The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

scout jem dill cropped

It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.

JWH 

Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?

We both watched him. “I’ve told him there’s nothing between us, you know.”

“I’m not sure he hears it,” I said, trying to be as delicate as possible.

“Men hear what they like and invent the rest.”

Lady Duff Twysden and Hadley Richardson Hemingway, The Paris Wife

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Isn’t that true of all of us, both men and women, we hear what we want and invent the rest?

Why read a 314 page novel about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, when Hemingway own roman à clef novel of their time together, The Sun Also Rises, leaves her out? Paula McLain’s 2011, The Paris Wife, gives us Hadley’s side of the story, but I’m left wondering why? McLean artistically recreates Hadley, and is a fine read, but for me at least, it brings up a lot of questions about using real people as characters in a novel. Hadley’s main claim to fame is for being Hemingway’s first wife, and second, for losing all his early manuscripts. To be honest, I read The Paris Wife, hoping to learn more about Hemingway, not Hadley, and I did, but The Paris Wife does make her a solid character now. Yet, is she a work of art, or historical footnote?

The-Paris-Wife-book-cover

Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the two famous expats of The Lost Generation that lived in Paris in the 1920s, continue to draw readers into a moment of history that has become ever more glamorous.  This era even gave Woody Allen inspiration for Midnight in Paris. Professors, scholars and bookworms are drawn to this small group of writers because they defined their times like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs defined The Beats, and Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Pissarro defined The Impressionists. These artistic movements generate addictive fascination in us. We especially love the Bloomsbury group, Lost Generation and Beats because of their free love drama and sexual complications.

Paula McLain’s novel was inspired by a 1991 biography Hadley by Gioia Diliberto, which was republished in 2011 as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife to ride the coattails of McLain’s bestseller. Obviously, McLain found Hadley fascinating, and so did the reading public. Interest in Hemingway’s wives continues, because last year, Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood came out, that covers all four of Papa’s wives in 317 pages.

I found great sympathy for Hadley Richardson while reading The Paris Wife, and thought Hemingway was an asshole, not only to his wife, but to his friends and mentors. But I already knew that. I will admit that The Paris Wife brings things into a new focus, but I also have to ask why we want to know more about Hadley. We do want to know more, but why? Hadley was a decent woman. She was reasonably good looking. She played the piano. But adding everything up, she wasn’t very interesting. Definitely not like Zelda Fitzgerald. But if enough writers reincarnate her into new stories, will she become the new Zelda of The Lost Generation?

What I’d like to explore is why we spend time recreating Hadley Richardson long after she’s dead. Why are we trying to make her into a memorable character of literary history? If Paula McLain’s novel had been entirely fiction, would the love story in it been worthy of reading? McLain is confined by fact, so the scope of her plot, characters, emotion and drama are limited. Given free reign, would her fictional Hadley been so dull and mundane? Hadley was part of the gang of dynamic people that Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises, so why does he leave her out of the story? He portrays himself as man sexually crippled by the war?  Jake Barnes, the Hemingway character, can’t chase Lady Brett, so he’s the observer of her wild affairs, much like we assume Hemingway was in real life – or did he actually get lucky? Did Hemingway see Hadley as a kind of chastity belt holding him back, or was she just not as colorful as his friends, and thus unworthy of being a character in his novel? Or was it even petty resentment and revenge?

Whenever I read about a historical person fictionalized I’m always anxious to know what is fiction and what is nonfiction. I knew some of this story before reading The Paris Wife. I’ve read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own memoirs of the time, and I’ve read The Sun Also Rises three times, which The Paris Wife describes Hemingway writing – the why and how. The Paris Wife also shows us Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald just after The Great Gatsby came out, during the tumultuous time that Fitzgerald was struggling to write Tender Is The Night.

McLain has picked a juicy period and place to cover, but then so did these famous novelists. How many views of these events and people do we need? I’m still willing to read more. But I believe we need to ask why. Is this a feminist take on literary history? If so, why hasn’t Jean Rhys become famous? She wrote her own novels, lived the wild life, was part of love triangles, and was connected to Ford Maddox Ford, another character in The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife covers Paris when many influential novels were written and their authors led lives that would generate countless biographies. Is Hadley’s unique perspective all that valuable? Hadley has now appeared in at least two novels, a memoir and many biographies, but she’s left out of the roman à clef novel by her famous husband. Isn’t that telling. In McClain’s novel, Hadley struggles to understand why too.

Of course new writers will continue to find peripheral individuals who were connected to The Lost Generation to give another perspective on this cozy history. There’s no reason not to write about Hadley. In recent years, books by and about all the women who hooked up with Jack Kerouac are coming out. Yet, the end result seems to paint more details about the male writers, and not to make their women more significant.

The more I read about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, the more I realize I would not have liked them as people. I feel sorry for their women, and their friends. They were all self-centered drunks who were obsessed with making themselves famous by writing up their own lives. Hemingway used Hadley and when he found a more useful woman, cast her aside. Yet, what makes Hadley famous now is Hemingway. What drew Hadley to him? Hadley was 29 when she snagged the 21 year old Ernest. Hemingway was broken by the war, struggling to start a career, screwed up by an overbearing mother and haunted by a father who killed himself. Hadley had her own psychological demons. She also had an overbearing mother and a father who committed suicide. Hemingway was obviously looking for a nurturing mother replacement, a lover, and a cheerleader, and Hadley fit the bill nicely.

Hadley2

Hemingway was an alpha male that woman chased after. He was exciting and beautiful to both women and men, so it’s clear why Hadley wanted him. But like many alpha males, he was a serial womanizer, so Hadley never had much of a chance. And from a literary history perspective, we have to ask, what value is she to the story? Even with Paula McLain’s loving portrait, Hadley’s image is impressionistic at best. We never see her in realistic detail.

Even when we read nonfiction how close are we getting to the truth? And when is fiction more insightful than nonfiction? In McLain’s novel she uses people’s real names. In Hemingway’s novel, the man who actually witness the events, recasts his friends as characters with new names. They aren’t meant to be photographic portraits. We don’t see Hadley in The Sun Also Rises even though she was there with Hemingway, hanging out with the same people. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter-ego, fictionally castrated, yearns for Lady Brett Ashley. Isn’t that psychological revealing way to portray himself in the novel? Years later, Hemingway does remember his wife in his memoir A Movable Feast, but isn’t it mostly guilt? He wants to apologize, but do we believe him?

HemingwayLoeb

In the end we’re fascinated by Hemingway and Hadley. But which is more important, the art, or the biography? Strangely enough, The Sun Also Rises is how most people see the Lost Generation, and it’s a lie, a fabrication, fiction. Hemingway distills time and memory like our dreams process our daily experiences. By fictionalizing Hadley, McLain is making her memorable in the same way Hemingway made his friends memorable. We remember Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell,  and not Lady Duff Twysden, Harold Loeb and Pat Guthrie. Which are more real, the fictional characters, or the people they were based on?

Literary biography can be a black hole sucking in facts searching for truth. If you get too close to the story, it can trap you inside the event horizon. For me, at some point, I get too close to these characters and start to dislike them. No matter how much I admire Hemingway’s skill with words, the more I know about him, the less I admire him as a person. The Paris Wife makes Hemingway into a real stinker – and here’s the real problem I have with the novel, I never see why Hadley loves him.

We learn why Hadley is attracted to Hemingway, why she needs him, why she admires him, why she wants to take care of him, but I never understood why she loves him. I think that’s true because we never understand why Hemingway loves Hadley. Love might not be something that can be conveyed in fiction or fact. We can describe romance and sex, but can we translate love into words? We can explain attraction, but can we put the ineffable into art? Even if we had high definition video of all the events in the book, could we ever know how people felt? Hadley says over and over again she loves Ernest, but that tells us nothing. We know she does because she puts up with so much. But I don’t think we ever feel what she feels.

Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we’re not recreating reality but art. We will never know Hadley and Hemingway. Novels like The Paris Wife have to stand alone as art. Bringing in facts from the past only confuses the issues even though we assume more facts bring more clarity. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Kerouac knew that, and that’s why they don’t stick to the facts.

The Paris Wife did make me wonder why Hemingway wasn’t more genuine in his novel and included himself and Hadley as man and wife. For such a macho guy, I think he was being a pussy. He obviously didn’t want to write honestly about his attraction to Duff (Lady Brett), or deal with Hadley’s hurt. Hemingway would get in with the bulls, but was too chicken to throw himself in the romantic ring where everyone was goring each other. I’ve got to give Kerouac credit for portraying his own faults in his novels. It will be hard now to read The Sun Also Rises without thinking about The Paris Wife. As works of art they will always have to stand alone, but as literary gossip, they are forever married.

If Hemingway had really loved Hadley, and understood her deeply, knowing her soul with that love, don’t you think she would have been characterized in The Sun Also Rises? Like the quote I open with, “Men hear what they like and invent the rest,” Hemingway remembers what he wants remembered, and invents the rest.

JWH

Three Useful Internet Sites for a Dynamic Reading of Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading Ulysses by James Joyce can be very difficult, even daunting. Many well read readers consider Ulysses the number one novel of all time, because of it’s rich complexity and advanced writing techniques. Joyce intentionally made Ulysses a reading challenge, full of Easter eggs for readers to find and decipher, making it a novel worthy of multiple readings.

I have tried reading Ulysses before, but even after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times, I wasn’t ready. One major barrier for me is my poor reading skills. I’ve been conditioned to read fast, always wanting to know what’s going to happen, by the plot driven novels of my youth. Ulysses is more like a great painting that you must study slowly and carefully, and for most of my life I never had the patience.

The range of what I could read took a quantum leap forward in 2002 when I started listening to audio books. Listening makes me read slow, and that changes everything. Also, professional readers showcase writing far better than my own inner voice. It’s like the difference between reading poetry and hearing it read aloud. Quality fiction should be heard. It should sound dramatic and dynamic, even poetical. Bad writing sticks out when read aloud. Once I started listening to Ulysses I could get into it. But still there was much I was missing.

Ulysses is famous for its stream of conscious writing techniques. If you just read it with your eyes, it’s easy to confuse the narrator with inner monologues. And even good audio book narrators don’t always distinguish between the two.

Ulysses is also full of allusions to real world and literary history, using colloquial and idiomatic words and phrases that are long out of fashion. Plus Joyce frequently cites lines of Latin, songs and poems that well educated people knew back then, but most people don’t know about today.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled upon two sites on the internet that are wonderful tools for helping me to read Ulysses in a very efficient manner. The first is  The Joyce Project that features an online version of Ulysses. Now most people hate reading online, but I have a major reason to get over that prejudice. The second site that I use is an audio performance of Ulysses at Archive.org. I read online as I listen to this online recording. This recording is very special because they use different actors for different characters, and they use a special effect for when Joyce is having his character speak in their internal voice. This is a tremendous advantage for understanding Ulysses. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hear Joyce read by someone that can pronounce everything correctly, and even offer good accents.

As an extra bonus, The Joyce Project has an annotation mode you can turn on, and certain words and phrases will appear in color that you can click on to read for elaboration. What I do is read and listen to each episode, and then go back and click on all the highlights. Here’s what the plain text looks like, then with the annotations highlighted, and then with the pop-up for the first annotation.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

The Joyce Project 1

The Joyce Project 2

The Joyce Project 3

But what works really well is to open the The Joyce Project and the Archive.org audio player windows so they overlap, like this:

Read and Listen

This allows me start and stop the audio easily as I read, in case I do want to stop my reading to study an annotation.

Finally, there’s a third dimension to using the web for reading and studying Joyce – there’s a goldmine of supplemental material. I’m not pursing the study guides on my first reading except in a very limited way. Ulysses is a black hole for scholarship.

One site that is frequently recommended to me is Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce. Delaney does one podcast a week and is up to #245, but only to episode five in the novel. He estimates it will take him 25 years to finish the project. Delaney is a famous author and broadcaster, and knows Joyce’s Ireland, so his rich voice and literary experience makes him a great guide for traversing the land of Joyce. His enthusiasm enhances the enjoyment of reading Joyce.

I figure the first two tools, the annotated text and the performance narration, are the two best tools I’ve discovered for reading Ulysses for the first time. And the Frank Delaney podcast is a wonderful supplement for those people who want to take their first step into Joyce scholarship.

JWH

The Best Nonfiction of 2014–Collected Lists

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. One is online, and one is face-to-face. Between the two, I’m introduced to twenty-four books I would not normally read, and my reading life has become much more exciting over the last few years. Both book clubs have a nomination process where recommended titles must jockey for votes. Both clubs have about a dozen or so members, and it’s rather hard to find books that will appeal to so many people, and even more, get that many people to actually read. Every once in a while, we’ll pick a book everyone absolutely loves, like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. On average, if we’re lucky, we’ll pick books that at least half the people like.

It’s easy to find books to nominate, but hard to find willing agreement. I generally try to nominate books that have least a 100 reviews at Amazon. The Warmth of Other Suns has 1,297 reviews, with an average rating of 4.7. It turned out to be the highest rated book at my online book club.

One technique I use to scout for possible nominations is to read all the best-of-the-year booklists. If I see a book that’s on many of the lists, I figure it’s a book that’s both good and appealing to wide range of readers. Here are the lists for 2014:

I wished these sites would make a nice printable version of their yearly recommendations so it would be easy to take to the book club and pass around. Even better, I wish some enterprising web site would collate all the lists and make a meta-list of the most recommended books. I could do that, but it’s just too much work. What I end up doing is eyeballing the lists and going from memory which books I see over and over again. These nineteen books were the ones I saw the most, and were on at least 5-10 lists.

Age of AmbitionsBook Review-Bad FeministBeing Mortal

Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)Deep Down Dark - Hector TobarFactory Man - Beth Macy

How_We_Got_to_Nowin the kingdom of iceinnovators

Little FailureMan Alive McBeeOn Immunity.JPG

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertSoldier GirlsThe Empathy Exams

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace - Jeff HobbsThe True AmericanThirteen Days in September

This-Changes-Everything-Capitalism-vs.-The-Climate

JWH

A Different Flavor of Science Fiction–The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is fiction about the heart of science. Alma Whittaker, the protagonist represents the empirical ideal, while Ambrose Pike stands in for the mystical and metaphysical. The Signature of All Things is another kind of science fiction, a story about scientific thinking, set in the 19th century, the century where the scientist came into being, the century where we turned from reading the word of God to reading all things natural, the century where evolution was revealed as the driving force of creation.

I love The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert so much that I hunger to know how it was written. This book is such a perfect mixture of historical detail, psychological realism and imagined characterization that it becomes deeply philosophical, going well beyond just a great story. I can’t help but believe it’s Gilbert’s personal statement about the nature of reality. I don’t know if Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert, but she’s probably the woman Gilbert would want to be if she lived in the 19th century. Don’t let any prejudice about Gilbert’s earlier books keep you from reading this one.

If you love stories of the 19th century, especially ones about natural philosophers becoming scientists, then you should read The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s sprawling tale covers two lifetimes beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 19th, and includes sea voyages, botany, biology, lithography, Tahiti, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. This time around, we get to live an alternate history where there is a woman scientist, Alma Whittaker, who made some very great discoveries on her own. Alma Whittaker is the person you’d want to be if you could reincarnate backwards in time.

If you’ve ever fantasized about living in the 19th century and becoming an amateur scientist yourself, The Signature of All Things is among the more detailed of such fantasies. Science fiction has always looked to the future, but the future hasn’t turned out to be everything it was cracked up to be, so many science fiction fans have turned to fantasy, and many of them love steampunk, a retro look at the Victorian era. This book isn’t steampunk, but it wears the same appealing fashions. I think there are many deep rooted psychological reasons why us futurists have turned to look backwards to Darwin and Dickens. This book is historical, but not quite historical fiction. It has intense sense of wonder, but it’s not science fiction, not in the traditional sense, but it should appeal to the science minded person.

Science fiction itself evolved out of Victorian era sense of wonders, and we grew up believing in lone inventors who could master the magical incantations of science. We love all those butterfly collections, scientific sea voyages and dinosaur hunters.

Orchid lithograph

The Signature of All Things is a love letter to those who embrace the natural world over the metaphysical.

The entire time I read The Signature of All Things I kept wondering how Gilbert imagined her novel. I’d gladly buy The Making of The Signature of All Things if Gilbert would write it. The book is an amazing feat of imagination, research, inspiration and psychology. In one sense it’s a feminist fantasy, and on the other hand, it’s a fantasy for anyone who reveres the 19th century. I got on the Internet hoping to find clues as to how and why Gilbert wrote this novel, and I luckily discovered that Gilbert had a Pinterest page devoted to The Signature of All Things. The financial success of Eat, Pray, Love let Gilbert spend three years researching The Signature of All Things. Few writers get such an opportunity, and her hard work paid off in a big way.

The first fifty pages of the book is about Henry Whittaker, a fascinating character that could have easily overshadowed the main character, his daughter Alma. Alma Whittaker is the ultimate free-range child educated by her stern Dutch mother, Beatrix. Alma was born January 5, 1800, so she ages with the century. Alma grows up on a huge estate outside of Philadelphia, and her father invited the most interesting men in the world to visit. Even as a child, Alma was expected to carry on an adult conversation at the dinner table. She mastered many living and dead languages, read everything in her father’s large library, and taught herself to become a botanist, specializing in mosses.

I can’t begin to chronicle all the ideas in this novel. Gilbert distilled her three years research into five hundred pages of fiction, and on almost every page, I wondered about her choice of detail to reveal. The book is tightly plotted, with an abundance of vivid characters, and the reader travels around the world three times. And it’s not until the end, that everything finally comes together. It’s a very satisfying ending, yet I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how and why Gilbert made her writing decisions.  I found some of the answers I sought in this interview:

Victorian scientists were big on developing classification systems, mapping every scrap of land and sea, inventing coordinate grids and measurement systems, taxonomies, and most of all, collecting. Science in the time of Dickens was small enough in scope, that most intelligent individuals could be well-versed generalists. There is a special kind of appeal to science before relativity and quantum mechanics. A gentleman or gentlewoman with a microscope and telescope could confirm most of what they read, and it was still possible to keep up with the reading in most fields.

Alma Whittaker, is a woman that wants to understand, and through almost endless hardships, becomes enlightened.

JWH

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

by James Wallace Harris, October 3, 2014

Is there one novel that defines your life?  Have you return to it decade after decade throughout your life?  Has the author spoken to you across time, space and the gulf between life and death?  Does the narrative commentary resonate with your heart and mind?  Do lines of dialog feel like they are speaking to events in your life like you’re listening to a Greek oracle, or studying hexagrams from the I Ching?  For Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch by George Elliot is one such book, and she’s written My Life in Middlemarch to explain her literary touchstone.

my-life-in-middlemarch

A year and a month ago I wrote “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about such writers.  Most of us have many such books and writers that haunt us, but Mead focuses on one novel, and one writer, and writes a whole book about how that one story haunts her life.  If you read the reviews at Goodreads you’ll see that most readers give her four stars out of five, with few rating it a full five stars, and with some giving far fewer.  How much you like this book will depend on whether or not you’ve read Middlemarch, how much English lit professor you have in you, and how much more you’d want from Mead.

Mead does a fair amount of travel and research to give us background on George Elliot and her most famous novel, but not nearly as much as a definitive biography.  Nor is her tale of book-love a proper memoir.  Personally, I was quite taken with her story as is, and it makes me want to reread Middlemarch for closer study.  However, it doesn’t really live up to its promise either.  And I’d really like to see someone pull off such a memoir.  It would have to be far more personal, far more detailed, far more psychological.  Not detailed in biography or close reading of the text, which I’m satisfied with Mead’s work here, but in giving us intimate personal reading details that make us feel true reading obsession.

Two books that come closer to mind of what I’d like to read is Among Others by Jo Walton, a novel about a lonely girl growing up reading science fiction, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a nonfiction novel that integrates Plato into a man’s life.  The passion I’d like to see is such biblio-memoirs is what I found in Possession by A. S. Byatt.

Even though I feel My Life in Middlemarch is a very worthy book, I longed to read Mead’s deep personal details about each time she read Middlemarch.  I ached to know how a 20th century woman could find so much love and understanding in a 19th century woman.  I wonder if I could do what I want with my favorite childhood novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.

JWH

Wide Sargasso Sea–Sex and Madness

Jean Rhys explored the depths of the feminine mind living in a masculine dominated society.  Rhys wrote many stories and novels before becoming famous late in life with Wide Sargasso Sea, a literary prequel to  Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontëWide Sargasso Sea (1966) can be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre (1847), and is a completely stand-alone novel.  Jean Rhys gives a 20th century explanation to a mystery in a 19th century novel, and I can’t help believe that is to a certain degree psychologically, and maybe sexually, autobiographical.  Both Rhys and her character started out life in the West Indies and ended up living in England, both dying there.

jean rhys

Although Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are novels, I wonder if we can read the minds of their authors in their stories.  Both books closely follow their characters, with Brontë anticipating stream-of-conscious and Rhys using multiple first person stream-of-conscious.  Even though Rhys makes Wide Sargasso Sea completely self-contained as a story, it does cleverly use Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre as a starting point for her story.  Both authors use their story to express views on the role of women in society, and to show how they are oppressed on many levels.  In a way, Rhys attacks Brontë for copping out, because she uses the tragedy of Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway to undermine Brontë’s happy ending.

Wide-Sargasso-Sea

A good part of Wide Sargasso Sea is it’s setting, and the history of life in the West Indies just after slavery was abolished.  First we follow Antoinette as a child so we can see her mother, a woman who has lost her husband, and must care for two children with no income.  We see her descend into insanity.  Antoinette grows up with black servants whose charity saves these poor whites, who the ex-slaves refer to as white cockroaches.  The black people of the story vary greatly in personality, ethnicity and ethicality.   The novel explores many themes, the prominent one deals with sex and madness, but it also deals with the confrontation of the races in the 1830s West Indies, and the lush tropical life there.  Nature is oppressive in both weather and the emotional moods it inspires in the people.  All the characters suffer from a languid disposition because of the atmosphere and biosphere.  In this steamy jungle locale there is a lot of sex, repression and sexual oppression going on.

I have not read Rhys other novels and stories, but from the introduction to my edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, she had lot of affairs that ended badly, and often lived at the bottom of society depended on the generosity of men that weren’t always good to her.  That’s why I felt her novel is autobiographical to a degree.  Rhys wasn’t locked in a room for years, but she did live in isolated exile for years.

I also feel Brontë used Jane Eyre to express her gender repression and desires.  In both books, women lives are contrasted with those of slaves and servants.  And I can’t wonder if Rhys felt contempt for Brontë when she gave Jane a happy ending with Edward Rochester.  Rochester is unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but he’s shown with varying levels of sympathy, but ultimately he’s seen as cruel and self-serving.  He’s a tragic hero in Jane Eyre, but a tragic villain in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Another theme in Wide Sargasso Sea is Voodoo.  Christophine is an old black woman that cares for Antoinette her whole life before she goes to England.  She sides with the whites, and the blacks fear her, because they believe she has special powers.  Christophine always tells people they are foolish to think such thoughts, but we are given one powerful scene to believe otherwise.  Sex is always at the periphery of this novel, but it comes to the forefront at a hallucinatory peak in the story, where passion, madness, and maybe Voodoo all come together.

The Rochester character often tells the island people, both white and black that they don’t know how to hide their feelings, but he’s often surprised when they apparently can read his mind or predict his future.  Even the black children boldly state the fate of the white people with sharp obviousness that the Englishman finds unnerving.  At first this man is patronizing to the black people, defending them to his wife, but slowly he realizes they know more than he does, at least about their world, where he is an invader.

I wish I knew how much Rhys remembered of her island upbringing when she wrote this book.  Her first sixteen years were lived in the West Indies before she moved to England and Europe.  How much research did she do about the island life for the novel?  And most important of all, are there any novels written by people living in the islands in the 1830s?  How can we know if this 1966 novel represents a true picture of the West Indies in the 1830s?

Wide Sargasso Sea is on many Best Books lists.

 

JWH – 8/29/14