Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain

On November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri.

I teach American literature to 11th graders and next week they will begin reading Huckleberry Finn. It's one of my favorite novels to teach, and Twain has become a favorite author as well. Each year I show the Ken Burns documentary on Twain. It takes all week to watch the three and a half hour film but is well worth the time. At one point in the film when Huckleberry Finn is discussed, a commentator makes the following comment, with which I have come to strongly agree.

I think that Huckleberry Finn is our Homeric epic. It stands to our literature as The Iliad and The Odyssey stand to Greek and European literature in some sense. We are as a people radically different, despite our common threads of history, from Europeans, and the elements that make us different are essentially two: race and space. And Twain’s work, more than any other writer before him and probably more than any other writer since, embraces those two facts and makes possible an American literature that otherwise was not possible.

Monday, November 28, 2005

On this day in literature . . .

. . . a bond of £40 was entered to secure the marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway at Stratford upon Avon, 1582.

. . . John Bunyan (The Pilgrim's Progress) was born in Elstow, England, 1628.

. . . William Blake (British poet) was born in London, 1757.

. . . Washington Irving died in New York, 1859.

Washington Irving, best known for his short stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," is a key figure in American literature, for he marks the beginning of American Romanticism. With the publication of The Sketchbook in 1820, Irving set a new standard for American literature, one that advocated entertainment rather than didacticism. It would change the way Americans wrote and read. Irving was part of a literary group known as the Knickerbockers (named after Irving's famous narrator); they were centered in New York, and the group included the novelist James Fennimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) and the poet William Cullen Bryant ("Thanatopsis").

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Rereading: The Return of the Native

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.
~ C. S. Lewis

I first read The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy in a college class on the British novel. I remember being somewhat bored by it -- most likely a combination of busyness (and so, a rushed reading) and the fact that we'd just completed Pride & Prejudice and Wuthering Heights (after that, Hardy didn't thrill me). But I've just read it again for the AP Literature course I teach; we'd been doing a unit on the land, reading O Pioneers, Cry the Beloved Country, and The Return of the Native. And this time around, I loved the novel.

Hardy nearly seamlessly blends together a modern novel with ancient tragedy. I don't remember being impacted by this feature in my first reading (even though my notes reveal that my professor did touch on the issue). For the character of Eustacia Vye, a woman the reader loves and hates at the same time, Hardy draws on the ancient goddesses with their combination of beauty, fierceness, and fickleness. For Clym Yeobright, he looks to the future, to the idea of the modern man. And yet it is Clym who must arrive at a very ancient understanding -- that to play with Fate is to doom oneself. The parallels between Clym and Oedipus (of Oedipus Rex, the play which Aristotle viewed as the ideal tragedy) are striking and in no way accidental. Blindness which leads to true sight, a mother, a lover, a return to a homeland -- they made for a good story then, and Hardy knows a good thing when he sees it. Hardy also loves the idea of Fate -- that impersonal, even vengeful, force that haphazardly rules the universe. In one of his poems, Hardy even wishes there were an evil god to blame, yet he cannot find one. All that remains is Fate.

And so, this novel raised an interesting question, which I posed to the class, and one which I continue to ponder. Is a modern novel particularly suited to draw upon the themes and elements of ancient tragedy?

I tend to think, yes. The modern tragic fall seems to be disillusionment, which Clym most certainly experiences, and which defines the characters of many modern novels (those written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). And certainly the rejection of God, or at least the minimalization of God, creates space for Fate or some other force to fill the void. Without the framework of Christianity, we revert to paganism.

I think Hardy has written a good story (it's intriguing even if these issues are not considered) and at the same time has dealt significantly with essential issues of human experience. And that always makes for a good book. And one most certainly worth rereading.

P.S. I highly recommend this book. But if you've tried Hardy and have been put off by his somewhat depressing outlook, I'd suggest reading Far from the Madding Crowd, a novel that's considered to be more "cheerful." :-)

Sunday Hymn

This hymn is one of my favorites. I first encountered it in college, where we sang it often. There are 8 verses, but these four are the ones I'm familiar with.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in Thy great day;
For who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
Which, at the mercy seat of God,
Forever doth for sinners plead,
For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.

Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.

Words by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, 1739 (translated by John Wesley, 1740)
Music by William Gardiner, 1815

Friday, November 25, 2005

Christmastime is Here

I am writing a hymn to the King born of heavenly seed, the bringer of peace, and the blessed generations covenanted by the holy books, and the infant cry of God, and the stabling under a poor roof of Him who shares heaven with His Father, and about the skies giving birth to a new star, about the hosts of heaven who sang, and about the pagan gods suddenly demolished in their shrines.

~ John Milton, "Elegy 6" (1645)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Movie Thoughts: Pride & Prejudice

I've seen the new Pride & Prejudice (with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen) three times now -- first with Christa, who came up for Veteran's Day, then with Megan last Friday night (where we ran into a couple of my students), and finally on Monday with my mother and two of my sisters.

First, I think it's rather unfair to compare this version to the BBC/A&E version that came out in 1995 (with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth). That one had five hours to capture nearly everything in the novel (though why they couldn't do the end justice, I don't know). A movie version of Pride & Prejudice hasn't been released in theaters since the 1940s, so we were well overdue. And so, for a two-hour version, I thought this movie was excellent.

Just a few thoughts:

Rosamund Pike as Jane Bennet: Excellent choice of an actress to portray the eldest sister who is meant to be more beautiful than Elizabeth. I thought this actress was far better than the one in the 1995 version. (RP also played in Love in a Cold Climate, the Masterpiece Theatre version of one of my favorite books.)

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy: Personally, I think MM gives Colin Firth a run for his money. I've been a fan of MM ever since I watched MI-5, a British spy show. I read one review which commented that it didn't seem as though Darcy had to undergo change, that it was Elizabeth who had to make all the change and come to a better "understanding" of Darcy. I think that's a valid observation for this version, but I still think MM played the withdrawn hero to near perfection. He, perhaps, could have been a bit more haughty.

The crowded, claustrophobic effect: I loved the cramped feeling produced by the dance scenes. It seemed more authentic somehow. The Bennet's house and the town have this effect as well. In contrast, Netherfield and Pemberley have an open and empty (and therefore, luxurious) feel to them. I also enjoyed the dance scene with Darcy and Lizzy (at Netherfield) when the other dancers fade away, and they're the only two dancing.

Bronte meets Austen: For my one criticism, I must echo the thoughts of one review I read that commented on the Bronte effects in the movie, which the reviewer felt were displayed as Lizzy looked out over the brooding countryside, or when she ran in the rainstorm/the proposal in the rain, and finally, when Mr. Darcy came to meet her at the end. The only criticism of these that I truly agree with is the one concerning the end -- it's a good scene in that it demonstrates visually how Darcy has "loosened up," but I must admit that I had to restrain a small laugh as Mr. Darcy came striding across the open field with his shirt half-open. Poor Jane Austen probably rolled over in her grave at that moment. It truly felt as though it had been lifted from Jane Eyre.

Overall, though, I loved this version. I plan to buy it on DVD and place it right alongside my other Pride & Prejudice DVD. Then I can simply alternate between nearly perfect adaptations of one of the greatest English novels, and await the day when someone else wants to remake it yet again. I'll be first in line to see it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Book Thoughts: Twilight

I've never listed vampire books as one of my reading interests (I've never even picked up an Anne Rice book), and I'm still fairly sure that two books don't qualify me for the category. But the two I've read have been fabulous. My first venture into this genre was Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, which I read about two years ago. My second was Twilight.

I read Twilight (by Stephenie Meyer) in two evenings last week. I started it on Thursday night, and only the thought that I would have to present coherent lessons the next day compelled me to go to bed. I finished it Friday night (after getting home from a second viewing of Pride & Prejudice, which I have now seen for the third time -- more on that later).

Here's an excerpt from the front flap: When Isabella Swan moves to the gloomy town of Forks and meets the mysterious, alluring Edward Cullen, her life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn. . . . Up until now, he has managed to keep his true identity hidden, but Bella is determined to uncover his dark secret.

Okay, so it sounds like a sappy romance. But it's really not -- it's well-written, focused, and fast-paced. And it was the perfect escape from school work. :-) The author has created solid characters and tense conflict. At the same time, this novel is surprisingly chaste (unlike many other YA books, or vampire books for that matter). The author is a Mormon, which certainly influences her perspective. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this books to some of my students.

The book is classed as a YA novel, though I read in Publishers Weekly that booksellers aren't quite sure where to put it -- teen, adult, fantasy, horror, romance. It's got elements of all, which make it a great read. The author has planned at least two more books as sequels, which I'm quite glad to know.

I also love the cover. I'm quite influenced by book covers, and this one is striking in its simplicity. The author also includes Genesis 2:17 in the opening pages: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die. I found the parallels between biting and death, as well as the love that overcomes that death, to be a fascinating element.

So if you want a good, chilling read this winter, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Rediscovering Robert Alter

After a recent conversation with a coworker (somehow we segued from The Scarlet Letter into Genesis), I was re-inspired to pick up Robert Alter's works again. I first encountered Alter in a Bible as Literature course in college, a class that remains one of my favorites in the six years I was there.

My library had copies of the books I was looking for, and now I'm rereading parts of The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), which begins with an examination of the placement and purpose of the Tamar story in the midst of the Joseph story. The explanation for this story is one of my strongest memories from the class I took. Only once have I heard a sermon that even came close to doing this story justice.

I'm also reading through The Five Books of Moses (2004), Alter's translation of the Pentateuch. It's an intriguing perspective on Scripture. Alter states that his purpose for producing his own translation is to strike a balance between the highest literary translation of the Bible (the KJV) and the more modern translations, which possess less literary value in spite of their greater accuracy.

Alter also has a companion book -- The Art of Biblical Poetry -- as well as a translation of I and II Samuel entitled The Story of David. I'm attempting to restrain my impulse to buy all these books at once -- though the first two are on my Christmas list.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Okay. So I'm jealous.

I admit it. I'm jealous. I've been reading other people's blogs for quite a while now, and I want what they've got. So here it is; we'll see how it goes.

Projected categories of thought: books (reading, rereading, literature), movies, quotes, etiquette, hymns, etc.