Monday, November 4, 2013

Typee by Herman Melville (1846)

Got this great unopened Franklin Mint 1979 copy of Typee at a local estate sale for just a few dollars.

My overall impression of the book is good; more of a travel log than a complete story of intrigue or mystery. The least favorite aspect of the writing is the endless 1st person; without any other characters that speak English or Toma speaking Typee it was a little tiring after a while.

In general however understanding the Seascape of the period is very enlightening; the mid 1800's was the end of imperial Europe's land grab by way of sailing around, finding stuff, and declaring it to themselves.

Melville goes on some serious rants on the subject of saving the "Savages." Early on Melville 1st mentions atrocities perpetrated on the islanders after which the retaliation is seen as barbaric when in fact the original offense was the uncalled for aggression.

"In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of life, though
few and simple, are spread over a great extent, and are
unalloyed; but Civilization, for every advantage she imparts,
holds a hundred evils in reserve;--the heart-burnings, the
jealousies, the social rivalries, the family dissensions, and the
thousand self-inflicted discomforts of refined life, which make
up in units the swelling aggregate of human misery, are unknown
among these unsophisticated people."

About midway through the book Melville starts too get it out of his system, not unlike in Moby Dick but much more plainly. Mind you this is not written from a great distance; all these things and more were happening as he wrote them down. It makes me think that the saving of the few lone "untouched tribes on earth is a miracle and very worth the efforts.

"One of the most dreadful
curses under which humanity labors had commenced its havoc's,
and betrayed, as it ever does among the South Sea islanders, the
most aggravated symptoms.  From this, as from all other foreign
inflictions, the yet uncontaminated tenants of the Typee Valley
were wholly exempt; and long may they continue so.  Better will
it be for them for ever to remain the happy and innocent heathens
and barbarians that they now are, than, like the wretched
inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, to enjoy the mere name of
Christians without experiencing any of the vital operations of
true religion, whilst, at the same time, they are made the
victims of the worst vices and evils of civilized life."

Melville mentions several times the Sandwich Islands currently known as the Hawaiian Islands and how there fate was one of horror.

"Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits,
and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by
destroying the heathen.  The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated
Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent;
but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of
the Red race.  Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth
the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time the
shrinking forms of its unhappy worshipers.

Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images
overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted
into NOMINAL Christians, that disease, vice, and premature death
make their appearance.  The depopulated land is then recruited
from the rapacious, hordes of enlightened individuals who settle
themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the
progress of the Truth.  Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns,
spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds
himself an interloper in the country of his fathers, and that too
on the very site of the hut where he was born.  The spontaneous
fruits of the earth, which God in his wisdom had ordained for the
support of the indolent natives, remorselessly seized upon and
appropriated by the stranger, are devoured before the eyes of the
starving inhabitants, or sent on board the numerous vessels which
now touch at their shores.

When the famished wretches are cut off in this manner from their
natural supplies, they are told by their benefactors to work and
earn their support by the sweat of their brows!  But to no fine
gentleman born to hereditary opulence, does this manual labor
come more unkindly than to the luxurious Indian when thus robbed
of the bounty of heaven.  Habituated to a life of indolence, he
cannot and will not exert himself; and want, disease, and vice,
all evils of foreign growth, soon terminate his miserable

The description above of the fate of one island after another brings to light how the Western man won and how (and why) we are viewed with such skepticism from so many quarters.

It is easy to see how the book would have been such a big hit in the 1800's; its exotic stories were truly foreign to the Victorian ear. Maybe this was in fact the older day likeness of a reality show... here the man sets out into the wilderness for adventure;a bit like Survivor?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reading "The Virginian" in the New West by Melody Graulich, Stephen Tatum (2003)

A classic "companion" for The Virginian; comprised of a dozen essays on this brilliant classic.

The essays cover almost every question and topic you thought of during the reading and hit on the deliberate "omissions" too. As often with period fiction, finishing it leaves me with many questions regarding the historical background of both the author's writing time frame, and the stories time frame, unlike in say Ivanhoe, in this case they are the same time frame. Unlike Ivanhoe The Virginian is far more "preachy" more like Gone with the Wind; Wister is on a tear to describe "his peoples" (Harvard elite) take on the horrid state of decline of America at the time. Apparently this place has been declining since it was formed?!?

I have come to realize (with help of this reading) that just as all countries struggle to create an enduring identity as say the Noble Knights of the European countries America has embraced the independent Cowboy as our hero. With the help of the Virginian this American myth is embodied with the identical virtues of the Knights of old.

The first essay "Pictures (Facing) Words" is actually focused entirely on the 1st publications illustrations by Keller. Of all the essays in the book I would not have started with this one, not everyone has seen the pictures and not everyone has an art background. However the insights are highly detailed and reveling.
On page 33 the author outlines the basic formula; introduction, test, beat-down, recovery or awakening, and triumph. The formula is later referred to as the "orthodox structuring code" and Wister follows it faithfully.

In "Wister's Omniscience and Omissions" we learn that near the end of his life Wister writes that his camping days in Wyoming were the happiest days of his life.

In "White for Hundred Years" a discussion of the wholesale "rounding up, hunting down, and herding" into reservations of the Indians. A topic completely missing (among others) from The Virginian. 

"Indigenous Whiteness and Wister's Invisible Indians" Wister took up photography during his outwest adventures and we learn that while trying to photograph his mythological  "Indian" he was thwarted by the reality of Indians on reservations... which had nothing to do with free Indian life.

"Wister and the Great Railway Strike of 1894" In this essay we find out that in The Virginian Wister  portrays a more centrist or moderate political viewpoint when in fact he was very conservative. This was surprising because the right wingy speak is pretty hard to miss in The Virginian. In latter writings he rails against "vermin" or Unions. In addition to despising unionist he was a raciest and anti feminist too, but who wasn't?

In "Early Film Versions" the author makes a brilliant connection between The Virginian and King Arthur's Knights and the "Imagined "Medieval" virtues"  - honorable behavior, especially towards women.
In addition a unique link is made between "mixing up the children" before they are christened and mixing up calves before they are branded. To me I see the tables turned today; the mere thought of touching another couple's child sends shivers where steeling  is "just steeling" and is not currently punishable by death. Touching someone else's child, especially undressing and dressing them could in fact end your life as you know it.
"Early Film Versions" also makes several references to the not so subtle "Youth must die so that the adult may live" part of the story. Weather they knew it or not (I suspect they had inklings) America was coming out of it's wild youth, and in just a few short years would be thrust upon the world stage, a stage from which we have not left.

In "History, Gender & the Origins" the Johnson County War (1892) and its seed the "maverick" are disclosed, amazing! I hope indeed that John McCann is not a motherless calf... that is in fact what a maverick was back then. Well how big a deal could it have been? The maverick represented something like you taking a piece of junk mail from my front step; not really a problem except I DON'T WANT YOU TO DO IT, so the fat cats made a big deal out of it, up to and including murder in the form of vigilante justice.

And how about "What if Wister was a Woman?" This essay explores the hypothesis of that very question, and to tell you the truth it explains a lot about the tone, insights, thought patterns, and story lines, of this magnificent story.

A great companion.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)

No question a great read; a peek into a time period of our country that does not get much air time. Cooper is trying to illuminate the Eastern Indian wars, I always think of Western Indians however there were many Eastern tribes. These tribes watched there way of life vanish before there eyes (certainly not the 1st or last to suffer this fate.) Cooper gives these "savages" a human mind and heart, something that was in the interest of the "whites" at the time not appreciated.

The old Alta Edition (possibly from 1888) with its slightly brittle old brown pages served me well and performed as intended without hardly a chip. After The Virginian I wanted to stay on the old time adventure theme and by starting it on my vaca I was able to dig-in hard. Cooper gets dinged pretty hard by some readers, he may be more of a love - hate sort of author, but if you can't sit thru this then I'll bet most of your Facebook friends can't either. 

As I said a great read; if the point of reading is to get absorbed into the book or be absorbed by the story then Cooper is not too long winded for me. Aside from the general premise of the book; two young girls head out into the most extreme hostile wilderness conditions imaginable it is a tremendous tale of the times. I love how Hawk-eye continually expounds upon the assured nature of their safety only to be in deep trouble by the next paragraph. Another way Cooper carries the story along and creates suspense is by leaving a character behind, you find yourself asking, well what happened to him? But once you have finally forgot about him, bang he's back again!

The forest primeval imagery is wonderful, a world that is all too hard to find. As with the Virginian, knowing what you are doing out there is a life and death matter, and your reputation for knowing (or not knowing) what you are doing is WHO you are.

It is only after such readings as this that I am forming a picture of what the first 125 years of the Nation were about, as well as what the Europeans were doing from the moment they landed at Plymouth. It was a land grab that had to have a winner and a loser; the Indians had little chance of success and as in The Song of Hiawatha the inevitability of the thing is apparent again.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902) illu.

When I asked my new friend and shoe making associate Lisa Sorrell "what do you read to get the West" she quickly came up with The Virginian, originally from Missouri she knows what Cowboys are all about. I was taking an abbreviated boot making workshop with her in OK. a world apart from MI. and I always like to read from the area of the world that I'm in. 

So I searched the net for what was out there, I am only interested in older copies of these classics and to my surprise the original printings were illustrated. This is great but led me to a decision regarding what condition and price I was going to go for. By waiting and looking I ended up with a very nice 1st year (1902) 14th printing.

The illustrations are muted, I think this is not from age but from process, but they are of course nice to have. One click in Photo Shop adds the chiaroscuro necessary for making the renderings more appealing.

After rescuing the maiden from a faltering wagon the Virginian "straightens out" the coach driver after which the driver attends to his business properly for the remainder of the trip to Bear Creek. In this, their 1st encounter, the stage is set, for the romance part of the story.

The Virginian IS the type of book for me; it contains life lessons and views on life written so clearly in  many instances that they could and should be chiseled in stone. I wish I had read this as a young man; having lost my father at the age of 16, I was free to run wild without anyone to bounce ideas and problems off of.

It may be as simple as "your reputation is you, and you are your reputations keeper." I learned this early on at work and have done my best to maintain my work reputation pretty well over more than 30 years in the same field. The Virginian is both an outstanding story of Manhood and of Romance; it teaches that if both half's of the symbiotic whole are willing to play their parts as designed by the creator then the relationship is a healthy one.

The end of the book celebrates Love and Nature, the book was dedicated to T.R. and is a direct offspring of the world that these men saw as something to preserve; the Wild West.

Just for fun I often look up the owners name inside:

Turns out Elizabeth was from old Virginia and would have been 31 at the time of printing.

Also, I was listening to Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" it fit perfectly with the tone of the book.

I'll now got through the most poignant (for me) passages, there are many more.

Early on a lesson is observed by the narrator regarding the Power of words and the "who, how, and where" that effects the outcome of those words.

I love it when an author lists the notable reads from his day; back then this was the only way to learn other viewpoints. And Scott's Kenilworth gets a lot of free plugs, so I will have to visit it on Owen's recommendation.

This one is a little harder to divine but the concept of some perfectly good offspring not getting a chance to flourish becomes a more contemplative subject as we get older.

After Molly states clearly that we are all born equal, the Virginian illustrates that our equality diverges rapidly the day after we are born.

So here it is, one of the most clear descriptions of the rational behind the creation of the American states. Referred to as "the game" the game of life; you are born, you figure it out the best you can... or you don't. lol

And here it is for those of us who don't need a religion to know there is a God. What an incredible  lighthearted stab at the Righteous.

So the concept of restraining your anger is for some of us something to work on, we need ideas like this one to help rationalize how and why a temper can be controlled.
In addition our Southerner raps up his take on salvation i.e. Heaven and Hell.

In this instance Judge Henry speaks wisdom about some clergy that may not be able to discern a follower from a good person.

Here the Virginian laments the lack of spirit in his siblings. How often we meet those who are stuck in one time period, never to explore.

Typical of Wister's wisdom this is hard to to unravel and could be over looked. So the world is a "wholesale" project for the Creator and not every element is as good as the next. He admits that ones parents may have a responsibility to you but the world certainly does not.

"A half-great poet once had a wholly great day" Wister outlines another aspect of the Virginian's character; being kind to animals is an acknowledged attribute in many circles.

The Virginian ruminates on the life threatening embarrassment at the time of "meeting her parents."

So the Virginian talks about something that most of us in an intact civilized society will never have to be a part of; deciding on, and acting on an execution. He also makes mention of "trashy curiosity" well I guess folks will be folks, no matter what the century, and that not looking is OK too.

One of the many meaty subjects explored by Wister is this one of street justice, a huge topic that I won't dig into except to say that murdering people for steeling is a little over the top. Wister seams to be justifying the practice at the same time not agreeing with it.

"Proof I don't value my own nature enough to shield it from slander" wow, Wister can come up with the essence sometimes!

Thanks Owen, Tom