Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Reflection of Her First Literary Works

In a collection of authors speaking of writing, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps takes a moment to reflect on her beginnings as a writer. With a tone not unlike her stories, cool, almost distant but tinged with a slight pleasant surprise, Phelps looks back at her start with mildly raised eyebrows. But she mentions two things that I really want to bring to the forefront in this blog. The first is about the independence of the working woman and her power in that role. The second is the dilemma of the writer, especially in the his/her first few years.

She starts the first topic off by mentioning writers who said they wrote simply for the act of writing. She expresses a wish for such a luxury, but has never been in the position for such an opportunity. She claims that:
"I am proud to be a working woman, and always had to be; though I ought to add that I am sure the proposal that my father's allowance to his daughter should cease, did not come from the father." She could have lived off her allowance quite happily. It may not have been a large amount, but probably enough to get her by. However, she felt the need to make her own way and her father was supportive of his endeavor. As is seen by his pleasure at her first publication.

After seeing her first story in Harpers magazine, she expresses having felt a "throb of pleasure greater than I supposed then that life could hold." She feels this pleasure because she now knows that she could support herself and proceeds to do that from then on. This kind of sentiment strongly reflects her beliefs in women's reform, of which she is noted to have encouraged women to burn their corsets. She says that while one may hesitate to mention the pleasure of independent working all one has to do is think of:

"the thousands of women who find it to easy to be dependent on too heavily weighted and too generous men, one hesitates no longer to say anything that may help those other thousands of women who stand on their own feet, and their own pluck, to understand how good a thing it is to be there."

She truly believes in the power of a woman who has control of her own life. In these quotes she subtly expresses a motivation for her writing. She wants to speak out against the women who are willing to work and suffer under the yolk of men when they could embrace their own power. She wants to encourage and support those women who are already out there trying to work for themselves. Her writing is a celebration of the working woman and a call to arms for all the domestic slaves chained to their men.

This kind of reform and rally is seen in many of her works, both books and short stories. In many of her works she expresses her dismissal of the domestic power women had once embraced and urges then to seek power out in the financial world. A domain formerly ran by men. This can also be seen in The Lady of Shalott. The Lady, who is bedridden, and chained by her domestic settings, is a creature given to fantasy and the romantic. Her sister who interacts with the capital world and work hard to earn a living is realistic and down to earth. Who in the end survives? Phelps isn't trying to show contempt or scorn for The Lady. Instead she wants to invoke pity and the understanding that although the situation is through no cause of her own, it is a situation that smothers and eventually kills its inhabitants.

Her other intriguing point is her view of the life of a writer. She starts off by talking about how she and her armour would take the time in the evening to read passages from whatever manuscript they were working on. She mentions three of them that never sent into a publisher simply because they were the early scribblings of a would be author. However, she looks back on these writing fondly because she says that writings like these get out the "apprenticeship which does, in some cases, finds its way into type, and devastate the endurance of a patient public." She admits straight up that she wrote bad first drafts in the beginning. She doesn't mind readers knowing that these manuscripts were her test subjects of her new talent. There is no subterfuge with her.

She also recalls on when her first piece was accepted into Harpers Magazine and she showed her father, the delight she felt at his pleasure, astonishment and praise. Because of this very good first impression in the world of writing, Phelps continued with her new found profession. But she admits the "humiliating fact" that if her first story had been rejected, she would have stopped writing. I find this extremely interesting because she contradict herself later on by saying that:

"Write, if you must; not otherwise. Do not write, if you can earn a fair living at teaching or dressmaking, at electricity or hod-carrying. Make shoes, weed cabbages, survey land, keep house, make ice-cream, sell cake, climb a telephone pole. Nay, be a lightning-rod peddler or a book agent, before you set your heart upon it that you shall write for a living. Do anything honest, but do not write, unless God calls you, and publishers want you, and people read you, and editors claim you."

She admitted earlier that her writing was "nothing of the stuff that heroines and genuises are made of in a shy and self-distrustful girl, who had no faith in her own capabilities, and, indeed, at that time the smallest possible amount of interest in the subject." So she felt no confidence in her writing. She would have given up her writing if she had been met with rejection the first few times she sent her writing out into the real world. But then later on claims that for those who write, there is no other way. That even though the pay is worse than any other honest job they could find, it would never be enough to appease the hunger that writing abates. I think that this is an intriguing insight to a writer's mind. We, as readers, often presume that writers have this lofty meaning to everything they write. That it is all with purpose and that they must walk around with poetic lines of prose pouring out of mind and mouth. But contrary to that, there is a life of uncertainty, doubt, hardship and discouragement.

Phelps claims that living for the pen, isn't so much living but "it is more likely to be dying by your pen; despairing by your pen; burying your heart and hope and youth and courage in your inkstand." She entreats writers to think long and hard about their motivation to write because "unless you are prepared to work like a slave at his galley, for the toss-up chance of a freedom which may be denied him when his work is done, do not write. There are some pleasant things about this way of spending a lifetime, but there are no easy ones." She wonders whether writers may have been happier in another profession, but speculates that "time alone- perhaps one might say, eternity- can answer."

I think this line of though really entreats one to speculate on the journey to being a writer. Were some writer smacked in the face with it from the beginning? Or were they lead to it slowly, through many years and different professions? Often with writers whom have died or who we consider to "literary giants" to be ones that were born to the craft and with this brilliant insight that automatically sees and knows things in a completely different manner from those around them.

What we forget is that these renown authors, these intelligent writers are people too. No doubt they have intellect, they wouldn't be able to write as they do if otherwise. However, they weren't just created that way. They went through the anxieties, misgivings and other self-doubts that all other writers go through, no matter their prowess with the written word.  They had to work hard and earn their place in the literary world and although they may not have felt confident in the beginning, they grew into that place and learned that nothing else would have been better.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

William Dean Howells and Tom Sawyer

Its well known that William Dean Howells and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) were very close literary colleagues as well as very close friends. For this reason, I thought it would be interesting to examine a critical piece from Howells about a piece of Twain's fiction. Specifically, a review of the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The beginning discusses a pivotal difference in the character and region between two important figures; the first being Tom Sawyer and the second being Tom Bailey. Curious as to who Howells is referring to when he says "Mr. Aldrich," a quick google search or two led me to the wikipedia page of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who it turns out was a contemporary novelist and poet with Howell. According to the free encyclopedia:
"Thomas Bailey Aldrich was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on November 11, 1836.[1] When Aldrich was a child, his father moved to New Orleans. After 10 years, Aldrich was sent back to Portsmouth to prepare for college. This period of his life is partly described in his semi-autobiographical novel The Story of a Bad Boy (1870), in which "Tom Bailey" is the juvenile hero. Critics have said that this novel contains the first realistic depiction of childhood in American fiction and prepared the ground for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

So, Howells is describing how Twain has taken this established "boy" character and used it to explore entirely new themes and ideas in a totally different region from the one given to us by Aldrich. Though different, Aldrich does not mean to say that Sawyer is inferior in anyway, in fact he goes on to argue just the opposite:

"Mr. Clemens, on the contrary, has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction."

So, Howells thinks that Sawyer's Adventures paint the best picture of the Mississippi to date, and more importantly frames the idea that the novel is "realistic in the highest degree." Howells is associating the fact that the novel treats its subjects faithfully and not romantically as a huge virtue of the work. He goes on to discuss how the novel is realistic in more depth, how it digs into more than just an entertaining plot and reaches into Tom's defining of his own self and his own reality in his rural environment. More than just Tom's introspection though, the novel seeks being realistic by giving a breathtaking and accurate portrayal of the region, at least in Howells mind. This is all summed up when Howells tells us that,
"The local material and the incidents with which his career is worked up are excellent, and throughout there is scrupulous regard for the boy's point of view in reference to his surroundings and himself, which shows how rapidly Mr. Clemens has grown as an artist."

Howells cant get enough of singing Twain's praise as a realist writer and a regionalist. I wondered at this point how much their friendship was leaking into the review and whether or not Howells was being a fair and objective critical source. It's difficult to say, but I like ti think that Howell's probably did at least try to put on a lens which was disengaged from his relationship with Twain. However, it doesnt seem crazy to think that Howells would be especially enthusiastic about his friends novel, especially when it touches on so many subjects that Howells, as a realist himself, would appreciate and find important. So, there are two candidate answers for why Howells thinks of Tom Sawyer so highly: on the one hand he was Twain's best friend and collaborator, on the other he is just another realist who appreciates what Twain has done with the work. Either way, the important thing is that Howells does a great job pointing out where we can trace realism in the text, and the primary place is in the great depiction of Tom's internal thoughts and feelings as the story progresses:
"The story is a wonderful study of the boy-mind, which inhabits a world quite distinct from that in which he is bodily present with his elders, and in this lies its great charm and its universality, for boy-nature, however human nature varies, is the same everywhere."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mark Twain as a Social Critic

Mark Twain is known best to the general public through his works of realist fiction concerning the lackadaisical, if mischievous exploits of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These and other such stories, (an example being the short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”) those of seemingly no tangible theme, or serious implications concerning life’s greater truths, are heralded as his greatest achievements and often his only contributions to the world of literature. Indeed they are great contributions to the regionalist and realist traditions, however to limit one’s knowledge of the man is to paints a picture of a generally carefree, humorous but not very socially conscious individual who became famous by poking fun at important men, and prodding institutions to no real consequence.

In reality Twain was an incredibly prolific writer, who though humorous was heavily political in his writings. Throughout his career as a journalist, novelist, critic etc. he tended to emphasize the absurdity of the socially accepted tenets of western thought of the time. The satire he produced was often considered radical for his time, and had trouble publishing many pieces during his life time. His work not only called into question the entire tradition of Romanticism but the legitimacy of societal constructs and accepted institutions of his time; slavery, imperialism and nationalism that produced the idea of American Exceptionalism.

To those who are savvy of Twain’s social consciousness, he is perhaps best known for being especially aware of the challenges of race, and the general absurdity of the institution of slavery. As mentioned in class, this is famously portrayed in the story Pudd’nhead Wilson; a story which, in the most overt way imaginable, illustrates the superficial, and often hollow distinctions that condemned an entire race. In true convention of abolitionist literature, he draws two of the main characters “octoroons”, individuals who are considered black only by implausible technicalities. He emphasizes the ridiculousness and almost contradictory nature of the “fiction of law and custom” by switching the slave Roxy’s child with the master’s. The effect is completed when the scheme is successful in that no one notices the difference and the would-be slave is raised as a white boy; his own mother effectively deceiving even herself in the end.

Twain was also naturally a pacifist, and being vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League in the time of the American invasion of the Philippines, was vocal in regards to his opposition to the campaign initiated by President McKinley. The invasion, supposedly based on the alleged sinking of the ship USS Maine, by the Spanish, was in fact a massacre to secure the sugar market for American plantations and indeed secured a foothold for supremacy in the Pacific for the United States. He condemned a public that was hungry for war in a piece titled “The War Prayer”. The text can be found in full at this link: It is a short story, in essence portraying a home town, and implicitly a country, that is in the throes of a fevered war frenzy.

“ It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.”

The constituents of the town believe they are justified, their mission is holy, to civilize the apparent savages, to dash to pieces the inherently evil ranks of the enemy. The story climaxes as the young volunteers, in their final preparations, are attending a sermon appropriately themed to encourage the hawkish public sentiment, to enflame nationalistic ideals, presumably initiated by bureaucrats and social leaders, that are driving the young men to their glorious demise for the “national interest”. At the height of the pastor’s “war prayer” a strange white figure appears in the door and claims to be a messenger of God. He brings to the attention of the parish the implications carried by their prayers for victory, the implied damnation of the faceless “others”.

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain…”

The bluntness of form is where Twain finds his edge. He has a way of shaking up the perspectives on otherwise typical situations of everyday life. This defamiliarizing effect is at the core of his work’s potency. This piece was considered so radical that while it was written during the US war in the Phillipines (1899–1902) it wasn’t published until 1923. Where can we find similar critics of public and foreign policy in today’s literature? And can one suspect that their messages are also being downplayed by a public and by leaders who are skeptical of progressive ideas? Perhaps years from now our generation’s literary legacy will be defined by such writers who are now unknown to us, but whose messages will seem as obvious then as the abolitionist, or anti-imperialist message does now.