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Monday, August 15, 2016

Defining fascist literature

A fake "Vermeer" by van Meegeren. Is it fascist art? 

A Tim Parks essay reviewing a book about fascist artist Mario Sirono from the August, 2000 NYRB renewed my interest in defining the attributes of fascist literature. I found Parks insightful, for I have struggled to understand what makes fascist art (painting and sculpture)  fascist. For example, Errol Morris's 2009 NYT series on Dutch art forger van Meegeren posed the question: how could the Nazis (and others) have possibly fallen for van Meegeren's "Vermeers," given how badly executed they are? Morris decides they appealed to the fascist tastes of people like Göring, but not to our tastes, because the fascist aesthetic became a "dead end" in art history-- but Morris never defines that aesthetic, except as bad art. 

Returning to Parks, I was amused when he quoted a contemporary of Sironi, who commented in the 1930s that every time he came across writing about fascist art:

 "I read it from top to bottom, carefully, applying my intelligence to the utmost, and every time with renewed desire, the renewed hope that I will come away from it having understood what is meant by fascist art. ... but that desire, that hope, remains unfilled." 

That sense of puzzlement has often, if not always, been my experience. Parks however, offers an answer: that what makes Sironi's art fascist is its "static" quality: "The figures are rigidly separate," he says.  Parks contends this creates, rather than a story, a sense of figures "waiting for a story to happen to them." That made sense to me and seemed to describe van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries as well. However, my main interest is not in fascist painting or sculpture, but literature. Thus, I have identified the following attributes, using as a frame my background reading on Nazi ideology and aesthetics for my Bonhoeffer book, pieces of Mein Kampf, Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism," and bits of fascist literature produced in the 1930s and 40s.  



A Sironi painting called Italy in the Arts. I agree that there's a static, disconnected quality to the figures.


A more explicit frame I use is a romance novel by Elizabeth Bailey called Fly the Wild Echoes, written in 1982 and reissued in 2012.  Here are the attributes of it I found fascist:

1. A "superior," upper-class protagonist, an exceptionally beautiful and talented (and famous) movie and stage actress from a superior, talented family--a version of the "superman," or, in this case, "superwoman."

2. Overwrought prose. 

3. On the same note, no touch of  irony. Everything is intensely "poetic," serious, and important.

4. Heroic heroes and heroines (again the ubermensch.)

5. The setting as a castle that had been converted into an upper class sanatorium-- the aristocrat and backward-looking surround.

6. The sanatorium's religious aspect, eg as a place of retreat and purification. Everything there is beautiful, elegant, elite, rarified.

7. The male as savior. In this case, he is the handsome psychiatrist who falls in love with our heroine during their overwrought dawn and dusk meetings in the rose garden. He in turn has a male mentor, the wise man who began the sanatorium. As Sontag would argue, sex here functions a form of purification: the great man will save our heroine.

8. A female character who is unquestioningly disposed of because of her inferiority. The handsome psychiatrist is engaged to this woman, the daughter of the founder of the sanatorium, but she has qualities that make her entirely unsuitable to marry, most notably a masculine, stocky quality that is completely unlike our delicate, ephemeral auburn-haired heroine, Fliss, in her silk flowered print dresses. There's a sense that the fiancee would compete as to who would run the sanatorium after her father's death, threatening to usurp the male role. But what is most striking is how dispensable she is, how she is treated with such narrative contempt. There's no real question of her feelings, her being: she is simply so much trash to be discarded, a problem that protagonists are (unfairly) forced to deal with rather than a human being. Is this how the ordinary people are to be treated by the ubermensch? 

9. A static quality, ala Parks on Sironi: while the Bailey book is clearly set in 1982, to the point of featuring an answering machine and a Sony walkman, it really could be set in any time period from, say, 1800 to today. It's an alternative universe that has no bearing on real history. The heroine has little relationship, if any, with anyone outside of her "fuhrer worship" relationship with the psychiatrist who will save her.

10. Black and white characters. The lack of irony or humor means you never have to look for double entendre or complexity.

The book left me feeling deeply disturbed.

In sum,  I would define fascist literature as aristocratic, overwrought, humorless, non-ironic, heroic, callous toward the non-superior person, static, interested in purity and in enforcing rigidly traditional sex roles, preoccupied with the "beautiful" setting or surround (all gardens and castles, no factories or slums) and never messy. It imposes its will about what it would like the world to be rather than what the world is. Bailey's book reminded me of some of the fascist descriptions I read of SS men as exemplars of a Knights Templar medieval purity, stronger, harder, more crystalline, living at a higher plane of virtue and morality (if you can imagine) than the rest of humanity. 

To what extent Bailey's romance is a representative of the Harlequin type I don't know, but my suspicion is that there are many like it. Further, Harlequin and similar romances have a huge share of the book market. Tanya Modeliski, in her 1982 book about romances, Loving with a Vengeance, discusses these books as a way for women to deny the reality of male hatred by consistently devising plots in which the seemingly brutal man is found to have the woman's best interests at heart--in fact, to love the woman. Likewise, in 1984, Janet Radway published Reading the Romance, arguing that these romances create an illusion of comfort for the reader that allow avoidance of  confronting political realities. Both of these analyses seem to align with a fascist reading of these texts. I will try to look into more recent studies.



I think too of a book I have not read but hope to by David Imhoof called Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen  between the World Wars that discusses  Nazis infilitration of cultural institutions, such as symphony, to promote their worldview before they took power, in essence "softening" people to their ideology. One wonders about a correlation between female Trump supporters and consumption of romance novels: how much has our literary world (including movies and televisions, primed us for strong leader rather than democratic rule?

I will end with a link to a blog about fascism and careerism: http://forums.philosophyforums.com/threads/fascinating-fascism-susan-sontag-62596.html.

What do we think?

Defining fascist literature

A fake "Vermeer" by van Meegeren. Is it fascist art? 

A Tim Parks essay reviewing a book about fascist artist Mario Sirono from the August, 2000 NYRB renewed my interest in defining the attributes of fascist literature. I found Parks insightful, for I have struggled to understand what makes fascist art (painting and sculpture)  fascist. For example, Errol Morris's 2009 NYT series on Dutch art forger van Meegeren posed the question: how could the Nazis (and others) have possibly fallen for van Meegeren's "Vermeers," given how badly executed they are? Morris decides they appealed to the fascist tastes of people like Göring, but not to our tastes, because the fascist aesthetic became a "dead end" in art history-- but Morris never much defines that aesthetic, except as bad art. 

Returning to Parks, I was amused when he quoted a contemporary of Sironi, who commented in the 1930s that every time he came across writing about fascist art:

 "I read it from top to bottom, carefully, applying my intelligence to the utmost, and every time with renewed desire, the renewed hope that I will come away from it having understood what is meant by fascist art. ... but that desire, that hope, remains unfilled." 

That sense of puzzlement has often, if not always, been my experience. Parks however, offers an answer: that what makes Sironi's art fascist is its "static" quality: "The figures are rigidly separate," he says.  Parks contends this creates, rather than a story, a sense of figures "waiting for a story to happen to them." That made sense to me and seemed to describe van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries as well. However, my main interest is not in fascist painting or sculpture, but literature. Thus, I have identified the following attributes, using as a frame my background reading on Nazi ideology and aesthetics for my Bonhoeffer book, pieces of Mein Kampf, Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism," and bits of fascist literature I read from the 1930s and 40s.  



A Sironi painting called Italy in the Arts. I agree that there's a static, disconnected quality to the figures.


A more explicit frame is a romance novel by Elizabeth Bailey called Fly the Wild Echoes, written in 1982 and reissued in 2012.  Here are the attributes of it I found fascist:

1. A "superior," upper-class protagonist, an exceptionally beautiful and talented (and famous) movie and stage actress from a superior, talented family--a version of the "superman," or, in this case, "superwoman."

2. Overwrought prose. 

3. On the same note, no touch of  irony. Everything is intensely "poetic," serious, and important.

4. Heroic heroes and heroines (again the ubermensch.)

5. The setting as a castle that had been converted into an upper class sanatorium-- the aristocrat and backward-looking surround.

6. The sanatorium's religious aspect, eg as a place of retreat and purification. Everything here is beautiful, elegant, elite, rarified, otherwordly.

7. The male as savior. In this case, he is the handsome psychiatrist who falls in love with our heroine during their overwrought dawn and dusk meetings in the rose garden. He in turn has a male mentor, the wise man who began the sanatorium. As Sontag would argue, sex here functions a form of purification: the great man will save our heroine.

8. A female character who is unquestioningly disposed of because of her inferiority. The handsome psychiatrist is engaged to this woman, the daughter of the founder of the sanatorium, but she has qualities that make her entirely unsuitable to marry, most notably a masculine, stocky quality that is completely unlike our delicate, ephemeral auburn-haired heroine, Fliss, in her silk flowered print dresses. There's a sense that the fiancee would compete as to who would run the sanatorium after her father's death, threatening to usurp the male role. But what is most striking is how dispensable she is, how she is treated with such narrative contempt. There's no real question of her feelings, her being: she is simply so much trash to be discarded, a problem that protagonists are (unfairly) forced to deal with rather than a human being. Is this how the ordinary people are to be treated by the übermensch? 

9. A static quality, ala Parks on Sironi: while the Bailey book is clearly set in 1982, to the point of featuring an answering machine and a Sony walkman, it really could be set in any time period from, say, 1800 to today. It's an alternative universe that has no bearing on real history. The heroine has little relationship, if any, with anyone outside of her "führer worship" relationship with the psychiatrist who will save her.

10. Black and white characters. The lack of irony or humor means you never have to look for double entendre or complexity.

The book left me feel deeply disturbed.

In sum,  I would define fascist literature as aristocratic, overwrought, humorless, non-ironic, heroic, callous toward the non-superior person, static, interested in purity and in enforcing rigidly traditional sex roles, preoccupied with the "beautiful" setting or surround (all gardens and castles, no factories or slums) and never messy. It imposes its will about what it would like the world to be rather than what the world is. Bailey's book reminded me of some of the fascist descriptions I read of SS men as exemplars of a Knights Templar medieval purity, stronger, harder, more crystalline, living at a higher plane of virtue and morality (if you can imagine) than the rest of humanity. 

To what extent Bailey's romance is a representative of the Harlequin type I don't know, but my suspicion is that there are many like it. Further, Harlequin and similar romances have a huge share of the book market. Tanya Modeliski, in her 1982 book about romances, Loving with a Vengeance, discusses these books as a way for women to deny the reality of male hatred by consistently devising plots in which the seemingly brutal man is found to have the woman's best interests at heart--in fact, to love the woman. Likewise, in 1984, Janet Radway published Reading the Romance, arguing that these romances create an illusion of comfort for the reader that allow avoidance of  confronting political realities. Both of these analyses seem to align with a fascist reading of these texts. I will try to look into more recent studies.



I think too of a book I have not read but hope to by David Imhoof called Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen  between the World Wars that discusses  Nazis infilitration of cultural institutions, such as symphony, to promote their worldview before they took power, in essence "softening" people to their ideology. One wonders about a correlation between female Trump supporters and consumption of romance novels: how much has our literary world (including movies and televisions, primed us for strong leader rather than democratic rule?

I will end with a link to a blog about fascism and careerism: http://forums.philosophyforums.com/threads/fascinating-fascism-susan-sontag-62596.html.

What do we think?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Trump: A Meandering Old Man

Donald Trump came a week ago to Ohio University Eastern as part of his campaign kickoff. I easily got a ticket online (the price is now getting his “Crooked Hillary” twitterfeeds) and easily walked from my class to the athletic building where he spoke in the gymnasium. If I felt a little queasy about possibly being mistaken for a supporter, it was also a chance to be part of “history."

Trump walks onstage at Ohio University Eastern. I am right behind the woman holding up the cellphone.  

That morning, the beauty salon had chattered excitedly about Trump being in town, mostly because he was being endorsed by the beloved Bob Murray, the local billionaire coal miner who has been a vocal voice against Obama’s “war on coal.” The salon workers were abuzz with wishing they could attend the $100 a plate dinner for Trump that Murray was hosting. When I mentioned going to the Trump rally, I was admonished I might not get in—they do background checks on everyone, I was told—and that it might not be safe. Fights might break out. “I know some of the people who will be there,” my hairdresser warned darkly. “It may not be the right place for you.”

I set out after my class ended. I could have saved myself the bother of registering—while I had to go through a metal detector and security (the irony not lost—why are guns to be allowed anywhere except near the people who most advocate for letting anybody own guns?)—nobody checked my ticket. 

Eastern Ohio is mostly white, but even I was surprised at how completely white the audience was. You do occasionally see blacks and Asians here, but none attended the Trump rally, perhaps unsurprisingly. I found a seat behind the stage where Trump would appear.

A man in plaid (I don’t know who) warmed up the crowd with some surprisingly populist rhetoric in which he said the following:

A country is more than a bank account. It is citizens. Being citizens means something. 
Yes. He then went on to champion the citizen against the international corporations, and he got cheers.  He then said:
  People in power don’t want change now or in a thousand years.

This was followed by more cheers.

Next, our congressional representative, Republican Bill Johnson, spoke. He is running uncontested! How did that happen? He won his first election by the slightest of margins. Somebody has got to take on this man! Where are we, Democrats?

He had not much to say—why would he?—Trump is loathsome to his small government, low taxes, anti-citizen, Paul Ryan ideology, and he doesn’t have to earn any votes. He seemed surprised as he was leaving that people wanted to shake his hand, but gamely allowed his flesh to be touched by several members of the hoi poloi. Surely he could wash shortly thereafter.

Then Trump came on—a half hour early and I will give him credit for not forcing people to wait in a hot gym. 

Trump facing behind him, towards where I sat.

But dear reader—and I couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away—this is the frightening monster we are supposed to fear and loath? He came across to me as a rambling old man. I just turned 58 myself, so am sensitive to issues of aging and ageism, but the thought that flashed across my mind was “is he senile?”

There were no fights, nothing fearful, nothing particularly inspiring, no Nuremburg rally vibes, just a meandering aged guy with a muddy voice squandering his chance to rouse a crowd hungry for anybody who will speak up for their sense of disenfranchisment so that they stop getting screwed. Trump, I am afraid, disappoints. He had an opportunity to arouse a crowd yearning for a leader—and instead, he rambled. He couldn’t connect. He couldn’t find his audience’s vibe. He was throwing out set phrases and familiar talking points as if not quite sure where he was—and hoping something would stick.

Is this the best we can do?  This is the best the Republican party can come up with? This is what they are terrified of? As far as charisma and speaking ability to go, this man is a pale shadow of a Mussolini or a Hitler. Thank goodness—that’s good! We don't need a Hitler!—but I couldn’t help but be bemused at how much of a  tempest this murky old man has aroused. He is Oz—really.  Behind the curtain, nothing much.

A polite crowd listens to Trump. 


That’s not to say his miscued speech wasn’t offensive and that he wouldn’t be dangerous in office, if only because in a fit of fogginess he could just push the wrong button to "make us great again." He rambled on about the need to waterboard, putting it in the context of strength and weakness, a Game of Thrones match up, though he has none of the heft of that show’s elderly conquerors. “They,” meaning ISIS, beheads its prisoners and burns them alive—and we worry about waterboarding? The crowd was politely interested and cheered the idea of getting rid of ISIS, but not with the greatest gusto.

Trump continued on semi-incoherently. “Something is going on that is  really, really bad,” he said. “We have the movement.” He said he was just the messenger, but “a good one.”

The main cheers and boos came for economic policy: Nafta was loudly booed, rejecting TPP robustly cheered. Cheers came for building a wall, along with chants of “build the wall, build the wall.” People cheered as Trump said TPP was “a rape of our country done by wealthy people who want to take advantage of us.” 

Trump meandered on about golf for a long time: he had recently returned from celebrating his son, Don Junior, opening a golf resort in Scotland that came. Trump didn’t play any golf while he was there. He didn’t even hold a golf club. He didn’t want anyone to photo him with a golf club in his hand, looking as if he were on vacation in the middle of his campaign. He was only in Scotland for a day, he said, to support his family. Surely, he asked, we all understood standing by your family. Wouldn’t you do the same? And who, he asked, as if amazed at his own feat, goes to Scotland just for a day? But he didn’t play any golf. None. He would have liked to but the campaign was more important. Obama, on the other hand, is always golfing rather than running the country. Which Trump would not be playing if he were elected.  

Trump paused during this ramble about his no-golf playing to introduce his son. That was a mistake. This handsome younger man spoke clearly, concisely and coherently, and connected with the audience almost instantly as he talked of how grateful was to be part of the campaign. Any thought that a poor sound system might be the cause of Trump sounding muddled was put to rest. The young Trump may be the one to watch. Next to him, Trump looked all the more like a foggy, disconnected old man. A woman like him would never have gotten this far. 

It was very hot in the gym and the crowd remained polite, maybe waiting for the energy that was clearly not going to erupt. I left early, weighing that nothing more was going to happen, and  I didn’t want to get caught in the post-rally traffic jam.

In summary, I’m bemused. This is the threat to the Western world?  I am also relieved: this old man, roundly spurned by the elites, doesn't appear to have the wherewithal to inspire the kind of populist following he needs to win an election. 

 I hope I am right.










Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Quakers and Literature, Game of Thrones, Virginia Woolf

Sadly, the recent shooting in Orlando makes an appropriate backdrop for my topic: the debut of new book on Quaker literature and the question of how we can move towards a more robust imagining of peace.


Quakers and Literature raises pertinent questions about the role of literature in society.

The anthology, Quakers in Literature, will be officially launched this month at the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference in Woodbrooke, England. I would like to praise this book and juxtapose it to my viewing of the series Game of Thrones.


A beheading on Game of Thrones. It's not uncommon: this beheader ends up beheaded, but the take-away isn't that violence is bad: the take-away is win at all costs. 

Game of Thrones, though not without its entertainment value, is characterized by cartoonish characters, cartoonish violence and cartoonish plots. Violence and ritual humiliation substitute the sensation of shock for genuine feeling. In this series, a viewer can get a faux emotional jolt or pay-off (of sorts) without a real emotional investment. 

The show is set is another time period, presumably very long ago. It's Roman European-esque in feel (and Middle-Eastern-esque)--pre-Christian certainly, but with a medieval overlay. The people are barbaric as a matter of course, and so are constantly chopping each other's heads off (or delving axes into people's brains) and perpetrating other acts of violence. 

The Hound learns that peacemaking is for losers. He goes out and kills a bunch of people to avenge the peacemakers.

Recently, a man named the Hound who was left for dead reemerged. He falls in with a wayward wandering group that has decided to renounce violence. Their leader even makes a strong statement about how more killing isn't going to stop the cycle of killing. Lest you think this might open an alternative path in the series, no ... all but the Hound, who happens to be away when it happens, are slaughtered (not that there is the least question this will occur), and the man who made the speech about peace is found dangling, hanged. This is replayed in the next episode too, lest we missed the message: peacemaking leaves you dead. Peace is for losers. Losers, losers, losers. Kill or be killed. Strike first and hard or die. 

The message dunned into the audience week after week --as was done in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and who knows how many other series--demonstrates that the most violent man wins. All religion is a scam or evil, so don't look to that for help. Strong woman are routinely humiliated--for example,  a queen,  Cersei, is subjected to one of the most intense scenes of ritual humiliation I have ever witnessed --as a penance imposed by a priest of some cult, she must walk naked through the streets of her city while being pelted with rotten vegetables and jeered at. 

Cersei dared to be strong: men get to see her naked and humiliate her. Rape and threat of rape are common tools used to control women.


As a Quaker and also as a sane person, I find this constant messaging advocating ultra violence disturbing. Of course, as with all these programs, the producers can coyly say they are depicting something outside of the societal norms of our world.  Naturally, they say they don't condone this behavior. But, as with  The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, everything about the rhetoric of these programs DOES condone it. Real men are validated for being ruthlessly violent. Ruthless violence wins. Compassionate morality is baggage for weaklings and nonentities. Who needs the Nuremburg rallies to whip up the base when you have Game of Thrones?

Therefore, it was refreshing to read an essay by J. Ashley Foster on Virginia Woolf's peace stance and the Spanish Civil War from the Quakers and Literature book--it's long but well worth reading. 

Woolf looking pensive in 1939, the year World War II began.

According to this essay, Virginia Woolf was involved with Quakers, such as Kathleen Innes, who published through Hogarth Press, (Innes published four books on the League of Nations with Hogarth) and they all advocated for peace. This article cites, of course, Woolf's Three Guineas as a feminist peace essay, but argues that, more fundamentally, "pacifism is one of modernism's idioms." This pacifism is internationalist in nature (rejecting fascist nationalisms). Woolf herself envisioned a fictional "Outsider's Society" in  Three Guineas made up of the daughters of educated men who would work for peace. Foster sees the corollary of this in peace efforts that emerged during the Spanish Civil War.

We remember there was a time when many non-Quaker women, and I think of Eleanor Roosevelt, believed that women had a particular role in promoting constructive peacemaking--building the conditions that would lead to peace that lasted through "justice and the rights of all."  Woolf's aunt, Caroline Stephens, was a feminist Quaker whose pacifism informed Woolf's feminism, and Roger Fry's sister Margery was a Quaker. Quakers published through the same presses and belonged to many of the same political organizations as the Woolfs and other modernists, and the Woolfs sold manuscript pages of Three Guineas to raise money to  aid Spanish Civil War refugees.

The Spanish Civil War

It was comforting to me to remember that Woolf, who I often think of primarily as a stylist, engaged in serious peace work and political work during the Spanish Civil War and to review her strong commitment to pacifism and her strong belief in the connection between peace and feminism. I remember too during this period (late 1933-early 1935) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also in England, dedicated to pacifism and trying to build international coalitions to fight National Socialism, most notably at the Fano conference in 1934. I wonder if the Woolfs and Bonhoeffer ever brushed shoulders, but that's an aside--what I care about is that  intelligent women speak out for peace--and I can't help but wish for our own Outsiders group to push back against shows like Games of Thrones. 

I also can't help but think that the male producers of Game of Thrones (I looked up their bios and saw no sign of military experience) are advocating a warrior mentality and articulating a position that validates ruthless slaughter without having an actual experience of war themselves, which makes this program all the more dangerous. 

This brings me back to Quakers and Literature. It's no wonder that a culture that leans relentlessly on violence as the only authentic form of power would produce a constant stream of individuals who try to express power through slaughter or that they would be attracted to ISIS as the most ruthless group of all. A question I raise in my essay in Quakers and Literature, called "Quaker Literature: Is there such a thing?" is why Quakers have been sidelined into homespun, nostalgic domesticating fictions when so many serious issues confront us. Is this really a time for escapism? Or do we need to be concentrating more effort on a literature--fiction and non-fictional--that imagines solutions to our problems through a pacifist lens? After all, without an imagination, the people perish. I would argue that a culture that pornographically repeats violent images over and over again has lost its imagination and its mooring. We who look at it outside a perspective of violence--we the Outsiders--perhaps have a responsibility to pick up the work Woolf started and advocate more imaginatively for peace. Where can we start?



Sunday, June 5, 2016

May (now June) Memories: How I Came to Austen and Why I still Read her: VI

 In this series of guest posts, a meta-diary of sorts, Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. Nancy Mayer, list owner, Regency scholar, endless fount of patience and Janeite extraordinaire, wrote the post below.

How I came to Jane

 I came to  the reading and enjoyment of Jane Austen late in life and long after I was out of graduate school. If she was mentioned in the course on "The History of the Novel,” I don't remember it and certainly I was never required to read any works of hers in school.

My way to Jane Austen was very indirect and not at all like that of the others.

I might have read Pride and Prejudice  in the Classics edition promoted as suitable for children but don’t remember it if I did.
My first introduction to Pride and Prejudice was the movie with Greer Garson.

The 1940 Greer Carson Pride and Prejudice, famous for putting the Regency in c. 1860 Victorian costumes to cash in on The Gone with the Wind craze. Who needs Empire waists when you can have a hoop skirt. 

I didn’t connect the movie to a book nor did I know the name Austen.

I read many books, took several courses in literature and poetry but somehow missed reading anything by Jane Austen.  I liked the Victorian poets and the novelists Thackeray and Trollope. I only liked Jane Eyre of the Bronte works.

Then I came across books by Barbara Cartland. Perfect light reading. I particularly liked her Regency romances. I was intrigued by the historical note she included In each book and started  looking up more information on the events she put into a fictional context.


  
I read all the Regency romances I could find 

I discovered contradictions and errors of historical facts in the books so did more research on the English regency period, which lasted from 1811-1820.

Somewhere in my research I came across Jane Austen and Lord Byron, who lived and wrote in that time period. I found other authors and poets and read many of them but kept returning to Jane Austen.  

Jane Austen’s letters gave an insight into the lives of women of the period, and her books were much more interesting and easier to read than most of the other who wrote then.

I wanted to discuss her novels with others and found a chapter of JASNA in Atlanta.  Then I found the Austen-L online discussion group. 

When the Atlanta chapter of JASNA lost both its meeting place and many members, some friends and I started it up again. I led it for fourteen year. We met once a month. Though we did read one or two novels by Austen’s contemporaries and sometimes discussed the spate of movies which came out, we mainly discussed the Austen novels. 

When Austen-L became very acrimonious with flaming Fanny wars, Anne Woodley started Janeites, where people could discuss Austen with some semblance of courtesy. 

I have read Austen’s works several times and can still find something new in the books.

I like Persuasion most. I can sympathize more with Fanny Price and even have sympathy for Emma, but Anne’s story is a favorite. 
I return to Austen and her novels because there is always something new to learn and the books are enjoyable no matter how often one reads them. 

I tend to prefer a traditional interpretation and one that takes in to consideration life in Austen’s day.

I am still greatly interested in the regency period. That is still my prime area of interest and study. 

I have discovered that there is much one can learn by reading non-fiction books connected to Jane Austen, such as   Jane Austen and Crime  by S. Fullerton.
 A short list of some books that combine discussion of Austen’s life, works, and her times:
 
Fashion In the Time of Jane Austen
In the Garden with Jane Austen
In the steps of Jane Austen  
Jane Austen and Marriage
Jane Austen and Crime
Jane Austen and The Clergy
Jane Austen and Fashion Byrde
Jane Austen and the Almighty Pound
Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time
Jane Austen and the English Landscape
Jane Austen and the Navy
Jane Austen and the Theatre P. Byrne 
Jane Austen Cookbook Black and Le Faye food recipes
Jane Austen’s ENGLAND LIFE COPY
Jane Austen’s TOWN AND COUNTRY STYLE  
Jane Austen’s Letters
MY DEAR CASSANDRA Jane Austen and leisure
Jane Austen and Bath
Jane Austen and Hampshire
Jane Austen and Lyme Regis
Jane Austen and Religion











Sunday, May 29, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Austen and why we still read her: V


In this series of guest posts, a meta-diary of sorts, Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. This post is by Tom Flynn, emeritus professor of English at Ohio University Eastern, who wrote his dissertation on none other than Jane Austen. 

My path to Jane Austen was long and circuitous and roughly follows my growth as a reader. The journey took approximately 15 years and was aided by the advice of concerned mentors.  Let me illustrate.

Auburndale Public Library

My journey began at the Auburndale, Massachusetts Public Library 466 feet from my home, where my love of reading was nurtured and provided constant sustenance.  After graduating from the children’s section, I began to explore typical adolescent male genres: historical novels  (Thomas B. Costain), and bodice rippers (Anne Golon),  except for an intensely emotional summer hammock encounter with the close of Little Women. The influence of Sister St. Joseph, who introduced me to serious literature, specifically John Dos Passos (U.S.A. Trilogy) helped to clarify my course and set my bearings.
The seduction of science fiction (Issac Asimov, whose laws of robotics seemed like a foundation for human interactions) and sociology (David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd) caused me to detour away from my path toward Austen when I became an undergraduate sociology major at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  In addition to the naive belief that human affairs could be rationally managed and that sociology held the key to principles governing that process, the field appealed to me because of the rich narratives presented in the more anthropological works like William Foote Whyte’s description of the life of the Italian community of the North End of Boston (Street Corner Society) and St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton’s study of Chicago, Black Metropolis. Unfortunately, once I delved deeper into the field beyond these works into theory processes, and nomenclature, my interest waned. I realized that sociologists would not rule the world, and I found myself consistently falling asleep in class.  In contrast, my Modern and Irish Literature courses with Mary Doyle Curran.

Mary Doyle Curran 

  (The Parish and the Hill) sparked my interest and invigorated me, prompting my future wife, Shirley Nottage, to encourage me to switch my major from enervating sociology to the energizing field of English Literature. Professor Curran brought literature to life and sharpened my appreciation of plot and character.
That decision led me to graduate school in English literature at Ohio University and a first term course in the eighteenth-century British novel with Barry Roth, who in 1979 became a founding patron of the Jane Austen Society of  North America and who, in time, published three bibliographies of Jane Austen studies. 

Barry Roth

 Roth had studied with Ian Watt, and Roth’s introduction to the early English novel was exhilarating, progressing through Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett and Burney, before culminating in Austen.  Prior to this course I had read nothing by Austen and discovering her after a review of her predecessors was an eye-opener.  Like each of the earlier authors she drew on previous works and also like them she brought a unique element to the novel.  Like Richardson, Austen focuses on the tension between women and men; unlike him she eschews melodrama and decreases her use of epistles to advance that action.  Like Fielding, Austen brings wit and charm to her characters; unlike Fielding’s Tom Jones, Austen’s female protagonists live much more constrained lives, and unlike Fielding, Austen diminishes her voice in the novel and relies more on direct discourse to reveal the character’s actions and mood.
 At this point I could appreciate that Austen possessed  what I had been looking for in literature.  As impressed as I was with the earlier writers, Austen’s subtle control of her characters and plots, as well as the sense of purpose with which each of her novels is imbued made her stand out.  Above all, her command of character and dialogue heightened my appreciation. 
In Roth’s course we read Pride and Prejudice.  As I have been working on this piece I have tried to identify exactly what about this novel so appealed to me.  I believe it was the discourse between the characters, the skill with which Austen presented them through their words, and the skill with which some of them stated their positions, read the other characters’ motives and took their stand.  Though for my dissertation topic I finally chose the role of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price in identifying, absorbing, and affirming the values of integrity and loyalty that stand at the heart of the Bertram family and Mansfield Park, initially I was drawn to the topic of Jane Austen’s metadiscourse, which I perceived to be the subtle interplay, the verbal dance and jousting between characters that for me gives the greatest pleasure in the novel.  As much as this topic still intrigues me, its complexity led me down a rabbit hole where I stayed till the prospect of ABD forced me to abandon it for a more readily definable task. 
Though I have set aside the study of Austen’s discourse, this aspect of her skills still seems to me to be central to her contribution to the English novel. Therefore, I returned to Austen’s discourse for this blog. When I reviewed Pride and Prejudice to identify a passage that best exemplified Austen’s verbal pas de deux, I focused on the end of the novel when the characters have worked through their difficulties, matured and established themselves.  Austen closes the work with three strong set pieces: 1. Elizabeth and Wickham, 2. Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and 3. Elizabeth and Darcy.  Upon review,  scene two though important to the plot of the novel as it provides Elizabeth an opportunity to declare her justifiable pride in her status as a gentleman’s daughter and, therefore, Darcy’s social equal and to demonstrate her integrity by refusing to be cowed by a social superior, does not reveal Austen’s highest level of skill because Lady Catherine is a woman of limited intelligence who cannot grasp Elizabeth’s strength of character and who also has a limited set of skills to manipulate or persuade her skilled opponent.  Scene three between Elizabeth and Darcy also did not demonstrate the qualities I was looking for, not because Darcy lacked the intelligence and acuity to engage fully with Elizabeth but because at this point in the novel, the sole task of this scene is for them both to reveal their hands, apologize for their prides and prejudices and lay the foundation for their harmonious life together.  There is no challenge or threat to be resolved here. Dare Elizabeth reveal that she knows of the role Darcy played in saving Lydia and the honor of the Bennet family? Yes. Should Darcy reveal that he acted not for the sake of Lydia and the Bennet family, but out of his love for Elizabeth?  Yes.  No, neither of these two scenes, appealing and important as they are, made me aware of Austen’s skill and the contribution she was making to the novel. 
The scene that for me represents Austen and Elizabeth Bennet at their best and that clinched my appreciation of her is that between Elizabeth and Wickham after Darcy has bribed him into doing right by marrying Lydia Bennet.  Austen thoroughly sets the ground for this scene: first, she employs the conventional technique of filling in plot events with an epistle: she has Mrs. Gardiner send Elizabeth a letter detailing Wickham’s villainy, his plan to abandon Lydia and seek his fortune abroad, his refusal to marry her unless his debts are paid off by Darcy, and he receives a thousand pounds and a commission in his regiment.  Next, she provides Elizabeth with an interlude for reflection on Darcy’s principled generosity, occasioned solely by Wickham’s despicable, unprincipled behavior.  This scene plays an important role in the novel because Wickham had enticed Elizabeth into adopting a prejudiced view of Darcy and won her favor by presenting himself as a victim of Darcy’s cold pride.  Before Elizabeth can be united with Darcy, Wickham must be disposed of.  Austen facilitates this action by having Wickham seek Elizabeth out when he visits the Bennets after he marries Lydia.
While the scene unfolds it becomes clear that Wickham has an agenda: he hopes to discover what Elizabeth knows about his current situation and if possible secure her as a future ally against Darcy.  In contrast, Elizabeth’s two-fold challenge is to protect her sources and to let Wickham know as subtly as possible that she is fully aware of his mercenary motives and his unprincipled actions while simultaneously avoiding a rupture that would cause a rift within the family. 
Although blinded by his self-esteem, Wickham is a more worthy opponent for Elizabeth than Lady Catherine in that he has greater knowledge of and appreciation for Elizabeth, a broader array of social skills, and an ability, though limited, to assess and respond to her reactions. 
Their brief conversation, which is related entirely in direct discourse, falls into three distinct sections.  In each, Wickham initiates, attempting to present himself positively only to have Elizabeth say just enough to bring him up short.
First, after greeting her with the ingratiating “my dear sister,” he probes to find out what she knows of his past by referencing her visit to Darcy’s estate at Pemberley and her meeting with the housekeeper.  This indirect inquiry is adroit because by merely mentioning the visit, he avoids asking a direct question and permits Elizabeth to frame her response as she sees fit.
When he finds out that the housekeeper had spoken of him, he then directly asks what she said. 
Elizabeth’s economical and layered response both condemns him and also permits him to save face, should he choose to do so. She reports that the housekeeper said “That you [Wickham] had gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well.  At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented.”
Austen reports that Elizabeth intends this information to silence Wickham, and he does bite his lip. Yet Wickham emerges from this first encounter relatively unscathed.  He has not been so wounded that he considers retreating; rather, he adopts the dangerous strategy of returning to one of his earlier misrepresentations.  This lack of judgment further establishes his lack of discretion.  But then he persists in directly inquiring after Darcy’s sister, an early conquest of his, who was saved from Lydia’s fate by her good sense and Darcy’s intervention.  Wickham’s reference to his earlier transgression reveals no remorse for his ill treatment of the daughter of his benefactor, Darcy’s father. Rather, he caddishly states “When I last saw her, she was not very promising. . . . I hope she will turn out well.”
In response to Wickham’s second probe, Elizabeth again holds back, allowing Wickham to establish, if he chooses, to establish a polite truce between them. Although she knows fully that Wickham had attempted to seduce Georgiana Darcy and betray the trust and honor of the Darcy family, Elizabeth holds her fire and states ambivalently “I dare say she will; she has got over a most trying age.”
The third section of this scene reveals Wickham’s limitations and Elizabeth’s strengths.  Thus far, Austen has permitted Wickham to dominate the scene, and though Elizabeth’s responses to Wickham’s probes have been clear, they have been too subtle to alter Wickham’s behavior.  To penetrate his amour propre, she must be more direct. Wickham begins this third section seemingly satisfied with Elizabeth’s neutral response to his conduct at Pemberley, and attempts to win Elizabeth over and to alienate her from Darcy by reminding her of one of what he perceives to be Darcy’s most serious wrongs against him, the denial of the position of parson at the village of Kympton.
He asks if she had visited the village when she toured Pemberley.  She states that she had not; he reflects, “I mention it, because it is the living which I ought to have had. A most delightful place!—Excellent Parsonage House! It would have suited me in every respect. “
Elizabeth’s response here is perhaps my favorite line in the novel, revealing her wit, her knowledge of her opponent and her condemnation of his behavior.
“How should you have liked making sermons?” 
Had he any self-knowledge or integrity, Wickham could not make an honest affirmative answer to this question. Austen, through Elizabeth, has put him in checkmate. Wickham’s attempt to ruin Georgiana Darcy, his success in poisoning Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy, his willingness to ruin Lydia, his greed in marrying Lydia solely for the money that Darcy offers him, all demonstrate that all his sermons would be grounded in hypocrisy. 
Wickham’s response is a wonderful comic stroke of character illustration, exemplifying his thorough lack of self -knowledge.
He declares that he would have liked making sermons “Exceedingly well.  I should have considered it part of my duty, and the exertion would soon have been nothing.  One ought not to repine; ---but, to be sure, it would have been such a thing for me! The quiet, the retirement of such a life would have answered all my ideas of happiness!”
Then he pushes Elizabeth further.  Thus far she has only revealed what she knows of his ill behavior when he has directly questioned her.  Again he does so and allows Elizabeth to put him in his proper place and to establish that she sides with Darcy. 
Wickham asks directly what she knows from Darcy about the circumstances that caused him to be denied the position of parson.  At this point Elizabeth refuses to hold her fire any longer and lets Wickham know that she has heard directly from Darcy that Wickham had refused the position in favor of a cash buyout, which puts the lie to Wickham’s earlier claim that Darcy had unfairly refused to honor his father’s wish that Wickham be given the living at Kympton.
“I have heard from authority that it was left you conditionally only and at the will of the present patron. . . . I did hear, too that there was a time when sermon-making was no so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly.”
Elizabeth’s reference that she has her information from “authority,” should let Wickham know that Elizabeth has learned this fact from Darcy, the only other person than Wickham who would know of this arrangement and that she believes Darcy.  With these comments Elizabeth has completely cast Wickham aside, and if he has the wit to comprehend what has taken place he should gracefully withdraw.  Wickham makes a feeble attempt to save face, which Elizabeth ignores, choosing instead to speed up their walk and leave him at the door of her house.
In another novel by another novelist Wickham could have been a more melodramatic, dangerous threat to the order and honor of the Bennet family and had not Austen countered his malign force with Darcy’s benign efforts, he would have been.  Darcy’s efforts make it possible for Elizabeth to graciously dismiss Wickham at the end of this scene.
“Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past.  In future, I hope we shall always be of one mind.”
This seemingly innocuous closing in which Elizabeth might be appearing to paper over the differences between her and Wickham and to suggest that they will not disagree cannot be taken at face value. In this scene Wickham continued his efforts to ingratiate, manipulate, and deceive; however, unlike with his earlier efforts, this time Elizabeth has refused to be drawn in and politely insisted that the truth of his behavior must be recognized. 

The more I reflect on dialogue in this scene, the skill with which Austen shows how Elizabeth parries Wickham’s probes and the limits Elizabeth observes in revealing to him her knowledge of his unethical conduct until he begins to malign Darcy,  at which point she feels she must take a stand and convince Wickham that she will not be trifled with and that he can no longer manipulate her, the more I appreciate Austen’s skill. The level of excellence, the skills Austen displays in her evocation of character in this scene have become the standard by which I judge an author's expertise.


Thomas Flynn, Ph.D., is Associate Professor Emeritus of English, Ohio University. Since 1978, he has taught a variety of literature and composition courses at Ohio University Eastern. His experience of reading, studying, and writing about Austen has played a vital role in his appreciation of literature and in the goals he has set for himself and his students. From 1980 to 2007 Flynn chaired the James Wright Poetry Festival and in 1993 co-edited with Mary King The Dynamics of the Writing Conference for the National Council of Teachers of English.