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.

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!

Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator.”

Have you every felt so completely sorry for someone that that emotion eclipses any others that he might stir up inside you?  Have you ever encountered someone who simply is a unique soul, a person who, no matter what they do, does not fit in easily with society?  Have you ever been charmed by someone and then repelled at the same time?  All these thoughts and emotions were boiling up, mixing together, as I read Rousseau’s Confessions, the autobiography of his life.


Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva in the Republic of Geneva, a city-state in the Protestant Swiss Confederacy.  He was born to a watchmaker named Isaac Rousseau and his wife, Suzanne Bernard, his mother dying tragically mere days following Rousseau’s birth.  He described her death as, “the first of my misfortunes.”  


Reading his mother’s romance books at such a young age, with his father, appeared to shape Rousseau’s character in an unusual way:

“By this dangerous method I acquired in a short time not only a marked facility for reading and comprehension, but also an understanding, unique in one of my years, of the passions.  I had as yet no ideas about things, but already I knew every feeling.  I had conceived nothing; I had felt everything.  This rapid succession of confused emotions did not damage my reason, since as yet I had none; but it provided me with one of a different temper; and left me with some bizarre and romantic notions about human life, of which experience and reflection have never quite managed to cure me.”

Curiously, Rousseau’s experience with books and their  affect on human character are echoed by themes in other classics including, Madame Bovary, Eugene Onegin, and Anna Karenina.
Les Charmettes where Rousseau lived
with Mme Warens
source Wikipedia

From the age of 10 on, Rousseau saw little of his father, who had moved away to avoid prosecution by a wealthy land owner. The boy was eventually apprenticed to an engraver, but at 15 ran away and began a rather nomadic lifestyle.  In Savoy, he would be introduced to Madame Francoise-Louise de Warens, a woman 13 years his senior, whom he would forever call “Maman.”  She would be his Muse and surrogate mother for the greater part of Rousseau’s life, as well his lover for a short period of time.  Later, his obsessive interest in music would be used to earn money as a teacher, as well as gain him subsequent notoriety as a writer of opera and various other articles and works on the subject.  

In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris and became close friends with Denis Diderot, another enlightenment thinker, and his renown as a philosopher was born.  His first major-philosophical work, Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts was presented to the Academy of Dijon in response to the question, “…whether the Restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying or corrupting morals.”  In it, Rousseau offered a thorough critique of civilization, seeing it not as a chronicle of progress, but instead as a history of decay.  For Rousseau, no one is innately good, but instead must cultivate a rational knowledge to gain control of nature and therefore, self.  
Denis Diderot (1767)
par Louis-Michel van Loo

Upon returning to Paris, after a posting in Venice as a secretary to the Comte de Montaigue, Rousseau took Thérèse Levasseur as a lover, eventually having 5 children with her, all of whom he placed in a foundling hospital, being unwilling to bring them up due to the lack of education and undesirable social class of his in-laws whom he was supporting.  With his later books on education and child-rearing, these callous actions made him the target of vicious ad hominem attacks from some contemporaries, in particular Voltaire and Edmund Burke.  

Through most of his life, Rousseau dealt with various health issues including being unable to urinate without the use of a probe, odd romantic attachments, including a passionate unconsummated obsession with Sophie d’Houdetot, who inspired his novel, Julie, breaks with various friends and acquaintances upon his retirement to the country, and various and numerous attacks of persecution and threats.  When Rousseau wrote that all religions had value, in that they all encouraged men to virtue, an intense uproar exploded against him, and he was finally forced to flee to England with the help of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume.  In 1767, he returned to France under an assumed name and finally in 1770, he was officially allowed to return.  
While the tone of Confessions often oozed of lament and discontent, especially during the latter half, Rousseau also showed a rather mischievous sense of humour:

“As we became better acquainted, we were, of course, obliged to talk about ourselves, to say where we came from and who we were.  This threw me into confusion; for I was very well aware that in polite society and among ladies of fashion I had only to describe myself as a new convert and that would be the end of me.  I decided to pass myself off as English:  I presented myself as a Jacobite, which seemed to satisfy them, called myself Dudding and was known to the company as M. Dudding.  One of their number, the Marquis de Taulignan, a confounded fellow, ill like me, old into the bargain, and rather bad-tempered, took it into his head to engage M. Dudding in conversation.  He spoke of King James, of the Pretender, and of the court of Saint Germain in the old days.  I was on tenderhooks.  I knew about all of this  only of what little I had read in Count Hamilton and in the gazettes; however I made such good use of this little knowledge that I managed to get away with it, relieved that no one had thought to question me about the English language, of which I did not know one single word.” 

One cannot talk about Rousseau’s life without mentioning his passion for nature.  Once removed to the country, he was in his element, his retirement not only giving him an escape from the petty intriguing of Parisian society, but also gratifying his love of long rambles in the woods, his eventual interest in botany and his joy of solitutde.

“Two or three times a week when the weather was fine we would take coffee in a cool and leafy little summer-house behind the house, over which I had trained hops, and which was a great pleasure to us when it was hot; there we would spend an hour or so inspecting our vegetable plot and our flowers, and discussing our life together in ways that led us to savour more fully its sweetness.  At the end of the garden I had another little family:  these were my bees.  I rarely missed going to visit them, often accompanied by Maman; I was very interest in the arrangements, and found it endlessly entertaining to watch them come home from their marauding with their little thighs sometimes so laden that they could hardly walk.”


Rousseau méditant dans un parc (1769)
par Alexandre Hyacinthe Dunouy
source Wikipedia

Rousseau was a man of numerous contradictions.  On one hand, he was self-absorbed, petty-minded, overly sensitive, idealistic, peculiar, selfish, out of touch with reality, yet on the other, he was also rather lonely, at times generous, unique, creative, self-aware, and inquisitive.  He is a puzzling conundrum bottled up in one person.  Yes, he would have been hard to bear at times.  He is one of those people with whom one could never be comfortable, as you would always be wondering if you were living up to his standards.  He had a short fuse, yet also a generous heart. 

How did I come to these conclusions?  Well, you certainly get a sense of Rousseau’s perceived persecution that appeared expanded to gigantic proportions in his mind.  Many reviewers call this obsession his “paranoia,” an imagined grand plot with machinations designed by numerous former friends, ready to invest years of their lives to bring about his downfall.  Yet perhaps this behaviour is not so surprising in a man who had been raised mostly without family, obviously needing the intimacy of human companionship, yet who had never really learned or accepted the proper manners to fit easily in society; French society, in particular, follows certain constructs that do not allow for individuality.  

In spite of Rousseau’s various eccentricities, I couldn’t help feel profound sympathy for him.  With no one to shape his character and with his unwillingness to temper his idiosyncrasies and become homogeneous with his surroundings, Rousseau became a victim of himself, a plight for me that only excites pity.

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

“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.

The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

“The sovereignty and goodness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promises displayed, being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, commended by her, to all that desires to know the Lord’s doings to, and dealings with her.”

On February 10, 1675 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Lancaster settlement was attacked by Indians and Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was taken captive along with a number of other settlers, including other members of her family.  This short book chronicles the events of her capture, her travels with her captors and finally her release after 11 weeks.

For almost 50 years, the colonists and Indians had lived in relative peace, but increasing settlement and demand for Native land caused tension that eventually exploded in attacks on American settlements by the Indians and resulting retaliations.  Indian raids were often violent and by the attack on Lancaster, the comfortable life that Mary had known with her husband and three children, was abruptly torn apart.

Mary turned to God in her fear and suffering and instead of lamenting her situation, she looked for lessons to learn from it.  Her Puritan faith was rather rigid and the narrative comes across as very unemotional at times, but the religious and historical weight of her experiences are a valuable tool in understanding the people of those times.  The book follows the traditional framework of the captive narrative, focusing on suffering, exile and redemption.

For more extensive information, Ruth at A Great Book Study has produced an excellent review of The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson.    I had plans to write an extensive review but in the end, I just couldn’t.  Then I planned to answer the WEM questions as I did in my review of Saint Augustine’s Confessions …. but when I looked at them, I just couldn’t. I have only a basic knowledge of the Puritans and of conflicts between the Indians and colonists, so I hesitate to give even an uneducated judgement on Rowlandson’s narrative.  When I finished, I hadn’t really connected with Mary or her narrative.  Excepting what she communicated about her faith, there was an enormous gap in my understanding of her outlook and her judgements. This book left me feeling rather off-balance.  Normally I hate reading a book from a modern perspective and ALWAYS put myself, or attempt to put my mindset, into the times about which I’m reading.  For the first time, I had difficulty.

What I do know is that I need a “palate cleanser” with regard to Colonist-Indian relations, and so I’ve chosen to read The Journal of William Sturgis, a primary source document about a 17 year old boy who goes on his first voyage to trade furs with the Pacific Coast Indians.

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan

“In this my relation of the merciful working of God upon my soul, it will not be amiss, if, in the first place, I do, in a few words, give you a hint of my pedigree, and manner or bringing up; that thereby the goodness and bounty of God towards me, may be the more advanced and magnified before the sons of men.”

John Bunyan was born in Elstow, a village near Bedford in Bedfordshire, and was baptized on November 28, 1628, the first son of Thomas Bunyan and his second wife.  In 1644, he joined the Parliamentary army as a soldier and was active until 1647.  The year 1655 saw him joining the congregational church at Bedford and the following year he was actively disputing with the Quakers, out of which was born his first book, Some Gospel Truths Opened.  With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the restoration of the monarchy, the persecution of Non-Conformists began. Bunyan was given every opportunity to conform by the surprisingly tolerant Royalists, but he was staunchly resistant to a compromise of principles that could weaken the faith of his followers.  Prevented from preaching by various imprisonments, Bunyan turned to writing.  Grace Abounding is a record of his spiritual experiences from his first meaningful encounter with God to his life of preaching.

Bunyan admits to having a lack of religion in his upbringing and it was only later, with some the influence from his wife, that he came to entertain thoughts of spirituality:

“But I observe, though I was such a great sinner before conversion, yet God never much charged the guilt of the sins of my ignorance upon me; only he showed me I was lost if I had not Christ, because I had been a sinner; I saw that I wanted a perfect righteousness to present me without fault before God, and this righteousness was nowhere to be found, but in the person of Jesus Christ.”

After hearing a sermon preached from the Song of Songs, Bunyan was struck by the love of God and came to the following conclusions:

That the church and so every saved soul, is:

  1. Christ’s love, when loveless
  2. Christ’s love without a cause
  3. Christ’s love when hated to the world
  4. Christ’s love when under temptation, and under desertion
  5. Christ’s love from first to last

Birthplace of John Bunyan
source Wikipedia

Though Bunyan had moments of euphoric revelation and joyful epiphanies, his conversion was still fraught with doubts and fears.  Had he abused God too much for forgiveness?  Was forgiveness given to others but not to him?  Like Esau, had he sold his birthright and would never be able to regain it?  His agonies leapt off the page with a startling clarity:

“Yet I saw my sin most barbarous, and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God; wherefore, I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and my bowels to yearn toward him; for I saw he was still my Friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire for revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as then I thought, had I a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have split it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Saviour.”

Bunyan eventually is able to reason his way through his doubts and come to peace with his faith.  He realizes that while he prayed fervently when he was in the midst of troubles, he neglected to pray for himself to avoid the pitfalls and temptations.  The sense of being a sinner did not ever leave him completely, but as he grew, so did his understanding of the depth and breadth of the grace of God, and he was finally at peace.

Stained glass of Bunyan in prison
source Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the book, Bunyan explains the cause of his imprisonment, which appears to be directly related to his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer.  When questioned by the justices, Bunyan stated that he would be pleased to use the Book, if the justices could so kindly point to him in Scripture where the particular book was referenced.  The justices, however, viewed the Book of Common Prayer as second only to the Bible.  Bunyan was stubborn, the justices unyielding, and so began Bunyan’s time in the gaol. When released from prison in 1672, on a declaration of indulgence issued by the king under a new wave of religious tolerance, Bunyan returned to preaching, this time legally, and continue as the pastor of the Bedford Meeting, a position he had been given while languishing in prison a year before.  In 1688, while visiting London, he contracted a fever and passed away on August 31st.

The title Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners comes from two Biblical scripture references:

“Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound.  But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”  Romans 5: 20-21

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  1 Timothy 1: 15

My absolute favourite part of this book was when Bunyan realized the impact of conversion.  His fellow men and women were suddenly lovely to his eyes and he viewed them “like a people that carried the broad seal of heaven about them.”  What a transformative experience!  Instead of being irked, or disdainful, or petty, or indifferent toward our fellow man, if we could see them as beloved children of God, how differently we might treat them!

John Bunyan at the Gates of Heaven
William Blake
source Wikimedia Commons

I must say that while I liked this read, so far I’m finding the biography list rather quirky.  Taken separately, the books have been enjoyable, but when taken together, they don’t strike me as a concise, chronological order of biographies that perhaps expand ideas or give insight into changes in societies or thought.  Ruth, I’d love to know what you thought of the novel list as a whole.  The other remaining lists (plays, history and poetry) look much better, but I’m not that impressed with this one.

This book counts towards my Reading England Challenge and since Cat at Tell Me A Story has been doing such a wonderful job with educating us as to the English counties along with her novels, I thought that I should add at least a few photos of Bedfordshire, where the narrative takes place.

Elstow

Elstow Stream

Bridge and Promenade

Bedford Bridge

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

“I never knew that grief felt so much like fear.”

In A Grief Observed Lewis shares his thoughts and emotions with regard to the death of his wife, Joy Davidson, and it is perhaps one of the most powerful books on suffering that I’ve ever read.  As a reader, you are drawn into his grief and, contrary to what the title suggests, you can feel and experience Lewis’ anguish right alongside him, at times almost against your will.  Lewis is pain personified, and it’s raw and it’s shocking.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis deals with suffering from an aspect of reason and pragmatism, but in A Grief Observed, he is a broken man, on one hand calling out for sense and understanding to apply to a situation that is beyond comprehension, and on the other, resisting examining his situation. Lewis’ faith was shaken but not broken.  He does not deny God, yet he does ask what kind of God is He?  What type of God would allow something like this to happen?  He asks hard questions, makes brutally honest statements, and you wonder if this man is on his way to losing his faith.

“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

Yet why can’t we ask hard questions of our Maker?  Why can’t we storm and rage against the injustices of life?  Lewis kicked and stormed against the door of Heaven and instead he found an opening into his own soul.

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

After long endeavouring to remember his wife’s countenance, it is only when he stops struggling to see Joy, that her face suddenly returns to his mind. Lewis finally realizes that we need to seek God for Himself — for who He is —- and not for what we can get from Him.

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”

Madeleine L’Engle writes in her introduction to the book:  “I am grateful to Lewis for having the courage to yell, to doubt, to kick at God in angry violence. This is part of a healthy grief which is not often encouraged.  It is helpful indeed that C.S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed.  It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own anger and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.”

courtesy of Dawn Huczek
source Flickr
Creative Commons
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C.S. Lewis Project

Meditations by René Descartes

“My reason  for offering you this book is very persuasive, and I am confident that you will have an equally strong reason for defending it once you understand why I wrote it; thus the best way of commending it to you is to say a few words about my objective in writing it”

Descartes set out to examine how “everything that can be known about God can be shown by reasons that derive from no other source but our own mind, …. and how God can be known more easily and more certainly than worldly things.”  However even as he claims his investigations as “certain and evident,” he is concerned that not everyone has the ability to grasp them.  Right then, I knew I was in for a philosophically dense read.  Yet while I trembled, I soon began to realize that Descartes splits his meditations into manageable chunks and, if you employ your brain for short periods, his explanations and arguments can penetrate.  I also realized that the title of the book could be of assistance.  These thoughts of Descartes were ideas that were probably products of hours and days and years of pondering and questioning and seeking.  If it took him that long to produce the ideas, I’d have to be willing to meditate on them if I wanted to develop a basic understanding.  And so I went on ….

First Meditation:  Things which can be called into Doubt

Descartes explores false knowledge, which he distinguishes from the unknowable: “there is nothing among my former beliefs that cannot be doubted and that this is so not as a result of levity or lack of reflection but for sound and considered reasons.”  It is necessary to discard all beliefs that aren’t absolute to determine what is known for certain.  There are many comparisons to thought while asleep and thought while dreaming.  He concludes with:

“I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions.  Likewise, I spontaneously lapse into my earlier beliefs and am afraid of being awakened from them, in case my peaceful sleep is followed by a laborious awakening and I live in future, not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems just discussed.”

Second Meditation:  The Nature of the Human Mind, and that it is better known than the Body

Descartes thoughts continue from his supposition from his first meditation and he decides that everything is false.  Yet if all he believes is false, he does conclude that one thing is true:  he exists.  His reasoning is something like this:

  1. He exists if he is not being deceived.
  2. He exists if he is being deceived.
  3. Therefore, if he is being deceived or not being deceived, he exists
  4. He is either being deceived or not being deceived.

Interestingly, St. Augustine also argued “fallor ergo sum”, or “I am being deceived, therefore I exist”.

I think here Descartes arguments are of a personal and not necessarily a general nature:  his mind exists because his thoughts exist.  However, he still hasn’t proven that he exists.

Rene Descartes with Queen
Christina of Sweden
source Wikipedia


Third Meditation:  The Existence of God

Descartes starts to lose me here.  He examines the dream state and questions how we can know it from reality and then he discusses the all-powerful God which we know and how we could be deceived in our perception of him (I think).  Very logically he states that if he is being deceived, that very fact proves his existence.  He comes to the conclusion that God is not a deceiver but leaves the door open to accept that there is something that is.

I was fascinated by Descartes exploration into ideas.  There are ideas which come to us that do not originate with us and, in fact, sometimes impose themselves on us.  If they are not products of our will, does that not point to there being something other than us?

“But if I derived my existence from myself, there would be nothing that I would either doubt or wish for, nor would I lack absolutely anything.  For I would have given myself every perfection of which I have some idea and thus I would be God himself.”

Whew, that’s certainly something to think about!

Fourth Meditation:  Truth and Falsehood

Yikes, and even deeper we go ……..  Descartes concludes that God exists and his existence depends on Him.  God cannot deceive because deception involves some sort of imperfection and God is perfect.  When Descartes focuses on God he finds no error in himself, but when he focuses on himself, he is full of errors.  He calls himself an intermediate being between God and nothingness.

With regard to errors, he proposes that two faculties come into play:  the faculty of knowledge and the faculty of choosing from his own free will, in other word, intellect and will.  Through his intellect he perceived ideas but through his will he can make judgements.  There is a problem though:  his intellect is limited —- it cannot perceive all ideas and it does not always perceive clearly and distinctly —– whereas his will is unlimited —- it can make, deny or suspend judgements on anything.  Yet as long as he does not make wrong judgements in his will, he is safe …… if he simply suspends judgement on ideas he’s not certain of, he cannot be wrong.

Descartes at Work
source Wikipedia


Fifth Meditation:  The Essence of Material Things, Another Discussion of God’s Existence

Descartes provides a new argument for the existence of God, in that if he thinks that he exists, existence in inseparable from God and therefore He exists …… or at least, I think that’s what he’s saying.  Such as:

1.  God is a being that has all perfections
2.  Existence is a perfection
——>   God exists

There are three famous arguments about Descartes’ position (one of them being Kant’s argument that existence isn’t a perfection) but none hold up to logical examination, so I guess Descartes is still the winner.

Sixth Meditation:  The Essence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction Between Mind and Body

Wow, this is getting challenging!  To argue for a material world, Descartes examines what is contained in his own soul.   There is a delineation between imagining and pure understanding.  He concludes he could exist without imagining, therefore imagining must be outside his mind and connected to the body.  Next he examines the senses, which he feels come involuntarily and therefore connect ideas to the mind.  The next puzzle is why the mind is connected to the body ………  With all these quite impressive logical acrobatics, he begins to believe material objects exist but perhaps not in the way he has always believed.  There are a number of other investigations into our senses and their role, why we make unwise decisions, and that the body is divisible, yet the mind is not.  He ends by stating:

” For from the fact that God is not a deceiver it follows that, in such cases, I am completely free from error.  But the urgency of things to be done does not always allow us time for such a careful examination; it must be granted, therefore, that human life is often subject to mistakes about particular things, and the weakness of our nature must be acknowledged.”

As much as it completely strained my brain, the Sixth Mediation really resonated with me.  I remember as a small child wondering why I was me. How was it that I felt contained in this particular body and not another?  Why was I chosen to be me?  How?  Why was I a soul living in Canada and not somewhere else?  I think this was the start of realizing that I had a soul and was something more than just a mechanical shell or a biological entity.  And if that was true, then where did I come from and who made me?  Perhaps not original questions, but ones that I think we should think about more in life.  Yes, we should all be philosophers!

Philosopher in Meditation
Rembrandt (1631)
source Wikipedia

Getting back to the book, it continues with “objections” or responses from Johan de Kater, a Catholic theologian from Holland; Fr. Marin Mersenne; Antoine Arnauld, a Jansenism theologian; Thomas Hobbes; and Pierre Gassendi, a priest, scientist, astronomer and mathematician.  I really had to laugh reading some of these objections.  In fact, the Catholics were the ones who questioned the logic Descartes used to prove the existence of God.  So curious from a modern prospective but it appears that the church was willing to ask tough questions during these times and wasn’t afraid of searching for the truth.  So interesting!

Descartes’ Replies to the Objections are also very enlightening but so very deep.  A course in logic would have been very useful before reading this book, however, I think I’ve covered enough for now.  Descartes obviously liked to think and had alot of time to do it.  It was mental gymnastics to try to follow him but good for the brain.  To really understand it though, you need to have read Aristotlean philosophy along with a number of other more recent philosophies, as Descartes thoughts sprung from that already anchored base.  At least my understanding, while minuscule, is more than when I started.  Thanks, Descartes!