“Sam Braden never talked about his father.”

So begins Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1944.  Flavin is another of Pulitzer’s forgotten names: his Wikipedia article (linked to in that first sentence) is about as barebones as any of the authors I’ve yet encountered, and it appears this was about his only swing of the bat in terms of making a splash nationally with his art.  Combine that with the fact that this novel starts like several of the worst books I’ve yet read—a slow retrospective glance at a Midwestern family in the 1880s that doesn’t have quite the glamour and money they think they deserve/once might have had—and it seems like a surefire recipe for a bad experience.

Except that I’ve read about the first third of the novel already, and the main reason I’ve moved so quickly is that it’s really good.  Not Steinbeck good; not Wharton good.  Maybe not even Stribling or La Farge good (although I’m not at all sure yet). Still, though, it’s clearly better than any non-Steinbeck novel I’ve read in the last three years (which encompasses about a decade’s worth of Pulitzer winners).  For the first time in a while, I’m sort of hoping one or more of you either has read this or feels like jumping in, since I’d love an outside perspective.  First, though, let me offer my own.

The setting jumps around a bit (I’ll explain in a second), but for the first third, it really is based pretty solidly in fictional Wyattville, Iowa, a small Mississippi River town dominated by the large number of descendants from the founding Wyatt family.  The Bradens are poor, based largely on Sam’s father’s severe laziness, but just high enough in status (his father’s East Coast law degree—earned goodness-only-knows-how—gets him the job as “town marshal”) to hob-nob with the Wyatts in certain social situations (but not all of them).  Sam’s the youngest of four kids—ambitious, thoughtful, a little bit of a dreamer and also a good kid who mostly wants his mother to be proud of him.  I’m calling him a kid, but as I mentioned, this book skips around—so far I’ve seen little vignettes of Sam as a much older, fairly successful businessman.  The glimpses don’t normally explain enough to give away important plot points, and quickly there’s usually some event that causes older Sam to remember being young again, and we flop back into a fairly conventional chronological re-telling of Sam’s rise from being youngest barefoot kid of the town’s no-good sheriff to being a man of substance.  There’s something very Dickensian going on for Sam (it’s no coincidence, I think, that Flavin has Sam’s mother give him a copy of David Copperfield for Christmas, and later there’s brief mention that Sam enjoys Great Expectations, maybe enough to make it his favorite novel: certainly there’s a lot of Pip in him).

All of that, though, is only enough to make this a potentially good novel—it has the bones of better works, but that’s never a guarantee.  What I appreciate most about this novel so far is its modernity and maturity, which is most easily encapsulated in Sam’s relationship with his next door neighbor, a girl named Cassie.  Cassie, you see, is a young black woman—two years older than Sam, adventurous with a sunny demeanor—and by the time she hits her teens, she takes a shine to Sam.  He initially resists, but not for long.  Here’s the remarkable thing: Flavin depicts a real series of sexual encounters.  Not in graphic detail (although there are plenty of lines that would make Edith Wharton blush), but honestly—the tension that builds between the two of them before an illicit encounter in an abandoned warehouse in a storm, then the furtive, repeated liaisons when time allows and no one else is watching.  Furthermore, Cassie and her family are depicted as regular folks: generous, lively, decent neighbors.  Although Sam is aware that he needs to keep his relationship with Cassie secret from his white friends (particularly the toffee-nosed Wyatt girl who lives in the mansion and never says a word to him….yeah, like I said, really inspired by Great Expectations), there’s never a hint of his feeling any kind of internal shame about their racial differences, or any condescension to Cassie’s family (beyond a very brief mention of the fact that Cassie has no discernibly “black” accent, unlike her father—a very neutral statement in context, honestly, although perhaps some judgment is implied).  Even when they are discovered and he must be confronted by an adult, it’s Cassie’s father, a black man, who scolds Sam—and the interracial situation is never even remotely addressed, despite the fact that I was absolutely certain, given the time period, that Sam would catch an earful for “traveling outside of his rightful folk” or something like that.  And Cassie’s father is not even as outraged as I would expect a modest turn-of-the-century man to be when discovering the neighbor boy has been shtupping his daughter regularly on the down-low for a year plus.  He does assert several times that it’s shameful what they’ve been doing, but he’s a deacon in his church, and his daughter has turned up pregnant—this seems pretty much par for the course.  And honestly, he spends more time on praising Sam than on shaming him, emphasizing how good a young man he is in most respects, and how proud his mother (then deceased) would have been to see him grow up, and the burden he feels as a man who’s watched Sam grow up to hold him accountable to the values Sam’s mother would have wanted instilled.

Yeah—racially and sexually progressive.  Or at least the attitudes towards race and sex of the central characters would not be totally out of place in a novel written and set in the 2010s—which is astonishing in 1944.  If Flavin keeps it up, this will win my personal award (which I talked about a long time ago, I think during a terribly racist stretch in Scarlet Sister Mary) for being the earliest American novel I’m familiar with to treat race in a decent and non-embarrassing fashion.  Add to that the fact that, in what is maybe even more evident to me after my long sojourn with Upton Sinclair, Flavin can write a real character.  Sam in particular is incredibly complex—single-minded in some things (like his pursuit of the Wyatt girl, or his ambition to make something of himself), but undecided and malleable in others (for instance, when, as a child, he gets an unexpected gift of cash, he wavers back and forth between buying himself a sled or buying his mother a gift—the balancing act feels very natural).  And most of the townsfolk are distinguishable from each other and operating with sensible motivations in response to the outside stimuli we would expect them to: these feel like real human beings grappling with a world that’s as simultaneously marvelous and malevolent as the real world is.

The dialogue doesn’t have a ton of sparkle to it, and the narration falls a little flat at times.  The jerks back and forth between the main, chronological storyline and these “flash-forwards” to an older, wealthier Sam don’t always work very smoothly and can be a little disorienting.  And again, this book at times drags so much out of Great Expectations (seriously: there is a scene where Sam arrives at the Wyatt house on an errand and sees the Wyatt girl he likes playing with a rich young boy, who he hates immediately and wants to fight….it’s like Pip and Estella are both ill and we’re watching their American understudies) that it can feel a little needlessly redundant.  All of these criticisms are valid, and unless Flavin can master them, will keep this novel out of the highest levels of the Pulitzer stratosphere.  But there’s so much else to like right now, I’m rooting for him to take this as far as it can go—there’s a real “American success story” planted inside Sam Braden, and Flavin seems ready to set the story in the real America.  Again, if you’ve read this before (or have time to grab a copy), please hop into the comments—this one has me wanting to talk it out!

1943: Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair

Literary Style:

It’s been two years since I wrote one of these reviews.  Of course, right after I reviewed the 1942 novel, In This Our Life, we found out we were expecting our little daughter, so there’s a reason this stretch of my life was so devoid of Pulitzer reading time.  Still, I’m glad to finally finish this one, and with the momentum I picked up, I’m already close to 1/4 done with 1944’s selection (post on that upcoming, probably tomorrow or Monday), so I hope this is the longest gap I ever hit between reviews here at FP.

Of course, it wasn’t all my daughter’s fault.  Upton Sinclair’s book is maddening in its first half—slow-paced, shallow, crammed full of characters that are hard to distinguish, formless, seemingly aimless.  If not for the blog, I’d have given up all hope of sticking with it entirely.  But that would have been to miss out on some good story-telling, it turns out.  The last half of the book succeeds at least in being gripping and page-turning, and to some extent in digging deeper into characters, by shedding most of what makes the first half bad.  Once the Robins are endangered by the rise of the Nazi state, and one in particular is imprisoned in a concentration camp (n.b.: not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz, since we’re still only in 1933-1934…that’s not to say anything about the camp is less than horrifying, but I think we do tend to conflate “concentration camp” with “extermination camp” in casual usage), Lanny Budd and his wife Irma become our central focus.  Sinclair mostly forgets his jabs at wealth and class, or else figures out how to work them into a more thoughtful examination of the character of Irma in particular, whose wealth and class have a real bearing on her willingness to risk on behalf of some Jewish in-laws who’ve run afoul of powerful German capitalists.  The stakes are high, and the book gets far more up close and personal with the gruesome, dehumanizing violence of the Nazi agenda that I would have guessed.  I expect that Sinclair’s fearlessness in depicting these horrors probably worked to his advantage in the voting for that year’s Pulitzer—a novel that makes Hitler and his henchmen look this blandly evil, written by a noted American propagandist, must surely have felt “right” to a lot of people on the board.

That’s not to say it is obvious to me, taken as a whole on its literary merit, that this ought to be a prize-winning novel.  I don’t have personal experience with the other likely contenders from that year (maybe one of Steinbeck’s less well-known titles, The Moon is Down, or Lloyd Douglas’s big popular success in historical fiction, The Robe? It’s hard to say), but Sinclair’s novel has at least as many weaknesses as it has strengths.  Certainly as a work of literature (which is all I consider in this section of the review) it is weakly executed in narration, characterization, and consistency of tone—of all the many characters I’m asked to keep up with, only two really feel alive to me.  If you like a well-written novel (and not every reader cares; I happen to, but I’m not judging people who are more taken by setting, plot, etc.), this will fall short of the mark.

Historical Insight:

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The ugly, appallingly evil world into which Sinclair lets us peer

The strength of the book, as I have said all along (more so recently), is Sinclair’s unflinching look at the desperate state of Europe in the 1930s through the eyes of a lefist American (Lanny Budd, ostensibly, although really most of the actual commentary/insight is expressed by our allegedly 3rd person narrator, a thinly-veiled Upton Sinclair).  Given the second half of the book, really the deepest looks are aimed into the crumbling Weimar Republic in Germany, and how the cruel peace imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 planted the seeds of revolution that Hitler would grow into a garden of his own devising, and for his own purposes.  We see the violence of the Nazi state, the duplicity with which Hitler used real revolutionaries to seize power (only to double-cross those same revolutionaries when they threatened his ability to win over the powerful tycoons who ran big business in Deutschland), even down to the minute details like Goebbels’s wife being the highest ranking Nazi woman (given that Hitler and Göring are bachelors in 1933) or Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, being a homosexual (a fact blandly commented on by the characters who know it: while no one could call this a gay-friendly narrative, it’s strikingly devoid of homophobia, especially given the era).  Lesser insights are given into French and English politics and social movements of the era.  In fact, if I have one complaint, it’s a damning one (for a Pulitzer winner)—Sinclair barely explains anything about America at all.  He’s poised to comment—Lanny and Irma are heirs to various American businesses and fortunes, and have extensive ties on that side of the Atlantic.  They even visit on one or two occasions, but Sinclair sweeps them back to Europe before they can really engage with the Great Depression, the right-wing unrest in the States that in some ways mirrored Nazism/Fascism on the European continent, Roosevelt’s surge into leadership and his bold actions in pushing through his 100 Days of the New Deal.  I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the 1930s—as a history major, most of this is review for me, but some of it is new and all of it is interesting.  I just wish it was telling me something more about America.

Rating:

On the unscientific scale, I give this a “If you are interested in the time period, like a good pot-boiler, and aren’t fussy about writing style”.  As someone who is interested in the 1930s (and likes a thriller at least some of the time) but IS fussy about style, I’m pretty ambivalent about this one.  I wouldn’t recommend it too widely, but I did find myself liking the last third, especially, and am much more positive about it now than I was only a month or two ago.

The Last Word:

As is my custom, I give the author the last word in the review, choosing a passage I think shows some of the better side of what I read (although, in this case, it’s showing some of the worst sides of a character’s personality).  The context is a conversation from late in the book (but not the end), in which Lanny and his wife, Irma, are arguing about what to do for the member of the Robin family imprisoned by the Nazis.  Irma’s character is finally being developed—we can see some of this emerge as the narrator explains her reactions to her husband, and I think this is a good example of Sinclair actually working out how someone different from him sees the world.  It’s also not devoid of his moralizing—none of his narration is—so if you don’t mind that, you might be great with this book, and if it really irritates you, this novel will not work for you.

Anyway: Lanny has just gotten news identifying the camp to which this poor Robin was taken, and has announced to his wife his determination to save the prisoner—she has attempted to put her foot down, but Lanny has dismissed her attempts to stop him:

“So Irma had to give up.  She had told him what was in her heart, and even though she would break down and weep, she wouldn’t change; on the contrary, she would hold it against him that he had made her behave in that undignified fashion.  In her heart she knew that she hated the Robin family, all of them; they were alien to her, strangers to her soul.  If she could have had her way she would never have been intimate with them; she would have had ehr own yacht and her own palace and the right sort of friends in it.  But this Socialism business had made Lanny promiscuous, willing to meet anybody, an easy victim for any sort of pretender, any slick, canting ‘idealist’—how she loathed that word!  She had been forced to make pretenses and be polite; but now this false ’cause’ was going to deprive her of her husband and her happiness, and she knew that she heartily despised it.

It wasn’t just love of herself.  It was love of Lanny, too.  She wanted to help him, she wanted to take care of him; but this ‘class struggle’ stepped in between and made it impossible; tore him away from her, and sent him to face danger, mutilation, death.  Things that Irma and her class were supposed to be immune from!  That was what your money meant; it kept you safe, it gave you privilege and security.  But Lanny wanted to throw it all away.  He had got the crazy notion that you had no right to money; that having got it, you must look down upon it, spurn it, and thwart the very purposes for which it existed, the reasons why your forefathers had worked so hard!  If that was not madness, who could find anything that deserved the name?”

“I cannot believe that God is still alive.”

Well, we’ve hit the intense portion of Dragon’s Teeth.  Hitler is bringing down the hammer on the Jews of Germany, and it’s striking just the characters that have been sitting in its shadow this whole time—in particular, arms dealer Johannes Robin, who has been insisting to Lanny Budd that he knows how to handle the Nazis and stay on their good side.  And it really is the first part of the novel that works (although not without its issues).  I’ll try to say why without giving up too much of the plot, given that I’m nearing the end of the novel—close enough that this may well be my last post before writing a review.

One of the problems with Upton Sinclair’s novel, in my estimation, is that it’s the 3rd novel in an incredibly long series of books on Lanny Budd (Sinclair will wrap up with the 11th book in the series in the early 1950s).  In works of this kind, an impossible number of characters are floated because the author needs to keep everyone hanging around in case they become useful again.  Then add to this the fact that the novels are really just Sinclair’s pretext for being able to opine about world events, and you have to add in all the real people he needs them to interact with—Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring both make extended cameos in this section, for example.  The result, for much of the book, is a sea of names marching in and out, and if you can’t remember the difference between Zoltan and Zaharoff, neither of whom have actually appeared in a scene in hundreds of pages but both of whom will be referred to casually by their last names multiple times in situations where context cannot possibly help you, dear reader, work out who in the heck they are….well, let’s say it’s been frustrating and leave it at that.

But in this scenario, suddenly the world has telescoped down to something very small—really it’s just Lanny and his wife Irma, making their way into Hitler’s Germany to try to secure the freedom of Lanny’s Jewish relatives (in-laws via his sister’s marriage to one of the Robin boys) without either endangering them further or risking their own lives too hastily.  Upton is forced to spend a lot of time with the two of them, to the exclusion of the parade of other characters who (for various sensible reasons) can’t really gallivant into Nazi Germany on a whim.  So we actually get to know them, and to understand how differently they see the world.  And we get to see them try to “play” the Nazis and lose terribly, since fundamentally a man like Göring—monstrous, lacking all conscience and utterly unrestrained by what little was left of law and decency in the Nazi state—held all the cards and knew it.  In the end, they must leave at least one innocent man in Germany because they cannot secure all the freedoms they wanted, which gives cause to Mama Robin’s despairing borderline atheism that provides me with the post’s title.  I’m at the point where they’re now exploring their options for another German rescue, while simultaneously trying to work out how to care for everyone they know in need during a massive worldwide depression.  It’s exciting, page-turning stuff, and it makes for a fairly rewarding experience.

And yet.  The two things that still bug me are the things that will bug me to the end—they’re not accidental on Upton’s part, they’re almost integral to his project, and so even now at his best, they’re in the way.  The first is that almost all the characters are cardboard—they exist to drive the plot and to allow him to make meaningful commentary as the narrator.  Mama Robin is an excellent example—he gives her a couple of heart-breaking lines (like the one I quote above), but he never really deals with her grief.  She agrees to leave Germany with some of her loved ones despite the fact that she’s leaving someone else behind she loves dearly….how can she do that?  What toll does it take?  It has no bearing on Upton’s project and so he literally doesn’t deal with it at all.  When (most of) the family is reunited, he brushes it off with some narrative sentence like “there were many tears, but they eventually subsided” since he couldn’t care less, really, how these characters feel or what they’re going through.  Not unless their feelings can be plumbed for some trenchant political commentary.

And the second issue is that he still doesn’t really like Lanny and Irma, and has made the colossal error of making them his central characters.  In the hands of another author, we might not notice or care, but he really can’t help being snide about them, Irma especially, and it’s irritating.  He hates her naivete and the inherited wealth that made it possible, and now, while he is at least (to his credit) letting her voice her opinions, he makes it clear how vapid and heartless a woman like her really is, without even meaning to be.  And that would be fine—it really would (I think of how Fitzgerald treats Daisy Buchanan)—except that it distracts him from really developing her character much beyond what is needed for the immediate purposes of the plot (Lanny fares only a little better), and since he’s only given the two of them a vital task to do now, at the end and in the heart of a terrible crisis, the sliver we get of their personalities is necessarily limited and therefore frustrating.

Really, again, it goes back to the issues I raised in my last post.  The Holocaust is such rich and tragic emotional territory than any artist worth his salt (and a few unworthy of it) can turn a little paint-by-numbers story into something that feels very profound and significant just by setting it in Nazi Germany with some major Jewish characters.  Upton has at least chosen to make this situation the central focus of the story, at last, and so is getting all he can out of it.  I just feel that his frequent boredom with the characters, combined with his condescension and his political agenda, leaves the story short of what it could have accomplished.  The novel’s reputation with me is getting better—I can’t deny I’m riveted by what’s going on, and I desperately want to know how this turns out.  I just feel that, given the reputation of the author, and the high praise implied by the awarding of a Pulitzer, I deserve something better than a potboiler with some stock characters and an author who plainly thinks he’s smarter than me, maybe than everybody else.  If the whole book were like this section, it would be worth recommending (maybe as an airplane read), but since I had to slog a ways to even get here, I’m not sure what to make of it yet.  We’ll see how this last stretch goes.

“Then Göring, President of the Reichstag, declared the session adjourned, and so a great people lost their liberties while rejoicing over gaining them.”

There’s a conventional wisdom about Holocaust movies and the Academy Awards—namely, that if you can just manage to set your movie in that ghastly genocidal event somewhere, the overwhelming emotions associated with it will lend your film a gravity and importance that it might not deserve, and earn you some nominations/awards you otherwise wouldn’t get.  And there’s some truth to it.  For every Schindler’s List, which is a truly great movie, there’s a The Reader or The Pianist (arthouse films that, set in almost any other historical era of oppression and violence, probably wouldn’t get quite the notice), and then the occasional Life is Beautiful, a film that almost no one likes as well in retrospect as they did when it came out, a film that (for many of us) really cheated its way into our hearts by dialing up our emotions to 11 but without giving the subject matter the depth of understanding it deserved, now that we think about it.

Welcome to the rise of Nazi Germany, then, in the hands of Upton Sinclair, because that’s right, dear readers, James is back on the Pulitzer trail and half-way through the 1943 winner of the prize, Dragon’s Teeth.  I’m making more headway now, and it’s time to come up for air and share a few thoughts with you all.  Sinclair’s approach to the novel is still not totally successful for me, but somehow the story is becoming more and more engrossing.  Yet, if I step back to think about it, I worry a little that it’s a Life is Beautiful phenomenon.  The story is set in such an urgent and important time period in German and Jewish history, and several of our main characters (though not the protagonists) are German Jews, and it can be easy to get swept up in the power of what the actual lives of those characters would have been that I don’t think as much about whether Sinclair’s work with them is actually successful writing.  And it’s hard to say exactly where I stand.

Sinclair does some things well—the quote that serves as the post’s title is a nice example.  He does great with these sweeping movements of history, noting what the famous real-life people are doing, sneaking notes about their intrigues and scheming into conversations wherever he can, and moralizing extensively about them in the voice of the narrator—“The Germans gained an empire and lost their souls”, stuff like that—without it being remotely tied to any individual character’s perspective on the situation.  Much of it feels like just a memoir written by a thoughtful and aggressive partisan, which really it is: Sinclair’s perspective on the gross errors made by Americans and Western Europeans in the 1930s which had led to the position the world is in as he writes, engulfed in the second world war, the war they’d sworn to avoid in 1917 and yet had somehow planted the seeds of in the very peace they signed in 1919.  Honestly, I’d rather read his memoir.  He’s much better at dicing up the leftist movements into factions and explaining how they thwarted each other, or examining the ways in which Fascism could present itself as respectable in so many different lights, than he is at writing meaningful dialogue or constructing characters we care about as people.  Sinclair, in other words, could easily have written half of The Grapes of Wrath—the non-Joad chapters, in which Steinbeck told the story of the people and their movements and what it all signified—but would have found even the worst Joad chapter hopelessly above his reach.  That’s my impression as it stands now.

And it’s such a shame, because he sets himself up beautifully.  We’re in 1933, and Hitler has seized power—Jews are fleeing the German Republic as it loses the very name of “republic”, and some of our central characters are among them.  I’ve just read about how the young German Jewish musician, Hansi Robin, fled with his wife across the border into France (with the Budds’ assistance), and then played the music of his people with tears in his eyes before a crowd as an act of political protest once the abuses of the Nazi party against Jews in Germany are starting to make the news.  And it really is powerful, right up until I realize that the character I’m sympathizing with is a guy I personally am constructing.  I’m piecing him together from some of the movies I mentioned, and some stories I’ve read, and the words of a couple of Holocaust survivors whose stories I was privileged enough to hear in person, more than a decade ago.  If I knew nothing about this era other than what Sinclair is giving me, I’d have almost no emotion to bring to the table—unless he has a violin in his hands, I literally cannot even tell one Robin brother from the other, let alone remember which one is socialist and which one communist.

The result is difficult to characterize.  The art of the West is now well steeped in Holocaust memories and events—most potential readers could bring a rich palate of emotions to these chapters just as I can, and get something out of them that Upton never put in.  So, does that make this a good reading experience?  But then every time I try to really grab hold of someone—to ask myself who this American heir to a munitions manufacturer, Lanny Budd, really is, or what I think his rich wife, Irma, really thinks about the power struggle in Germany—I realize they’re just paper people.  I turn them in my hands to try to see them better, and they are so thin that they disappear to me almost entirely.

So, am I enjoying myself?  I’m getting something from the reading, that’s for sure.  At least some of it is new to me—Sinclair knew the politics of leftist movements internationally very well, and I’m sure I can trust those details in the story.  Much of it resonates with other non-fiction books I’ve read, maybe most centrally Erik Larson’s (he of The Devil in the White City: if you haven’t read Larson, you need to hunt something down) In The Garden of Beasts, which is about a real American family, a wealthy one, that came to Germany when the paterfamilias was appointed ambassador to the new Nazi state, and his adult kids came piling along with him to meet these fresh-faced young Aryans and learn more about the young German empire as it was being reborn.  It’s exactly the book Sinclair wants to write, truthfully, and the fact that I’ve read it means that I really can add dimension to some of the conversations he’s supplying.  The novel itself isn’t terrible—it’s just sloppy, because he doesn’t really care about these people as people.  They’re there solely to serve Sinclair’s agenda, like characters in a Dan Brown novel, who are there only to help Dan tell us his latest “insights” into world religion or history or whatever he thinks he’s an expert on this year.  Now, again, as I said earlier, I think Sinclair is fascinating, and I’d have read his memoir about the 1930s with interest—he’s well ahead of Brown in that regard, for me.  So I forgive him more, I think, for the fact that this is more a piece of propaganda, combined with a bit of a scolding tone aimed at the middle-class folks who should have listened more to people like Upton Sinclair in the ’30s, than it is a work of art.  That’s the way it feels now, at any rate: we’ll see if the last half can move me from this position at all!

Poetry Friday: Olav Hauge

I’ve been investing time in my Pulitzer novel this week—remember that? Upton Sinclair and Dragon’s Teeth? well, if you don’t, never mind that; the blog’s leitmotif will return soon, is all you need know at present—and so this will be brief.  In keeping with that brevity, I turn to one of the best modern poets at getting something alive and enticing into a short verse, Norway’s Olav Hauge.  Here is his “Don’t Give Me the Whole Truth,” which appeared in a collection by that name in 1985:

“Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.”

Hauge takes a strange tack in this poem, and one that, for that reason, intrigues and draws me in.  Unlike plenty of poems that are desperate for truth, Hauge—a little world-wearier, perhaps, a little wiser—asks for something short of revelation.  He just needs satisfaction, not excess; happiness, not ecstasy.  Not the ocean, but that grain of wind-borne salt.  Not a fortune, but the unexpected coin.  Not a forest, but the shade of a single slender tree.  Like a prayer, he offers it to us, like a whispered hope.  Do not ask for the whole world; just that corner of it where you can find a roof and a bed, a smile to return to and a simple meal on the table.  As winter gives way to spring, it sounds about right to me.

Poem for Ash Wednesday: Denise Levertov

As is my custom on these Christian holidays of significance to me (and others), I try to find a poem to share and reflect on that will resonate in some particular way with folks who share at least some of my beliefs, but that will also speak to people of other faiths, or no faith.  I don’t know if I always succeed, but I always find the trying worth the effort for me, at least.  I hope it works for you, as well.  Today is Ash Wednesday, a day for reflecting on a lot of things: the frailty of being human, and its weakness.  Human resolve, that somehow will push back against these things in search of some more significant destiny.  Our need, both collective and individual, for mercy, for kindness, for forgiveness and grace, if these terms are not too loaded with theology to speak to us all in our simple humanity.  One of the poets who speaks to all these things most successfully for me is Denise Levertov, who I found this morning I had not gone to in almost three years for the blog—today I’ll rectify that, observing Ash Wednesday (or “Wednesday”, for those of you who don’t care a fig for all this Lent business) with a poem called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velasquez)”, from her collection The Stream & the Sapphire.  Since it is based, as the title suggests, on a work of art, I’ll share that image next to it here so that you can consider it as you consider the poem:

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
was his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

I won’t delve into the history of the painting, which you can read about on Wikipedia and other places, too, I’m sure.  Levertov clearly isn’t concerned with Velasquez, great as he is, but instead with what the painting allows us to glimpse.  The image and story come from the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, although the story may also appear (without a lot of identifying detail) in the Gospel of Mark.  The basics are quite simple—after the death of Jesus and the discovery that his tomb was empty, two of his disciples (one gets a name, but it never appears again in the New Testament; the other remains anonymous to us) are walking down the road to a small town called Emmaus talking about all that’s happened.  They meet a stranger on the road who apparently doesn’t know about any of these events, and they fill him in.  He then suggests that all of this is in accord with prophecies from the Tanakh (or Old Testament), and amazes them with his deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures.  They talk a long time on the road, and then they invite him to dinner once Emmaus is reached: at some point during the meal (maybe the beginning, maybe not; scholars disagree on how to interpret certain phrases) they suddenly recognize the stranger as a resurrected Jesus, whereupon he vanishes.

It’s a pretty good story, truth be told, even if for you that’s all it is—some fiction about people who either never lived, or who, if they did, didn’t have this literal experience.  The two travelers, sorrowful but also perplexed.  One of them has a name that we don’t recognize; the other is nameless.  A third person joins them and, despite seeming to be unfamiliar with the details of their lived experiences, amazes them by putting together ideas and events they already knew about in a way that fascinates and intrigues them.  They react with gratitude, and are rewarded with a sudden (and shockingly brief) glimpse of a friend they thought was lost forever.  And then he was gone, again.  Into this little tale Levertov (by way of Velasquez) inserts the figure of this young black girl, who gets the drop on our two travelers—before they quite recognize the man in front of them (since, once they do, he will disappear), she sees out of the corner of her eye something that immediately clarifies all of this for her.

What’s here for all of us, I think, including people of any faith tradition (or none), is the recognition of that kind of Emmaus moment in our own lives.  We know the breathless moment when suddenly something we hadn’t looked for appears to us.  We feel in our bones what it’s like to have your lived experiences—for this girl, something in the voice or hands that calls to mind almost-forgotten memories—call you to focus on something others will overlook, and to have our rapt attention pay off with a sudden glimpse of something true and important.  I love those last three lines, the suddenness of her turn (which Velasquez only anticipates, rather than depicting) and the light falling into her eyes, and with it, knowledge.  Especially powerful, then, is Velasquez’s choice (which Levertov reinforces) of an ethnic minority, a young person, and a woman, to be the one who sees before these older men (we can’t say “white” since no native of Palestine then really fits that admittedly weird and arbitrary racial category from modern America, but of a different race than the girl, and theirs is the majority race in that part of the world).  Maybe it can serve as a reminder to all of us that Emmaus moments are not just ours to receive individually—that, to learn all we should, we need to be attentive to how other people’s experiences, especially those different from ours, especially those marginalized by our society, may open up truths for them that we need also.  Truths that we, once we possess them, will carry in our hearts forever, even from just that one brief glimpse.  I think the poem and the painting, together, hit that message home for me, and it’s one I’m grateful for no matter what Wednesday it is.

But to add just briefly for others who may share some of my faith experiences, and for whom Ash Wednesday is a special day of reflection, I’ll say that the Emmaus tale is a powerful one for Lent, I think.  I love the namelessness of the second disciple because I think that disciple is each of us, all of us—whoever he (or she) may have been on the road that day.  I love the metaphor for Lent as a road—one we walk for a long ways while pondering the stories written in the New Testament, sharing with each other insights we may have—and one that may end in a startling and meaningful glimpse of the divine during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.  And so, for that reason, all I said in the last paragraph is magnified—the important of recognizing how people not like me, especially the marginalized and the ignored in my community, may have much more to draw on when they look for the form of the one who was despised and mistreated, rejected by almost all who knew him, in the end, and put to ignominious death as a hated criminal.  They may know much more than I do about his hands and voice, may see them much more alive and at work in the community around me, and may feel the warmth of light in places that are still dark to me.  Lent is a season for listening, then, at least for me—to Levertov today, and hopefully to the voices of many other people in the 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and the ringing of the Easter bells.  Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

Poetry Friday: Casey at the Bat

It may seem that the middle of winter is a strange time to tackle a poem about the national pastime, since baseball’s season is still weeks away (pitchers and catchers have yet even to report to spring training), but if you’re someone like me—a guy who’s been a Seahawks fan so long he still has a little slip of paper tucked away in a keepsake box with Chuck Knox‘s signature on it—the thrilling and then gut-punch agonizing finish to this year’s Super Bowl instantly brought to mind Ernest Lawrence Thayer‘s classic poem about anticipation, arrogance, talent and disappointment.  You may be most familiar with it as the narration to a Disney cartoon, and indeed, there’s a side of the poem that is cartoonish.  But Martin Gardner, who wrote essays on American literature for the better part of a century, championed the poem for years as “America’s epic poem”, a verse that is titanic and powerful in what it says about who we are, and viewed especially through the lens of the emotions I went through last Sunday, I’m coming around to the notion that Gardner was right.  Without further ado, here’s the whole text of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Thayer presents us with a mesmerizing little poem: one that, yes, has gotten quirkier as the years pass and some of the slang becomes increasingly comical (I love the narrator’s calm assertion that Flynn and Blake, Mudville’s lesser lights, are, respectively, a “hoodoo” and a “cake”).  It can seem almost like a joke, presenting us with a setup, the gradual build of tension, and then the little shock of laughter as the outcome we expect—the triumph of “mighty Casey”—is pulled out from under us.  But we don’t really laugh at Casey, do we?  He’s not a clown; he’s a tragic hero.

Or at least that’s what I’d like you to try to bring to this poem.  Walk through it with me—it has its weaknesses (Thayer was no great poet, and even he came to look disapprovingly at this piece as he aged), but I think in spite of his inexperience and the poem’s frequently silly tone, you’ll see there’s a grandeur to the poem that explains why it endures.  Let’s start with the rhythm—seven metrical feet per line, iambs—which may feel familiar if you read it out loud and really listen to the rise and fall.  It’s the same rhythm Emily Dickinson uses in most of her famous pieces—“Some keep the Sabbath going to church”, etc.—although she breaks the lines in two (four feet and three).  She almost certainly borrows the rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, from the rhythms of the hymns sung in the New England churches she would have grown up attending (however she chose to keep the Sabbath once she was grown).  There’s a stateliness to the sound: it doesn’t quite sound funny to us, aloud.  It’s tapping into something about English and the way we’re accustomed to hearing it, I think: the meter says “these are thoughts to dwell on”.  Thayer chose it well.

Then the setup: I think it’s worth noting that Casey doesn’t lose Mudville a game it has in the bag.  Mudville’s played 8 of 9 innings and is in a real bind.  They haven’t been fast enough, strong enough, precise enough.  Any baseball fan will tell you that down two heading into the ninth inning is heartbreak territory, most of the time: close enough to believe in the possibility of a win, but almost guaranteed to end with a lazy pop-up or a rage-inducing called third strike.  And then, when Cooney and Barrows make quick work of themselves, well, most fans would be packing up their peanuts and crackerjack, if not physically heading for the exits.  But then something wonderful happens.

It’s too easy to see the end of the poem as all that counts, I think, but there are these little miracles in the middle of it, and plucky Flynn and doughty little Jimmy Blake are the two gems—they give Mudville all it could have asked.  Whatever failures lay behind them when they came to the plate—and there must have been some, to inspire the foul feelings in the stands as they are announced—each of them has a moment to shine, and they seize it.  They take what could have been an ignominious loss, 4-2 finishing with a routine ground ball to short, and turn it into a shout of delight, a thrill of expectation, a dawning realization that, no matter how it ends, this will be a game we go home remembering.  Sport has that instant memory-making quality, for those who love it: the chance to know just a moment in advance you’ll have this image clear in your mind all your life, and to revel in that knowledge (as much as it terrifies you).

I love those two fellows for their contributions, but of course, this is a poem about Casey and to him our eyes must go.  After Blake’s astonishing double puts the tying run in scoring position, Thayer gets a little Old Testament in his language—the echo of the spectators goes out and makes a clamor in the natural world like something out of Isaiah or Ezekiel.  Casey is almost apocalyptic as he steps forward, and rightly so, since in the lives of those five thousand standing there, it feels at least a tiny bit like the world might end if he can’t manage to knock in the runs.  This is hyperbole.  All sporting language is, and fans know it: we are watching fiction.  But it doesn’t diminish the way those real feelings well up, unasked for, in our minds.

What makes Casey tragic, and American, to me is his unconquerable confidence.  He is the perfect image of the superstar, a vision that haunts all our society’s best and worst moments.  We prefer our leaders like this, whether quarterbacks, captains of industry, or even presidents: we like them unruffled by doubt, untroubled by the very real and slim odds they may face in a given situation.  There’s something reassuring about that confidence, even if we could never find it in ourselves (maybe especially so).  Casey is easy, light-hearted—he tips his cap as though out for a stroll through the park.  He saves his sneers for the opposing pitcher, but even then, he really is very relaxed about the encounter, at least at first.  He’s too good to swing at a less than perfect pitch, and really we sense he’s saving himself for the perfect moment, as though his legend would be diminished by a first-pitch single into right field.  He wants the 0-2 count so desperately that he might as well have laid down and watched the first two pitches go by while doing a crossword puzzle.  He steps in to save the umpire, and when the crowd erupts in anger after the second strike, it’s to them he darts a look of scorn—even they, the gang in his corner, shouting his name, praying to Heaven for one swing of his bat, they are really beneath him in that moment.  He gradually seizes control of the whole event: you’ll notice, he signals to the pitcher for the second pitch, as though it was foreordained, as though Casey is writing the script and even the opposition must play along.

What, then, do we make of a script that ends in the way it does?  There’s sudden hate and violence inside Casey as he waits for the third pitch, but who is it for?  Even though, situationally, it seems obvious it should be the enemy pitcher, it can’t really be, can it?  He’s more or less sent engraved invitations to have the pitcher throw two by him.  And who could hate Flynn or Blake, or even his other teammates who’d let him down—baseball is certainly a team sport, and without the efforts of the others, Casey could never have gotten into this position.  Despite that scornful look, I’ll go ahead and even clear the audience of the charge.  Who’s left to hate, then?  Where does the violence go?

Casey reminds me in this moment of Captain Ahab, the one-legged monomaniac who seizes Moby-Dick out of the hands of its so-called narrator, Ishmael. At one point in that novel, we are told that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” There’s something that elemental about Casey, in that moment, and this is why the poem for me is large and intimidatingly wonderful. Casey’s anger reaches beyond the game he is playing and the moment he is responding to. This is the anger that anyone with talent and opportunity has to stare down—the realization that to be good at anything means to dare failure, and that to be great demands putting ourselves in positions where the only possible failures will be catastrophic ones. He might be angry on some level that there is such a game as baseball and that he was born to be good at it—angry at the inescapability of error and loss, because even if he launches this pitch into the next county, a day will come when he swings and misses, and it will look like all the others. Casey’s monstrous third strike has the power to haunt us because it’s not a particular failure. It’s the failure that awaits us all at least a few times in our lives. But it’s the kind of failure that can only come to us when we’ve been good enough at something to be put in that position. Cooney and Barrows, the first two outs of the inning, will not see the spectre of those outs in their sleep all their lives. No one will write “Cooney at the Bat” about his unfortunate line out to the third baseman as the leadoff batter in the 9th.  This is the kind of loss that can only come to us in a Casey moment in our lives.

I called this a tragedy, an epic poem, and it really is both of those things, because it ends in darkness and sorrow, like Priam cradling his son’s body in his arms as he returns to the gates of Troy.  That may seem like I’m putting too much stock in something that’s a game—just a game.  But it doesn’t feel that way to anyone involved, and as I’ve been suggesting above, it’s because the game allows us to confront something larger and truer about our real lives, where the strikeouts and goal-line interceptions and missed free throws won’t be quite as easy to spot, but where the prospect of victory can be as sweet, and the impact of failure just as immediate.  Thayer strikes just the right note, I think.  No failure, not even one as huge as Casey’s, which looms over the poem’s final stanza, can douse the sun, end happiness or music, halt the progression of time as it draws us forward into new challenges and prepares us for new wins and losses.  But before we move on we have to mourn, even something as silly and inconsequential as a swinging third strike.  The Mudville nine will play again—Casey will probably bat hundreds, even thousands more times in a long and successful career ahead of him.  None of that will erase that perfect afternoon, the unexpected wonder of the two-out rally, the tension tight as a piano wire as Casey prepares all for his glorious apotheosis, and then the sudden end to all.

Maybe you don’t see any of this in what seems to you an outdated and really very silly baseball poem.  I’ll acknowledge there’s a case to be made on that side of the verse.  But I expect more than a few of you know what I’m talking about.  Seahawks fans (and before them Packers fans, and Ducks fans, and Royals fans, etc.) have been hearing the usual refrains—you have to be pretty great to finish that close to the top, you have to be pretty talented to be right there with a chance to win it all, etc.  We know how all those words really feel; we know how it felt in the Mudville stands that day, standing there wearing a replica Casey jersey and watching his face fall as the umpire called out the third strike and raised his fist.  Poetry, if it is to speak to the whole of the human condition, has to go there too—to take the silliness of our immersion in a sport and capture what is also grand and noble and terribly sad about the moments sport brings.  For me, Thayer goes there with Casey, and I’m glad he did.