Wednesday, August 16, 2017

American History 101

When I finished high school and went off to college in the early 1960s, I dreamed of becoming a high school teacher of American history. Well, that never happened. My father's death, the military draft, and a hundred other detours over half a century roadblocked my dreams.

Now, with limited time on my hands, I am going to resume my studies. No, I'll never get that teaching certificate and job, which means high school students can breathe a collective sigh of relief, but at least I can discover what I might have learned somewhere along the way back in the 60s.

Future postings, except for occasional detours that will surprise no one who knows me, will be all about my American history studies. My required text is featured at the top of this posting. Other texts and materials will be added along the way. 

Well, friends, what lies ahead for me is a long overdue return to an unfulfilled dream. Perhaps you will find some things of interest in my future postings. Stay tuned. 

Now, though, I have a question for you: 

What moments or people in American history most interest you?

I ask you the foregoing question here and now before even more of the insane revisionists and anarchists prevail in their foolish efforts to erase and remove all evidence of even more of the good, bad, and ugly chapters from the American past!

Charles Bukowski's birthday and "all that"

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Today is the birthday of the writer that TheWashington Post called "the poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars, of racetracks and long shots": Charles Bukowski (books by this author ), born in Andernach, Germany (1920). He wrote more than 45 books of poetry and prose, including It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Post Office (1971), Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977), Ham on Rye (1982), and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992).

His American father had been stationed in Germany during World War I, and Bukowski was the product of the man's affair with a German girl, whom he later married. The family moved to Los Angeles when Charles was a toddler, and that's where he grew up. He was picked on for his small size and his German accent, and when he was a teenager, he had such bad acne that it left permanent scars. His father had a violent temper and used to beat him. Bukowski was 13 when a friend gave him his first drink, and he, Bukowski, said, "This is going to help me for a very long time." He studied journalism in college for a couple of years, but then dropped out when World War II started, and he moved to New York to become a writer.

He published his first story when he was 24; the story was called "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip." The rejection slip in the story reads, "Dear Mr. Bukowski: Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you've done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don't know exactly when. That depends on you." Bukowski would later estimate that his work was 93 percent autobiographical.

He published one more story after that but then received rejection after rejection, and he gave up writing for 10 years. He drank his way from New York to L.A., and wound up in a hospital, half dead from a bleeding ulcer. The doctor told him, "If you have another drink, it will kill you." Bukowski kept drinking, and he worked a series of odd jobs — at a pickle factory, a dog biscuit factory, a slaughterhouse, and at the post office — and then, when he was 35, he started writing poetry. His first collection was called Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail  (1959). Ten years later, when he was 49, Bukowski accepted a job offer from John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press. Martin idolized Bukowski, and had started Black Sparrow with the sole aim of publishing his work. Martin was sure he was the next Walt Whitman, and he offered him $100 a month to quit his job and write. "I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve," Bukowski wrote in a letter. "I have decided to starve." In return for Martin's faith and support, Bukowski published almost all of his major work through Black Sparrow from then on.

Bukowski summed up his philosophy in a letter he wrote in 1963: "Somebody [...] asked me: 'What do you do? How do you write, create?' You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: 'not' to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it."

And there is poem, "all that," by Bukowski:

the only things I remember about
New York City
in the summer
are the fire escapes
and how the people go
out on the fire escapes
in the evening
when the sun is setting
on the other side
of the buildings
and some stretch out
and sleep there
while others sit quietly
where it's cool.

and on many
of the window sills
sit pots of geraniums or
planters filled with red
and the half-dressed people
rest there
on the fire escapes
and there are
red geraniums

this is really
something to see rather
than to talk about.

it's like a great colorful
and surprising painting
not hanging anywhere

And there is this personal postscript:

I read this poem, and I remember my summer in NYC (1965), but I am more pointedly reminded of Flannery O'Connor's early short story, "The Geranium." I bet Bukowski would be surprised by the connection I make between his poem and O'Connor. When you read the poem, what are your connections, reactions, thoughts, or comments?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A reader's resolution and readers' choices

Please ignore my two previous postings. Those ravings of a slowly fading fool deserve no further comment or discussion. 

Instead, I offer you the following reader's resolution and a question about readers' choices: 

My prescriptions for day-to-day survival in this unpleasant world include a constant need to read all sorts of fiction and nonfiction; moreover, I need to supplement my survival reading with discussions of my readings and other readers' readings, and I know that this blog is my only available outlet for those discussions. 

However, I wrestle each day with reading choices. Quite often my choices are motivated by other readers' choices. So, constant readers, tell me, please, about your recommendations. In other words, what have been your most memorable recent reading experiences? I look forward to your comments.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Why this blog is being consigned to the wasteland

In my shrinking world of fast fading physical and cognitive capacities, I see no sense in my blogging efforts, especially since the audience has been evaporating and losing interest, and my contributions to blogging are shallow redundancies and confusing contradictions. So, even though I might still visit other blogs, this blog will be consigned to the wasteland. 

The Way of All Flesh -- a blogging update

I am now and will remain on the binnacle list.
Blogging here has been terminated.
Moreover, this blog will soon disappear.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bookstores around the world

First, take a photo tour of some the world's most interesting bookstores via his link.

Next there is this personal postscript:

I am like a kid in a candy store when I go to bookstores. However, they are disappearing, and I find myself drawn instead more often to the sweet treats accessible through Bookbub and Amazon. Yes, I am ashamed to admit it: I spend money on books at Amazon. 

Well, now I wonder: which of the featured bookstores in the linked article have you visited or would like to visit? what are your book buying outlets and habits? are you an Amazon shopper or hater or (like me) both? 

"Into My Own" by Robert Frost

INTO MY OWN by Robert Frost

ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day

Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

* * * * *

Personal Postscript: 

The poem included above is the first in Robert Frost's first published collection, A Boy's Will. It also appears as the first poem in the Library of America edition of Frost's collected poems, prose, and plays.

If you want an improved experience with Frost's poem, read the poem aloud (which is usually good advice for any poem but is even better advice for Frost's poems), and then take a few minutes to read this important article, and be sure to view the embedded video.

Now, even though much of the article and the embedded video include focus on another Frost poem, "Kitty Hawk" (available via this link), I invite you to read "Into My Own" (the poem copied above) in light of Professor Hart's argument. To my mind, both poems point to Frost's state of mind (depression) and his need to be needed. With respect to depression, many of us can relate to the poem; with respect to the need to be needed, the poem becomes a universal experience. 

Now I invite you to share your explication of "Into My Own."
So, tell me what you think.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"The Road Not Taken" has a few surprises waiting for you

First there is this excerpt:

[In] the years since its composition, "The Road Not Taken" has been understood by some as an emblem of individual choice and self-reliance, a moral tale in which the traveller takes responsibility for – and so effects – his own destiny. But it was never intended to be read in this way by Frost, who was well aware of the playful ironies contained within it, and would warn audiences: "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem – very tricky."

Read more about the poem, a friendship, and more at this linked article.

Personal Postscript:

This article has been a catalyst: I've spent the last hour reading and pondering Frost's poem (included below), and I will spend many more hours reading and pondering other poems by Frost in days and weeks to come. As I hope to have a few miles to go before I sleep the endless sleep, my reading of Frost's poetry  promises to be a fascinating road worth traveling, and I'm looking forward to the adventure. 

Now, though, I invite you to comment on the article, the poem, Robert Frost, or anything else that is on your mind.

* * * * *

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;        5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,        10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.        15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.        20

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

John Keats on this day in 1818

Monday, August 7, 2017

Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn

Review: Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays by Colin McGinn (HarperCollins, 2006)

Let me admit something at the beginning. As a former instructor of literature, I have become more than a little suspicious (and cynical) about the hundreds of books every decade that promise new discoveries about Shakespeare's plays; after all, people (some are respected experts on Shakespeare, and some are unoriginal pretenders to expertise) have been writing about Shakespeare's plays for centuries, so the simple question remains: Can anyone offer anything new (and useful) in the ongoing (and apparently endless) commentary?

Well, the answer is this: 'Yes! Colin McGinn has brought something new and different to the perpetual roundtable discussion, and - more to the point - what he has to offer is important and interesting!'

As an academic philosopher, McGinn looks at Shakespeare's plays 'expressly from the point of view of their underlying philosophical concerns.' By using that rhetorical approach, McGinn promises (and makes good on his promise) to reveal 'the source of their depth.' McGinn reminds readers that Shakespeare wrote during a particular period of history - an age of uncertainty - that was preceded by the religious certainty of medieval Europe and followed by the scientific revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, in which we still find ourselves.

McGinn explores three main areas in which the 'spirit of uncertainty pervades the plays' of Shakespeare: knowledge and skepticism; the nature of the self; and the character of causality. With a philosopher's discipline, McGinn explores each of these areas.

First, he explains that Shakespeare's age of uncertainty exacerbated the individual's problem of acquiring reliable, verifiable knowledge, especially as it related to knowing other people's minds; second, McGinn explores the problems associated with the unfixed, constantly shifting notion of the self - especially the theatricality and interactivity of an individual's so-called personality; and third, this brilliant philosopher talks about anxiety in Shakespeare's era when people pondered a universe in which there was no longer an apparently 'rational harmonious order' by which they could understand the causes-and-effects for all that they observed and experienced in the world around them.

However, going beyond philosophical abstractions, which can be difficult for the novice to navigate, McGinn then speaks directly and clearly about Shakespeare's plays, and he delves into ways in which the 'spirit of uncertainty' can be observed in the texts and characters. Beginning with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, McGinn also gives generous, thoughtful attention to OthelloMacbethKing Lear, and The Tempest; McGinn follows those specific analyses with additional commentaries on Shakespeare's engagements with the concepts of gender, psychology, ethics, and tragedy.

The bottom line is this: Colin McGinn's book is Shakespearean explication and analysis at its best. Remarkable in its intellectual rigor, and provocative in its interpretive persuasiveness, Shakespeare's Philosophy (HarperCollins, 2006) will remain on my bookshelf as an essential companion to Shakespeare's own words.

Thank you, Professor McGinn, this book was just what I've been waiting for!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Shakespeare's wife and the limits of language

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare died on this day in 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare's child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.

Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only "my second-best bed." Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it's an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.

There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare's sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns - a Shakespearian favorite - that could identify the subject as his wife: "hate away" for "Hathaway" and "And saved my life" for "Anne saved my life."
Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate'
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.'

And there is this personal postscript:

I suppose I understand how someone could see the wife being mentioned in the sonnet, but that kind of seeing reminds me a bit of the conversation between Hamlet and Polonius about seeing different images in clouds. In other words, sometimes different people see things in different ways because language can be full of obvious and not so obvious meanings. However, there are limits. And, even though Shakespeare is the universal "poet unlimited," to my mind, seeing the wife in this sonnet might exceed those limits. What do you think?

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Send get well wishes to Frank Wilson.

Please visit Frank Wilson at his blog, Books, Inq,

He is a bit under the weather, and your get well wishes should help.


Hawthorne, Melville, five years, and my bucket list

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

On this day in 1850, Herman Melville (books by this author) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author) met at a picnic with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two days later, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox. Hawthorne gave him two bottles of champagne and they took a walk to the lake. That same day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, "I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts." For a year and a half, the two friends lived six miles apart during the most productive time in their writing lives. Their five greatest books - The Scarlet LetterThe House of the Seven GablesMoby-DickThe Blithedale Romance, and Pierre - were either being written or published. In fact, The Blithedale Romance and Pierre were written at the same time, and The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick  were published only a year apart. In the fall of 1851, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.


And there is this personal postscript:

A famous literary critic (whose name I cannot remember, and whose words I now paraphrase) said the years 1850 through 1855 were the most important in American literature (i.e., the great books that matter most were written in that brief half decade). Who am I to argue with such a wise observation? 

I will, however, make a simple challenge to myself: I'm adding Hawthorne, Melville, and that half decade to my bucket list for reading. I wonder when (if) I will ever get around to that list. I better hurry.

Now, though, I leave you with a challenge: tell me about your favorite(s) from the most amazing half decade in American literature, 1850-1855.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Emily Dickinson on love (or something else)

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It was a quiet way 
by Emily Dickinson

Listen Online

It was a quiet way—
He asked if I was his—
1 made no answer of the Tongue
But answer of the Eyes—
And then He bore me on
Before this mortal noise
With swiftness, as of Chariots
And distance, as of Wheels.
This World did drop away
As Acres from the feet
Of one that leaneth from Balloon
Upon an Ether street.
The Gulf behind was not,
The Continents were new—
Eternity it was before
Eternity was due.
No Seasons were to us—
It was not Night nor Morn—
But Sunrise stopped upon the place
And fastened it in Dawn.

"It was a quiet way" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain.


And there is this personal postscript:

I am baffled, but that often happens when I read poems by Emily Dickinson. Is this a love poem? Or is it something else? What do you think?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Yeats brings me (and you) some peace of mind

First there is this poem:


By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; 
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, 
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.


And there is this personal postscript:

Once upon a time, when I performed my role as adjunct professor of English composition and literature, the foregoing poem was often one of the first poems assigned to students in my courses. Even the reluctant readers, including those who said they hated poetry, would embrace and enjoy Yeats' magnificent lyric. Those students became, for at least a semester, interested readers of poetry. 

Now, in the late autumn of my life, every now and then, especially on days when I do not enjoy life very much, I embrace and enjoy the poem, and Yeats brings me much peace of mind. 

I offer "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" to you, and I hope it brings you peace. Treat yourself by reading the poem aloud to someone. Savor the words. Enjoy the smiles. 

Poetry is my transcendental bridge to the sublime

First of all, there is this opening to an article from

Poetry, literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm

Poetry is a vast subject, as old as history and older, present wherever religion is present, possibly—under some definitions—the primal and primary form of languages themselves.

Read the rest of Howard Nemerov's wonderful, must-read article at this link.

* * * * *

And now I invite you to read, ponder, and respond to this poem by Wallace Stevens:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

"The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm" by Wallace Stevens from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. © Vintage, 2015.

* * * * *

Finally, there is this personal postscript:

I know (or, more accurately, suspect) the Wallace Stevens poem has much more "meaning" than I am about to ascribe to it, and perhaps a few dozen more readings would help me to more completely understand the "meaning," but I will nevertheless say now what it "means" to me after about a dozen readings:

My reading of literature, especially my reading of poetry as I get older and approach the universal endgame, allows me to understand more completely (and even look beyond) my limited time and space in life; and when I really -- I mean really -- read closely, carefully, and well, I somehow cross over a transcendental bridge to the sublime. 

Now, I ask you a few questions:

What is poetry?
What does the Stevens poem mean by "The reader became the book"?
What does the Stevens poem "mean" to you?
What are your favorite poetry reading experiences? 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mr. Hire's Engagement by Georges Simenon

Here is a brief book review that I wrote two years ago for BookLoons, North America's premiere book review site which you can visit via this link; I offer a reprint of the review here for several reasons, two of which I discuss in the postscript following the review:

Mr. Hire's Engagement by Georges Simenon (Penguin, 2015)

First published by Fayard in 1933 as Les Fiancailles de M. Hire, the Anna Moschovakis 2015 Penguin translation of Georges Simenon's Mr. Hire's Engagement recreates a scene that the author witnessed as a young reporter in Liege, a scene which continued to haunt him for years afterwards: that of an angry mob, and a man chased on to a roof, clinging to the cornice to keep from falling to his death.

So what should you know about this highly recommended 156-page novel? Consider this: Mr. Hire – a short man, on the fat side, with a curled moustache – always carries a black briefcase under his arm. What does he do for employment? Well, nobody really knows. He leaves his apartment in the morning and comes back in the evening. He is very much a mystery.

In the meantime, a newspaper article helps explain the situation in Mr. Hire's neighborhood: '... for fifteen days ... a tricky investigation ... big step forwards, thanks to the identification of the corpse ... most likely a certain Leonide Pacha, known as Lulu, a professional call girl, suggesting a sadistic motive ... still possible ... but the victim's purse was missing ... according to corroborating evidence it would have contained some 2,000 francs ... a new lead ... the inquiry enters its final phase ... discretion is of the essence ...'

Well, for two weeks, detectives have been spending their days and sometimes their nights in Mr. Hire's neighborhood, keeping watch. They suspect the short, fat man. But, constant reader, they might be wrong.

But stop. I cannot say more about without undermining your reading pleasure with plot spoilers, so I will instead say only this: Simenon's splendid crime novels – now being reissued by Penguin – have become my favorites, and I agree with what William Faulkner said of the prolific French author: 'I love reading Simenon. He makes me think of Chekhov.' Need I say more? Enjoy!

* * * * *


Even though the highly recommended Mr. Hire's Engagement does not feature Georges Simenon's magnificent creation, one of my favorite fictional sleuths, Inspector Maigret, I have taken a moment to "republish" the review as both an invitation to you and a reminder to me.

Invitation to Excellence: You are invited to read anything you can find by Georges Simenon, an author of exceptional skills whose novels will not disappoint you.

Reminder to Self: I am reminded that dozens of Simenon's short novels, most of them less than 200 pages and featuring Inspector Maigret, are collecting dust on my bookshelves, and I hope to do some reading-and-reviewing of Simenon's books in the coming weeks and months. Well, I make no promises, because (like mice and men) I know that I should not make any plans about anything, much less long-range plans about reading-and-blogging (e.g., my posting earlier today entitled "Things fall apart"), but reading all of my Simenon books is something I hope to accomplish.

In any case, perhaps one day soon on the Simenon hit parade here at Informal Inquiries will be Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters (Penguin, 1 August 2017) and a few others in the Maigret series. Well, perhaps.

Now, here are some questions and a final invitation:

Have you read Simenon's work?
Do you agree with William Faulkner's assessment (as noted in the review above)?

I say that no other crime fiction writer in history was so prolific and so consistent (i.e., his novels are damned good!) but I invite you to argue with me about my assertion.

Things fall apart: a short-attention-span blogging plan

First there is this poem, "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And there is this personal postscript:

This posting, with the decision and explanation, exists because of wonderfully sensible advice from "She Who Must Be Obeyed," the woman whose love and support keeps going one day at a time against the odds. So, what follows is the upshot of her wise words about focus, priorities, limitations, and goals.

Forget everything I have promised here about reading and blogging plans involving the American Bloomsbury group, the Holy Bible, Herman Melville and more; moreover, I apologize for the contradictions, confusion, and broken promises. Now, please continue reading.

Personal issues, not worth discussing here, have rendered me incapable of sustained, ambitious blogging projects. Things for me are falling apart, friends, and all of my future blogging must be limited to short-attention-span tidbits and short book reviews.

Now, one of those tidbits, the foregoing poem by Yeats, a poem much on my mind lately, has me wondering: "What does it mean? Is the poem limited to the poet's time or is it prophetic? Are we now living in a time imagined by the poet? What is the beast? What is the Second Coming?" 

So, what do you think? Can you help me with the poem? Let's sort it out together. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Herman Melville, the whale, a sailor, and more

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Herman Melville was born on this day in 1819 in New York City (books by this author). The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman's time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense. 

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he'd likely expected: The cruelties he experienced on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor's yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville's first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn't possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo. 

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville's younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels - which he probably shared with his wife - a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.  

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in "admiration for his genius." Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville's power of language "unparalleled," while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville's fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville's career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he'd experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville's masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.

And there is this personal postscript: 

It's too bad that readers, if they are familiar with Melville, know him only because of their encounters with "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Moby-Dick, the two titles so often included on school reading lists. If I were teaching (again), I would not assign either of those titles but would instead assign Billy Budd, a short novel I first encountered most memorably in, of all places, a military justice and leadership seminar when I served as an administrative officer with the U.S. Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps. Perhaps I should revisit Billy Budd and even more by Melville here at Informal Inquiries. Yes, that is a tempting possibility. 

Well, tell me about your most memorable encounters with Herman Melville. If you were teaching Melville, which of his works would you assign to students in high school? What about college? What about in a leadership seminar for business or government?