To Read: Peak

To Read: Peak

Photo credit: Eric Kilby on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

The Work at Hand

It’s the middle of April, and I’m behind on my Camp NaNo page count goal. Way behind. But I’ve still been busy reading, writing, brainstorming, and doing other things–like eating regular meals that I actually cooked (more often than in the past)–to fuel my progress. It’s the peak of the month’s mountain, but I have yet to reach my peak, and that’s okay. I’m making progress, and I get back on the horse and ride, every day.

Effort is a healthy portion of success, along with setting goals to focus those efforts, which I’ve done. And based on past experience with month-long writing marathons, I know I can catch up, but also that if I don’t, I’ll keep writing next month, and the month after that. The will and the ways are here. There’s forward motion. And I’m attending our helpful, weekly local write-ins and word sprints.

In those word sprints, I get words down on the page in large quantities. I’ve had practice at it, and I know how to turn on the juice. I have a sense of purpose, several projects I’m rotating through, and reliable writing tools at hand.

In other words, being behind on my established schedule toward my goal means very little in the grand scheme. With the help of Camp, I’ve set the goal in the first place and made more headway than I would have without it. I’m learning to keep reaching and keep thinking positively because of these events. With more opportunities like these, I’ll get better and better as I practice the habits.

Choosing Your Thoughts and Influences

While engaged in writing projects, I frequently come across sources that affirm the worth of pursuing them. This period has brought several.

When we aspire, when we strive to attain our ambitions, sometimes fear and doubt get in the way. Anyone with an ounce of humility has experienced some form of these triggers and, as a result, paused or even gave up on a goal. Writers and artists, perhaps more than many types of professionals, can experience the dreaded, more acute form of this fear and doubt, called “impostor syndrome.” I’m just not good enough. I’m not a real writer. No one will ever read my work. Etc. The Internal Critics Committee.

This condition is often based on the commonly held cultural belief that if you don’t start with great talent, your chances of success diminish. This idea, as it turns out, is far from true.

There are many ways to the top of a career. In all but the rarest of cases, no one keeps climbing or stays on top with only one factor on board every time, however convenient it might be to believe cynically in the ultimate power of one factor: genetics, age, race, sex, class, health, creed, nation, ethnicity, immigrant status, talent, education level, job title, confidence, charm, luck, physical beauty, notoriety, intelligence, inheritance, nepotism, ruthlessness, absolute shamelessness, and so on. If only I’d been smarter, richer, prettier, whiter, taller, male, etc., . . . then I would have succeeded.

Such views oversimplify life’s complexity, ignoring other areas of privilege that offset perceived deficiencies and drowning individuals in a sea of wasteful excuses and needless handicaps. Besides, it’s almost always quite unnecessary to be at the very top. (See my numerous posts on perfectionism.)

Equally important is the understanding that, in all but the rarest of cases, it also takes more than one factor or event to seal one’s fate in permanent failure. Life offers lots of chances, but we need to have faith and hope in the next day, in ourselves, and in each other, to be open to recognizing opportunities and potential, and to be resilient enough to keep trying. We have to be brave enough to trust and humble enough to seek help when needed. We must blend patience with persistence.

We also need to let go of false ambitions, of goals imposed from the outside, of the unrealistic definition of success and this limited, and limiting, sense of its requirements. We need a growth, instead of a fixed, mindset. Once we choose better ways of thinking and better thoughts, our lives are freer to climb out of the pit of stagnating cynicism.

Sooner or later, you either decide to stop being crippled by jealousy, frustration, misfortune, failure, or learned helplessness, and really focus on your own work, or you resign yourself to settling, whether admittedly or not. If we let it, adversity strengthens, failure teaches, and bouncing back rewards us. You get on with it, or you get nowhere.

So, really, I guess you could say there are some “requirements” for success, all otherwise known as “attitude” and “character.” And a little passion doesn’t hurt.

An Open Mind, a Willing Heart

But I want to focus on the unique challenge in this cloud of misconceptions about talent, specifically. To earnest takers of a chance, who also face doubt and fear, the challenge is to open our minds to possibilities and, then, to the recently researched data and the conclusions reputable researchers have drawn about that data. The action I encourage is this:

Believe in your growth potential, at any age, based on the scientific fact that no skill is innate, or remains honed, but is learnable and masterable and requires practice to keep.

In other words, talent matters so much less than our culture claims or believes it does. Sure, starting with a gift helps, but “deliberate practice” matters far more. Diligence, discipline, study, exercise, repetition. The foundation of mastery is made less out of giftedness and privilege and more out of steady, persistent, purpose-driven, and wisely shaped (smarter not harder) work.

As an English teacher, my high school classroom approach and motto, the center of a teaching philosophy created as part of earning my masters in education, came down to this: “With effort, intelligence grows.” The idea is that intelligence, the dexterity of the mind, though the brain starts in a certain place, gets better through active study and interaction with the sources and instruments of knowledge and skill.

A Book to Read

This is why I find the book I just stumbled upon so compelling to buy and read. As with all humans, I like its central message because it speaks to my own belief. What’s more, based on a peek inside, the book promises to back up that belief with science in a convincing, readable way. And if I can use that resource to help myself or others succeed, then that’s what I intend to do.

In my online travels, first I was reading Jane Friedman’s writing and publishing blog, which led me to Barbara Baig’s website, which led me to the book in question. An excerpt from Baig’s book, Spellbinding Sentences: An Author’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, was posted as Spellbinding Sentences: 3 Qualities of Masterful Word Choice at JaneFriedman.com.

Barbara Baig’s home page at WhereWritersLearn.com refers to the principles behind her work, including mastery and deliberate practice, and recommends the source of those influences:

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I read the introduction about Mozart and perfect pitch, liked the writing style, found it credible, insightful and fascinating, and made my decision. (Another stumbled-upon nugget!: Baig further samples and clarifies what Peak is about in another post on Jane Friedman’s site: If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? In a word, no.)

Today, I add Peak to my Amazon cart and my Goodreads to-read list.

Another great resource focuses both on what it takes to become an expert and on how to make the most and best possible impact in your career: 80000hours.org.

Of course, Jane Friedman has other gems along the same lines, such as 5 Things More Important Than Talent, which I recommend reading and absorbing if you’ve ever even slightly teetered on the edge of developing impostor syndrome.

My mind is alert and exploring these days, which is to say, although I’m feeling a bit scattered, it is not without purpose and some good outcomes. I believe I’m making important connections, realizations, and choices in the process. Not all rabbit holes lack rabbits, after all.

And Back to Work

Keep writing, reading, doing, succeeding.


 

One Writer, Many Ways

Modern human survival depends in large part on understanding and adapting to the difference between the best way and the only way. Could it even be true that, with absolutely anything, there is never only one way? We might be glad if we looked into it. The pursuit of our goals involves finding our own most manageable way and coming to terms with our chosen way. When things don’t work out as we’d hoped, and if course correction to the path we first (or second) imagined is impossible, acceptance can elude us and disappointment reign. Learning, then, to come back from that can take time. It takes the distance from which to look back and see things differently, and some openness to present mystery and future possibility. It takes patience and the desire to keep trying.

The writing life is not one kind of life, but many kinds. When misconceptions abound, the path tilts uphill, but the artistic, creative life is more than legitimate and worth while. To the art, to the artist, and to art-starved and art-filled societies alike, it is essential. So don’t starve while you’re trying not to starve, whether you’ve put living or writing first.

Writers and humans, please read on for the insight, resonance, beauty, and inspiration of Jan’s story. She did it, and does it, her way. 

“If Wishes Were Horses”* by Jan Priddy – at BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

You can learn more about Jan here and Jan’s work listed at her newer blog here.

photo of pathway surrounded by fir trees

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com


Philosofishal posts on a similar theme:


* Incidentally, Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite authors, but I cheer Jan’s response to his novel’s blame game.

Choice and Fate in Outlander STARZ

Risk assessment in the drama of Outlander STARZ: Do the Frasers need a decision tree?

Spoilers ahead if you’re not caught up with both the books and the TV series. Also, some key details assumed without being mentioned.

Oh so many things went wrong, or seemed to, in this latest episode of Outlander STARZ, ep410, “The Deep Heart’s Core.” My husband said what might seem obvious during the revelations scene, i.e., the climax of the episode where tempers flared and horror ascended in the hearts of the guilty. (So glad he’s on board with watching my fave show, by the way!) He laughed and said, “These people need to talk to each other. Everyone’s leaving something out. They’re like children.” Too true. Too human.

But the Frasers (and Murrays and Fitzgibbonses) do the best they know how; their primary motive is love. Actually, although it may seem counter-intuitive, that motivation may be the main barrier to ensuring loved ones’ well-being and good, long-term outcomes. Emotions steer their course more often than sound judgment, thoughtful consideration, or consultation with each other of any length, or so the limited time frame of episodic television suggests. The books are more intricate, intellectual, nuanced, and intelligent, with longer conversations as a matter of course, discussions that go into much greater depth on the weighty issues.

In some ways, though, who can blame these characters? Their problems are inordinately complex. A family composed in part of time travelers who never know if their interventions will have a positive or negative impact on the long run, whether the target for improvement is their family situation or society at large. Still, the depth of their love for each other, the greatness of their need for each other, these things are the primary drivers of their actions always, which, although problematic, is also one huge reason we love them as readers and viewers.

For instance, as she tells us in ep408, “Wilmington,” Brianna would never have forgiven herself if she hadn’t gone back in time to warn her parents of the fire resulting in their deaths some time in the 1770s (stupid printer’s stupid smudge!). So almost on impulse, though she carefully plans and prepares, she goes back through the stones to her parents’ time in 1769.

Although, once he follows and finally catches up with her, Roger does try to explain why he kept his knowledge of the fire from Brianna, as usual, it should get more play than it does on the show: “We cannot be the arbiters of who lives and dies,” he argues. This in the midst of heated, emotional conversation where the fiery Fraser lass is deeply offended by being treated with such protection, like a child, which Roger then says matches her behavior of the moment.

She insists in her passion that it was her choice to make, and that she wouldn’t make such an important decision for Roger, so why did he try to make hers? This she says after he has already tried to explain that she really can’t make a difference, they are incapable of changing history in any significant way, which seems to be borne out by the Frasers’ experiences leading up to Culloden.

Still, she had to try, she says. It’s love, and foolishness, putting herself at compounded high risk for harm and death by going through the stones at all and by traveling in the 1700s as a young, thin, beautiful, 1960s-era woman–by herself. Both students of history, with this unprecedented phenomenon of time travel to consider, it is natural that Roger and Brianna should have such diverging views on the potential for influencing history.

A critical scene and discussion omitted from the first book during Season 1, to Diana Gabaldon’s frustration, may have been perhaps the first major point of divergence between book and show about the crux of the entire series—the effects of time travel.

During Claire’s discussion with Father Anselm at the abbey where Claire tends to a deeply traumatized and suicidal Jamie in the wake of his victimization by Black Jack Randall, two critical questions from the book do not make it to the screen. In Gabaldon’s Outlander, Claire confesses her sins, which admittedly are more mortal in the books than in the show up to that point. She asks the priest, first, “What have I done?”

She blames herself for the misery she has brought to both her husbands, Frank in the 1940s and Jamie in the 1740s. It’s as if she believes she were so powerful to overcome either her greater love for Jamie than for Frank when faced with the free choice, provided by Jamie, of whether to return to Frank or stay in Jamie’s time, or to overcome Captain Black Jack Randall’s will to save Jamie from the gallows temporarily only so he could have his way with and break him.

But she didn’t cause Jamie to be caught by the redcoats, to be set on the run from them, though she and Murtagh searched far and wide for him, or to be captured again, tried, and sentenced to hang. To save his family, Jamie chose to help the Watch attempt to rob a neighboring clan, which set these events in motion.

Then again, it was fate that made Horrocks reappear at Lallybroch after learning of Jamie’s outlaw status when the Mackenzies brought Jamie to meet him to see if there was a way to prove his innocence. The same Horrocks then extorted Jamie to keep silent, leading to his murder and McQuarrie’s need for another rider to join him on the raid once Horrocks became unavailable. Oh, how they try.

However, Claire also confesses to two murders she commits in the books that she does not commit in the show. No doubt, this difference led the showrunner, producers, and writers to believe that the Father Anselm conversation was less critical than it really is. The second question contradicts the basis I’m supposing for that decision to omit both questions.

“What should I do?” Claire next asks Father Anselm in the novel Outlander. He goes off to ponder her dilemma and restarts the conversation later.

With both questions, the answer is the same. In effect, be true to yourself, your goodness and good intentions. Why? Because you did what you had to do to survive (what have I done?), and there is no way to know what impact you will have (what should I do?). In other words, there is no reason to believe that you are as powerful to effect great change or alter personal events in history as you may suspect or hope you are. In fact, as Season 2 illustrates, even your best efforts tend to make little difference on the grand scale of historic battles won and lost.

In traveling through time, Claire, like her daughter Brianna, has only the power to exist in the presence of her fellow human beings and to influence the lives of those with whom she comes into direct contact, attempts to heal, saves from death, cares for, looks after, and loves with all her soul. Beyond these (not small things), fate, accident, serendipity, synchronicity, coincidence, God, and/or other mysterious, external forces have the ultimate say in how things eventually end up.

Since this is fiction, and suspenseful drama is a required component to hold reader and viewer interest, the magic of fateful convergences and divergences among key characters and the failures of major protagonists are simply par for the course. The audience suspends disbelief for the sake of the ride.

So, although it’s easy to blame Jamie and his accomplice, Young Ian, for the horrible turn Roger’s fate has taken, or to blame Lizzie for acting foolishly in her fear and telling Jamie that Roger was the man who violated Brianna, or to blame Brianna for not telling her maid, Lizzie, what really happened and who was involved, or to blame Brianna for coming back through the stones in the first place, leading to all this damage–whose fault is it really?

Claire’s, of course.

She’s the one who came back in Season 1 to collect the forget-me-nots at Craigh na Dun, which led to her accidental trip back in time, which led to the rest. But again, it was accidental, right? Weel . . . mebbe. . . . It is what she tells Geillis during their witch trial in one of the best episodes of the series, ep111, “The Devil’s Mark.”

But in a later example, how can Brianna’s encounter with Laoghaire on her way to the Colonies be seen as accidental? As nasty as Laoghaire can be, I’m hard pressed to blame her for thinking that the Frasers sent Brianna to mock her, or even that Brianna is a witch like her mother Claire. The lass does boneheadedly declare to Laoghaire of all people that she knows there will be a fire at Fraser’s Ridge. 

By notable contrast, Claire’s return to Jamie after 20 years in the 20th century was intentional, greatly inspired by Brianna’s selfless encouragement of her mother’s return to the love of her life, and deftly enabled by Roger’s research and sharing his findings about Jamie. Did Claire’s return make Brianna’s trip intentional? Or, did Brianna do that? Or, was it all inevitable? Like everything else?

Will Jamie and Claire die in the fire on Fraser’s Ridge no matter what anyone’s powers of time travel, brute strength, historical/future knowledge, keen insight, doctor’s skill, historian’s judgment, fire fighting, or deep love may be? Who really controls fate? In fiction’s case, the author of it, of course!

I’m reminded of the film Charlie Wilson’s War, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s CIA character tries early and then succeeds later in telling Charlie the story of the Zen master and the little boy. The lesson is, What may seem like tragedy when a misfortune occurs may be a good thing, and what may seem like victory may be a bad thing—in the long run.

If Claire had never accidentally gone back through time, we would not have the benefit of witnessing the extraordinary love and adventures of her and her eighteenth-century husband Jamie. Less intuitively, if Jamie had not been raped by Black Jack Randall, he would not have had the unique, rather comforting insight to share with his nephew, Young Ian, also victimized sexually, or with his daughter, Brianna, also raped not long after arriving in the past.

On the cusp of major actions, in the wake of fresh tragedy, misfortune, misunderstanding, brutality, and Brianna’s singular wrath and stubbornness, coupled with Jamie and Young Ian’s guilt–what should the Frasers’ goals now be?

With all they know, or think they know, all they feel, and all the don’t know or feel, it’s really hard to say. What will happen to them and their children and their children’s children in the end? While we progress through the middle of the series in its adaptation from book to screen, and while fully versed readers await Diana Gabaldon’s completion of the book series (she’s finishing up book nine and says there will be a tenth), we just have to wait and see.

Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Great American Reads: The Results

via Great American Reads

First, I was amazed it made the top 5, which Meredith Vieira revealed early in the program on tonight’s Grand Finale of The Great American Read. Then, I was shocked it wasn’t number 4 and then flabbergasted that it passed up the number 3 position, beating out the wildly popular Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Pride and Prejudice.

At that point, my incredulity so distorted my judgment that I wasn’t certain any more it couldn’t beat To Kill a Mockingbird. But it didn’t. It only beat 98 other well-loved novels to become the number 1 contemporary novel in America’s esteem, number 1 out of all 21st-century novels in English, at least through the lens of the PBS Great American Read campaign.

I knew the Outlander fan base was devoted and highly motivated on social media, but I had no idea how much traction the book series must have gained thanks to the Outlander STARZ TV series’ starting and doing so well since August of 2014. Published in 1991, Outlander is more popular today than ever. Perhaps what throws me most is how close my opinion is to some sort of mainstream, especially concerning taste in books.

Now I can say with the weight of a country’s most avid readers behind me: Read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. America recommends it. 


For my take on choosing and voting for a favorite novel, visit the post Great American Reads.

Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira.

See also: my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me, for all of us, to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

Outlander_cover


If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

See my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.

Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

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