The OF Blog

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The OF Blog Turns 12

Sometimes, it is weird to reflect on how things stood back on August 25, 2004 when I created this blog.  As I said numerous anniversaries before, this blog was intended to be an outreach/supplement to the Other Fantasy section of wotmania (which went defunct in September 2009; its "successor" site, Read and Find Out, recently announced it too is about to shutter its virtual doors after seven years).  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum and...

Yeah, a lot has changed since a barely 30 year-old me established this.  I've seen the rise and fall of many individual blogs and the spread of that bligh...err, social media that links divers groups of people together.  Twitter, podcasts, Tumblr, Reddit...none of that really existed in 2004, at least not in a mass consumption form.  I don't begrudge people who communicate via those formats, but I will admit, while I pause to tell some kids to get off my lawn, that I think something has been lost in the change.

Granted, blogs themselves were rapid-response, "hot take" vehicles as well, where each blogger could (and did) quickly spout off his or her opinion on the topic du jour.  But with much more than 140 characters or .gif memes deployed to develop a response/message, things just seemed a bit more nuanced, less dependent on immediacy of response.  I will admit that I have largely abandoned Twitter this year due to the "echo effect" I see when I see, like a burst of fireworks, one person, then a dozen, then maybe a hundred or more on my Twitter feed, sound off on something that seems more and more picayune to me with each passing day.  Sometimes, it's just better to not say anything if all it is is just a rehash/retweet of someone else's opinion, over and over again.

But enough of the old man grouching.  I am still happy that I have a place where I can muse on what literary work has grabbed my attention for the moment (right now, it is late 18th century American history).  I don't worry about who reads this (I'm not posting links to this article anywhere else) or anything else on my blog.  In a perverse way, it is comforting to know that a large percentage of those who do read my writings now (based on search engine hits) seem to be students looking for "information" *cough*plagiarizing*cough* on Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and others that I have reviewed in recent years.  At least these visitors are here for info on literature and not my ephemeral opinion on some piddling "fandom" issue.  A pox and several plagues on those houses!

As for the future, well...it's bright enough outside that I got to wear shades...

Monday, August 08, 2016

Francis Parkman, France and England in North America

The springs of American civilization, unlike those of the elder world, lie revealed in the clear light of History.  In appearance they are feeble; in reality, copious and full of force.  Acting at the sources of life, instruments otherwise weak become mighty for good and evil, and men, lost elsewhere in the crowd, stand forth as agents of Destiny.  In their toils, their sufferings, their conflicts, momentous questions were at stake, and issues vital to the future world, – the prevalence of races, the triumph of principles, health or disease, a blessing or a curse.  On the obscure strife where men died by tens or by scores hung questions of as deep import for posterity as on those mighty contests of national adolescence where carnage is reckoned by thousands.

The subject to which the proposed series will be devoted is that of "France in the New World," – the attempt of Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome to master a continent where, at this hour, half a million of bayonets are vindicating the ascendency of a regulated freedom; – Feudalism still strong in life, though enveloped and overborne by new-born Centralization; Monarchy in the flush of triumphant power; Rome, nerved by disaster, springing with renewed vitality from ashes and corruption, and ranging the earth to reconquer abroad what she had lost at home.  These banded powers, pushing into the wilderness their indomitable soldiers and devoted priests, unveiled the secrets of the barbarous continent, pierced the forests, traced and mapped out the streams, planted their emblems, built their forts, and claimed all as their own.  New France was all head.  Under king, noble, and Jesuit, the lank, lean body would not thrive.  Even commerce wore the sword, decked itself with badges of nobility, aspired to forest seigniories and hordes of savage retainers. (Introduction, p. 13 Library of America edition, vol. I of France and England in North America)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, I frequently would check out old histories from the local library.  There was something exhilarating to read 50-100 year-old histories where there was a sense of momentousness to tales of daring and doing, of brave souls whose choices seemed to change the course of the world.  The prose might have been purple in places, but oh God was it glorious to read.  Years before I knew what "historiography" and "monograph" meant, long before I delved into primary source material, read pardon tales and experienced "fiction in the archives," I wanted to be a historian, just so I could read and re-read these fascinating tales of heroes and villains who actually lived, breathed, and died, with their actions affecting the lives of millions. 

Of course, the reality of studying history in the late 20th century at the University of Tennessee was far different from my youthful expectations.  There the focus was on trends and societal moldings of individuals and not the inverse.  I discovered a love for cultural and religious histories, seeing in preserved documents such as the trial of an Italian miller for heresy something more real and intriguing than tales of Frederick the Great's campaigns in Central Europe during the 1740s (that being said, Frederick did lead a fascinating life, full of conflicts both internal and external).  Histories that purportedly had a "theme" or moral to explore just seemed a bit too trite to me, too full of confidence in national and self-delusions to be worth anything more than a diverting look into the world-views of those who composed them in the years just prior and concurrent to Leopold von Ranke's famous maxim, "Wie es eigentlich gewesen" ("How it really was"), being composed to describe his focus on a more rational, fact-based approach to historiography.  Yet there is still something powerful to these older, more Romantic histories that still calls to me.

This certainly was the case when I recently read Francis Parkman's 1865-1893 seven volume history of France's involvement in North America, collected into two volumes by the Library of America and published as France and England in North America.  Parkman's introduction is a bracing read, especially if the reader, like myself, finds himself reacting to almost every line with questions of how something in a similar vein might never see the light of day in early 21st century "professional" journals.  One just does not talk about destinies and civilizations as being fonts of either good and/or evil without being ridiculed these days.  And yet, in re-reading just now Parkman's 1865 introduction (and realizing that he's thinking heavily upon the American Civil War and the fight to remove slavery from the land) there is a life to it that makes these 3000 pages seem fresh even 151 years later.

Parkman's prose certainly helps the curious reader settle quickly into the story he aims to tell.  Despite the lush, almost turgid quality of his introduction, much of the actual histories he tells are concise yet full of vivid descriptions, such as this observation on French resiliency after an English raid on the early settlement of Acadia (now parts of the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) in 1613:

In spite of their reverses, the French kept hold on Acadia.  Biencourt, partially at least, rebuilt Port Royal; while winter after winter the smoke of fur-traders' huts curled into the still, sharp air of these frosty wilds, till at length, with happier auspices, plans of settlement were resumed. (p. 239, vol. I)
The subject matter, the invasion/settlement of North America, lends itself well to being viewed as an adventure of wills, of villains and heroes struggling for dominance.  Never mind that Parkman, even more so than many of his contemporaries, often portrays the local nations as being oft-perfidious "savages," whose lust for scalps and mutilations makes them frequent foils for these intrepid explorers.  While there are some exceptions to be found in these volumes, for the most part this is a history that downplays the intricacies of Franco-Native interactions.  This is most apparent in the final volume, Montcalm and Wolfe, as the nations are reduced to little more than waves of savages who aid the French (minus the notable exception of the Six Nations).

Yet despite this major flaw (at least for a one-time historian living in the early 21st century), this narrative approach does make the events of 1535-1763 a compelling read.  This is especially true in two volumes, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West and Montcalm and Wolfe, where Parkman's penchant for describing key historical figures as though they were characters in a novel makes for an absorbing, quick read.  La Salle in particular is a quasi-saint among ruffians, as his single-minded vision for establishing a true French empire in the forests of North America makes him a truly tragic hero whose denouement, long-foreshadowed, is nonetheless more poignant for its seemingly inevitability. 

However, Parkman is more than a one-trick pony.  Vivid and as well-constructed as his tales of historical heroes and villains might be, his use of primary sources is also important.  For the most part, leaving aside his almost calumnious depictions of Native Americans, his histories contain a plethora of citations of letters, diaries, and official documents.  While it might be inconvenient for monolingual readers, Parkman frequently cites, untranslated, various observations by the historical figures and their contemporaries, in his footnotes and appendices.  These citations lend a gravity to the texts that might otherwise have been missing.  His research is extensive and while some of his conclusions can be debated (such as viewing New France versus the English colonies as an extension of feudal/clerical powers vs. incipient liberty-seeking yeomen), the documents themselves do provide a lot of support for other arguments of his, namely the inherent weaknesses in establishing a colony that was based more on the exploitation of natural resources (especially furs) than on the cultivation of these resources.

On the whole, France and England in North America is a well-written, relatively well-researched mid-to-late 19th century history that was written during a time when historiography was being to switch from a narrative-heavy, ideological view of the past toward a more document-based, "scientific" approach toward studying past events.  While some of Parkman's terminology and conclusions might be cringe-worthy today, his fast-paced, person-centered tales create a vivid, complex tapestry of events and people that makes for a gripping read.  It certainly is one of the better examples of 19th century American histories available today for readers curious about colonial settlements but who may not wish to be bogged down with thorough examinations of contemporary societal trends.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A most heartwrenching letter, composed by Benjamin Franklin

Here is what Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1772 to Georgianna Shipley (pp. 139-141 in Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings, Library of America #39B):

Dear Miss,

I lament with you most sincerely the unfortunate End of poor Mungo.  Few Squirrels were better accomplish'd; for he had had a good Education, had travell'd far, and seen much of the World.  As he had the Honour of being for his Virtues your Favourite, he should not go like common Skuggs without an Elegy or an Epitaph.  Let us give him one in the monumental Stile and Measure, which being neither Prose nor Verse, is perhaps the properest for Grief; since to use common Language would look as if we were not affected, and to make Rhimes would seem Trifling in Sorrow.

Alas!  poor Mungo!
Happy wert thou, hadst thou known
Thy own Felicity!
Remote from the fierce Bald-Eagle,
Tyrant of thy native Woods,
Thou hadst nought to fear from his piercing Talons;
Nor from the murdering Gun
Of the thoughtless Sportsman.
Safe in thy wired Castle,
Grimalkin never could annoy thee.
Daily wert thou fed with the choicest Viands
By the fair Hand
Of an indulgent Mistress.
But, discontented, thou wouldst have more Freedom.
Too soon, alas!  didst thou obtain it,
And, wandering,
Fell by the merciless Fangs,
Of wanton, cruel Ranger.
Learn hence, ye who blindly wish more Liberty,
Whether Subjects, Sons, Squirrels or Daughters,
That apparent Restraint may be real Protection
Yielding Peace, Plenty, and Security.

You see how much more decent and proper this broken Stile, interrupted as it were with Sighs, is for the Occasion, than if one were to say, by way of Epitaph,

Here Skugg
Lies snug
As a Bug
In a Rug.

And yet perhaps there are People in the World of so little Feeling as to think, that would be a good-enough Epitaph for our poor Mungo!

If you wish it, I shall procure another to succeed him.  But perhaps you will now chuse some other Amusement.  Remember me respectfully to all the [  ] good Family; and believe me ever, Your affectionate Friend

September 26, 1772

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Looking at my recent reading, I almost wonder if I have entered a time warp

It is funny how sometimes the old can become new again.  When I was 23, back in 1997, I thought I was burned out on reading histories.  Back then, I thought that if I had to endure one more dip into primary source material, one more monograph, that I might explode.  Sure enough, despite having taught social studies for several years afterward, I barely read any historical non-fiction.  And yet, earlier this month, I found myself thumbing through the two-volume Library of America edition of 19th century American historian Francis Parkman's seven books on New France, France and England in North America, and I let myself get lost in his prose.  Well, until I began encountering arguments and presentations that led to think, "wait, this should have been approached from another angle" or "no, this isn't a good way of arguing the point," before finding myself engaging in the text not just as a casual reader, but as a former historian-in-training.

Now when I was in grad school, my focus was on Early Modern and Modern European cultural/intellectual/religious history, so I only had passing encounters with American history beyond the survey level (one of those, on colonial Atlantic colonies, taught me more than any other course on how to write and dissect histories).  Therefore, Parkman's histories made me look at the other Library of America volumes I had on hand.  Being typically unambitious, I selected nearly a dozen volumes to read.  However, I am not reading them sequentially, but rather in a patchwork chronological order, going from the 1760s to the 1820s.  For the curious, here's the list of books:

  • Benjamin Franklin, Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings (1722-1775; already finished); Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings
  • Gordon Wood (ed.), The American Revolution:  Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1772 (almost finished); Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1773-1776 
  • George Washington, Writings (finished the pre-1775 section)
  • Thomas Jefferson, Writings (finished his Autobiography and a pre-1776 section)
  • Abigail Adams, Letters (read pre-1770 letters so far)
  • John Rhodehamel (ed.), The American Revolution:  Writings from the War of Independence (will start after finishing the Wood books)
  • James Madison, Writings (will read after finishing the Rhodehamel)
  • Alexander Hamilton, Writings (to be read concurrently with the Madison and later Jefferson)
Time/energy permitting, I'll write short commentaries on these works in the coming weeks.  It certainly has encouraged me to read more than I have at any point these past 18 months, as I've nearly doubled my 2016 reads over the past two weeks.  If my interest is still sustained after completing these reads, I'll likely read a two-volume look at the debates surrounding the U.S. Constitution and another 19th century history, this one on Jefferson and Madison's administrations.

As for fiction reading, that too seems to have reverted to what I would read in 1996-1997 when I needed a break from reading monographs.  Almost done re-reading Theodore Dreiser's outstanding An American Tragedy and a Library of America edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's pre-1923 works (This Side of Paradise is relatively underrated these days) and I might review those as well.

Yes, I know there are some readers (if any still frequent this blog, that is) who would rather see reviews of recent speculative fictions, but sometimes a reader just has to go back to the well in order to rediscover just what s/he loved about literature in the first place.  Besides, I have 175 Library of America editions that I'd like to review before I turn 50, so might as well whittle down that mountain while my interest is high, n'est ce pas?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

R. Scott Bakker, The Great Ordeal

Domination.  Over lives and nations.  Over history and ignorance.  Over existence itself, down through the leaves of reality's countless skins.  No mortal had possessed such might.  His was a power and potency that not even the Gods, who must ration themselves across all times, could hope to counter, short of scooping themselves hollow and forever dwelling as phantoms...

No soul had no owned Circumstance.  He, and he alone, was the Place, the point of maximal convergence.  Nations hung from his whim.  Reality grovelled before his song.  The Outside itself railed against him.

And yet for all of it darkness still encircled him, the obscurity of before, the blackness of after.

For those who worshipped him as a god, he remaine a mortal man, possessing but one intellect and two hands – great, perhaps, in proportion to his innumerable slaves, but scarcely a mote on the surface of something inconceivable.  He was no more a prophet than an architect or any other who wrenches his conception into labourious reality.  All the futures he had raised had been the issue of his toil...

He suffered visions, certainly, but he had long ceased to trust them. (pp. 120-121)

Despite its many flaws in form, there is something about modern epic fantasies that attracts me to read them still on occasion.  Perhaps it is the partial erasure of modernity, with its rejection of intentionalist world-views, and the resulting construction of a structured reality that is potentially pregnant with meaning in a fashion that just cannot exist today.  Struggles that are made concrete, externalized and presented frequently in anthropomorphic forms, yes, there is the possibility that something profound that could be said about life itself without reducing our own concerns to those of worker bees.  But too often, these promises of profundity dissipate into trite truisms that ring hollow, with various reiterations of pre-modern (usually) Western societies collapsing under the weight of perceived gaps in understanding humanity and its propensity to war against itself.

I have been reading R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse novels for a little over twelve years now.  His mixture of philosophical concepts of mind and reality (or rather, the artificiality of such) within the trappings of a constructed society in which there is a true, "objective" reality where religious texts possess a literal meaning captured my attention when I first read The Darkness That Comes Before back in 2004.  Over the intervening years, I have struggled at times to process what Bakker is exploring, as there are several uncomfortable elements within his fiction that can be off-putting when the reader compares them to modern debates on issues such as gender, race, and general parity between individuals.  His writing is very dense, full of concepts that do not necessarily reflect those of the author himself, but instead of the mindsets that went into the construction of religious/social milieus during the pre-modern era.  It certainly takes some patience and a willingness to trust Bakker to forge on beyond the rapes, the coercions, the general "darkness" of the series to see just where he is going with his arguments and with his characters.

His sixth novel in the overall series (and third in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series), The Great Ordeal, is a revelatory one in many senses.  We come to understand the import behind certain choices made earlier in the series, such as the effects of consuming the enemy Sranc upon the titular Great Ordeal as it moves toward its dread goal or the fate of the Emperor Kellhus's natal Ishuäl.  The reader also learns more of the Non-men and the dreadful effects of their artificial immortality.  Isolated into plot developments, these events alone would provide some fodder for fans of the series to digest until the last volume in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series, The Unholy Consult, appears in the next year.  However, there are certain metaphysical points of contention raised within The Great Ordeal that provide a greater depth to these events.

One of Bakker's concerns throughout this novel, spread as it is among scenes within the Great Ordeal, Ishuäl, the Non-men mansion of Ishterebinth, and the imperial capital of Momemn, is to illustrate how various characters try to grasp the concept of the Absolute.  The quote above, which occurs before a pivotal (and perhaps problematic) scene involving Kellhus, deals with the confluence of reality and lives into a concrete Place where the Absolute dwells.  In this passage, we see some of Kellhus's mentality laid bare for us, with conceits and self-deception ever lurking on the edges of his frank self-portrayal.  This (perhaps deserved?) arrogance, mixed with an ever-growing sense of "love" that threatens to "corrupt" the Thousandfold Thought that has conditioned his path to power, serves as a partial explanation to the events that immediately follow.  By itself, it's a deep look into one of the more mysterious characters in the series, but when viewed in conjunction with scenes that transpire late in the Ishterebinth and Ishuäl chapters, it morphs into something less lofty and more fallible in terms of how Kellhus's conception of the Place/Absolute may be something beyond his ken. 

For readers who have been disturbed in the past by Eärwa's treatment of women (particularly the numerous rapes within the previous novels), Bakker tries to make explicit, through the vision of "Whale Mothers" that Mimara has, that depiction does not equal endorsement.  There are several hints that this "objective" reduction of women to beings lesser than men is due to arbitrariness on the part of those collective beings whose intentions have driven reality in this setting.  Yet despite this, there are still moments where it seems that the female characters in three of the key scenes (Ishterebinth, Ishuäl, Momemn) fall too readily into subordinate roles even when taking into consideration the unfolding situations about them.

The prose was another challenging element.  While I understand Bakker's desire to create a narrative that would reflect (and at times, reveal internal contradictions) ancient historical and religious texts, there were times where the writing was perhaps too opaque in its descriptions of event and its import.  This was especially true in those scenes where characters were considering Love in context of the world about them.  It is one thing to express the importance (and possible deceptions) of Love, but another to weave it in seamlessly with the greater narrative.  Too frequently, I felt as though I were temporarily "tossed out" of reading the text through perceiving the maladroit integration of certain concepts within the narrative.  Yet there were times, especially with the "Boatman" scene, where Bakker's prose creates a heightened sense of horror that goes beyond the visceral into something less definable yet no less terrifying when considered at length.  On the whole, the prose did serve to create a more "alien" mindscape, especially in the Ishterebinth scenes, than what might have occurred if Bakker's prose had been more direct.

For the most part, I was fascinated (I hesitate to use the word "enjoyed," considering the unsettling nature of many of the plot revelations) by many of the scenes present within the novel, yet ultimately I felt as though it ended weakly.  Many of the scenes end on the cusp of something important happening or in the midst of key developments, lacking in any sort of firm developments to help make sense of them.  There were few, if any, "natural" end places for these character/plot arcs and by the time the last page was turned, I was acutely aware that The Great Ordeal was but the first part of a larger narrative arc.  This put a damper on my overall engagement with the novel, as it felt like I was having to abandon it at an earlier place than perhaps it should have concluded.  Now I have to wait for The Unholy Consult's arrival to be able to judge better if what I had just read was as good as I found it to be for the majority of its pages.  The Great Ordeal ultimately is a good, yet flawed, volume in the Second Apocalypse series. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose

1 

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth
     them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond
     to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the
     charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own
     bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they
     who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do full as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

– opening section of "I Sing the Body Electric" (p. 250, Library of America edition)

Every so often, there comes along a literary genius who makes a genre sui generis.  Shakespeare, talented as he was, was in his lifetime merely one of several gifted English playwrights.  Goethe was a master of many trades, yet his impact on prose, drama, and poetry, while profound, did not mark as much of a break with German literary tradition as did the singular work of a 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman.  What Whitman accomplished over the course of thirty-six years of revisions of his seminal Leaves of Grass is truly remarkable.  Although there were other, earlier American poets, such as Edgar Allan Poe, who created memorable poems, there were none who captured the collective ethos of the burgeoning American republic to the depth and breadth of Whitman.

Reading Leaves of Grass is more of an experience than a passive activity.  It does not follow older poetic traditions of metre and rhyme; it often contains clashes of styles and insights within its verses (not for nothing does Whitman state in section 51 of "Song of Myself" the following:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (p. 246))
 Yet there is something within this occasionally bombastic collection that makes such poetic conventions seem restrictive, if not outmoded.  Whitman's poems are at once personal and epic, yet without an over-reliance upon Greco-Roman or English historical themes.  One example of this can be found in "O Captain!  My Captain!," which dealt with the assassination of President Lincoln.  The opening stanza is full of metaphors for his leadership during the American Civil War, yet there is nothing that immediately rises to the grandiose:

O Captain!  my Captain!  our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                 But O heart!  heart!  heart!
                     O the bleeding drops of red,
                        Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                            Fallen cold and dead. (p. 467)

In reading this poem, at first I saw not a myth, not an Olympian figure that might be found in the Romantic poetry of the 19th century, but a man, one chained by duty to something that afflicts him.  Lincoln's conduct of the war, this "vessel grim and daring," guided by his steady, unrelenting demeanor, is presented in a vivid, yet grounded fashion; Lincoln is merely a worker, albeit one who has achieved greatness not due so much to any preternatural gifts but because of a steadiness to him that reflects the character of the young, divided nation that he helped guide through the turmoils of the War of Secession. 

Yet as moving of an elegy as "O Captain! My Captain" is (and certainly it has been referenced frequently in the following 150 years), I think it is an outlier compared to the other poems that appeared in the various editions of Leaves of Grass.  It (and by extension, the other poems in the section "Memories of President Lincoln") is more somber, less full of the joie de vivre found in earlier sections, such as the more erotic Calamus poems.  Those, such as "We Two Boys Together Clinging," in content and form presage the works of the Beat Generation a century later:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the
     turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray. (p. 282)
This perhaps is not one of Whitman's more famous poems, but within this litany of rakish acts I sensed a spirit of raw newness, something that isn't shaped by societal conventions or past models as much as it is testing those bounds, yearning to burst free and to live and by so living create experiences different from those that came before.  This yearning quality in Whitman's poetry does not always work (there are several poems that feel more like sketches of great works than anything substantial), but I would argue that even these relative "failures" make Leaves of Grass a staggering work, precisely because we can see the poet's work not as a polished work but instead as something whose flaws and virtues have blended together to create something that feels almost alive, replete with its own literary warts and scars.

The second half of Poetry and Prose, Whitman's numerous essays, letters, and various ruminations on contemporary events and the experiences that he distilled later into his poetry, is a fascinating read in its own light.  Whitman does not shy away from making strong comments about other writers (see his comment on Edgar Allan Poe in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads):

Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems – of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell'd ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious – has room for all – has so many mansions!)  But I was repaid in Poe's prose by the idea that (at any rate for our occasions, our day) there can be no such thing as a long poem.  The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe's argument, though short, work'd the sum out and proved it to me. (p. 665)

But more so than his literary commentaries Whitman's diary of his time as a nurse during the Civil War makes his prose works a worthy read in their own right.  He notes several conversations with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, with several entries presenting in just a few lines deep insights into these soldiers' lives and their world-views.  Almost the entirety of Specimen Days is fascinating to read and consider at length.

Poetry and Prose is ultimately one of those works that is virtually impossible to review in depth in a single article under 2000 words.  There are so many poems that are worthy of deeper investigation than was possible in a short review such as this.  In composing this post, I decided that perhaps it would be better to just quote a few snippets of works that intrigued me and to discuss briefly things within them that I liked.  Hopefully those who have not read Whitman's poetry (or at least not beyond the usual suspects reproduced in literature survey anthologies) will find themselves wanting to read more.  Those who have read and enjoyed his works but who have not yet read his prose (such as myself before earlier this year) will want now to investigate those as well.  Whitman certainly is an American literary treasure, one who consciously refused to follow contemporary literary conventions.  In breaking with the literary past, Whitman ended up creating works that differed significantly from those of his peers and his influence on American poets over the past 160 years has been immeasurable.  Poetry and Prose is an excellent one-volume collection of his literary output, as it is an edition that presents the entire breadth and depth of Whitman's writing without overwhelming readers with too many citations and footnotes.  It certainly is worth the time and money spent.




Sunday, May 29, 2016

Received an ARC copy of The Big Book of Science Fiction recently


Because I don't care to give away everything, since it's a flash fiction that I translated for The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), let's just say that there's something within the introduction that's an added bonus for readers.  The book will be released in the US on July 12th.  This is my third translation to be published.  More on this story and the anthology at a later date.
 
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