Monday, June 30, 2014

Still shocking

The Penguin paperback copy of God's Little Acre I just finished reading was printed in February 1948 and was Penguin's 18th printing of Erskine Caldwell's 1933 novel. It's first printing was in March 1946, meaning the publisher had been printing new copies of the book almost monthly. That gives some idea of just how popular Caldwell's novel was at the time. Few people read it today, but from the Thirties to the Sixties it created a sensation.

That had a lot to do with the New York obscenity case brought against Viking when it first published the book in 1933. The court determined the novel had literary merit and was not pornographic, but afterward everybody wanted to read it to see what all the fuss was about.

The sexuality in the story is not at all explicit, yet even today, more than 80 years after its original publication, God's Little Acre seems shocking. Caldwell writes about a Depression-era family in the rural South whose patriarch, Ty Ty, is obsessed with finding gold on his land. His soil is rich and he could make a good living farming his land, but instead he and his grown sons, Buck and Shaw, dig great holes in their search for the gold Ty Ty remains convinced lies somewhere on his land.

God's little acre is that small portion of his land, significantly less than an acre, Ty Ty has set aside for God. He swears he will give to the church any income produced from this little acre, but he makes it a point to move God's land somewhere else on his property whenever he decides to dig there. Also living on the farm are Darling Jill, Ty Ty's promiscuous youngest daughter, and Griselda, Buck's beautiful wife. Darling Jill expects to someday to marry Pluto, the plump and stupid candidate for sheriff, but in the meantime has sex with just about any man except him. As for Griselda, her beauty drives men crazy. This includes Ty Ty, her father-in-law, and especially Will, married to another of Ty Ty's daughters, and Jim Leslie, another of his sons, who wants little to do with his embarrassing family, that is until he sees Griselda.

Caldwell clearly had great literature as his goal when he wrote God's Little Acre. The novel deals with such themes as the plight of the South's non-union laborers, the neglect of the land and the hypocrisy of those whose lives fall far short of the religious ideals they espouse. The author may, in fact, have tried to say too much in his relatively short novel, allowing his portrayal of a lusty Southern family to become the center of his story.

Friday, June 27, 2014

They're annoying, these commentators

Reading books by John McWhorter, Columbia University linguist, and listening to lectures by Anne Curzan, University of Michigan English professor, I have learned, or at least tried to learn, to be more patient with how other people write and talk. After all, if two of the nation's foremost experts on the English language can tolerate, and in fact see nothing wrong with, prepositions at the ends of sentences, the word ain't and even such words as like and you know thrown into practically every sentence, shouldn't I be able to at least make an effort to do the same?

My resolve has been sorely tested, however, while watching World Cup matches on television. Some of the commentators, at least the British ones, repeatedly say things like this:

"They can't hold the lead, Argentina."

"He's really going to have to get into the game, Rodriquez."

"They're trying to keep the squeeze on here, Japan"

Is this the way people talk in Great Britain? Have these announcers been listening to each other too much and picked up bad habits? Is it really necessary to use both a personal pronoun and the noun it represents in the same simple sentence?

McWhorter and Curzan, I'm sure, would find this way of speaking very interesting, and if they are soccer fans they have probably already noticed it. I doubt they would criticize it, however, because they rarely criticize anything, except perhaps intolerance toward how other people speak.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Great novel about growing grass

When Richard S. Wheeler's Winter Grass opened with one rancher's cowboys cutting another rancher's fence, I thought I had seen enough western movies and read enough western novels to know what would happen next: a range war culminating in violence. True, this was Richard S. Wheeler, who I knew eschewed violence in his novels, but this is one of his early books, published in 1983, so perhaps, to get published, he was still writing what publishers wanted and expected. I was happy to be wrong.

Winter Grass, I was pleased to discover, is one of Wheeler's best novels and, in fact, one of the best western novels I have ever read, and no shots are fired in anger and nobody dies except by natural causes. Yet the novel remains riveting from beginning to end.

Wheeler's hero is a Harvard-educated Montana rancher named Quin Putnam who realizes his true business is raising grass, not raising cattle. Knowing what Montana winters are like, he makes sure he has enough grass to keep his cattle alive until spring, then puts a fence around it. Neighboring ranchers haven't planned ahead, however, and when a summer drought and overgrazing ruins the grass on their portion of the prairie, they set their eyes on the Putnam grass.

Instead of reaching for his gun, Quin seeks a legal remedy. His lawyer happens to be Nicole Aumont, perhaps Montana's only practicing female attorney in the 1880s. She also happens to be young, beautiful and in love with Quin, even though he, a widower, thinks he is far too old to interest her. Quin needs her help with another legal problem, too. He is raising Missy, a teenage girl orphaned by a Sioux party, whom he had ransomed years before with a few of his cattle. Now he loves her like his own daughter and wants to keep her, although Missy's grandfather back east seeks to claim her and put her in a school to exorcise the frontier out of her.

Readers will find out more about herding cattle, growing grass and surviving Montana winters than they ever expected. Winter Grass proves to be a powerful story, barely 200 pages long, about love, about growing grass, about building a life under harsh conditions and about getting along with one's neighbors.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Substitute curses

We always knew when he banged himself, since any blow was announced by a long, dragged out cry of "Jaanneey Maaac!" ("Janey Mac" is an Irish euphemism for the Lord's name that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. It's used in order not to take His name in vain. Unaware of this at time, I thought Janey Mac might be a relative.)
Tim Conway, What's So Funny?

Most of us feel compelled to yell something when things go badly, as Tim Conway remembers his father doing when he hit his head on the low basement ceiling in the family home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. In most cases, it seems, what we yell is either something profane or vulgar, or a euphemistic substitute for something profane or vulgar. I had never heard of Janey Mac as a substitute, but I've heard plenty of others, as have you. Some of them, like golly, gosh, gee, shucks, shoot, Jiminy Cricket, good grief, darn and doggone seem childishly innocent, although I once had a pastor who insisted such expressions were as commandment-breaking as the ones they replace. I heard him use one of them himself, however, and in church yet.

W.C. Fields is famous for his oath "Godfrey Daniel!" in one of his movies. Here are a few other creative euphemisms: gollydingwhiz, gosh-all-hemlock, by-guess-and-by-gosh, gadzooks, grabs, goshwalader, good gravy, good gracious to Betsy, jeezy peezy, for crying out loud and geewhillikins, among hundred of others.

When you bang your head, hit your finger with a hammer or drop a raw egg, you probably don't have time to think about what you are going to say. Usually you just say it and then, if necessary, apologize afterward. Mostly we just say whatever we are in the habit of saying in such circumstances. I have long tried to form the habit of emulating one of my fictional heroes, Winnie-the-Pooh, who says, "Oh, bother!" in times of stress. That seems so proper and so British and so Poo-like that just saying it makes me feel better. And I don't think even my former pastor would be offended.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Colonial words

Caleb's Crossing, the Geraldine Brooks novel set in colonial America, makes easier reading than a book actually written in the 17th century might be. Even so, Brooks uses enough words and phrases from the period to give her story the feel of the times. Fortunately, in most cases readers can tell from the context what these unfamiliar terms mean. Here are a few examples:

bawdress ("... they might claim in turn that you acted as her bawdress") An old dictionary defines the word as "a woman bawd" and a bawd is what we would today call a pimp.

bever ("Since I was the underling, it fell to me to rise earliest, draw water, kindle the cook fire, and prepare the morning bever.") Harvard students in the novel were served beer first thing in the morning, so bever would seem to mean what we today would call beverage.

doughtrough ("That I had my hands up to my wrists in a doughtrough made no matter.") Usually broken into two words, a dough trough is a vessel used for working large quantities of dough.

forwhored ("It would be hard to imagine a way that the girl could have been forwhored while she was at Corlett's school without my being party to it.") To debauch or to lead into unchastity. It may also mean rape.

gibbet ("The deepest featherbed may as well be a gibbet for all the comfort I can find upon it.") An instrument of public execution.

poppet ("I sit here, propped up like a poppet, and I watch.") A doll or marionette.

sennight ("I did not speak to him as he passed by my pallet, nor for the next sennight.") A week, or seven nights.

traduce ("And had they flogged a name out of her, do you think such a devil as would forwhore a child would thereafter scruple to traduce her?") To betray or bring false charges against.

ungirt ("... they aspired to what they had themselves known: a gated sanctuary where the boys and their tutors lived together, at a lofty remove from the town, with its miserable distractions and ungirt life.") Loose or relaxed.

This novel perhaps could have benefited from a glossary, but even without one you can usually figure out what is meant.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Crossing over to Harvard

That an American Indian, a member of the Wopanaak tribe, graduated from Harvard in 1665, more than a century before American independence, seems amazing today, as it must have seemed then. It becomes even more amazing when you consider that the second member of his tribe to earn a Harvard degree didn't do it until 2011. Beyond that little is actually known about Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Geraldine Brooks imaginatively fills in the blanks in her 2011 novel Caleb's Crossing. The title refers literally to his crossing over from the island now known as Martha's Vineyard to the mainland to attend the college and figuratively to his crossing over the wide gap between two cultures.

Brooks tells her story through the eyes of Bethia, the daughter of a Christian missionary to the island Indians, and indeed the novel is more about her than it is about Caleb. The two become secret friends as children and become familiar with each other's language and culture. Each possesses a great intellect and a thirst for knowledge. The irony is that while Caleb is permitted to attend Harvard, Bethia is not because the college admits men only. Yet Bethia finds a way to get a Harvard education anyway, getting a job as a servant that allows her to eavesdrop on college lectures.

There is much here about the negative attitudes of the day toward both Indians and women, and especially Indian women, as we find when an Indian girl in the Harvard community becomes pregnant and Bethia puts her position on the line to save her.

The novel spans many years in its 300 pages, and Bethia is a very old woman when she concludes her story. Caleb, however, died while still a young man, perhaps a victim of the very culture he crossed such a wide divide to join.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The best of both worlds

You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I wrote. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind. ... That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.
Franz Kafka, in a letter to his fiancee

For the past several years I have been attending some of the evening readings at the Writers in Paradise conference held each January in St. Petersburg, Fla. I am always struck by how much fun some of the writers attending these events seem to be having, especially such regulars as Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Ann Hood and Sterling Watson. Are they always having such a good time, I wonder. When can they write? How can they write? Yet each is a successful author who turns out book after book.

Susan Cain writes in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking that the most creative ideas are not the work of committees or the product of brainstorming sessions but rather result from individuals going off by themselves to think. And this kind of isolation, as Franz Kafka describes above, is often best done by introverts, who thrive on being alone. Extroverts, on the other hand, thrive on being around other people.

Creative thinkers like Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Orwell, Theodor Geisel, Mohandas Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Frederic Chopin, Warren Buffet, J.K. Rowling and so many others have been introverts capable of withdrawing by themselves for long periods of time just to think. This is not to say extroverts cannot also be creative thinkers. Yet in this respect, introverts do seem to have an advantage. People who need people may be the luckiest people, as Barbra Streisand used to sing, but those people who can get away from other people may be the most creative.

So what of Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman,. Ann Hood and Sterling Watson? Are they really the extroverts they appear to be when I see them each January? I really don't know, but Cain suggests they might actually be introverts in disguise. The phrase she uses in her book is "socially poised introverts." These are the people researchers have found to be the most creative of all, those who, while in reality introverts, can function very well in social settings and, in some cases, may actually give the appearance of being extroverts. It's sort of like having the best of both worlds.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Translation into English

"Caleb? Caleb what?"
"Caleb ... Cheeschahteaumauk."
"Outlandish name. I suppose you insist upon it? You will not like to take another? What was your father's name?"
"No better. Sounds like a donkey's bray. The other will have to serve. Caleb Chis-car." President Chauncy's pen scraped across the parchment: "-ruimac. So be it."
Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing

Geraldine Brooks, in her 2011 novel Caleb's Crossing, is writing a fictional account of the first American Indian to be educated at Harvard, but the changing of Caleb's name would ring true to many American immigrants who left Ellis Island with different surnames than they arrived with.

The same kind of thing happens with foreign-language words when they are converted into English. They often lose their spellings, their pronunciations and, in many cases, even their meanings.

To return to American Indians, Henry Hitchings tells in The Secret Life of Words how many words from various Indian languages became English words. In most cases, it seems, these words lost something in the translation. Here are some examples:

English word                      Indian word

hickory                               pawcohiccora
skunk                                  segongw (meaning "one who squirts")
squash                                 askutasquash (Narragansett)
squaw                                  squa-sachim
terrapin                               turepe
wampum                             wampumpeag
woodchuck                         wuchak (Cree)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Intellectual excitement

It is one thing to live in a civilization a thousand years old, where all is known and familiar, but quite another to enter a land where the unknown begins at the end of town; wherein all the plants, birds, animals, and people are strange, and no one knows what he might find over the brow of the next hill. A quality of intellectual excitement was therefore a part of the colonial experience.
John Keats, Eminent Domain: The Louisiana Purchase and the Making of America

When I first read Eminent Domain soon after its publication in 1973, I thought it one of the most interesting history books I had ever read. My opinion hasn't changed much as I read it again more than 40 years later. John Keats, the author of such better known books as The Insolent Chariots and You Might as Well Live, gives us much more than the who, what and where of the Louisiana Purchase. He gives us us the why. Why were the English so much more successful in the New World than the French or the Spanish? They came as settlers, not as treasure hunters or missionaries. Why did the colonies win their revolution when relatively few colonialists even wanted independence? The much more powerful English had more pressing priorities elsewhere.

Then there are the lines quoted above, which provide another reason, besides the quest for land and wealth, for the push west from the original settlements: intellectual excitement, the desire just to find out what was over the next hill and around the next bend in the river.

One need not be an intellectual to experience intellectual excitement or intellectual curiosity. That may be what motivates most of us to do things we don't actually have to do. It may be why people write books and especially why they read them. It is why children play with cardboard boxes and why adults go to garage sales.

Last week while vacationing in Charlevoix, Mich., I encountered a number of creative people surely inspired by intellectual excitement. I met an artist who made miniature guitars in a pottery studio. She said she patterned her first one on her husband's guitar, then went on from there to create guitars in all sorts of shapes and colors. Another artist whose work I found in a gallery was a retired educator who used things like old crutches and tennis racquets, together with pencil stubs, erasers and other objects, mostly left behind by students, to create amazing fish sculptures.

I met a woman who, despite the arthritis in her hands, made beautiful handbags and other objects, each original and cleverly designed. A couple of people were selling scones in what must have been at least two dozen different favors. What but intellectual excitement would explain why someone would put both cranberries and lemon into a scone to see what it would taste like and whether anybody would buy it?

So it makes sense to me that the Louisiana Purchase had a lot to do with simple intellectual excitement. But how many other historians would think to make a point of it?

Monday, June 9, 2014

The evolution of a novel

Some books are never finished, at least not as long as their authors are still living. Dissatisfaction with a manuscript prevents some writers from sending it to their publisher in the first place. In other cases, authors continue to tinker with a novel even after it has been published, trying to make changes each time the work comes out in a new edition.

The latter was true of Thomas Hardy and in particular his novel Two on a Tower, which I reviewed here last Friday. I read the Oxford edition of the book, which includes both textual notes and explanatory notes at the end. The textual notes explain changes made in the edition I read from earlier editions.

One problem for Hardy was that, like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other authors of the Victorian era, he wrote first for serialization in periodicals before his novels were published in book form. This meant a strict deadline for each installment, forcing authors to write quickly and, in many cases, make up the story as they went along. Once an installment was published, it was too late to change anything in it if the writer either caught an error or decided on a change of direction later in his novel. He had to wait until the novel was printed in book form.

Hardy's novel was first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly from May to December 1882. As the Oxford notes point out, the story published in the magazine contained errors and inconsistencies that later had to be corrected. The death of Viviette's husband was said to have occurred both in December and in February. A later note says, "Apparently, Hardy was improvising as he went along." Another note says, "Many readers of the September instalment of the serial must have wondered at the short memory of both Viviette and Swithin. But it is their creator's apparent change of direction that causes the memory-failure of his characters."

Other changes in the novel made by Hardy either in the first three-volume edition or in subsequent editions were made for reasons other than correction. The author later decided to omit many adjectives and adverbs that had been in the original manuscript. Hardy changed the age of the bishop, making him older than he was originally.

Even in the final edition of the book during Hardy's life one must read between the lines to realize just how much sexual content there exists in the story. Yet Hardy kept making small changes to make things a little more explicit. For one edition he added the phrase "smoothed the bed a little" to suggest what has just taken place. The same edition included the new phrase "yet he was a seven-months' baby" to make the situation a little more clear to his readers.

The changes made over many years and several different editions of Two on a Tower make it a little difficult for modern publishers like Oxford University Press. Which version of the book should they print? Oxford went to a lot of work to do it, but they managed to publish Hardy's final version of the work while at the same time showing how it evolved from its original form.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Hardy perspective

Somebody defined comedy as tragedy plus time. Reading Thomas Hardy's 1882 novel Two on a Tower I was reminded that the difference between comedy and tragedy can be even finer than that. It can merely be a matter of perspective. If you step into a puddle of water, it's a tragedy. If someone else steps into that puddle of water, it's a comedy.

Have you ever listened to someone tell a story that could go either way? You had to closely watch the other person's face for clues as to whether you should be prepared to laugh heartily or express sympathy. That is a little what it's like reading this Hardy novel. The obstacles that pop up to interfere with the plans of his two lovers, Viviette Constantine and Swithin St. Cleve, are like those in a romantic comedy. But this is Thomas Hardy, and although he could write very funny scenes, especially early in his novels, you can usually expect a tragic ending. His modus operandi doesn't change much in Two on a Tower.

Viviette is an attractive woman of about 30 whose husband left two years before to explore Africa. He has not been heard from since. This lonely woman begins to take an unseemly interest in Swithin, an amateur astronomer who has been using a tower on her husband's property to observe the heavens. She may be married and he may be nearly 10 years younger than her and interested only in science, but she is drawn to him just the same and becomes his benefactor, purchasing costly equipment for his use.

When she learns her husband died in Africa, the romance becomes more two-sided, so much so that Swithin can no longer focus on his work. They decide to secretly marry, while continuing to live apart and secretly meeting at night (as if this will help him concentrate on astronomy). Then a bishop proposes marriage to Viviette, and her brother urges her to accept. And a girl in the village begins to take an interest in Swithin. The potential for comedy continues when Viviette learns her husband, while still very dead, did not die until much later than had been earlier reported. In fact, she did not become a widow until after she married Swithin. The complications go on from there.

Someone else might have made a great comedy out of this material, but not Hardy. He did not even make a great tragedy. Two on a Tower is a pleasure to read, but it is easy to see why it is not considered one of his greatest accomplishments.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Just add a suffix

Creating a new word can be as easy as adding a suffix to an existing word. People are doing this all the time, and some of their creations actually catch on. Here are some of the most common suffixes word creators like to play with:


When I was in Frankenmuth, Mich., last weekend I was not surprised that this lovely town that draws many tourists by celebrating its Bavarian heritage will be having an Octoberfest this fall, although inexplicably it is planned for mid-September, but it also plans a snowfest in January. I live in Ashland, Ohio, which every year around the Fourth of July hosts a balloonfest.

You get the idea. Communities used to have festivals, but now they have fests, often forming a new word in the process. It is a game anyone can play. If you are throwing a party for Melvin or Judy, just call it a Melvinfest or a Judyfest. You will have created, at least temporarily, a new word.

It doesn't even have to be a formal celebration. Words like gabfest and talkfest reflect the idea of celebration in more mundane activities.

I may have a napfest later today.


Ever since the Nicaraguan political movement called the Sandinistas became well known in the 1980s, people have been creating new words like fashionistas, opinionistas, Marxistas, Taoistas  and so forth. It is really just the Spanish form of the English suffix -ist, but it carries a somewhat negative political connotation.

I am a regular napperista.


This Italian suffix now, when added to English words, suggests members of an elite. Thus we hear literati, glitterati and, among bloggers, bloggerati.

I am a member of the napperati.


This suffix doesn't actually mean anything. It just happens to be the last syllable of the word marathon, a very long foot race. It has been used as a suffix, added to other words to suggest length or importance. Thus we now have telethon, danceathon, bikeathon, swimathon and any number of other creations.

With any luck, I might even have a napathon.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A clash of titans

Sherlock Holmes has his Professor Moriarity as an archenemy, and Cyrus Baxter, hero of the series of novels by Will Thomas, has his Sebastian Nightwing. They clash in the latest Baxter adventure, Fatal Enquiry.

Set, as the Holmes stories are, in Victorian London, the story opens with Baxter being warned by Scotland Yard not to interfere with Nightwing during his London visit. Baxter hadn't even known his rival was coming to London, but he wonders why the Yard is protecting a known master criminal. So, of course, the brawny Baptist does interfere and soon finds both himself and his associate, Thomas Llewelyn, our narrator, wanted for murder and with a price on their heads.

In hiding, the two enquiry agents soon become separated, and Llewelyn is on his own for much of the story. He falls into the hands of Nightwing's daughter, Sofia, who turns out to be as deadly as she is beautiful. Baxter returns to save the day in a final (or is it?) confrontation with Nightwing.

Like the other books in the series, which began with the well-received Some Danger Involved, Fatal Enquiry proves to be an enjoyable read that combines interesting characters with a page-turning plot.