Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Pioneers: The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale

Yes, that's the entire title, and I chose to use it to distinguish this novel from O Pioneers!, which might have come to your mind if I had only written The Pioneers.  This book is the first published (fourth chronologically) of the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, and it sold 3,500 copies before noon on the day it was published (1823).  Most famous of the Leatherstocking Tales is the second chronologically, The Last of the Mohicans, which is sometimes called >adopt reverent tone< THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.  (Incidentally, this should remove a weight from the minds of all you aspiring American writers, in that, since Cooper has already written the great American novel, you don't have to!) I have chosen to read all five of them this year, and I was undecided whether to read them in order of chronology or of publication, until someone suggested doing the latter in order to more easily follow Cooper's development as a writer.  That appealed to me, so down I sat with The Pioneers.

Egads. After about 300 pages, I was considering greasing my eyeballs to allow them to slide over the text more quickly. It was, how you say, le boring.  And then, somewhere around page 325 (I'm guessing), the clouds parted, the sun beamed down, the birds sang and somebody smacked Cooper upside the head and said, "Get going!!"   Well. After that the plot took off galloping and didn't stop until a finish that crammed in everything.  Instead of spreading out the literary goodness over the entire novel, Cooper was rather stingy at the beginning, and then piled it on at the end.  Seriously, in approximately the last 100 pages, you will find  SPOILERS AHEAD>>>  entrapment, poaching, a weaponized stand off, a trial, a jailbreak, a wildfire, rescue of damsel in distress (twice), the death of a noble chief, appearance of a long lost friend/relative, revelation of a character's true identity, confession of true love, proposal and marriage, burial and romantic epitaphs, poetic speeches about death, the afterlife, wilderness, civilization, law and justice, and finally the hero walks off into the sunset.

Now, before you think Cooper a tired cliche for having his hero walk off into the sunset, let me point out that The Pioneers was the first novel to contain such an exit. Far from cliche, this was original and very romantic (in the original sense of the word).  Also romantic is the continuous tension between wilderness and settlement.  Cooper addresses issues of environmental stewardship, conservation and use, and is possibly the first novelist to do so.  He also pointedly demonstrates the difference between justice and law, and the fact that the law exists to serve itself (or possibly power).  He devises a surprisingly universalist hero for an American in 1823, as can be seen in Hawkeye's statement that, although whites want to be buried facing east and Indians want to be buried facing west, after death they will meet in the land of the just.

Despite being far ahead of his time in many ways, there are other areas in which Cooper has not shed the conventional prejudices of his day.  The portrayal of black slaves and freedmen as childlike is similar to or slightly worse than that of Mark Twain's Huck Finn (written a generation later than the Leatherstocking Tales). Expect to see the "N" word in the first few chapters, used by black people as often as by whites.  That said, Cooper was the first American novelist to include African American characters at all, so even his stereotypical portrayal was a milestone. As for women, they are virtuous but mentally vacuous, occasionally fainting and getting into dangerous predicaments from which they require rescuing.  Their main functions are as daughters, servants and wives, but not mothers, interestingly. (Both mothers are dead).  A contemporary critic wrote of Cooper: "the women he draws from one model don't vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie."  Despite these shortcomings, Cooper's portrayal of Native Americans is varied and complicated. He succeeds, through the course of the Leatherstocking Tales, in creating contrasts between some Native characters that are noble and heroic and others with few redeeming qualities.  In this, he demonstrates his view of Native Americans as a large group with certain tendencies, but comprised of individuals with different characters. In other words, they have the dignity and depth of any other human culture group.

As a short aside, I must question whether Cooper was a genius. You see, he was enrolled at Yale at age 13, but was expelled after a dangerous prank that involved him blowing up another student's door. Another less dangerous prank consisted of training a donkey to sit in a professor's chair. That certainly looks like the work of a genius to me. ;)

ponderously annoying semi-main character: Judge Marmaduke
maple and prairie female: Elizabeth
ethnic stereotypes: the German guy, the French guy, the black guy, the English guy 
hero: Hawkeye, aka Leatherstocking, aka Nathaniel Bumpo, aka Natty Bumpo
comrade of aforementioned hero: Chingachgook  (also of The Last of the Mohicans fame)
there was a lot of : trees, wildlife, use and misuse of said trees and wildlife
there should have been more of: women with brains...or at least personalities...
this book makes you want to: preserve some unspoiled wilderness, treat people right, get away from stupid people
this book makes you glad you don't have to: be a woman or ethnic minority in 1823

Edit: I read and reviewed The Last of the Mohicans in May.

Great Expectations

I read Great Expectations during the week of March 6-13.  This was the second Dickens novel of the year, following Oliver Twist by about a month.  From conversations with friends, I have come to see this as a "love it or hate it" book.  I went into the week thinking I wouldn't care for it, possibly because I tried to read it when I was eight and couldn't understand it (go figure), but I was pleasantly surprised.

Great Expectations chronicles the coming of age of Pip (Philip Pirrip). Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that it's a rags to riches to rags tale. In the end Pip has discovered that all his initial grand pursuits in life didn't satisfy him, and he appears to be content to live a simple life that is rich in friendship. In the end, all of the actions that he undertook in selfishness have come to nothing, and the one good deed that he did for love of another is the only one that endures to bear fruit. The character of Pip undergoes definite transformation as he matures and struggles with issues of personal growth, social class and crime; this is a true bildungsroman.  Some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional, but I was glad to see Dickens in fine form as he develops comic caricatures in the members of the Pocket family. Dickens also has a piercing way of describing the world through the eyes of a child, and there is a definite sense of place as he locates the action in two very different settings: London and the Marshes.

main character: Pip
gentle giant:  Joe Gargery
crazy old lady: Miss Havisham
unattainable object of affection: Estella
funny folk: the Pocket family
place as character: the marshes
there was a lot of: secrets, discontent, jealousy, affection
there should have been more of: descriptions of hearty country fare...because if I can't eat a pound of cheese and a slab of bacon every day, reading about other people eating them is the next best thing
this book makes you want to: get an education, know who your real friends are, make your way in the world, have a definite sense of "home" to come back to
this book makes you glad you don't have to: endure face-to-face abuse from a higher social class, sneak an escaped convict out of the country in the dead of night, lie ill with an inexplicable 19th century "fever" (seriously, was that the only diagnosis at the time?) 

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Okay, he must have said that in one of the other books, because he didn't say it in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  I read this book the week of  February 27-March 5. Obviously I'm behind in my blog posts, but I'm keeping up with my reading. Forgive the likely choppiness of this entry, as I'm trying to catch up.

This book is the third of nine in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.  (There are four novels and five collections of short stories.) Unlike some series', however, these books can be read out of order without undue confusion on the part of the reader.  Holmes and Watson are, of course, classic and familiar characters.  Conan Doyle's series isn't written in a very literary style, nor do we see a lot of character development, but Sherlock Holmes (based on Conan Doyle's professor, Joshua Bell) was such a singular and unprecedented character that the series immediately attracted attention. Holmes'  hyper-rational, observant, logical, scientific approach to reasoning was (and still is) a great inspiration for the discipline of forensics.

I leave you with an observation from Holmes himself: "Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay!"

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Crime and Punishment

Although I read this book last week (Feb 20-26), I postponed its blog entry because I wanted to first finish reading A Concise History of the Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes, as I will explain below.

     Published in 1866, Crime and Punishment follows the St. Petersburg student Raskolnikov as he contemplates, commits, regrets and finally confesses a major crime. The novel is psychological in nature, following Raskolnikov's mental struggle, devolution and evolution. Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment after his release from a labor camp in Siberia, where he had spent five years because of his liberal political ideas.  While serving his sentence, his political and religious ideas underwent major changes as he became disillusioned with contemporary Western philosophical movements, and Crime and Punishment is written from his new perspective as a Slavophile and a devout Orthodox. Raskolnikov's dreadful actions are intended as an example of nihilism taken to its logical conclusion, yet the radical thinkers of Dostoevsky's day scorned the idea that Raskolnikov had anything in common with them. Russian nihilism (adhered to by Raskolnikov) encouraged the creation of an √©lite of superior individuals who are not subject to the morals or laws of society; in fact, they must rise above these restrictions in order to create a new and superior social order. Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov wonders if he, like Napoleon, is one of these so-called superior individuals. He tests his theory by committing a murder near the beginning of the novel, and the rest of the book chronicles his mental anguish and withdrawal from society. The nihilists and other radical thinkers of the day rejected this portrayal, saying that murder simply for the sake of murder was unrelated to their theories.

Unfortunately, Dostoevsky's foresight was proven true by the actions of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, specifically the Red Terror.  The Bolsheviks, like the fictional Raskolnikov and his hero Napoleon, believed that they were superior individuals undertaking the creation of a new social order by whatever methods necessary.  During the Red Terror, millions of innocent people were slaughtered.  This was not capital punishment as a result of supposed (or even fabricated) crimes; it was death for the sake of death.  Zinoviev, one of the top Soviet officials during the revolution, stated in September 1918, "We must carry with us [into the future] 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's inhabitants.  As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated."  N.V. Krylenko, official of the Commissariat of Justice added,  "We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more."   During this time, mass executions were to be used as a tool to subjugate the unwilling masses while the Bolsheviks, who knew what was best for Russia and for the world, created their utopia.  Well, Raskolnikov, I'll see your Napoleon and raise you a Lenin.

Dostoevsky writes as a third-person omnisicient narrator in this novel, which was innovative at the time.  His penetrating psychological analysis and character development also set him apart as a novelist. I considered following Crime and Punishment with The Brothers Karamazov, but the latter is much longer and I have a few library books to finish this week as well.  That said, The Brothers Karamazov will be making an appearance on this blog within the next month or so.

Tortured idealist student with no life experience (Lenin, I'm looking at you!): Raskolnikov
Best friend you don't deserve: Razumikhin
Moron: Luzhin
Mary Magdalene without the insanity: Sonya
Strong-willed sister:Dunya
Quotable quote: People are happy who have no need of locks. (Raskolnikov)
Okay, one more:  If you weren't a fool, a common fool...if you were an original instead of a'd come round to meet me instead of wearing out your boots in the street. (Razumikhin)
There was a lot of: mental anguish, fever, poverty-filled streets, illness, thinking, failed attempts at thinking
There should have been more:  I don't know, flowers and butterflies? It's called Crime and Punishment, for crying out loud.
This book makes you glad you don't have to: answer all the world's big questions
This book makes you want to: answer all the world's big questions   (See, you can drive yourself insane without even killing anybody first)