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

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome: “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

I was so pleased to finish my Wharton book, Ethan Frome, for Brona’s The Wharton Review well ahead of time!  Fortunately the 150-ish pages of the book made it a relatively easy task, as I was really looking forward to reading another Wharton.  I class her The House of Mirth as one of my top favourites.

This story is told from an omniscient point of view by a narrator whose name we never learn.  His job as an engineer brings him to the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, and there he meets the taciturn Ethan Frome.  Through his interaction with Frome and later through stories of the townspeople, he learns Ethan Frome’s tragic and rather startling story.

While he was a young man, Ethan Frome had set off for college with little money but big dreams, however he had to return to Starkfield because of the illness of his father.  Since then, he had remained in Starkfield to run the family farm, acquitting his duties with a stoic determination.  Reserved by nature, Ethan is captivated by his cousin Zeena’s cheerful demeanour and marries her, but her cheer soon turns to sickness, discontent and bitterness.  After years of her maladies, Zeena’s cousin Mattie arrives to help with the housework and other duties, and Ethan, discouraged with the drudgery of an unproductive farm and the burden of an unhappy marriage, allows himself to be drawn into her spell.  The story begins here, in media res, and we see the culminating tragedy of two passions, one rather innocent and untried, and the other, bottled up so long in duty and silence, that is verging on the explosive.

New England Road Mary Cassatt
New England Road
Mary Cassatt
source

It is surmised that Wharton’s own discontented marriage was the model for Frome’s, communicating the helpless imprisoned feeling of a relationship all but dead through apathy and selfishness of the two participants.  Wharton uses the frigid bleakness of the Starkfield winter in her story to communicate the same desolation that permeates the characters and their situations in life. No one can escape their fate.

Did I enjoy this book?  Well, yes, in a way ……….  Wharton is a good writer and I doubt that she could craft a bad story.  However this story, while compelling, lacked the maturity of her better known novels.  She tended to rely too much on drama to carry the story off, instead of working more within the characters, instilling subtleties that would speak to the reader on a deeper level.  As for the frame story, this aspect of the book reminded me of Wuthering Heights, and I still haven’t met an author who can employ this device with capable proficiency.  I know it’s supposed to allow the writer more leeway in the way he/she presents the story, but in my experience it merely tends to weaken it. Ethan Frome was a fine effort by Wharton but perhaps clouded with a little too much personal emotion to allow her the distance needed to craft a superior novel.

Other Wharton books reviewed here:  The Age of Innocence

 

The Wharton Review

 

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

“Dear Son, I have ever had a Pleasure in obtaining any little Anecdotes of my Ancestors.”

Known as one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin grew up in Boston, but after being apprenticed as a printer to his brother, they had a heated disagreement and Franklin ran away to Philadelphia.  Single-handedly, he built his own printing business and later became recognized for organizing the first lending library, starting a volunteer fire department and inventing the Franklin stove, along with numerous other sterling accomplishments.  His autobiography ends in 1757 with his involvement in the French-Indian Wars but, as most people know, Franklin went on to great feats, being involved in the Revolutionary War, and helping draft the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war.

Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity
from the sky (1816)
Benjamin West
source Wikipedia

I particularly enjoyed the first part of this autobiography, as Franklin describes his boyhood, his apprenticeship to an overbearing brother and his flight to Philadelphia where he eventually lands a job as a printer and later runs his own company.  His ability to examine a situation thoroughly and quickly and then be able to proceed with aptitude and insight into any challenges, was his trademark, and the reader can understand how he rapidly won the respect of the community and his fellow businessmen.  Being self-educated, Franklin had a love of good literature and along with that, good discussion, which led him to found the Junto club where he, along with other like-minded young men, hoped that by improving their minds through reading, they could better their community around them.

The main emphasis of Franklin’s discourse was on “Wealth and Distinction” through accomplishment, employing “Industry and Frugality” to meet his goals. He noticed everything to the minutest detail and had an idea for the betterment of everything, including housekeeping, the communicating of instruction, virtue, personal growth, and even religion.  Virtue was a particular focus of Franklin’s, as he was convinced that “vicious Actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the Nature of Man alone consider’d: That it was therefore every one’s Interest to be virtuous, who wish’d to be happy even in this World.”  He set up a system to eradicate his faults and instil virtue, by working on one shortcoming at a time and moving to the next, only when the former was perfected.  His list read as follows:

1.  Temperance
Eat no to Dullness
Drink not to Elevation

2.  Silence
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.
Avoid trifling Conversation.

3.  Order
Let all your Things have their Places.
Let each Part of your business have its Time.

4.  Resolution
Resolve to perform what you ought.
Perform without fail what you resolve.

5.  Frugality
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: ie. Waste Nothing

6.  Industry
Lose no Time.  Be always employ’d in something useful.  Cut off all unnecessary Actions.

7.  Sincerity
Use no hurtful Deceit.
Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8.  Justice
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.

9.  Moderation
Avoid Extremes.  Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10.  Cleanliness
Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.

11.  Tranquility
Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.

12.  Chastity
Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.

13. Humility
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Through using this method, Franklin expressed himself surprised at his numerous faults.  Though it did not have the success he had expected, at least through application he was able to temper his faults to a greater degree than if he had never attempted the experiment.

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on printing press
Reproduction of Charles Mills painting
source Wikimedia Commons

Franklin’s style is rather continuous and so often muddled that it required effort to follow his train of thought.  He states that he’s writing the biography for his son, but it was almost as if he was writing for himself, in that he had all the experiences and all the information in his head, and therefore didn’t need to give additional details, which would have been useless for him, but perhaps helpful to the uninformed reader.  He sounded like quite a character though, rather impressed with himself and his achievements in spite of the feeble dose of humility that he attempted to add as an ingredient to his narrative.

The Declaration of Independence (1818)
John Trumbull
source Wikipedia

In fact, from the recent biographies that I’ve read, I’ve been struck by the pride and almost cavalier self-esteem of some of the authors.  While there can be a humbleness to their communication, it appears to be a forced diffidence that still smells of a hubris that they can’t quite shake.  Perhaps this type of arrogance is needed in all great men, but, as I travel chronologically through these biographies, I certainly sense less of a reliance on external sources (respectable mentors, family and God/religion) and more of a sole reliance on self and philosophical ideas.

The next biography is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, an appropriate read for the month of May!

On The Road by Jack Kerouac

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”

Having read Kerouac’s travelogue, The Dharma Bums a couple of years ago, I was really looking forward to this read, as On The Road is considered Kerouac’s finest work.  With great anticipation I picked up the book, began to read, and what did I find ……..???

A Roman a clef, with the characters acting as stand-ins for Kerouac and his buddies and their real life adventures, the novel traces their journeys as they travel back and forth across America between 1947 and 1950.  This Beat Generation, or post-World War II writers, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady are mostly drunk, high, stoned or looking for sex, throughout most of the novel. The rambling, sparse, uninteresting prose had me nearly catatonic about one-quarter of the way into the book and it was only with a supreme effort of will that I managed to finish.  Brutal.

So what was the difference between The Dharma Bums and On The Road? Why did I love one and hate the other?  Well, with The Dharma Bums, while there was drug use it somehow seemed more innocent and less destructive. The characters sincerely appeared to be grappling with the purpose of life. There was thought and philosophy and even some solid descriptions of the places visited.  On The Road related the meaningless conduct of a bunch of miscreants who had no concern for anyone but themselves, were too stoned to think most of the time, and when they did, it was often complete nonsense. In real life, most of the characters died before their 40th or 50th birthdays from either a drug or alcohol-related death.  Such a sad waste of life, with nothing romantically counter-cultural, or excitingly anti-establishment about it.

One interesting anecdote is that the manuscript for this book was typed on a continuous scroll of one hundred and twenty feet of tracing paper taped together, single-spaced without margins or paragraph breaks.  A quirky writing method from a very experimental author.

The “On The Road” Scroll
Boott Cotton Mills Museum 2007
source Wikipedia

The Journal of William Sturgis

The Journal of William Sturgis: “1799 – On the 13th of February at 7 in the morning we saw the land ahead bearing about N East distant 2 leagues, which we soon found to be the high land about Port Banks, and a Cape to the Southward and Eastward of us distant 3 leagues, to be Cape Muzon.”

In 1798, William Sturgis found a berth on the Eliza, a ship set to leave Boston harbour in the summer on a voyage to the Pacific Northwest to trade in the lucrative business of animal pelts. Sturgis had finished schooling at fourteen, afterwards being employed as a junior clerk in a trading office. With the unexpected demise of his father, Sturgis, knowing that he had to support a mother and sisters, decided to turn to the sea to make his fortune. He was only 17 years old.

Fur traders in Canada 1777
source Wikipedia

Because Sturgis had had experience in business, the captain of the Eliza asked him to be his assistant, and his quick adeptness at learning the native languages soon saw his rise in stature.  The Americans generally coped well with the Indians while trading, and there were few altercations, but the precautions on board ship to assure safety were stringent and followed closely. Because of these safeguards, relations between the two were relatively harmonious and as Sturgis noted years later:

“I believe I am the only man living who has a personal knowledge of those early transactions and I can show that in each and every case where a vessel was attacked or a crew killed by them, [the Indians of the region] it was in direct retaliation for some life taken or for some gross outrage committed against that tribe.  This is the Indian law, which requires one life for another, as inflexibly as we civilized nations exact the life of a murderer.  The Indian did not forget, but silently waited his opportunity, and retaliated because his duty and his law required it of him.”

Launch of the North West America at Nootka Sound 1788
C. Mertz
source Centre of Study for Pacific Northwest

With his faculty for the languages, Sturgis’ dealings and contact with the Indians increased.  He ensured he acted with complete honesty and openness to his Indian counterparts and, in consequence, often acquired more goods than your average trader, as the Indians were more amenable to people whom they liked.  In fact, Sturgis became a great favourite with some of the Indians, sometimes to his detriment.  One old Indian woman, to whom he gave the appellation, Madame Connecor, claimed, “All white men are my children,” and insisted on hugging him and kissing him in public, much to the horror of Sturgis, who had to submit to this uncomfortable display of affection as “her tribe had many valuable furs to sell ……. (I) had no escape.”

Sturgis became quite familiar with a Indian chief named Keow (or Cow), whom he quite admired and they struck up a perhaps unusual friendship:

“Keow was upon the whole the most intelligent Indian I met with.  He was a shrewd observer of quick perceptions —– with comprehensive and discriminating mind, and insatiable curiosity.  He would occasionally pass several days at a time on board my ship, and I have often sat up half the night with him, answering questions, and listening to remarks.  …. his comments upon some features of our social system, and upon the discrepancies and inconsistencies in our professions and practice as Christians —- particularly in relation to war —- duelling —- capital punishment for depredations upon property, and other less important matters, were pertinent and forcible, and by no means flattering to us, or calculated to nourish our self conceit.”

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870)
Albert Bierstadt
source Wikiart

Yet, in spite of his good relations with the native people, Sturgis showed quite clearly that there was a careful balance that needed to be maintained in relations that often included lying, manipulation and trickery, a sort of dance practiced by both parties, accepted by both, and neither held in contempt or begrudged.  It was a meeting, or indeed a confrontation, between two different cultures and attitudes that required patience, skill, wisdom and ingenuity to lay a viable foundation.

Later in the voyage, when the Eliza came across two other ships the Despatch and the Ulysses, they found the Ulysses in a state of mutiny and the officers of the two other ships had to arbitrate the dispute. It was agreed that the captain (Lamb) should be reinstated, with Sturgis, only a few month’s previously an amateur sailor, as his second officer.  The appointment was an enormous boost for Sturgis’ career.  The Ulysses continued to trade in furs, but when it eventually met up with the Eliza in Macao, Sturgis was happy to rejoin his old ship as third mate.

Sturgis also shares some fascinating information on the Indian female and comparisons to his own class.

“The females have considerable voice in the sale of the Skins, indeed greater than the men; for if the wife disapproves of the husband’s bargain, he dares not sell, till he gains her consent, and if she chooses she will sell all his stock whether he likes it or not, or rather what she likes, he is obliged to approve of or afraid to disapprove of ………. In fact, the power of the fair sex seems to be as unlimited on this as on our side of the Continent …..”

Very intriguing that Sturgis sees his fellow women as having unlimited power ….. and this is 1799!

On his second voyage, this time on the ship Caroline, upon the death of its captain, all responsibility was turned over to Sturgis who returned the ship complete with profits from 3000 skins. When the ship return to Boston, he was officially made the master of it at twenty-two years old.

source GoHaidaGwaii

His third voyage was another success for Sturgis, and when he set out on the Atahualpa on his fourth voyage, it was not only as the commander of the fleet, but as a shareholder.  His status and wealth continued to increase and in 1810 he abandoned his nomadic life at sea to marry Elizabeth Davis and became a partner in a shipping business called Bryant and Sturgis.  From the years 1818 to 1840, their company directed more than half the business carried on from the United States to California.

Sturgis was seen as a laconic and somewhat stern man, but he was well-respected and lived life with a strong sense of duty and honesty.  He died at the age of eighty-one and his eulogies and obituaries speak to his character:

” ….. his cool judgement and his considerable action under difficulties, stamped him as an uncommon man; and his extensive knowledge and his judicious inferences from it, made him a useful one ….. Hi strong intellect and clear judgment made him a wise and safe counsellor.  Singularly independent and honest in the formation of his opinions; unswerving in fidelity to his convictions; of an impulsive temperment, guided by principle and made amenable to conscience, —- his character and career, honorable to himself and beneficial to others, leave his name to be held in remembrance as that of a wise, just, faithful and benevolent man …..”

In his final lecture, Sturgis expresses gratitude, that he had not caused any acrimony or bitterness in his dealings with the native population:

“I have cause for gratitude to a higher power —– not only for escape from danger, but for being spared all participation in the deadly conflicts and murderous scenes which surrounded me.  I may well be grateful that no blood of the red man ever stained my hands —- that no shades of murdered or slaughtered Indians disturb my repose —– on the reflection that neither myself, nor any one under my command, ever did, or suffered, violence or outrage, during years of intercourse with those reputed the most savage tribes, gives me a satisfaction in exhange for which wealth and honours would be dust in the balance.”

The integrity and honour Sturgis showed towards a native population, while being willing to alter his worldview to meet them on equal grounds, truly speaks to his character.  Sturgis is a man I would have certainly been proud to know.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.”

I usually don’t worry about giving warning about spoilers but I’ve discovered that’s because I normally read pre-1850-ish books and, while plot is important, there is much more from the book to be gained.  However, 20th century literature, seems to rely a great deal on the story, and so I’m issuing a warning that his review does contain a few spoilers, therefore, continue at your own risk.

Written in 1952, Steinbeck considered East of Eden his magnum opus.  At the time, Steinbeck was separated from his two young sons by divorce and he felt a need, not only to communicate with them through his creative medium, but to share family history in a manner that would make it a permanent record. Yet Steinbeck was also sensitive to his readers, aware that he would have to paint the well-known Salinas Valley of his youth with a vibrant brush of memories, in order to endow the people and the place with dynamic yet corporeal life. Writing in his journal on his first day of work on the novel, Steinbeck described his process: “But [I] try to relate the reader to the book, so while I am talking to the boys actually, I am relating every reader to the story as though he were reading about his own background …….. Everyone wants to have a family. Maybe I can create a universal family living next to a universal neighbor.” 

Rural Youth, Monterey California 1940
source Wikimedia Commons

As in any good history, the historian wishes to imbue the characters with personality and, in this case, the Valley itself is a character, merging with the people to form a unique examination of this time in history. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley as a microcosm to examine human nature, both its strengths and its frailties, its goodness and its evil.  As you read through the novel, you almost feel as if all the characters have a little of Steinbeck in their make-up.  It’s as if, through them, he was exploring not only family history, but also the history of man, the mutations caused by evil and the healing caused by goodness, set against the background of free will and choice.

With the use of the title East of Eden, Steinbeck brings in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, infusing both the relationship of the brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, and then Adam’s two twin sons, Aron and Caleb, with the jealousy, impulses and sinful passions of the former.  Both sets of brothers contend against each other, while still being bound by their ties of family and a rather strange type of love.  The story of Steinbeck’s own maternal family, the Hamiltons, parallels that of the Trask’s, beginning with his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, whom one could describe almost as a philosopher-farmer, down to the brief appearance of Steinbeck himself in the work.  On the Trask side, Adam is the main focus, as are his two sons and their Chinese servant, Lee, who is himself a philosopher.

Salinas Valley 1940
source Wikimedia Commons

For me, much of the embodiment of the novel was contained in the grave prophecy of Samuel Hamilton, just before Adam Trask purchases his land in the Salinas Valley: “There’s a blackness on this valley.  I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it.  Sometimes on a white blinding day I can feel it cutting off the sun and squeezing the light out of it like a sponge …….  There’s a black violence on this valley.  I don’t know —- I don’t know.  It’s as though some old ghost haunted it with unhappiness.  It’s as secret as hidden sorrow.  I don’t know what it is, but I see it and feel it in the people here.”  This  “black violence” hovers over the story like a pall, and the characters are perpetually struggling to rise above it.  Charles Trask battles against an inner hatred that nearly makes him murder his brother, Adam Trask contends against guilt and indifference, Caleb against a perceived inner badness which warps his actions and mars his character, Aron, the good and favoured son, becomes tormented by thoughts and events that are too evil to be conceived by his goodness, and Cathy, the mother of the twins, is pure evil, a psychopathic sociopath whose pathological desire for revenge drives her every action.  There is an echoing of sins passed down through generations, and behaviours that resist change. While Lee and Adam discuss the story of Cain and Abel, they decide, quite wisely, that even though sins may be persistent, there is always choice:

“Don’t you see?” he cried.  “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance.  The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.  But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open.  That throws it right back on a man.  For if ‘Thou mayest’ —– it is also true that ‘Thous mayest not.’  Don’t you see?”

“Choice” is unarguably one of the most important words, yet healthy choice does not seem attainable by these characters, and the black violence of Hamilton’s perception clouds out the sun.  Throughout the novel, nearly every person, while occasionally getting a breath of fresh air, still appears to be drowning in it.

There were many parts of the book that were implausible.  A Chinese servant who can not only speak English and philosophize better than a university professor, can also turn into a Hebrew scholar when need be, and then later gain as much knowledge as a doctor specializing in diseases of the brain. The reader is introduced to the token crazy religious person, yet this person had appeared the most balance and grounded character of them all, up until his conversion.  And one of the main characters, while recognizing his sinful impulses, has absolutely no control over them, yet he is the hereditary son who remains to carry on the family name.  Lee’s discovery of timshel, or “Thou mayst”, at the end of the book perhaps has an affect on the father, yet the son is changeless throughout, merely experiencing a rollercoaster of undisciplined actions and regrets.

Watsonville, Salina Valley
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet in spite of the difficulties, Steinbeck attempted quite a feat with this novel and I can certainly appreciate his dream and his attempt to bring that dream to fruition.  Writing the novel was more of an outpouring of creative spirit for Steinbeck:  “I stay fascinated with East of Eden …. never has a book so intrigued me.  I only hope other people enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it.”  Yet he did not exhibit any naiveté toward the reaction that his work was destined to elicit.  Writing to his editor, he admitted:  “You know as well as I do that this book is going to catch the same type of hell that all the others did and for the same reasons.  It will not be what anyone expects and so the expectors will not like it.”   After publication, the critics remained curiously divided, the book being described as “one of Steinbeck’s best novels” on one hand, and on the other drawing disparaging comments such as, “a huge grab bag in which pointlessness and preposterous melodrama pop up frequently as good storytelling and plausible conduct.”  Yet in spite of sometimes vicious criticisms, many readers enjoyed what the critics discredited and the book has become an enduring classic in its own right.  As for me, I respect Steinbeck’s effort and love for his work, and perhaps that is good enough.

Notable quotes:

“And this I believe:  that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.  And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direciton it wishes, undirected.  And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.  This is what I am and what I am about.  I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system.  Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts.  If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”

Friendship by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This essay is my sixth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

Oh, what flowery and majestic rhetoric flows from the pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson in this essay on friendship!  Emerson was a transcendentalist and his views colour nearly every sentence of this beautiful yet perhaps rather hyperbolic essay on friendship.

Wikipedia’s definition of transcendentalism states:

Transcendentalism is a religious and philosophical movement that developed during the late 1820s and ’30s[1] in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest against the general state of spirituality and, in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School. 

Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.

I knew almost nothing about Emerson before I read this essay.  I had the vague idea that he was a naturalist and perhaps a deist, and the only thing I knew for sure was that he was one of Pa Ingalls favourite authors.  I had expected his writing to be rather sparse and serious, so l was rather amazed at the waxing lyrical prose to which I was treated!

Good Friends (1927)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart

This essay on friendship, I believe, was written by Emerson in honour of his dear friend, Henry David Thoreau.  Emerson’s rhapsodic sentences impact the reader right from the start, as he elevates friendship to the platform of one of the greatest gifts of life.   As soon as we’re drawn into the bonds of deep friendship, our soul is engaged and we function almost on a different plane.

“Delicious is a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling.  How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and true!  The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed: there is no winter, and no night: all tragedies, all ennuis vanish;  — all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons …”

While Emerson lauds the benefits of friends, he also is cognizant of the fluctuations in friendship, but rather than lamenting over the lows, we should see them as a natural rhythm of life.

“ …. Thou art not my soul, but a picture and effigy of that.  Thou hast come to me lately, and already thou art seizing thy hat and cloak.  Is it not that the soul puts forth friends, as the tree puts forth leaves, and presently, but the germination of new buds, extrudes the old leaf?  The law of nature is alternation forevermore …..  The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society ……”

 

Portrait of Two Friends (1522)
Jacobo Pontormo
source Wikipedia
Yet while one must treasure friendships and elevate them, one must not force their progression, as it would be an assault on their natural course.

“Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the trough of the human heart.”

We must be patient as friendship ripens or we may find the friendship brought to a sharp conclusion.  Let nature have free-reign, and it will not disappoint. 
 
While society pressures us to be social, true friendship is not cultivated in numbers but in a one-on-one companionship.  The bud will not flower without the correct nurturing.

“But I find this law of one to one, peremptory of conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship.  Do not mix waters too much.  The best mix as ill as good and bad.  You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word.  Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searching sort …….. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.” 

Emerson rejects dissimulation and false pretences in an effort to appear prestigious or more worldly, claiming that truth and sincerity in friendship is utmost.  You may look insane with this approach, but it will win you the friendship and respect that are your greatest desires.  Go against society and show your face to your fellow man, instead of your backside! 
 
Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist teasing Emerson a little in my review.  His language is so flowery, occasionally trite and often exaggerated that I found myself struggling sometimes to take the essay seriously.  Yet he does have some wonderful points and hits on the important qualities of friendship and its worth to mankind.  
 
Deal Me In Challenge #6 – Two of Spades