Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Friday, August 26, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
For many a petty king ere Arthur cameRuled in this isle, and ever waging warEach upon the other, wasted all the land;And still from time to time the heathen hostSwarm'd overseas, and harried what was left.And so there grew great tracts of wilderness,Wherein the beast was ever more and more,But man was less and less, till Arthur came.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
The Mysteries of Millbank
I doubt you’ve read Millbank, or ever will. Why should you? It was never more than dime-store junk, and it’s long been supplanted by more up-to-date trash. Yet in its heyday, hundreds of thousands of readers adored this book. Published in 1871, Millbank was the fifteenth of author Mary J. Holmes’s many profitable novels, literary stilettos that she efficiently jabbed one after the other into the hearts and pocketbooks of America’s low-level feminine bourgeoisie. According to Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, “with the possible exception of Mrs. Harriet B. Stowe, no female author of America has received so large profits from her copyrights. Some of her books attained a sale of 50,000 copies.” Millbank, apparently, was no exception to that trend. As a New York Times reviewer dryly noted, “the character of Mrs. Holmes’ fictions is well known, and her admirers will find her new book as interesting as any that have preceded it.”
Judging from where I found my own copy of the novel, I’d say that it’s not too difficult to figure out who these admirers might have been. My acquaintance with Millbank began in the mid-1970s in my grandfather’s western Pennsylvania farmhouse. This farm was not old family property: my grandfather had purchased the rundown smallholding in the late sixties from the son of a woman known to me only as “old Mrs. Springer who died in the house.” And along with her rat’s nest of tawdry 1910s furniture, broken bottles, junked horse-drawn plows, and rotting sheds, my grandfather unwittingly acquired a dark-red clothbound novel wedged into a dark corner under the cabinet radio. There Millbank languished until, on a dull rainy day when I was ten years old and trapped in a house that would still have looked familiar to Mrs. Springer—her original ancient linoleum half-heartedly flowering in the bedrooms; her stiff, prickly parlor chairs belching dust when I bounced on them; her sagging kitchen dresser stuffed with scrawls and string—I pulled her copy off the shelf and started to read:
Every window and shutter at Millbank was closed. Knots of crepe were streaming from both the bell knobs, and all around the house there was that deep hush which only the presence of death can inspire. Indoors there was a kind of twilight gloom pervading the room, and the servants spoke in whispers whenever they came near the chamber where the old squire had died three days before, and where he still lay in his handsome coffin, waiting the arrival of Roger, the son of his old age, who had been in St. Louis when his father died, and was expected home on the night when our story opens.
Knots of crepe (whatever they were) . . . deep hush . . . twilight gloom . . . whispering servants . . . old squire . . . handsome coffin . . . dead body lying around inside the house for three days! . . . the son of his old age . . . St. Louis, which sounded like it might be fancy in a French sort of way . . . not least, those portentous words “on the night when our story opens”: I don’t know how Mrs. Springer reacted when she encountered this paragraph, but I was instantly, and irrevocably, hooked. Later, in my teens, when I first read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I recognized that same greed in novel-hungry Catherine Morland. When a friend asks how she likes Ann Radcliffe’s “horrid” Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine cries, “I have been reading it ever since I woke. . . . Oh, I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.” That’s exactly how I felt about Millbank.
I do realize that I owe you, at this point, at least a pale summary of the Millbank storyline. Easier said than done, however. As the Times reviewer pointed out, “the plot is rather complicated.”
Two wills, the latest found many years after the supposed heir has been enjoying the estate, and having the effect of ruining his earthly prospects—a foundling child, who turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy villain who has caused the death of another man’s wife and driven his own crazy—an intriguing woman, who was the cause of much trouble, having induced the will-maker to disinherit his son by her slanders on his wife, who was the unhappy victim of the villain—these, together with all the soul-harrowing incidents and complication of unexpected events which an ingenious mind could weave out of them, make up the book. It ends, of course, with the happiness of the deserving ones, after a long succession of sorrows and sufferings that turn the hair of the hero gray, and give him an interesting, care-worn appearance.
The reviewer, no doubt an aspiring Twain reduced to penurious, tormenting dependence on review-a-lady-novelist gigs, spreads the sarcasm rather thick. But I, a more innocent reader, was enraptured. In the backseat of the car, slumped on the crooked porch swing, flat on my stomach on an ancient sagging mattress: everywhere, I read Millbank. I carried it into the bathroom, and I tried to read it while drying dishes, until I got yelled at. In the kitchen someone fried baloney. Cigarette smoke curled up the dark stairwell. I didn’t care; I didn’t notice. Absently, I shelled out another pod of peas and turned a page. I could not stop reading.
As a journalist in the 1840s and 50s, Walt Whitman was attentive to the popular thirst for “blood and thunder romances with alliterative titles and plots of startling interest.” In his view, “the public for whom these tales are written require strong contrasts, broad effects and the fiercest kind of ‘intense’ writing generally. . . . [Such writing is] a power in the land, not without great significance in its way, and very deserving of more careful consideration than has hitherto been accorded it.” Twenty years later, what did he think of the moral power of Millbank, I wonder? Though Holmes pays lip service to temperance and Christian fortitude and is surprisingly tolerant of insanity, money is really what this novel is all about. When she isn’t absorbed in navigating the tortuous switchbacks of her plot, she is cataloging, in breathless detail, the trappings of wealth, documenting everything from one heroine’s “white cambric wrapper just short enough in front to show her small, trim foot and well-shaped ankle” to the mansion in which a second heroine languishes, “her white . . . fingers pressed to her eyes, and the tears . . . streaming through them.”
There were soft velvet carpets on all the floors, covered with bright bouquets, so natural that it seemed as if one had only to stoop and pick them up; mirrors and windows which came to the floor, and over the latter costly lace was falling; pictures, and books, and shells, and rare ornaments from foreign lands; handsome grounds, with winding walks, and terraced banks, and patches of flowers, and fountains, and trees, and rustic seats, and vine-wreathed arbors, and shady nooks, suggestive of quiet, delicious repose; horses and carriages, and plenty of servants at command. This was Alice’s home, and it stood upon the mountain side, overlooking the valley of the Hudson, which river could be seen at intervals winding its way to the sea.
You might think that soaking up such poison would transform nearly any unworldly farm-girl reader into an impatient Emma Bovary. But when I try to reprise my absorption with the novel, I can dredge up no memory of dissatisfaction with my grubby lot. I loved the farm—the hilly pasture with its cluster of sweet lumpish white-faced beefs; the motes of dust and seed that floated among the barn’s red shadows; above all, my gentle, sturdy, obstinate grandfather—and I longed to live there always. I never envied the “broad stone steps and . . . wide piazza and . . . handsome hall” of the glorious manse known as Millbank; and though I admired the heroine’s “pretty traveling dress of gray” with “a fresh pair of cuffs and a clean linen collar,” I was not about to give up walking barefoot in the mud, and I hated washing my hair.
Rather, Millbank was a cultural instruction manual, a window into a strange Cinderella world in which “white hands moved gracefully among the silver service” and “long . . . curls fell upon [Magdalen’s] white, plump neck.” How else would I have learned that serving coffee with the meat course is proof that a housekeeper “care[s] little for fashions”? Like Emily Post, Magdalen was able to pick her neat-footed way through the treacherous terrain of “inexcusable vulgarism.” I, however, was a cesspool of vulgarism. For me, and for the slew of American females without money or class standing who gobbled up Millbank in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel was, as much as anything, a how-to book. Believe it or not, even Ma Ingalls, in her Minnesota sod house, owned a copy of Millbank:
Ma said that a great girl almost eight years old should be learning to read instead of running wild on the banks of Plum Creek.
“But I can read, Ma,” Laura begged. “Please don’t make me go to school. I can read. Listen!”
She took the book named Millbank, and opened it, and looking up anxiously at Ma she read, “The doors and windows of Millbank were closed. Crape streamed from the door knob—”
“Oh, Laura,” Ma said, “you are not reading! You are only reciting what you’ve heard me read to Pa so often.”
I do wonder how long-suffering Pa managed to survive so many rereadings of Millbank. I wonder less about Ma. Like me, she probably started reading the novel simply because she didn’t have anything else to read, and she reread it because she still didn’t have anything else to read, and then suddenly rereading Millbank got to be a habit. I expect the same was true for many of its readers: those late nineteenth-century seamstresses and ex-schoolteachers who aspired to gentility and education for themselves and their children. One might see such women as the root of a new feminine vigor, literary and otherwise. Yet in the eyes of certain critics, ambition for improvement didn’t so much ennoble them as make them objects of intellectual scorn.
“Is this what the democratization of literature means?” demanded Ruth Fulton, future cultural anthropologist, in a paper she published in the March 1909 Vassar Miscellany. In her eyes, Millbank consumers were the lowest of the low, members of “the great proletariat class which buys two million volumes of Mary J. Holmes alone and which feasts itself on the dime novel of every variety.” Fulton was thunderstruck by the spectacle. I picture her smiting her forehead in dismay. “Is this the future,” she wailed, “which the great prophets of Democratic Art have seen and prophesied for the last half century?” I suppose it must be. Yes, even Millbank seems to have played its bit part in the history of literary influence.
Despite my abiding attachments to Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Woolf, Lampedusa and Gaskell, I have faithfully reread Millbank at least once a year for the past thirty-five years of my life. At first, rereading the novel was a summer activity only: as soon as my family arrived at the farm for our annual three-month stay, I would hunt down Millbank and dig in. Eventually it occurred to me that no one would care in the least if I were to steal the book for myself; and since then, the novel has retired to my own bookshelf. Annually it grows shabbier: during one childhood reading haze, I managed to peel off the entire spine, and the cameo cover illustration of a frizzy-haired heroine is gradually chipping itself away. But considering that it’s an 1871 dime novel, Mrs. Springer’s edition has been remarkably hardy, as Ma Ingalls’s had to be also. For “in the dugout, Pa mended his boots while Ma read to him again the story called Millbank.”
So often, my long relationships with books have taught me unexpected lessons about the shifting strengths and attractions of character. How did my twenty-year-old self love Adam Bede? How did my forty-year-old self love him? But Millbank does not have characters like Adam Bede’s. Nobody ever changes alongside me. Year in and year out, its heroes and heroines, villains and victims, faithful servants and dissolute youths play their stilted parts.
As in any melodrama, the plot of Millbank is the novel’s primary character. Bowing, it steps forward onto the spotlit stage. It declaims speeches and tears its hair and rends the bosom of its gown; and if you hate this genre, you’re not alone. The Times reviewer didn’t care for it either. “Crime, wrong, intense sorrow, insanity, tragical deaths, and all the most terrible scenes, incidents and experiences that the imagination can conceive are absolute matters of fact, existing continually in society around us,” the writer admitted. “Yet they form but a small part of the general experience, and a book made up largely of them is neither truthful in the views it gives of life, nor beneficial in the effect it has upon the mind and feelings. Such a book is [Millbank].”
Anyone who actually believes that tragedy, error, and “intense sorrow” are “but a small part of the general experience” must be either uniquely lucky or a sightless dolt. Yet Millbank’s particular mishmash of “the most terrible scenes, incidents and experiences that the imagination can conceive” is unquestionably silly, and one can hardly blame the reviewer for complaining about the overload. Still, even all these years later, the plot, ridiculous and hair-raising and histrionic as it surely is, manages to amuse and even comfort me. When Magdalen, now a rich heiress, purchases Millbank for her former guardian and would-be husband Roger and then appears in his humble New Hampshire cottage bearing the house deed that will make all of the deserving players happy and rich again, I find myself sighing with contentment at the predictable, chugging, clockwork arrival of this pat dénouement. It’s a stupid ending, and Mary J. Holmes finds space for yet another dig at me and Ma Ingalls and Mrs. Springer, reminding us that Magdalen, “in her handsome Parisian traveling dress with all the little etceteras of a Parisian outfit,” will forever look “anything but dowdy, or crumpled, or old.” But the ending also bears a certain relationship to one of those tinkling baroque sonatas, the kind that rings its thematic changes with witless regularity and then, after a sweeping ritardando, grinds itself into tonic and satisfying silence. Yes, that was the chord my ear expected. Yes, it arrived right on schedule. Thank God.
I’ve spent too many of my adult years being either embarrassed or ironic about my attachment to Millbank. But those days are over, beginning now. As Jane Austen reminds me, “Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.” Yes, Millbank is a foolish novel. Yes, dear Times reviewer, “The book will find quite as many readers as it ought to have.” It appears to have found me, and I don’t exactly know why, except that once upon a time, on a rainy afternoon in 1975, a girl in a Pennsylvania farmhouse discovered a dark-red book tucked into the corner of a dusty shelf. Plucking it from the shelf, she held the book in her hand for a moment and then, propped on one bare foot, pressing a sharp elbow into the grime-smudged lid of Mrs. Springer’s Victrola, she opened the book and she began to read.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
"For some reason, no one likes to be told that they do not read enough poetry."
Monday, August 22, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Monday, August 15, 2011
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
London, 1802William WordsworthMilton! thou should'st be living at this hour:England hath need of thee: she is a fenOf stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,Have forfeited their ancient English dowerOf inward happiness. We are selfish men:Oh! raise us up, return to us again;And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,So didst thou travel on life's common way,In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heartThe lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Monday, August 8, 2011
Sunday, August 7, 2011
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the starsDid wander darkling in the eternal space,Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earthSwung blind and blackening in the moonless air. . . .
Saturday, August 6, 2011
from Childe Harold's PilgrimageGeorge Gordon, Lord ByronAre not the mountains, waves, and skies, a partOf me and of my soul, as I of them?Is not the love of these deep in my heartWith a pure passion? should I not contemnAll objects, if compared with these? and stemA tide of suffering, rather than foregoSuch feelings for the hard and worldly phlegmOf those whose eyes are only turn'd below,Gazing upon the ground, with thoughts which dare not glow?
Friday, August 5, 2011
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The jolly innkeeper is described as "mine worthy host." This is not dialogue.The yokel-ish patrons of the inn speak in mysterious dialect: for instance, instead of saying exactly, they say 'xactly.Aristocrats = good. Revolutionaries = bad.Sample of actual conversation: "Afraid be demmed! Do you impugn my bravery, Madame?"