Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

William Faulkner called Mark Twain “the father of American literature”.  His experiences found their way into the novels that he wrote and his experiences were wide, varied and venturesome. With humor and a homespun style, Twain gives us glimpses into times gone by and a host of memorable characters that have become a part of American life.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri in November of 1835, Mark Twain is one of the most well-known American writers, humorists, satirists and lecturers in the United States’ literary history.  As a young man, Mark Twain was adventurous and gregarious. After completing an apprenticeship as a typesetter and writer in St. Louis, he followed a dream to become a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  He was licensed as a pilot in 1858 but left that role in 1861 when the Civil War brought river trade to a halt.  

He tested various pen names during his early writing career, but settled on “Mark Twain”. Various theories exist about why Clemens chose this nom de plume. There were some people who have suggested that “mark twain” was the name that Clemens left on a running bar tab at John Piper’s saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, but Clemens himself declared that he had picked the handle up from a Captain Isaiah Sellers.  Sellers had frequently published brief little paragraphs about river news and information in the New Orleans Picayune which he signed with “Mark Twain”.  After Captain Sellers’ death, Clemens thought that using the name was fair game, and so he adopted it as his pen name.

Mark Twain spent most of his growing up years in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi and it became a setting for two of his most famous works -  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Referred to as “The Great American Novel” and classified in the genre of “satirical novel”,  Huckleberry Finn was first published in the UK in December of 1884 and in the US in January 1885.  One of Huckleberry Finn’s most interesting features is its language, which is carefully crafted in vernacular English and characterized by local color regionalism.  We hear Huck’s story from himself and he gives his own perspective from the time period of the Antebellum South.

“The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.”

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been widely studied by critics and Mark Twain fans for over 130 years but no matter when the time period, it has remained controversial – whether for its coarse language or its racial stereotypes and slurs.  Even though the protagonist along with the general bent of the novel are anti-racist, it is nonetheless difficult for the present day reader to encounter words and messages that make us continually aware as we read that our nation has come along way, but has even farther to go. 

“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In 1909 Mark Twain commented that he “came in with Hailey’s Comet in 1835 and would go out with it”.  Indeed, Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910… one day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is the first read in our new reading plan, A Southern Study
You have plenty of time to start reading to discuss over a Winter Book Brunch to take place on Saturday, January 16th, 2016.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Where Angels Fear To Tread by E.M. Forster

“Don't be mysterious; there isn't the time.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

Where Angels Fear To Tread was written by English novelist, short story writer, essayist and librettist, Edward Morgan Forster  - better known as E.M. Forster -  and published by William Blackwood and Sons in 1905. It was the first of Forster’s published novels. He intended the work to be called Monteriano after the fictitious town where the story is set, but in the end the title was pulled from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism…. “For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread….”

E.M. Forster’s name was originally registered as Henry Morgan Forster but a mistake at his baptism gave him Edward Morgan Forster after his father.  Born in Marylebone, Middlesex, England in January of 1879, the only child of  two middle class Anglo-Irish and Welsh parents, Forster spent most of his early years with his mother, his aunts and various governesses in the household of Rooksnest after his father died soon after his birth.  Rooksnest was said to be the inspiration for “Howard’s End”.

“For the dead, who seem to take away so much, really take with them nothing that is ours.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

As an unhappy and precocious child, Forster dabbled in writing stories but it was not until he was able to attend King’s College, Cambridge that he discovered a voice for his thoughts and emotions and found friends with whom he enjoyed diverse intellectual conversations. He became a member of a discussion society - the Apostles (formerly the Cambridge Conversazione Society) - many of whose members went on to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. Forster was considered a peripheral member of this unique group English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists.

“The advance of regret can be so gradual that it is impossible to say "yesterday I was happy, today I am not.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

Where Angels Fear To Tread was published in the Edwardian era - a period covering the reign of King Edward VII - 1901 to 1910 and the years leading up to World War I.  King Edward’s mother, Victoria, had shunned society, but her son became a leader of the stylish elite. He made fashion statements out of  such menswear as Homburg hats, tweed, Norfolk jackets and made black ties with dinner jackets the choice over white tie and tails.  Being a larger man, he may have additionally been responsible for the now-accepted practice of leaving the bottom button undone on a gentleman’s suit jacket.

“He had known so much about her once - what she thought, how she felt, the reasons for her actions. And now he only knew that he loved her, and all the other knowledge seemed passing from him just as he needed it most.” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

It was a time of peace tucked between the Boer War (1899 - 1902) and WWI (1914 - 1918), but it was also a time when there was still stark delineation between classes and between the wealthy and the poor. And it was nearly impossible to move from one level to the other.  With peacetime prosperity throughout the United Kingdom, however, the Sunday roast with yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and horseradish became an important fixture of the week as goods became more available - and to a wide group of people, travel became easier and more affordable.

Forster began his own deeply self-influential travels when he came into an inheritance from his paternal Great Aunt Marianne Thornton. He traveled extensively; continental Europe with his mother, journeys through Egypt, Germany and India with classicist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and as a volunteer for the International Red Cross in Egypt during WWI. He also spent additional time in India as private secretary to Tukojirao III, the Maharajah of Dewas during the 1920s. Forster’s travels contributed to his observations about English tourists abroad, Baedeker and the inherent fear mixed with fascination that the normal tourist had for anything unknown or foreign.

“Let her go to Italy!" he cried. "Let her meddle with what she doesn't understand!” 
E. M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread

But Forster had a particular love for the Mediterranean culture that would find its way into several of his books - a fascination with the earth and the passions linked to a simple existence.  Where Angels Fear To Tread was one of Forster’s two “Italian Novels”, the other being A Room With A View.  In these he more intensely explored the British tourist who is breaking free from the last ties of Victorian mores - who is finding their expression for for emotion & reaching a hard-fought place of self-expression. 

As in Forster’s other novels, Where Angels Fear To Tread has a prominent vein of quiet cynicism - a protest against many of society’s conventionalities that Forster found frustrating in his own life.  Forster plays with various themes and points of view in all of his novels, but the collision of passion and the conventional morality of his time is predominant.  How virtue and vice become blended or sometimes confused and how social position becomes a motivating prejudice.  

Devoted during his lifetime to numerous literary causes and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature over 13 different years, Forster continues to be an influential writer - both of a time and a changing social platform throughout Britain and its colonies.  His books have been translated into films and plays and continue to entertain and enlighten.

Members of The Jane Austen Tea Society – pick up a copy of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread to discuss over an Autumn Book Lunch on Saturday, October 10th. How does it compare to A Room With A View or Howard’s End? It’s not one of the most widely read of Forster’s novels and that may give you a fresh look into E.M. Forster’s work.  See what you think and we will enjoy an exchange of views. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Sherlock Holmes Read For July 2015

Almost everyone has some personal reaction to the name Sherlock Holmes. 

You might be a dyed-in-the-wool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle aficionado and have read every one of the fifty-six short stories and four novels, or you might just dearly love the modern adaptations for Doyle’s works.  But there are a host of dedicated enthusiasts who devoutly yearn to walk down Baker Street and knock at 221 B, who crave to know the famous detective’s chosen tobacco and have gone so far as to book a tour to see Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps.

Maybe you have had a secret desire to wear a deerstalker hat. Or smoke a calabash pipe, which has somehow become associated with the famous detective. (In truth Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only references three pipes smoked by Sherlock; a briar pipe, a cherry-wood pipe and most often a clay pipe.)

Guinness World Records awarded Sherlock Holmes “the most portrayed movie character”.  Over 70 actors have portrayed Holmes in over 200 films.  During the 1940s Basil Rathbone gave an admirable portrayal that won him acclaim as a perfect Sherlock that carried for many years with Sherlock devotees. 

But but to many, Jeremy Brett was the best of the screen adaptations for the Doyle character. Critics lauded Brett’s performance as Sherlock  - which stretched over a ten year period - as one of the most definitive and Brett even went on to portray Sherlock on stage. But Brett declared that it was the hardest role of his life.  Britain’s Granada TV’s intent to produce a completely authentic and faithful adaptation intrigued Brett and when he accepted the role, he determined to be the best Sherlock that the world had seen.  He did extensive research on both Sherlock and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He created a file which he kept with him on the set at all times in which he catalogued Holmes mannerisms, habits and traits and introduced little gestures and quirks that viewers became to closely associate with the famous detective.

And then… there came the 2010 BBC One modern version creatively translated into modern times with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  It was a fresh and original take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character that at once captured and intrigued its viewers.  The writing and updated take on the classic was an immediate hit… or was it Benedict…. hard to tell which.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1859, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle fought his way through a childhood filled with the instability that his alcoholic father brought to the family and, supported by wealthy uncles, was given the opportunity to receive an education that then enabled him to begin his medical school studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1876.

And it was during that time that Arthur Conan Doyle began to write. 

His experience, talents and medical studies contributed to his creations but although he began to submit short stories to magazines, nothing gained him any significant recognition until A Study In Scarlet was accepted by Ward Lock & Co on November 20, 1886.  It then appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual to good reviews and brought Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson into the literary world and permanently into reader’s hearts for generations to come.

There are thought to be several inspirations for the inimitable detective Sherlock Holmes, but Joseph Bell, one of Conan Doyle’s university professors, is generally recognized as having introduced ideas regarding deduction, observation and inference that found their way into Sherlock’s personality and methods of detection.

After A Study In Scarlet, The Sign Of The Four was commissioned, followed by other successful and popular short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  With a writing career that continued to be far more successful than his medical career, Conan Doyle began to dedicate himself to also writing historical novels which he considered to be more “important works”.  To clear the path for his new passion, he decided to send Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, to their deaths in the story “The Final Problem”

Bad idea.

Needless to say, public outcry brought Sherlock Holmes back in more stories – 56 short stories altogether and four novels produced between 1887 and 1927.  Dr. Watson narrates all but four stories but Holmes tells the story himself in “The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”. The stories  “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott” feature Holmes relating the storyline to Watson through his memories as the Doctor narrates between. Both “The Mazarin Stone” and His Last Bow are related in third person and A Study In Scarlet and The Valley Of Fear include additional narration both of events known and unknown to either Sherlock and Watson.

Members of The Jane Austen Tea Society – you have plenty of time to read one of the Sherlock Holmes novels or short stories so that we can meet and discuss on Saturday, July 18th.  You may choose “A Study In Scarlet” so that you can discover how Holmes met Dr. Watson.  But you might choose “A Scandal In Bohemia” if you want to read about Sherlock’s love interest or “The Final Problem” as he crosses paths with Professor Moriarty.  It’s up to you!

Once again lay aside your preconceived notions about Sherlock and Watson and go back to the source – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works!  After all, as Holmes said in “A Study In Scarlet” – “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thomas Hardy's Return Of The Native

If I ever have the chance to visit Britain, I would like to travel through Wessex…  to wander where Bathsheba Everdene walked with Gabriel Oak among the pastures and flocks, where Tess Durbeyfield lived her early simple cottage life and the town of Casterbridge where a mayor’s past catches up with him….

The problem is… there is actually no such place.  

A fictitious area that featured as a setting in all of Hardy’s major novels, Wessex was named after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom that historically did exist in southwest England prior to the Norman Conquest and it was the area that Hardy himself called home. Using this imagined world gave Hardy a feeling of freedom that enabled him to  translate his social concerns into his fictional works whether it related to class inequality issues, the ruination of many rural communities by new industry and technologies or the troubling gender issues that affected all levels of Hardy’s world.

Six of Hardy’s Wessex novels were an achievement of great British literature - Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), The Return Of The Native (1878), The Mayor Of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess Of The d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude The Obscure (1895).

The next read for The Jane Austen Tea Society in our current plan of British Victorian Authors is Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native.  

This sixth published novel was originally released in twelve monthly installments in the Belgravia magazine from January to December 1878 and published as a thee-volume novel in November of the same year.  The time span of the novel covers almost exactly a year and a day.

Much about the content of The Return of the Native was disturbing to the prevailing Victorian society.  Thomas Hardy has been termed a Victorian Realist and it is easy to see why, when you consider the many controversial themes included in this work; thwarted desire, the conflicting demands of nature and society and an open acknowledgement of illicit sexual relationships. He felt deeply for the complex inner struggles that humans experience as they wrestle with their destinies. D.H. Lawrence saw The Return Of The Native as a study in the way communities control their misfits - tragic characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances.

Perhaps the most notable character in The Return Of The Native is Egdon Heath. Windswept and lonely - brooding and inquiet with huge overhanging skies with the wide expanse of burnished hues of brown, green and yellow below, the heath affects its inhabitants, their personalities and most probably their fates. 

In the Autumn of 2014 The British National Trust acquired the heathland that is thought to be the inspiration for Egdon Heath in The Return Of The Native.  David Brown, Trust ecologist predicts that Hardy enthusiasts will journey to the heath to experience this landscape so tied with the major Hardy novel and so resembling the characters presented in that work. Brown said; “If you want to get a feeling for the Egdon Heath in The Return Of The Native, this is the place to come.  It has a sensation of wilderness, of vastness and emptiness.  It’s a place to lose yourself in.”

Author Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840 in a small hamlet called Higher Bockhampton which is located in the southwestern English county of Dorset. His childhood was filled with a wealth of the deep influences of culture and locale. From their two-story brick and thatch cottage, Thomas Hardy naturally absorbed a love for literature from his mother, who although she had only served as a maidservant and cook, loved to read Latin poets and translated French romances.

His father, a self-employed master mason and building contractor, had descended from an old Dorset family tracing back to the Isle of Jersey in the1400s and was an avid violin player who passed along his love of music to young Hardy.

Thomas Hardy’s childhood very much revolved around literature, music, the local church and life in a rustic rural setting – all of which translated into the body of work that the author became renowned for and for which he was much loved by his devoted readers.

When I was finally able to put aside the college textbooks and night times taken up with study and homework after graduation, I set out on a personal journey to read through the classics… Now that my reading choices were my own I delved into Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and with a particular relish… Thomas Hardy.

I didn’t lose my heart to Hardy the way I did to John Keats but the writing style of Thomas Hardy totally captured my mind. His word-crafting is sublime and the wise reader will keep a dictionary handy if your love of words is equal to your love of story.

Our next book discussion will take place at 11am on Saturday the 18th of April, 2015 at a lively Irish pub in Nashville. 

There is plenty of time to walk the wild & atmospheric path that this book offers. Don’t pass this Thomas Hardy masterpiece by and miss the experience!