the theft of their true identities under the yoke of slavery.

Jacobs (in the book calling herself Linda Brent), chronicles her story, beginning with her idyllic life within her family who are well-off slaves of a kind owner.  At her mother’s death when Linda is six, she is sent to reside with her mistress who teaches her to read and write, but at the death of her owner, she is sold to the Flint family and her suffering begins.  Dr. Flint is harsh and cruel, developing a desire for Linda, and she is continually tormented by his sexual advances.  Thinking to save herself and her virtue, she begins a relationship with another white man and has two children with him in hopes Dr. Flint will cease his attentions.  Instead he is enraged and sends her and her children to do hard labour on one of his plantations.  The book further relates of her escape, her continuous concern about the fate of her children, seven years of her life in an attic so she is not discovered, and her final journey to the north and a relative freedom, although her expectations of her life there are perhaps somewhat disappointed.

Reward for notice for the return of
Harriet Jacobs by James Norcome (Dr. Flint)
source Wikipedia

Jacobs tells a touching and unique story from a woman’s point-of-view, highlighting not only all the brutality and abuse the negro people suffered at the hands of some of their masters, but also the degradation to their spirits. Yet although Jacobs shows her people in their suffering, she also is able to emphasis their greatness of spirit:

“Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving peole on the face of the earth.  That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or dog.”

While the book is full of horrid examples, Jacobs also strives to mention the white men and woman she met or observed in her life that showed kindness or compassion, and says of her benefactress, Mrs. Bruce:

“The noble heart!  The brave heart!  The tears are in my eyes while I write of her.  May the God of the helpless reward her for her sympathy with my persecuted people!”

Harriet Ann Jacobs
source Wikipedia

While most of this book is at once both heartbreaking and wonderfully illuminating, there was an aspect of it that bothered me.  Jacobs was very clear and concise, and rightly so, with her denunciation of slavery and its assault on human dignity and the human spirit, but whenever a slave committed something from as small as a lack of good judgement to something as large as a crime, Jacobs excused their actions based on the treatment they had suffered under their masters.  For example, with regard to her decision to enter into a relationship and have children with Mr. Sands, she says:

“I feel that the slave woman ought to not to be judged by the same standards as others.”

Later she states:

“I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges.  So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery.”

When she encounters a slave who has stolen money from his dead master, she declares:

“This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery.  When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?  I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages.”

I don’t disagree with Jacobs’ premise that slavery can drive people to excesses, but I do disagree about excusing wrong behaviour with it.  Because someone has committed a wrong against you, does that give one the right to return the same in kind?  Couldn’t this startling reasoning be as dangerous as the reasoning employed to bring the black people into slavery?  It reminded me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, words from a man who had been both a commander and a persecuted soul, effectively both a master and a slave, and who finally learned that: “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evils cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  The seeds that began slavery and other atrocities are within us all, it’s important that man or woman, slave or free, persecuted or persecutor, that we are all aware of that piece and the danger it can do to ourselves and others.

In any case, it was a blemish on an otherwise excellent narrative.  Jacobs hatred of slavery in all its forms shows through as well as her overwhelming love and understanding for her fellow man.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by labor of my hands only.”

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, his magnum opus, during a two year stay on lands owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Walden Pond, situated in Walden Woods, was an untouched centre of beauty among the agricultural lands of Concord, Massechusetts, and his sojourn there allowed Thoreau the peaceful reflection that he so earnestly sought.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods, his construction of a cabin, his pastoral descriptions of nature, and his philosophy surrounding interaction with nature and solitude, permeate the pages and take us into a world and perceptions that stretch our thinking and make us long for something simpler. Thoreau makes us face the realities of life and prods us to examine the value received from our choices.  Do we live according to our own hearts and convictions or by society’s dictates, and how are we changed by our choices?

Surprisingly, given its present popularity, Walden was rejected by eight publishers before being printed, and experienced only a negligible success during Thoreau’s lifetime, finally becoming popular during the 20th century with the advent of the Civil Rights era.

Walden Pond in late June
source Wikimedia Commons

There were parts of this book that I loved and could completely relate to.  I have my own version of Walden Pond in the summer.  I know the call of the eagle, the blue blur of a dragonfly, the slap of a beaver’s tail on the water.  I understand the workings of an isolated community, with close interactions, yet subtly observed personal boundaries.  I understand what silence means and the benefit of the education received through it.  Returning to a life unhampered by unnecessary busyness and useless striving certainly renews your spirit and allows you to become more synchronized with nature and with humanity.

My Walden Pond
© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

© Cleo @ Classical Carousel

Thoreau entreats us not only to strive to live simply but to be happy with little and therefore, recognize that as we grow poor in possessions, we grow rich in spirit.

“However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.  It is not so bad as you are.  It looks poorest when you are richest.  The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.  Love your life, poor as it is.  You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.  The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its doors as early in the spring.  Cultivate property like a garden herb, like sage.  Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.  Turn the old; return to them.  Things do not change; we change.  Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts …….  Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little”

While Thoreau’s wilderness experience was unique, I’m not sure that he was recommending that everyone pack up and make for the woods.  In his words, I heard him entreat people to have some sort of experience with nature, to take the time to explore it, to open yourself up to it in a quiet, introspective kind of way and, within that experience, nature will teach you to know yourself better.

“For a week I heard the circling groping clangor of some solitary goose in the foggy mornings, seeking its companion, and still peopling the woods with the sound of a larger life than they could sustain.  In April the pigeons were seen again flying express in small flocks, and in due time I heard the martins twittering over my clearing, though it had not seemed that the township contained so many that it could afford me any, and I fancied that they were peculiarly of the ancient race that dwelt in hollow trees ere white men came.  In almost all climes the tortoise and the frog are among the precursors and heralds of this season, and birds fly with song and glancing plumage, and plants spring and bloom, and winds blow, to correct this slight oscillation of the poles and preserve the equilibrium of Nature.”

While I loved reading about Thoreau’s temporary experiment, this is not the easiest book to get through.  At times Thoreau overwhelms you with his spiritual philosophy and I found myself wondering at how he could become an expert with merely a two year stint in only comparative isolation, as he was near Concord and often had visitors to his abode.  However, these flaws did not diminish some rather obvious truths in Thoreau’s vision.  He allowed nature to be his Muse, simplicity his guide and he leads us on a soul-searching journey into the woods, opening our eyes to the world around us.

I found this video on YouTube and I think it echoes some of Thoreau’s thoughts beautifully ….. “and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

 Figuring Life Out