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.


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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.

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 2 of 4

I kicked off Part 1 of this series describing how the heck I got so lucky as to score a day in Argyll and Bute with Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin, who works on the Outlander STARZ TV show, among other projects. I also offered readers and fans the tip to take the chance, too, if you get it.

The “First Foray” of our “Morning in Argyll”? A serpentine drive from Arrochar lodging (Seabank B&B) in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park along the A83 outline of Loch Fyne’s west bank toward the country’s west coast. Maps and several of my photos in Part 1 help tell the story of our adventure’s beginning on September 20th, 2016.

My husband at the wheel and Àdhamh riding shotgun, I sat in the back diagonally from Àdhamh so we could talk easier. He asked us what sorts of things we’d like to see and then planned our stops in his head as we passed lochs, mountains, riverbeds, the storied Glen Kinglas, the town of Inveraray, the 18th-century township museum of Auchindrain, and other landmarks. During our drive through the glens, I spotted a group of deer below us in the distance. Àdhamh complimented my keen eye and said they were probably fallow deer.

Morning in Argyll

A canal runs through it

Argyll’s principal town and county seat of Lochgilphead, population 2,300, is named for sitting at the head of Loch Gilp, an offshoot of Loch Fyne. We passed the town and took the A816 northwest into Knapdale, north of the base of Argyll’s Kintyre Peninsula. It had taken about an hour and a half to drive from Arrochar to the Knapdale coast, so before reaching the main attractions of the morning, we stopped for coffee at Crinan Coffee Shop and relaxed before a view at the basin of the Crinan Canal.

Built in 1801 and peppered with 15 locks, the 9-mile Crinan Canal connects the Sound of Jura at the tiny west-coast port of Crinan village to Loch Fyne, a sea loch, in the east at Ardrishaig. The canal also bisects the ancient kingdom of Dalriada and serves with Loch Crinan and Loch Gilp as the northern boundary of the district of Knapdale. A unique engineering feat, the canal grapples with the ocean tides on both ends of its length. Recently, drought in the area was restricting Crinan Canal’s use to one hour before and one hour after high tide (see Crinan Canal Restrictions).

Crinan-Canal-Basin-Coffee-Shop_Open-Street-Map_2018-08-16 10-39-05

Clockwise from center: Crinan Canal Basin, Crinan Coffee Shop left, Crinan Hotel upper left, lighthouse top, Sound of Jura above, Canal path right. Image courtesy OpenStreetMap.org

The shop has a low-angled roof on one side that gives it almost a wedge shape. Part of the Crinan Hotel, the Crinan Coffee Shop offers fine confections and soothing percolations, as well as a public restroom and outdoor seating on the quay. The canal was quiet at that hour on a fall Tuesday, which makes sense in hindsight as its use long ago teetered from mostly commercial to mostly recreational.

Under a bright but overcast sky in balmy weather by the water, my husband and I sat in chairs at a café-side table facing the canal basin. Àdhamh sat opposite us and the shop with its black roof and gleaming white face.

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Image courtesy Undiscovered Scotland

I don’t recall many details of our conversation, but I remember we fell easily into casual chatting, having become acquainted during our 50-mile meandering drive to the coast. We touched on several topics, most about Scotland, and dared to wander in to the typically fraught American subject area of politics. Our trio had the advantage of not knowing each side of the table quite well enough to get into trouble by making provocative declarations but of sharing just enough fellow feeling to be able to sympathize with each other’s views.

At the time, Àdhamh seemed to lament a current of complacency in the Scottish people, as if wishing some would more often back up their cultural pride with stronger political will. He also muttered annoyance at the Aberdeen golf course construction by then not-yet-elected Donald Trump.

From watching the Dundee Rep Theatre’s live performance of the classic Scottish political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil three days before, my husband and I already had a basic sense of the issue of who controls Scottish lands and environment—Scotland, England, or multinational corporations—reflected in Àdhamh’s viewpoint. Depicting Scots’ complicity in non-native appropriation of Scotland’s resources across the centuries, the tragicomic musical production even went so far as to update the play, for example, by inserting Trump as a character.

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Image courtesy Undiscovered Scotland

Terms such as “sheep,” “croft,” “forestry,” “stag hunting,” “North Sea oil,” “referendum” (for Scottish independence), and “Brexit” raise just a few of the lightning rod issues of land use, sovereignty, natural resource exploitation, and economics for Scots over the centuries and today.

For our part, we asked Àdhamh questions, noted our own leanings, and shared thoughts from home. I related my friend’s sentiment from her July 2016 trip to Scotland: When the locals would find out she was American, they promptly expressed their sympathy about our having Trump as a candidate, which at that time was more funny than sad.

It wasn’t long before all three of us had finished our cups of comfort in the face of world chaos and were on the road again to our next Scottish cultural curiosity. After discussing Scotland’s national challenges and the similarities between our societies, I became mindful of how very much things connect and intersect within Scotland.

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View of coffee shop across basin, hotel behind, Vic 32 Puffer foreground. Image courtesy Undiscovered Scotland

The mainland district of Knapdale would be a peninsula but for the isthmus connecting its south side to Kintyre Peninsula. Knapdale is bounded on the north by the Crinan Canal, the east by Loch Fyne, the west by Sound of Jura, and the south by West Loch Tarbert. As if that weren’t enough water, some 20 inland lakes, along with rivers and rivulets, further infuse the district.

Gazetteer for Scotland has a fascinating piece about Crinan Canal’s origins, engineering challenges, development and different uses, and connections between parts of Argyll, Loch Fyne, and the Sound of Jura–from tidal factors to the canal network, boom to bust, British to Scottish management, and commerce to recreation.

In my last post, I described how the inland freshwater lochs north of Arrochar spread finger like up through the Trossachs. In like fashion, the headlands of Knapdale reach their tentacles out to sea through the Sound of Jura, interlacing most deeply with Loch Sween to the north, but also with Loch Caolisport to the south. After our coffee break, this was our target destination.

In North Knapdale, “the extent of coast, including the shores of Loch Swein, is almost fifty miles: the rocks in the north rise precipitously to a height of 300 feet; in some parts the coast is bounded by low ledges of rocks, and in others by a level sandy beach.” – Samuel Lewis’ 1846 Topographical Survey

Second Sweep

Jura

With nearby sites such as Castle Sween and activities like ferrying to islands, but with just a day to spare, we focused on a blend of Àdhamh’s cherished enclaves and our main interests, including breathtaking vistas. For this, we sought a great view of major islands across the water. We stopped somewhere just north of the Point of Knap, a coastal headland into the Sound of Jura where it meets Loch Sween. Midway up a vacant hill at the roadside, we parked, stepped out, and gazed upon the scene across the Sound of Jura and took in the panoramic sweep of the coast.

On a map of the region, Knapdale and Jura look almost like a pair of lungs, divided by the rather wide sternum or spinal column of the Sound. Each lobe forms a tear drop shape with a tapered north and rounded southern end, although Loch Sween gives Knapdale a bit of a diseased appearance as lungs go, and then it has this large, elongated growth hanging off the south end—Kintyre Peninsula. Okay, so the analogy isn’t perfect, but in approximating a lung, Jura’s shape does well. If that metaphor holds, I suppose it’s only fitting that the island should have on its surface some mountains in the shape of breasts.

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Clockwise from lower left: Islay, Jura, Argyll, and Bute; Google account favorites marked; darker text added. Snapshot from Google Maps.

From our perch on land between two lochs and a sound, Àdhamh introduced us to those dome-like mountains called the Paps of Jura, which jut roundly up from their island of the same name. As goofy as he can be–American accent imitation, spontaneous ditties on the drive out–Àdhamh was tasteful or proud enough of the scenery not to joke about the breast-shaped hills.

Unlike most such hill groupings across the globe, these peaks are triplets, not twins. Compared to Scotland’s other examples in places like the Scottish Borders, Fife, Perth & Kinross, Caithness, and the well-known Pap of Glencoe, the Paps of Jura viewed from the east appear to be more uniformly molded. Jura’s trio includes Beinn an Oir (highest of 3, its Gaelic name meaning “mountain of gold”), Beinn Shiantaidh (east of Oir), and Beinn a’ Chaolais (south of Oir)–all centered in the rounded southern half of an elongated Isle of Jura oriented northeast to southwest.

The smudge of sunlit distance gave the prominent globes a chalky, dream-like aura. As we looked, our faces relaxed into a mouth-open moment. Perhaps it was the near-perfect conditions, perhaps it’s because we hadn’t seen a beautiful coast in years, or perhaps it really was a singular vision among the Highlands and Islands. Whatever created it, our instinct made us stand in awe of the interplay: rocks, sun, blue water and sky, nearer strips of yellow-green hatch-mark islands, and the broader, farther canvas of magenta-tinged blue mountains.

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A cluster of slender islets huddles close to Knapdale’s coast (foreground). Centered is Beinn a’ Chaolais, the most dome-like of the three “paps” on the Isle of Jura. Image © C. L. Tangenberg

A few solitary sheep sauntered in the grass close to us. At first sight, I thought one of them that lay nestled in the taller tufts might be ill or injured. Even if it was, I didn’t ask for fear of sounding foolish, sheep being so ubiquitous in Scotland. They bore reddish spray-paint marks on their backs, which looked like vandalism but were almost certainly a method of identification. Most likely, they would be found, safe and sound. Below is a panoramic slide show of Jura, the Sound, and Loch Sween, with some of those sheep visible on the hill.

Besides the mountains, the island boasts abundant wildlife and Europe’s third largest whirlpool, at its north end. The sparsely populated island’s rugged terrain and boggy flats keep most residents and visitors along its single-track road or at the town of Craighouse in the south, its west coast being notoriously difficult to access.

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Although the Outlander STARZ TV show has not used the access challenged Argyll for filming, it doesn’t take long-distance travel in the British Isles to come across not only famous and ancient historical sites but also literary places. English author George Orwell once lived on the northern end of Jura at Barnhill farmhouse, presumably giving his most iconic dystopian novel 1984 a peaceful atmosphere for its birth.

“People disappear all the time,” the opening of Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander tells us. And if you’re really looking to make yourself scarce, why not hike the Isle of Jura’s truly wild west of otters, eagles, and red deer, or its remote Orwellian north, crowned by a forbidding whirlpool?

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Me and my husband. Photo by Àdhamh Ó Broin

South of Jura’s thousands of deer, 200 people, and one whisky distillery, the island of Islay (pron. I-luh) holds more whisky makers than most of Scotland’s larger islands, at nine distilleries and growing. Laphroaig whisky, for example, is one of Sam Heughan’s (Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser) favorite brands.

These whiskies tend to be earthy, with a peat-based aroma and flavor. My husband had to do the honors of finishing our bottle of Lagavulin single malt (no, not all in one sitting), purchased from duty free on our way back home. My dad, a seasoned taster, and I preferred the Dalwhinnie 15-year Highland single malt, made just south of the Cairngorms in central Scotland. He’s more used to Crown Royal blends, though, and none of us could be considered connoisseurs. My husband’s more of a craft beer, gin, and bourbon man, and I prefer wine, hard cider, and sometimes cocktails.

During our brief visit to this coast of whisky on the morning of 20 September 2016, the wind was strong, the sun was bright, and Àdhamh took a picture of his guests with the Sound and the 30-mile long, 7-mile wide Isle of Jura behind. Through the haze farther south, half of the isle of Islay was just visible, the other half hidden behind Jura’s heights. The view was a true highlight of the day, well worth the effort to reach, and my husband’s favorite spot from our time with Àdhamh.

Although my photos hardly do it justice, for more Isle of Jura images, see my previous post about the Paps of Jura. Several Scottish tourism websites offer a variety of ways to wrap this prominent feature of the Isle of Jura into your itinerary along the lower west coast of Central Scotland. Learn more about the Paps of Jura and other features of the island at an Islay resident’s Isle of Jura website.

To visit the Isle of Jura, you can catch the ferry from Tayvallich on the mainland, but to bring your car, you’ll have to ferry it to Islay first. A good general resource about the Isle of Jura is The Jura page at Undiscovered Scotland.

Chapel museum, rich with history

Along with the port of Crinan, Knapdale district holds the village of Tayvallich where we stopped for lunch and the settlement of Kilmory in South Knapdale Parish. On the hillside of one of Knapdale’s extensions into the Sound of Jura, Kilmory Knap Chapel, also known as the chapel of St. Mary at Kilmory Knap (or simply Kilmory Chapel), bides between Loch Sween and Loch Caolisport, about where the mouth of Sween meets the Sound. This coastal water is also the Loch Sween Marine Protected Area.

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The chapel was built in the first half of the 13th century and is both more complete and fancier than proximal chapels from the same era. Very near our view of the islands, its close quarters tightly pack a collection of late medieval grave slabs (14th-16th centuries) and early Christian cross slabs from different parts of Argyll.

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Many of the slabs lean against the chapel walls, and a Celtic cross stands upright on the chapel floor. Several medieval schools of the West Highland style of carving, influenced by Romanesque sculptural and architectural works, are represented in the collection. Although the chapel is without its original roof, a solid, clear covering with drainage protects the artifacts.

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A tiny sprig of fern fighting its way through cracks most of the way up the wall inside the chapel, even as the fall season began turning green fern to brown bracken, recalled for me the cycle of life in that museum of unique death markers that was once an active house of worship.

Nestled into a hillside, the graveyard of Kilmory Knap Chapel oversees adjacent farmland and its flock of sheep, yet it still affords a distant view of the Isle of Jura across the Sound. In the first shot below, the tops of the Paps, isolated from their island, peek over the mainland hills. In the second picture, a long stretch of the wild island of Jura poses in all its voluptuous grandeur for Kilmory residents and visitors alike.

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So far during our trip, we’d seen quite a bit of Scotland. During the first stay in Edinburgh, we snagged Edinburgh Castle, several wonderful museums large and small, the highly entertaining theatre performance mentioned earlier, and our amazing day tour with Slainte Scotland among Outlander STARZ filming sites.

On that day, from South Queensferry, we traveled with them along the Firth of Forth north and west of Edinburgh, through the Kingdom of Fife, and out to the eastern edge of Stirling, seeing Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Blackness Castle (Fort William), Culross (Crainsmuir), Falkland (Inverness), and Doune Castle (Castle Leoch).

September 20 was only day 4 of our 14-day vacation, and in the morning alone Àdhamh gave us a great introduction to some of Scotland’s most engaging, peaceful, and gorgeous offerings: a remote and “heavily indented” coast with rolling countryside glens and hills, freshwater and sea lochs, mountains, a canal, the sea, some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides, and a unique chapel museum overlooking farmland and neighboring shores.

There was much more we could have seen, given time which always runs short, some of it designed for tourists and some inherent threads of everyday Scottish life and living. Of course, those things also intersect sometimes.

The Scotland experiences Àdhamh made possible next, however, rivalled or exceeded the beauty and wonder of nearly every place and monument we’d already visited. In my next post, I’ll first explore a glistening and mysterious historic treasure more recently cradled in an evergreen forest; second, enjoy a cozy, idyllic village inlet and ferry port full of sail boats at lunchtime; and third, discover an ancient, elevated landmark surrounded by a vast plain and winding river bathed blue in mid-day sunshine and made complete by our host’s cliff-top bagpiping.

Thank you for visiting Crinan, Knapdale, Kilmory, and Jura with me. I hope I’ve inspired you to learn more or to visit western Argyll in person. I’m excited to bring you Part 3 of Argyll with Àdhamh and some of the day’s most captivating highlights. Enjoy!

In case you missed, or miss, the beginning . . .

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 1 of 4


Sources Consulted and Cited

Crinan

Crinan Hotel and Crinan Coffee Shop, official site – https://www.crinanhotel.com/en/crinan-coffee-shop_47016/

Crinan Canal Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, accessed through Lochgilphead link on the site’s Argyll and Bute Overview page – http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst1169.html

Crinan feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crinan/crinan/

“A visit to Crinan, Argyll and Bute – the site of the Crinan Canal” at Pure Scotland blog – https://purescotland.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/crinan/

Local Attractions page at Cairnbaan Cottage – http://www.cairnbaancottage.co.uk/attractions.html

Knapdale

The Landscapes of Scotland, Descriptions 51-60, Scottish Natural Heritage: 52 – Jura, 53 – Knapdale and Kilmartin

“Kintyre and Knapdale” from Lewis’ 1846 Topographical Survey: “An 1846-published gazeteer giving an interesting insight into the area south of The Crinan Canal” – https://www.scribd.com/document/5996965/Kintyre-and-Knapdale-Samuel-Lewis-1846-Topographical-Dictionary

“The Land of Knapdale,” The Scots Magazine, Tom Weir https://www.scotsmagazine.com/articles/tom-weir-knapdale/

Jura

Jura feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/jura/jura/

The Paps of Jura link at VisitScotland.com redirects to “The Paps of Jura” at Isleofjura.scot – https://isleofjura.scot/the-paps-of-jura/

Isle of Jura page at Scotland Info Guide – https://www.scotlandinfo.eu/isle-of-jura/

“Just back from: Jura, Scotland,” Lonely Planet blog, Alex MacLeish – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/blog/2017/11/20/just-back-from-jura-scotland/

“Playing Scotland’s most exclusive new course requires approval from ‘Wizard’,” Golfweek, Martin Kaufmann – https://golfweek.com/2018/02/23/playing-scotlands-most-exclusive-new-course-requires-approval-from-wizard/

“Millionaire Greg Coffey’s Jura golf resort sees island’s population surge by 50 per cent,” Herald Scotland, Moira Kerr – http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14530566.Golf_resort_plan_drives_Jura_s_population_to_new_high/

Kilmory Knap Chapel

Kilmory Knap Chapel feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crinan/kilmoryknapchapel/index.html 

Kilmory Knap Chapel entry of Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilmory_Knap_Chapel

Argyll and the Isles – General

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php

Argyll and Bute Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, http://www.scottish-places.info/councils/councilfirst4.html

Destinations and Maps – Argyll & the Isles at VisitScotland – https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/argyll-isles/

Argyll Guide at Travel Scotland – http://www.scotland.org.uk/guide/regions/argyll-holiday-guide

Argyll, Scotland at The Rough Guides – https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

“Population: Where We Live,” at Argyll and Bute Council – https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/info/population-where-we-live

Detailed Road Map of Argyll and Bute, at Maphill.com – http://www.maphill.com/united-kingdom/scotland/scotland/argyll-and-bute/detailed-maps/road-map/

“4. The Inner Hebrides” at “Top 10: cities and places to visit in Scotland,” The Telegraph, Travel | Destinations – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/Top-10-cities-and-places-to-visit-in-Scotland/

Argyll and the Isles – Specific Areas and Activities

Lighthouses of Scotland: Argyll and Bute” – http://www.ibiblio.org/lighthouse/sctw.htm

Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles – “Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.”

The Kintyre Way from Tarbert – https://www.inspirock.com/united-kingdom/kintyre-peninsula/the-kintyre-way-a5385829581

Walking Scotland, Easy Ways Ltd. – https://www.easyways.com/mull-of-kintyre/

Mull of Kintyre Webcam Live – http://www.camsecure.co.uk/kintyre-webcam.html

Walk Highlands: Argyll, Bute and Oban – https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/

Arran Coastal Way – https://www.easyways.com/walking-holidays/arran-coastal-way/

Scotland General

UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap. Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division.

Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote of An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”

OpenStreetMap – https://www.openstreetmap.org/

Google Maps – https://www.google.com/maps

Scotland” entry page of Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias – http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/16523

numerous topic pages at Wikipedia.org


Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

 

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

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Brief Book Review: A Passage to India

Just finished for book club: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. I hope to write a more thorough review in a future post. For now, summarized thoughts on the reading.

Probably a 4.5, maybe even 4.6 out of 5. Only minor lagging and minimal obfuscating text.

Brilliant in most every other way–from structure to theme development, to literary device use and turn of phrase, to character complexity and insightful omniscient third person point of view, to measured dramatic arc and lyrical, mystical realism, to vivid setting description, especially geology (one of my loves), to a tone of nonchalant cynicism (not indifferent nihilism) founded in secular humanism, i.e., brotherly love, and good intentions, while proving, through keen cultural understanding and storytelling, that in unequal, occupier-colonist relationships amidst racial tensions and in-country religious differences, good intentions are never enough.

Absorbing, educational yet not pedantic, and resonant well beyond its early 20th-century era and final page.

cover_a-passage-to-india

Buddha, bird – an original poem

Buddha, bird – first penned 11/16/17, 1:45am
© C. L. Tangenberg

Buddha bird?
Is there one?
Is it Chinese?
Or Tibetan?
China says, Same question.
I have a question
for China.
Impertinent, no doubt,
but probative.

I wonder
if there are any
bamboo forests
left on mainland China,
where the panda
dies in slow
attrition, skirting
evolution. Natural
selection chose
extinction
for the Giant.

China’s cranes
fly more grace
than the crane-fly,
and who will die first
matters less than
to be blessed,
knowing a rise-over
in life, a lightness
of heart, a soaring soul.

Is the bird thus blest?
Transcendent?

A soul in shadow—
umbrage thrown by
tongues of raging fire
—alights in the
brightness cast
with the heat
on the wall that’s
crumbling to cinder,
and lets go.

Long live Buddha.
Long live bird.

And it led to https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhas-birds/ Buddha’s symbolic bird could be a swan, goose, rooster, peacock, Garuda, or crow.

Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! 

From Scotland with the Wee White Dug, a tale of adventures in the Highlands, including the Pump Room and Spa Exhibition in Strathpeffer, a view of Castle Leod (seat of Clan Mackenzie), the Touchstone Maze honoring Scotland’s historic sites, a Moray Firth cruise with Dolphin Spirit Inverness, enchanting music at Embrace Gifts shop along with wood carvings at Victorian Station, the Eagle Stone of The Pictish Trail, and more. Just further proof, as if we needed any, that your Scotland trip deserves quality time in Inverness-shire and at least a glimpse of the Northern Highlands.

Scotland with The Wee White Dug

Today I’m going to share with you an eclectic mix of Victorian spa town in the Scottish Highlands and a dolphin spotting adventure on the Moray Firth.

Last Saturday after an early breakfast at our B&B near Portmahomack, we set off along the NC500 route between Tain and Dingwall to make the 34 mile journey to Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer lies a few miles west of Dingwall.

The village sits in a wide mountain valley or strath. Leafy, and surrounded by mountains it has the look of an Alpine village to it.

Arriving in Strathpeffer is like stepping back in time. The Victorians have left an instantly recognisable imprint on the architecture of the village. You half expect to see elegantly dressed ladies, strolling down the street on the arm of top hatted gents with mutton-chop whiskers.

The Victorian Station

When we arrived at the station a cute little shop calledEmbrace…

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Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression at AWP 2017. Corrected commentary.

My commentary–updated with corrections 2/6/17–and a reblogged post (at bottom).

Many have been saying the following and then launching new campaigns of activism. As always, I launch only my considered opinions, research-based (the one statistic I did use and cite needed correcting afterwards–my apologies) views, and best advice, leaving each person to do as conscience dictates.

It has been my aim to avoid politics in large part on my blog, focusing on pre-chosen themes that put art and beauty and positivity first. However, those themes include freedom of expression and opposing censorship, I’m still putting positivity first, and I’ll offer content according to my conscience regardless of trends, mine or others.

We all have choices to make. Wouldn’t it be great if we all kept the freedom to make them?


When executive orders forbid, for instance, federal workers from discussing federal policy, conditions at work, or opinions at all related to their jobs, it is a form of corporate practice as lawful as the conditions of security clearance or signing a confidentiality agreement. It goes with the job. That’s why it’s called an executive branch rather than just “the president”; there’s the Cabinet with 15 departments including Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, State, Justice, Agriculture, Interior, Environment, Education, Energy, etc., each with subsets of dozens of other organizations such as the FBI, the EPA, and the CIA.

The unreasonable suddenness, logistical difficulty, and accumulation of such orders amounting to a moving target that creates confusion and chaos is another matter for the company to work out within itself, lest its efforts to comply break a host of laws and fracture the Constitution. Even as they comply, federal workers must be cognizant of the consequences of their actions and weigh the risks and benefits of continuing to comply, keeping the conversation open amongst themselves if nothing else.

But there is more to consider in a climate in which the default impulse of the executive–whether he chooses to act on that impulse each time or not–is to rule by unexpected direct order, absolute silencing, intimidation, bullying, bribery, general dismissive belligerence or a combination of these. We must consider that non-federal employees with legitimate, rights-based objections to those or other orders have an even greater obligation than previously, and than their federal fellow citizens, to voice or also enact their objections.

Those included under such an obligation are state-level law enforcement leadership, whose duty it is to oppose, countermand, and, if necessary, arrest federal agents who have little choice but to carry out federal orders regardless of state-level legality or moral rightness. Where refusal to comply is truly untenable, blockage of compliance becomes essential.

The power of the executive branch of the federal government has expanded dangerously over the last several decades, for nearly a century in fact.

Now we see (because we finally choose to pay attention), in more vivid and alarming detail than under previous administrations who also wielded such power with various degrees and kinds of impunity, the threats that unchallenged executive mandates and manipulation pose to a panoply of basic freedoms–to pursue work or education, movement, trade, speech, religion, decisions about one’s own physical body and property, including land, and the ability to ask our State and military leader challenging (or any) questions. The legislative branch, the judicial branch, the states, and everyday citizens all have the obligation to check and nullify those threats.

Speak on, ask on, petition on, fund, litigate, assemble, enjoin, fight for what’s yours, relinquish what is not, pray or abstain, and don’t be intimidated. You’re not alone. No persecuted American left behind. Liberty and justice for all. Keep the conversation going. Debate, question, and prioritize your engagements.

No one has the right not to be offended, but you can choose not to take offense by ignoring non-threats to your freedom and focusing on those things that actually threaten it. In a society in which it has become far too easy to get distracted by inflammatory language and pursue useless tangents, the first order of business in making positive change in your country is to restrain yourself so that your energy is not spent before it can apply to what matters.

To that end, speak but don’t just speak. Think before you speak, choose your words wisely, and move from speech to action to protect your liberty and your neighbor’s. Don’t fight each other; fight the unlawful and abhorrent actions of your government. Show each other the respect, but not without adherence to Constitutional law, that your executive chooses not to show as he flouts the Constitution.

Be brave enough not to panic but to question, find facts, learn, engage, think, object, reconsider, seek alternative views, train your mind, open your heart, think critically, understand, decide, and, when necessary, dissent. That’s freedom. That’s patriotism.

What is not freeing or patriotic is terrorism, which comes in many forms. Since 9/11, we have scared ourselves into creating a less secure and far less free society. Now we are seeing the culmination of that extended, misguided, and misapplied paranoia.

From the Patriot Act forward, starting with Bush Jr., we have made incremental choices to excel at being our own most effective terrorists. We have looked the other way while our government implemented ineffectual laws and programs, and devastating military operations, and continued them under Obama:

the counterproductive bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act’s negation of habeas corpus and due process, Guantanamo Bay’s remaining open with the resulting unjust detentions, NSA snooping on American citizens, the TSA’s invasive blunders, Benghazi’s wrongful deaths, lack of transparency in leadership, Afghanistan, and drone strikes amounting to undeclared war in Syria and now troops in Yemen, for just the more obvious examples.

The effects–of both these government actions and the people’s acceptance of them–have been gradually eroding our basic freedoms and rights, and increasing our enemies’ hostility towards us, as well as abilities and determination to harm us.

Nothing brings that fact into sharper relief than the election of this president, who now perfectly embodies our terror. The fear has merely been disguised as anger. We must eventually learn and might as well start now: The only response with any chance to reverse this freedom-hating trend is calm, reasoned, organized, and well-applied resistance–first and foremost, to our own worst impulses.

Resist. But: Know why you resist, be clear about what you’re resisting, prioritize what is most important to resist, and learn how to do it more effectively than the government does anything.

Stop looking to centralized government to fix everything. They have proven repeatedly, in both parties, from all angles, that they are unfit to do so. A new executive won’t resolve this; the system itself is unfit, and the wisdom of term limits supports this notion. Being “unfit” may seem unfortunate, but it is not the tragedy. The real misfortune is our continued gullibility in believing they can fix it all as we passively await our deliverance. The corrupt, powerful godheads have led by fear and kept us afraid. In this respect, the federal government is a modern god for those no longer beholden to the earthly bonds of organized religion, a secondary one for those still trapped by it.

The alternative?

Start being responsible for the state of your own citizenship; the least of the actions demonstrating this is voting for a leader or simply attending church regularly. Each of us is the first, best, and only leader of ourselves. Set yourself free, and become the best kind of advocate for fellow citizens without the power to do so. Grow your worth, moral and monetary, to apply to the community in discerning, uncompromised benefit. Transform your anger into loving, positive, freedom-expanding action.

Real liberty is scary, but it is worth everything. Jesus, who sacrificed himself for everyone, understood that. So did Stalin, who sacrificed everyone for himself. Neither way is right or practical for the citizen who must remain strong and vital to serve as a thread in the societal tapestry, lest it all unravel. Neither absolute equality, nor absolute deference, nor totalitarianism will serve. Only generous spirit for uncommonly meaningful and inclusive purpose combined with an educated, well-reasoned will can defeat the frightened sheep–in this externalized form of a stingy, insecure egomaniac–that lives in us all.

Liberty is that inclusive purpose. Liberation is that will enacted. Actual security is an illusion. Actual equality is an illusion. We can choose to put first either freedom or safety, either freedom or equality, but not both. Put safety first, and freedom dies. Put equality first, and freedom dies. In seeking freedom first, we welcome safety and equality; we open the door for both. We can and must choose whether we are our own worst enemies or our own best friends, whether we will stay fearful and overly self-sacrificing or calm and wise.

Protectionism is fearful and unwise–bad for the economy and global relations. Discriminatory application of basic rights by sex, religion or politics is fearful and wrongheaded. Targeting things and people to ban by a scary-sounding name or traditionally suspect nationality is cowardly and stupid. But if you’re going to be that way, at least be consistent. Targeting those things and people while at the same time allowing even more actually suspect ones to travel freely is asinine and completely counterproductive. We seem to have a Joseph McCarthy-like character in the highest office.

However, the illogic of this seemingly arbitrary discrimination is nothing new. Obama’s “higher deportation numbers than those of all 20th-century presidents combined” (questionable claim) at least partly targeted those illegals previously convicted of a crime, though non-criminal ejections (whether mostly returns or removals) have exceeded criminal ones consistently since 2001.¹ See updates to this footnote (in purple). Ousting peaceful but illegal Mexican farmers with non-violent criminal records, and peaceful but legal Shiite Muslim Iranian academics, when the real problem is legal Sunni Muslim Saudi immigrants learning to fly planes into iconic American buildings, is pure bald-faced, idiotic cruelty in the guise of tough do-something-ness.

Furthermore, behaving like an absolute monarch or dictator is fearful, malicious behavior. Supporting only like-minded advisers is infantile and short sighted. Gag orders are fascist–fearful and growth stunting. Acting without thinking, without warning, and without remorse is profoundly malignant, distrusting (fearful), and incredibly foolish. Whether cunning steamroller or bold imbecile, and at times he seems to be both, this president may well be insane. Signs of schizophrenia would not be more disorienting to the observer. (Well, maybe that’s insulting to schizophrenics.) What is certain is that the man is a frightened rabbit with a nest for hair. It would be funny if he were not so dangerous to freedom.

He either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or both. But even if he were a better leader, it would still be up to the people to lead. To each person. Freedom is not free. For free speech, free religion, free choice, freedom over our bodily person, free assembly, free expression, free enterprise, free trade, and free pursuit of happiness, freedom to have a sense of humor or none whatsoever, we have the responsibility to control ourselves: to avoid fraud and falsehood, assemble peacefully and lawfully, invest wisely, refrain from censorship, interact only by mutual consent, permit individuals’ free use of their own minds and bodies, and defend the rights of everyone else to do the same. Live and let live.

Not just Uncle Sam but the people of your country want you. Need you. Facts are indisputable, and this is the plainest fact: Only you can make things better.


¹ Corrected, 2/6/17: See the Pew Research Center’s August 2016 article “U.S. immigrant deportations declined in 2014, but remain near record high,” The Economist‘s February 2014 article “America’s Deportation Machine: The Great Expulsion,” and ABC’s August 2016 article “Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President.”

Pew’s chart does not distinguish illegal immigrant returns from removals, both of which have increased fluctuated since the late 90s but together have steadily decreased, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), since 2004; see the Center for Immigration Studies’ chart spanning 1982-2011.

The CIS reports directly cite the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s own “internal” records as opposed to “packaged press kits.” CIS’s claim is that the DHS numbers used by other sources (such as the 3 above) to report record highs in expulsions were manipulated in unprecedented ways under the Obama administration. Some of this has to do with which agency is doing the ousting (ICE vs. Border Patrol), the actual departed vs. ordered gone status of illegals (order vs. enforcement), and how returns and removals have traditionally been counted.

The Reuters blog reported a total of 414,481 deportations in fiscal year 2014, citing DHS, closer to the annual downward trend shared by CIS. According to their chart referenced above, it appears that President Clinton was the expulsion winner among two-term presidents in recent decades (including Reagan, Bush Jr. and Obama).

I encourage you to seek additional sources beyond those above, to take few things at face value, to challenge the media not to swallow whole everything authority figures tell them, even when quantified and packaged well, and to take this example of the unclear state of reported facts as a lesson in the value of general skepticism, if not that of deeper, nuanced investigation few of us have time to conduct personally. And, thus, to understand the futility and folly of rash, precipitous action based on sound bites taken out of context, half truths that ignore equally relevant truths, and distortions of fact that breed further distortion.

What politician does not spin the facts for his or her own purposes? And, ultimately, what is the government if not political?

Often, our reactions and overreactions prove that we can be puppets in their hands. Take great care and consider that sometimes on certain issues, just maybe, we really do not need to do anything, except wait for the fog to clear. Abstinence, restraint, and calm but alert, steady work make the best, most effective kinds of resistance to the seductive call to chaos.


BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

March.jpgThe annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is in D.C. this year, and in fact, it is next week, and this year is starting to look a bit different. Yes there will be books, and yes there will be beer, and chances are good someone at some panel is going to sound pretentious, but in keeping with the times, we have this:

On Saturday, February 11, during the last evening of the AWP Conference & Bookfair, a Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression will be held in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, which faces the north side of the White House. The vigil is set to begin at 6:15 p.m.

The gathering will include several speakers: Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.

The group organizing the event writes on their Facebook page: “This basic freedom is threatened in…

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