Poetry Friday: Our Favorite Poems

This post is likely to get me in trouble.  But what’s the point in blogging about poetry if you’re not going to speak your mind?  I’ll try to keep it civil, at least.

So, I started thinking about today’s topic earlier this week, when Paul H. (faithful reader, frequent commenter, English teacher extraordinaire, and all-around nice guy) posted something on Facebook about poetry.  I’m going to ruthlessly condense and paraphrase—essentially, Paul was ruminating on the fact that, every year, his high school has an anti-drunk-driving presentation that’s really powerful, and every year they read aloud the same poem during the most moving portion of the presentation.  Afterwards plenty of his kids comment on how much they loved that poem, and how they wonder if they can memorize it for credit or discuss it in class, etc.  And Paul is simultaneously glad that the message of the presentation got through to them and horrified at their love of what is pretty obviously an awful poem.  He asked us, his friends, a demographic that leans heavily into the poetry reading, English teaching, bookish end of things, to offer our thoughts on why it is that teenagers love bad poems more than good ones, and whether it was a good or a bad thing, and what if anything he should say about the poem if a student tries to discuss it with him.  I won’t be using that poem today, or the exact pieces of that discussion (my contributions or anyone else’s) but I did find the larger topic of what most Americans like in their poetry interesting and thought it would be worth reflecting on here.

Walt Whitman's use of free verse became apprec...

I’m sorry, Papa Walt, but I really do think that a majority of Americans would guess that the person who sounds his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world” was either Robin Williams or Homer Simpson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is a “good poem”, anyway?  An alien trying to sort this out would think, from the available evidence, that America likes a good challenging poem.  If you look around for it, you’ll find something like this best poem contest hosted by the Oxford Book of American Poetry, which concluded that America’s favorite poem is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, which narrowly beat out Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  This is, to be blunt, a fairly clumsy lie.  Oh, sure, the type of people who will cast ballots at Oxford University Press’s site are probably being at least mostly honest—though even I, a fan of both poems, think they’re pretty dense going to rate as “America’s favorite” (neither would be my pick, anyway).  But I’d be shocked if even 10% of Americans could identify the most famous lines in either poem, or tell you without consulting a reference source even a vague description of what either poem is about (though Whitman sort of gives that game away with his title).

What would a better representation of “America’s favorite poems” be?  There’s no one source, but I had a style in mind I’ve seen frequently, and I guessed I could find it pretty quickly.  I googled phrases like “best poem” or “favorite poem”, etc., and quickly found a website called “family friend poems”.  They assure the reader that “we only publish poems after we already know they are well liked by our audience.”  They also keep a list of the top rated poems, the best of which has been rated a few thousand times.  Is that any better sample than OUP had?  Probably not, but I think the style of this poem captures the style of poem that I honestly think a lot of folks like (or claim to), and it’s similar in many ways to the poem Paul originally called to my attention.  Here’s their poem, “Why I Love My Sister“, by Shiv Sharma:

“A sister is someone who loves you from the heart,
No matter how much you argue you cannot be drawn apart.
She is a joy that cannot be taken away,
Once she enters your life, she is there to stay.

A friend who helps you through difficult times,
Her comforting words are worth much more than dimes.
A partner who fills your life with laughs and smile,
These memories last for miles and miles.

When she is by your side, the world is filled with life,
When she is not around, your days are full of strife.
A sister is a blessing, who fills your heart with love,
She flies with you in life with the beauty of a dove.

A companion to whom you can express your feelings,
She doesn’t let you get bored at family dealings.
Whether you are having your ups or downs,
She always helps you with a smile and never frowns.

With a sister you cannot have a grudge,
She is as sweet as chocolate and as smooth as fudge.
Having a sister is not just a trend,
It is knowing you can always turn to her, your best friend.”

Now, I do want to make clear that my goal isn’t to attack anybody, including the author of this poem, Sharma, or the readers who voted for this poem and consider it among their favorites.  My interest is in trying to figure out A) why so many Americans do like poems like this, to the extent that they are all over my Facebook feed and all over blogs and tumblrs and quoted from frequently in online profiles, etc., and B) why I and most Americans who read a lot of poetry, including the poets who are widely accepted as being “the best” by the sort of experts who try to rate such things, find this kind of poem really unsuccessful, and lastly, C) what, if anything, this tells us about poetry and Americans and how they relate to each other.

I’m taking for granted a premise you may disagree with—that the above poem is a good representation of the sort of poem that most Americans, especially Americans who do not read a lot of poetry in their ordinary lives, find appealing.  My Google searching suggests I’m on pretty firm ground, but I’m not going to try and establish this with firm evidence.  Disputes of this claim should be taken up in the comments.

I don’t care for this poem.  At all.  But in some ways it’s not that far off of poems that I can see as successful.  Another widely loved poem is Mary Elizabeth Frye’s “Do not stand at my grave and weep“, and as you can see if you follow that link to another PF post, I took that poem seriously and defended it against those who consider it merely cheap and trite (though I did accept that it has its trite moments).  Why do people love it?  Here are my guesses, which are sincere in intention but may be wide of the mark.  The poem directly addresses an emotion that is easy to relate to—our love of a relative.  Culturally we sometimes have a hard time expressing why we care about someone, and the advantage of a poem about that exact thing is that it can be used to both express those feelings and distance ourselves from the vulnerability of trying to figure out how to say it ourselves: this is what is often called “greeting card poetry”, and while that may be a mostly pejorative term, let’s at least acknowledge that it can serve a useful purpose for a lot of folks.  Unlike other poems, this one is direct, its phrases are generally clear and unambiguous, and the rhyme pattern is easy to identify and pleasing to the ear—or at least we can say that English speakers do really seem to love them some end-stopped rhyme (other languages, to my limited knowledge, seem less obsessive about it).  The poem is so general that anyone can feel it represents them, but the images are chosen in such a way that they can be interpreted personally in really specific ways, e.g., “yeah, remember that time when Linda saved me from a boring chat with Uncle Ted at Xmas? wow, she really does look out for me during ‘family dealings’.”  Did Sharma just toss this off?  I kind of doubt it.  I suspect this is the work of someone who’s both spent some time writing poems like this, and some time tinkering with this one, to get it to the point where it accomplishes all this.  There is craft here that has a specific audience and aim in mind, and clearly at this website, at least, it achieves it.

But back to me and my dislike for the poem.  I don’t want to just rip this apart—it’s the work of an amateur (in the true sense; it’s clearly a work of love), not a professional, so the blog’s mighty cannons will not be trained against it as they were at, say, The Able McLaughlins (which I’m thinking of referring to as The Novel Which Shall Not Be Named from now on).  But I do want to be clear about why this is really a poor example of what I think poetry can and should do, the kind of poem I would never otherwise even read, let alone post on this blog.  The things others might love about it are what I dislike.  Poetry has the capacity to be startling and complex—unlike prose, which is ordinarily so very communicative, poetry eludes us, offers us multiple paths to meaning, argues with us.  The directness of this poem is irritating to me: there’s no complexity here, nothing for me to discover later, or to mull over until I gain a sudden insight.  It feels as artistic to me as a list of ingredients on a package—I basically know what I’m in for the moment I start reading, and there isn’t much to hold my interest.  I’m a fan of poems that ditch rhythm and rhyme in order to be plain-spoken, and of poems that ditch plain-spokenness to play with sound and rhythm.  This falls in the deadly valley between the two—some of the rhymes are tragically unfortunate, as words chosen solely for their sound undercut an otherwise plain sentence and make the speaker sound insincere or almost mocking.  A sister whose words are worth more than ten cents and whose existence is more than a trend (unlike, say, jeggings) is someone on the receiving end of compliments so back-handed they could win Wimbledon.  And ultimately, the poem spends too much time saying too little for me.  Any relationship is more complicated than this—each line of this poem more or less reiterates the same thesis.  A haiku would be too long a poem for this theme, which I think boils down to “My sister is awesome and I love her” although I sort of suspect this is really “My hypothetical sister is awesome and I theoretically love her”.  And yes, that last one was more than seventeen syllables.  I think you get my point.

Again, my goal here isn’t to rag on people who like poems I don’t like.  I’d much rather that Americans like these poems than that they like no poems at all.  But I have to be honest in admitting that I would rather live in a country where we really did read and talk about Eliot and Whitman.  I think that kind of poetry forces us to think more deeply, examine ourselves more closely, and ultimately bring more of our experiences out into a mindspace where we can actually do something useful with them.  But all of this may just be snobbery, right?  It could be that I’m just another sour-faced lit-blogger who has snarky thoughts about the “hoi polloi” and their sub-standard popular art.  I’m not sure, though.  I feel like the types of movies and television that are popular with the vast majority of Americans are not usually what I consider to be “the best” but that they’re a lot closer to the best stuff than this popular poetry is to what I consider to be “the best poetry”.  That is, unlike my aloof demeanor about other kinds of art, which is probably fairly characterized as a little snobby (“Well, frankly, I think the best film this awards season is that dark Iranian piece about the collapse of middle-class families.”), in the case of poetry, I feel like this is just me assessing the artistic landscape fairly.  But maybe not?

I guess the questions I’m left with are the following, any of which I hope will be taken up in the comments.  Am I selling this kind of poetry short or otherwise missing out on what makes it popular?  Is it plausible that America’s taste in poetry could significantly move towards what I consider to be “good poetry” or is it unrealistic to think that less sentimental rhyme-y poetry can take hold with the masses?  Lastly, does anyone have experience with popular taste in poetry outside the U.S. sufficiently to be able to tell me if this impulse is human, or if there’s something uniquely American about this type of artistic taste?  There’s something important here that I wish I understood better.  It’s related to why I try every Friday (well, all the Fridays I can) to bring a good poem into the lives of other people and talk a little about why poetry is vital to me as a person, and I think should be vital to all of us as people.  So thanks in advance for letting me have my say, apologies again to folks who think I’m too hard on Sharma or Americans or rhyming couplets, and I look forward to any thoughts offered in the comments section below.

“Instead of peace, the nations had got more armaments and more debts.”

This much, at least, can be said for Upton Sinclair’s Dragon’s Teeth, the 1943 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and the current monkey on my back—it does all it can to summon up the picture of how chaotic Europe felt in the period following World War I, particularly the first dangerous signs of the worldwide depression that creeps up around our main characters here in the spring of 1930.  What is frustrating is how little else Sinclair is interested in doing with the novel.  The cast of characters is pretty broad, at this point—we have Lanny Budd, the scion of a munitions magnate, and his wealthy wife Irma, and their little infant; Lanny’s friend, the wealthy German Jewish importer/exporter, Johannes Robin, along with his wife and assorted leftist kids, one of whom has married Lanny’s communist half-sister; snooty parents galore, supercilious nurses and servants, a crusty yacht captain, an aging Greek industrialist, a middle-aged Polish woman who claims to be able to contact a Native American named Tecumseh in the spirit world, and the list goes on.  This mix of people ought to yield almost unending delight and fascination, but instead, Sinclair is running the whole book aground on what the late Roger Ebert called “Brotman’s Law“—“If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”  I am, translating movie reels into novel pages, about two reels into Dragon’s Teeth at this point, and I fear Brotman is right about my fate.

It’s not that nothing at all happens: it’s only that no meaningful tension or conflict is being built up to.  Every incident seems to pass quickly and unimportantly: Lanny and Irma have some little tensions but I’m not waiting with bated breath for their marriage’s house of cards to rise or fall.  Robin’s concerns for his childrens’ leftist sympathies keep recurring, but with no apparent end in mind.  For crying out loud, our Polish psychic with the Indian spirit guide, who ought to be good for at least a laugh (if not some spooky mystery), is of no significance in the novel’s terms either—she does seem to have freakish abilities to talk about facts she should have no way of knowing, but the characters themselves are not terribly interested, and so far all it’s done is provide Lanny with an opportunity to intrigue a businessman into coming down to the yacht for a seance.  None of this is gripping writing.  I have no idea why I’m following all these people, why I care if someone’s making money or losing money, whether it matters that someone is coming on the yacht, or buying a painting, or worried about their mother, etc.  There isn’t a single character in the novel who, if Sinclair killed them off on the next page, would make even a small ripple in the pool of the story: I wouldn’t wonder about an unfinished thought or a storyline that might never resolve.  As I think about it, isn’t that a pretty damning statement to be able to make about any novel?

So, what is Sinclair doing, if not creating some sort of meaningful plot?  Well, on the one hand, I think he expects his setting to do the heavy lifting here: we know, from the vantage point of 1943, what these characters do not.  We know to shake our heads sadly as Lanny and his father hope that the family fortunes rebound once the stock market dusts itself off from that one-time little hiccup in October of 1929.  We know to cringe with fear as Robin, the wealthy German Jew, makes a little cash selling guns to the Nazi Party while simultaneously betting on the fact that they’ll never seize power.  We suck in our breath quietly as the rich folks tour the Mediterranean by yacht and see all the terrible battlefields of what they don’t know yet should be called the First World War.  But that’s not enough, Upton, and you really ought to be able to know it.  All it does is give a sense of forboding, the knowledge that there’s a horizon and crossing it will have consequences.  What differentiates this from a truly tragic and ironic piece (say, Oedipus Rex) is the impulse that drives the action forward, the captain wrecking the ship on the rocks only we know are there, the plague in Thebes that will force its ruler to unearth the true cause even as it unmakes his whole life.  It wouldn’t take much for Sinclair to crack the whip a little and get us there—some specific dealing for Robin vis-a-vis the Nazis that will force a meaningful confrontation, or maybe some leftist shenanigans that a few young Budds and Robins get mixed up in (maybe in the Soviet Union?) that forces the rest of the family to get off their butts.  But he’s not interested in writing that kind of book.

What is he writing?  Propaganda—the folks who bash Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck for being “too political” really should read this to understand their error.  Sinclair’s not interested in writing a story; he’s trying to inculcate us, to fix in our minds certain images about the world and the people in it, and the result is clunkily phrased and not really very compelling.  Take this paragraph as an example: the Budds wait at the train station for the arrival of their friends, the Robins:

“Two happy members of the prosperous classes welcoming five of their intimate friends on the platform of a railroad station.  Everybody there knew who the Budds were, and knew that when they hugged and kissed people, and laughed and chatted with them gaily, the people must be wealthy and famous like themselves.  A pleasant thing to have friends whom you can love and appreciate, and who will love and appreciate you.  Pleasant also to have villas and motorcars and yachts; but many people do not have them, and do not have many dear friends.  They know themselves to be dull and undistinguished, and feel themselves to be lonely; they stand and watch with a sad envy the behavior of the fortunate classes on those few occasions when they condescend to manifest their feelings in public.”

First off, if you like that, go get this book because it was written just for you.  For the rest of us, you hear, I think, how snippy Sinclair gets when he talks about these families.  Even granting him that they are too rich for their own good, and oblivious to how that affects others (though I’m not sure this isn’t just a caricature), is it too much to ask that he grant them the respect of being people who also have genuine feelings and, you know, more than one dimension?  Here he seems to bundle up their genuine joy at seeing their friends—not because they’re rich but because they’re human beings who care about each other—with crass consumerism and oppressive class warfare.  Upton, buddy, if you hate these people, at least make them interesting to watch, or hey, original idea here, maybe write a novel that isn’t fixated entirely on a class of people you think are parasites?  Because the sneering narration just makes it that much harder to care about a group of people whose uneventful and totally carefree lives are not the makings of a really gripping thriller.  The sad thing here is, I really want to care about these characters, a lot more than Sinclair does.  I see, in ways that he doesn’t, how complicated and fascinating a man like Johannes Robin would really have to be—the German Jew profiteering off World War I and turning a buck off of supplying Hitler with machine guns, whose leftist children are sending cash to the Communists and would move to Stalin’s USSR if Dad would let them, the devoted husband and conscientious friend who sticks loyally by his commitments and who grew up in such poverty in the ghetto that he means never to be unsafe again.  This is a guy you ought to be able to construct a towering novel around, with intrigue and connections to the German underworld, whispers of Nazi outrages but it’s 1930 and who knows, maybe Hitler’s just burning off steam, etc.  And all Sinclair can do with him is make some weird remarks about his Jewishness (sometimes it feels like a defense against anti-Semitism, and other times it feels a little deferential to it), a couple of quick quips about the Nazis, and then mostly a long streak of semi-judgmental incidents that show us that rich dudes are out of touch.  It’s not even edgy, pointed satire: most of the time it’s paint-by-numbers, lots of “X didn’t think much about the servants” or “Y wished that Z would realize how much money she’d brought to the marriage, and relax a little about making a success of his business”.

Oh, and as if all this isn’t enough, Sinclair has the fatal combination of A) casting two nursing mothers as central characters in his novel while B) clearly being a guy who cannot talk like a decent human being about nursing mothers.  And I’m not just talking about him creepily dwelling on it all the time, although he does: almost no scene is complete without either the nursing mothers being somehow inconvenient or noteworthy, or else the narrator alluding to what they’re doing.  I’ve read the phrase “the lactant mothers” more times than anyone should have to.  But he also weirdly analogizes them constantly to cows—I know, it sounds like a bad joke, but I’m serious, he refers to any social outing including both nursing mothers as a “dairy farm”, and the adjective “bovine” is used more than once in reference to them.  I mean, that’s so comically offensive, it’s hard to know how to respond.  I’ve certainly read and heard a wide array of profoundly stupidly sexist things in my day, but I don’t know if I can remember encountering anything as unexpectedly outrageous and vulgar as that in a long while.  I grant that there are exceedingly childish dudes out there who act this way around women when their bodies are being used for anything other than sexual objectification for the benefit of men, and that there were probably more of them in 1943 than there are today.  But do we have to award Pulitzer Prizes to these cretins?

A cow

In case it’s not clear, it’s not like I hate cows: cows are awesome. But there are lines you just don’t cross. (Photo credit: SocialRobot)

So, yeah, that’s where we are so far with Upton Sinclair—a dull piece of political propaganda that’s faintly anti-Semitic and distinctly sexist (although I think most sexists would object that calling a woman lovingly nursing her infant “cow-like” is beyond the pale even for them).  I am making the experience of reading it sound way more exciting than it actually is.  I’m hanging in there, though, in part because I chained myself to the mast of this ship, and in part because I know just enough about Europe in the 1930s that I can basically have a fan-fic track running in my head as I go in which all of these scenes are a lot more interesting and all of these characters are a lot more three-dimensional.  We’ll see if Sinclair can salvage this voyage (despite the dictates of Brotman’s Law), but hope is fading.

“Not for anything in the world would she exchange her lot for her mother’s.”

I’ve been a bit quiet about In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow’s soap-operatic look into the sordid (but not especially compelling) lives of a down-on-their-luck family from somewhere in the Upper South (Virginia?), and that’s for two reasons.  One is that I’ve been busy enough (and uninterested enough in the book) that I haven’t made a ton of progress on it, although recently I’ve gotten further in, close to the book’s half-way point.  The other is that it’s hard to say much about the book, which is largely failing to be bad in an interesting way.

The main focus of the plot, which I addressed myself to earlier, is on the relationship of the father, Asa Timberlake, to his daughters, Roy and Stanley, which is strained by his inability to understand this wild and unconventional young generation, and by the weird fact that although it’s absolutely crystal clear from the information available that Stanley will ditch her fiancé and run off with Roy’s husband, no one (least of all Asa) seems to see it coming.  The only secondary plot of note is about a young African-American man named Parry, who is ambitious and whose skin is very light in color, and his attempts to get Asa’s family’s support as he intends to make something of himself (Parry is associated with the family’s long-time black servant, Virgie, and may I think come from a family that the Timberlakes once owned).  Veterans of this blog will recognize, I think, that the first plot is associated in some ways with Early Autumn, 1927’s winner which reflects on infidelity and fidelity over a couple of generations of a down-on-their-luck family in New England, and a woman’s relationship to her daughter.  And the second plot might as well be carbon-copied (at least at this summary level) from the relationship between Toussaint Vaiden and Colonel Miltiades Vaiden in 1933’s winner, The Store.  Glasgow hasn’t done a bunch with either plot at this point—Stanley has, at least, run off with Roy’s husband, so now the cat’s out of the bag, but it’s not clear she has any notion of what to do about this or where to go now that the tension has been set loose.  Parry, poor soul, just keeps showing up to ask a white man for help, and gets some nonsense—in some cases, nonsensically kind but useless suggestions about “helping if I can” when the speaker clearly can’t, and in other cases nonsensically racist and condescending crap like “there are plenty of white lawyers to help black folks in trouble if they haven’t done any wrong, so why get uppity notions about being a lawyer when you can have a happy life as a postman or something?”  The wheels are spinning for characters and reader alike.  Given that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why the plots aren’t working here, in a book that will avoid the bottom spots on my list only by mostly avoiding crass offensiveness, when they worked moderately to very well in two books that currently rank 5th and 8th out of 22 (soon to be 23) Pulitzer winners.

en:Louis Bromfield photographed by en:Carl Van...

Hey, Louis, is there any chance you could come in for a re-write? I’m losing steam with this one, man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To take Early Autumn in hand first—the lesser of my two “good” examples—I think what Glasgow is missing is a sense of context and broader significance.  In Louis Bromfield‘s book, I got the sense that I was seeing events that went beyond the family in question (in his case, the Pentlands): their diminishing social stature was tied (however subtly) to changes in America and the region they lived in, and the family’s sense of itself and its history helped add a certain grandeur (however decaying) to the anxieties of the older generations as they dealt with the family chaos.  Conversations between characters add to what we already know about the situation as people reveal (or conceal) their emotions in recognizably human fashion, and when in the later stages of the novel the characters confront each other to express hard truths about love and their relationships to each other, I felt the talk was somehow “earned” by having been built up to.  Glasgow’s book, by comparison, gives us a Timberlake family whose moorings are unclear—there’s a lot of talk about wealth in the book, and it opens with Asa looking forlornly at his family’s old home, now lost to their poverty, but none of the characters seem to have walked away with any ideas about the family and what it means to be a Timberlake.  The book (for the sake of the plot) contrives at some pre-existing tensions and relationships but they all feel hollow—I can’t believe that the characters I see in front of me could believably have behaved in the past in such a way as to make the backstory real.  As a result, all the back-and-forth between Asa’s generation and Roy and Stanley’s feels odd—the parents and elders don’t feel like they have much added perspective (other than commenting all the time about “how different these young people are!”) and the young people seem sometimes terribly old.  I think Glasgow is driving at some pretty heavy attacks on modernity and what it does to love and youth (especially for these poor helpless young women, if I may paraphrase the vibe I’m getting from her), but it’s never clear what’s making all this happen, or where these people came from.  Furthermore, as I’ve complained before, the characters wear everything on their sleeves, saying almost everything they might be thinking out loud and to the people they feel it towards—the only exception being explicit mention of the affair between Stanley and Peter.  Anyway, since no human being actually acts this way all of the time, and most of us never act this way more than 5% of the time, it’s irritating to navigate through, since the characters feel like felt puppets bobbing their way through a script.  Some parts of the script are plausibly interesting—Roy, for example, and her feelings about the way she wishes people would treat her after her husband runs off with her sister—but I can’t buy into the emotions because they don’t feel authentic.  Bromfield’s novel is, oddly enough, able to make me feel far more by telling me far less.

T. S. Stribling‘s book, The Store, really is the book Glasgow wanted to write, although it’s much smarter about race than hers is, with livelier characters and more complicated and interesting interpersonal relationships.  The Vaidens of Stribling’s book, though, have fallen down from somewhere specific, and it’s easy to see how that’s affected them and what it pushes them to do.  Even the relationship between the Colonel and his wife (one of the few things I complained about with this book) is more nuanced than Asa’s relationship with his wife, Lavinia—at least I am forced to work out their relationship to each other and try to make sense of it, rather than read the narrator flatly telling me things like “Asa no longer loved his wife, and could not believe that he ever had, but now adopted an attitude towards her as of a stranger, although one who felt obligated to care for her.”  I mean, what’s the point of writing a book when you can give it all to me in synopsis form?  Anyway, to dial in on the racial subplot in Glasgow’s novel and contrast it with Stribling, Stribling makes the world of freed slaves and their descendants a living one.  People have fights with each other, are complex enough to be both wise and foolish, saintly and sinful, and ultimately it’s not always clear how we’re supposed to take them.  Toussaint Vaiden, the upwardly mobile, light-skinned black man of Stribling’s novel, is so ambitious as to be almost a scoundrel in some ways, but his arrogance and confidence make sense because of who he is and where he comes from, and they do not diminish the sympathy his character rightly gets from the reader in the novel’s tragic conclusion.  By comparison, Glasgow has given us a poor man’s copy in the figure of Parry Clay—a young black man who never loses his temper or speaks out of turn, who studies hard and merely needs a loan (which he will pay back! every penny!) to get his schooling to become a lawyer.  Parry never feels as urgent as Toussaint, and he arises out of almost nowhere in Glasgow’s novel, which treats the African-American characters as a real sideline—despite this novel being set 40ish years after Stribling’s, the black characters seem more obsessed with the lives of the white family they know, and more unmoored from any larger African-American community, and it feels like laziness (or impoverished imagination) on the part of the author, rather than any kind of real statement about the fracturing of communities, etc.

Anyway, I could go on, but given that I’m comparing a novel no one has read to two other novels no one has read, this is more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I suppose!  All I really need to do for those of you who, for reasons best known to yourselves, follow my aimless path through the Pulitzers is to tell you that I’ve read another 100 pages or so of a book I wish I didn’t have to read, and that once I’ve read another 300 pages or so, I’ll never have to pick it up again.  I may post again on this one if I manage to get anywhere worth relating, but something tells me I may just take my medicine as fast as I can and then write a review when all’s said and done.

“No one, not even her husband, had ever heard her utter a disagreeable word, and seldom a true one.”

Edith wharton face

Edith, you have GOT to come and save me from this book. I will pay you a large sum of money (for your time period) if you’ll rewrite this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote that serves as this post’s title leads me right into what my ongoing problem is with In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow—as I suggested in my first post on the novel, she simply doesn’t trust us to understand what she’s doing.  As a consequence, she labors over events that should come naturally, over-explains situations, and generally weighs down the novel with too much exposition.  Take this quotation, then—it’s clever, isn’t it?  I think it’s a good indication of the kind of writing that Glasgow can do when she’s on her game.  In one sentence, we get a nice sketch of a character we don’t know much about—this is Maggie, the wife of Asa Timberlake’s son Andrew, whose geniality is captured in a turn of phrase I think is pretty well constructed.  There’s an edge to it that’s slightly Whartonian: the woman whose desire to please is so excessive that she’s totally unreliable.  So, you say, why do I raise it as a complaint?  Because it is immediately followed by this sentence: “But, as with most persons who see only the best, her vision was usually short-sighted and often inaccurate.”

ARGH.  She just (pardon my metaphor) craps all over the nice little sentence she’d crafted.  Instead of letting the quick cut go by nicely—“and seldom a true one” gives the image of the kind daughter-in-law a cheeky little twist, after all—she stops and explains what “and seldom a true one” means in excessive detail.  I learn nothing I didn’t already basically know, but now I feel like I’m being treated like a five year old.  This happens in every single paragraph.  Characters have long conversations, spurred by nothing other than the narrator’s (author’s) desire to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.  The first three chapters, for instance, refer again and again to the awkwardness Asa feels over the fact that he and his family have been forced to rely on the charity of his wife’s Uncle William.  I must have heard on at least six occasions about how hesitant Asa is to ask for help, but how they really couldn’t manage without him, and how strained the emotions are around the house as a result.  And then, after all of that, Asa comes home and has a lengthy chat with his daughter, Roy (again, his daughters’ names are Roy and Stanley), in which Roy explicitly complains about Uncle William, remarks on how his character dominates family gatherings, regrets that the family is forced to live in a house William owns, REITERATES (for crying out loud) that William really does own the house (doesn’t he Daddy?), notes that she should feel grateful to him, adds that instead she resents him, and then observes that in fact probably she resents the fact that she has to feel grateful.  All of this takes place in a three-minute conversation on a random weekday evening, apropos of nothing (certainly William hasn’t done anything of note that day, or that week, as far as I am aware), and all of it explicitly and rapid-fire.

This kind of exposition is so unbelievably tedious, it makes me wonder why Glasgow had such a great reputation as a novelist.  I can see that she has a flair for writing under the right circumstances, but conveying plot details or the inner life of characters seems to be incredibly difficult for her: as an essayist, a woman of letters perhaps, even a poet, I can envision how her talents would be put to good use.  But the Glasgow writing this book is a novelist at the end of a long and successful career.  How could she think that people talk this way, suddenly relating years of backstory and the fermenting unspoken feelings of their hearts to someone they’ve spoken to every day of their lives, as though they just realized the camera was running?  And why does she think we need to be given all of this in carefully typed dialogue, anyway?  Can’t I already make plenty of inferences about the family’s attitude based on the information I have?  Aren’t there, in fact, a lot of ways for helping me understand the complicated balance of feelings between gratitude to a generous wealthy family member and resentment over the need for that gratitude that do not involve me having to hear one character explain it to another?  Much of the time, we’re even unaware of that kind of thing ourselves—great novels draw this sort of thing out over time, and if a character does ultimately make this kind of revelation, it comes at a cost, and it’s spoken at the right moment because on some level it needs to be said then, and to the right person.  This chat, by comparison, is just Glasgow trying to get us from Asa warming up leftovers to him checking in on his invalid wife.  There’s no setup or payoff, and barely any emotion to it.  It’s like saying to your cashier at the supermarket “has it been a busy day?” while you’re pulling out your debit card, and having her say “well, not really, but my mind’s been occupied with the question of whether or not I can finally forgive my father for driving my mother into the alcoholism that killed her”.  Sure, the revelation is a sad one objectively, but in the moment you’re not really sure why you’re hearing it, or what prompted it, or whether any of this is real.  No matter what happens afterwards, you’re not going to respond to that news the way you would if you had first become invested in this woman’s life on any level.

The frustration is compounded, then, by the fact that, although 98% of this novel is obvious information that gets pounded away at us so that we and all the characters know exactly who is holding what cards at each point in the game, the other 2% is mind-blowingly stupid and implausible in its attempts to hide from at least the main character (if not the reader) a totally obvious fact.  Again, remember that these characters say every important emotional thing on their mind to each other at all times, and that the narrator fills in any gaps with flat assertions about who believes what and how they feel about it.  The following events occur — Asa is walking home when a car speeds by.  He notices that the car is driven by Peter (Roy’s husband of two years), but for some reason the passenger is Asa’s other daughter, Stanley, who is engaged and will marry a man named Craig later that week.  Asa notes briefly that it’s odd that Peter should be driving Stanley around, especially as A) Stanley owns her own car and can drive it, and B) Roy has been feeling a little down lately and would probably appreciate a nice drive out.  He gets home to find Roy down in the dumps.  She keeps talking about how stressed she is, and emphasizes that she wants Stanley married as soon as possible.  He asks why she’s unhappy, and she literally says “I can be happy as long as I know I have Peter.”  He replies, “Well, obviously you do have Peter since you’ve married him, so that’s that.”  (Seriously.  “So that’s that.”)  She gives him an odd look, and continues the conversation.  Later on she says, again apropos of nothing, “Peter has his freedom.  I told him that from the beginning.  If he doesn’t want to be with me, he doesn’t have to be.”  And Asa says, well, that’s fine I guess, you and he are clearly both honest with each other.  He asks where Stanley is.  Roy says she’s “visiting Aunt Charlotte”.  He asks where Peter is.  She says he’s “working late”.  Asa does not comment at all on the car that passed him.  Roy then goes off depressed to deal with Stanley’s wedding gifts.  Asa goes upstairs where his wife tells him, among other things, that Stanley is flighty, that she doesn’t seem to be all that in love with Craig anymore, and that she’d be kind of surprised if Stanley wasn’t getting ready to dump her fiance before the wedding that Saturday.  Now, I know I’ve narrated a ton of events here, but I wanted you to see what’s going on.  When did you first suspect that Peter and Stanley were cheating with each other?  Okay, and then when did you decide you pretty much knew that they were?  Well, old Asa has no idea.  He keeps asking himself (and others, occasionally) what’s wrong with Roy, and can’t figure it out for the life of him.  I’d submit to you that this entire subplot is totally implausible—not the cheating, obviously, but the fact that I’m supposed to believe that this guy cannot connect these dots.  Furthermore, I’m supposed to believe that Roy, who shares all her emotions in clinical detail with her father, can bring herself to say (effectively) “I think Roy will leave me, I’ve told him that he can make that choice, and it’s making me sad” but without actually saying “Roy and I are likely to get divorced”.  I just can’t figure this book out.  Who are these people?  On what planet do events like this occur or characters like this live?

There’s a whole racial thing going on too that I can’t even get into yet.  So far I can’t work out how much of the terrible racism is the characters’ racism (which would be accurate for the time and place) and how much is the narrator asserting “true” things about black people (which I really don’t stand for).  At this point, the novel is turning out to be a lot like The Store except really bad at all the things that T. S. Stribling managed to do well.  I fear I’m going to continue dismantling it in public the rest of the way, but I hear that my “takedowns” of novels are more fun to read anyhow, so perhaps you all don’t mind as much.  I certainly mind having to read it.  We’ll see if Glasgow can figure out a way to make the thing tolerable, at least, in the chapters ahead.

“The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.”

So begins Ellen Glasgow‘s In This Our Life, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for the year 1942.  The opening scene of the darkening street and the empty house quickly features our main character, Asa Timberlake, an aging Virginian scion of a great family laid low, a man trapped in a marriage he cannot abide and a career he’d sooner lose than keep.  He reminds me in many respects of the more exotically named Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the man at the heart of most of the plots in T. S. Stribling’s The Store, but where The Colonel was interesting as a schemer and a man constantly drawn into the lives of those around him, Asa Timberlake is disappointingly uninteresting, thus far.  He has somewhat strained relationships with his daughters, Stanley and Roy—yes, those are the names of his daughters, and no, as far as I know the plot will not feature them moving to Las Vegas and starting up a magic act—and a feeling of hapless melancholy more or less pervades everything else he touches, from what I’ve seen.

In many ways, the novel’s opening chapter suggests I’m in for another of Pulitzer’s Worst Hits—it’s almost textbook “bad writing”, so much so that I feel I must be judging it too harshly.  We start with aging Asa looking at his old family house being demolished (symbolism, much?).  An unimportant character appears out of nowhere, and extricates Important Plot Points question by question, like a Socratic parody of how to communicate to the audience.  The conversation goes something like this:

“Is that you, Asa?  Aren’t you supposed to be at Significant Job?”
“Yes, it is my job for Reasons Important to My Emotional State Which I Will Reveal to You, a Stranger.”
“Well, my job now is knocking down this house. Say, isn’t it your old house where Important Family Event occurred?”
“Ah, yes, Important Family Event about which I will mention just a few more Revealing Details.”
“Yeah, that was right before Incident I Will Stop Short of Relating Out of Propriety, since I assume the narrator will handle it in a moment, wasn’t it?”
“And then Antagonist bought it right out from under you when Other Important Family Event made that a necessity?”
“You remember my entire backstory with almost omniscient precision, which is weird, since we’ve never met, and I only vaguely knew your grandfather.”
“Well, that’s my job. That and knocking down this Obvious Metaphor you used to live in. It’s surprisingly hard to demolish!”
“That’s because the house represents Something Significant about the Past. Also we hired a good architect.”

(I promise you, I’m exaggerating only slightly—reading it was like looking closely at a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa.  It’s like reading the plot of the first novel an alien wrote after studying our literature in secret—it knows the notes, but not the music.) Eventually, the unimportant character disappears, and almost all of the rest of the first chapter consists of our omniscient narrator Telling, Not Showing us who Asa is, what all has happened over the first sixty years of his life, how he feels about it, how that affects all his relationships, and what kind of straits he feels he’s in now. It’s as though Glasgow doesn’t trust us for a minute with her story, and has to front-load all the symbolism and significance so that we can’t possible misunderstand the events of the plot or use them to reach any truths she may not have intended.

Ellen Glasgow, 1906

Oh, Ellen Glasgow, we don’t have to be enemies, but you’re going to have to meet me half-way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll grant that Glasgow has more skill on a sentence level than the worst of her predecessors, so at any given moment the book can give some pleasure.  That first sentence, for example, is a pretty serviceable opening—the scene itself is cliché, but the way she describes it is at least slightly unconventional.  That’s the pattern so far, with decent rhetorical execution of really bad plotting and character development.  I’ll give it credit: if we continue in this vein, it will be an entirely new way for a Pulitzer reading experience to go bad.  It gives me more respect for her talent, I guess, than decently plotted stuff that is terribly written, but frankly the other kind of stuff is more fun to read, and this one’s long, so I’m not really looking forward to how this goes.

Reasons for optimism?  Well, I was skeptical about The Store at first too, and I ended up getting a lot out of it—as I said early on in this post, I feel like we could possibly get similarly interesting stuff out of Asa.  The raw material’s there to work with, anyway.  If she can stop using the third-person narration to announce how every character feels and why, and start writing some meaningful dialogue, that’ll help, and if this book can be about anything but his bad marriage and his daughters’ bad marriages (or be about them in an interesting way), there’s hope.  But I’m not clinging to that hope with any degree of confidence.

“I didn’t keer to praise you in front o’ the men, but you done noble.”

There’s a lot to like about The Yearling, as I mentioned in my last post.  The work Rawlings does with the setting—the anxieties and the poverty associated with subsistence farmers clinging to the high ground in the swamps and prairies of central Florida—is really very compelling, and many of the characters manage to be interesting enough (and on occasion, deep enough) to win me over to thinking this is a good book.  There’s a little fumbling with the story itself, as Rawlings can’t quite fit the pieces together beautifully—it’s like a pretty white gown whose seams have all been sewn in black thread.  Transitions are sometimes a bit ham-handed, and at other times she lets the tension drop in mid-air, as though the camera cut from Lassie leading Timmy’s parents well-ward to Timmy eating a bowl of breakfast cereal the following morning.  The book is large enough (and, honestly, contains enough filler) that there’s no need to pare back the endings of scenes like this, but it happens with some regularity.  Still, I’m bobbing along relatively smoothly: in most respects, this is a novel I’ll like well enough, but will probably not think much about once it’s set down.  There isn’t much to engage with, beyond nostalgia and a little vicarious thrill as Jody and his father experience some of the dangers of the natural world.  Generally speaking, though, it makes me happy as I read, and often that’s all we ask of a novel—I’m thinking on that ground alone, I’ll be giving this book a thumbs-up.  All of this is true.  Except it’s not really, and here’s why.

One major criticism I put off in my last post is the one I’d like to talk about here—Rawlings’ novel and its relationship to gender.  The book’s idea of femininity is weirdly strained, given that a woman wrote it…or maybe it’s not weird at all, given the ideas about gender that were prevalent in America circa 1939?  Perhaps some of my more informed readers will enlighten me.  Anyway, the book’s important characters are all men—the two families, the Baxters and the Forresters, seem to have only male children.  The mothers in these families have no names other than “Ma”, as far as I can tell, and they are not portrayed very compassionately.  The only other women in the story are another nameless woman, “Grandma Hutto”, who is praised by the male characters, as far as I can tell, for her masculine wit (and her very feminine charms), and Twink, a young woman over whom two men fight.  Jody, the lens through which the book’s events are seen, is constantly shaped to be more manly—even recognizing that this kind of gender stereotyping would have been common at that time, the novel never seems to think that women’s doings are important.  Jody’s father tells riveting stories that everyone longs to hear—the mother, when she tells a story, says something pointless and uninteresting (both to Jody and myself—Jody’s distaste for his mother is pretty evident in that chapter).  Jody leaves his mother whenever he can, and even when the three Baxters are together, it’s the two men against Ma—they tease her, they deceive her for their own amusement, they unify against her whenever she takes a stand.  On the one occasion that Ma disagrees with Jody’s father, Penny, and Jody agrees with his mother’s side of the argument….he still takes Penny’s side, yelling at his mother not to backtalk “his Pa” while secretly thinking that for once Penny was wrong (but that his mother shouldn’t say so).  When Jody’s friend dies, it’s the men in that family who mourn most openly, and whose loss is made most real—the friend’s mother is barely visible on the sidelines.  And Jody’s anger at the divisiveness over Twink leads him to think horrific thoughts about this young woman he’s never met—rather than feel anger at the men fighting over her, he literally soothes himself to sleep by daydreaming gleefully about her being lost in the wilderness, or eating the poisoned meat they set out in the wolf-traps and dying in fitful agony.

Cover of "The Able McLaughlins"

Anytime I have to clarify that a book is “not quite as bad as The Able McLaughlins“, you know we’re in deep water.

I have to say, I find all this unsettling.  It simmers in the background even when I am enjoying the rest of this story—although I am sure there are young women who grow up loving this story, I wouldn’t put it in the hands of my niece, let alone my daughter.  The messages about masculinity’s superiority to femininity in every way, and the Madonna/Whore complex the female characters seem to be locked into, are just too pervasive, and the rest of the tale isn’t redeeming enough.  This raises a fair question, I think—why would I give my nephews a book that sends this kind of  message about gender?  I shouldn’t, in honesty, and so I guess I’m reaching the conclusion that, for me, this book has a weird flaw that makes it hard for me to envision giving it to a child to read.  Rawlings isn’t relentlessly disgusting in her sexism—this isn’t a repeat of Margaret Wilson’s casual use of rape and emotional abuse in her “love story” at the heart of The Able McLaughlins—but I feel that it’s obviously here, and there’s no need for it.  Even Honey in the Horn ascribes more agency to women than this novel does; despite all its faults, Lamb in His Bosom believes above all in the value of telling the story of poor Southern women on subsistence farms.  I suspect that Rawlings is limited here by her lack of agility as a writer—it did not occur to her that the novel could reveal both Jody’s sexism (which would be inevitable, raised in the culture and time he is) and undercut it at the same time.  Stribling’s work in The Store was a great example of this, where the white characters express their racist ideas about the local African-Americans, but every line is subverted by the very simple details shared by the narrator at key moments about how the real world actually looks.  It wouldn’t be hard for me to understand how important “Ma Baxter” is to Jody despite his coldness to her.  It wouldn’t be hard for Rawlings to give these women names, and on occasion to let them make a very articulate speech on their own behalf.  It wouldn’t be hard to find a way to show me Twink in actuality, rather than leaving her to be described in the terms of the men who want to possess her (or, worse, who want her savaged or killed because she disrupts the bonhomie that would otherwise be enjoyed by the men living in the area).  Rawlings is clearly gifted as a story-teller.  Someone should have helped her become a better novelist.

These are harsh words, I know.  I’ve mulled them over extensively before feeling like I need to say them.  I don’t know how seriously these feelings sink my opinion of the novel—I’m in a bind a bit similar to Gone With the Wind, although I don’t think the charges against Rawlings’ novel are as serious as they were against Mitchell’s.  In the end, I’ll have to write a review that weighs all of these pieces and tries to make something of them.  I have a little hope that the end of the novel will reveal some things about Ma, or Twink, or another of the women in the novel, that help rehabilitate some of the worst sides of the book’s attitudes about women.  We’ll see if hope becomes reality.

1938: The Late George Apley, by John P. Marquand

Literary Style:

The trouble with Apley, as I’ve already chronicled in some detail in my reflections along the way, is that I don’t feel John Marquand successfully negotiated the fuzzy boundary between fiction and non-fiction that he took on in this novel, which presents the character of George Apley over the course of his whole life, through the eyes of a close friend and the documentary bric-a-brac he left behind him.  Marquand isn’t ambitious enough with the fictional details to turn the story into something just slightly larger-than-life, more vivid than what ordinary biography can provide.  But he wasn’t energetic enough to pitch the idea of fiction altogether, and research an actual figure—I understand why that seemed daunting, but it would have had the advantage of being genuine, which Apley in its current state does not earn.  As it is, I feel I am getting a very incomplete picture of a man not quite real.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, even when George takes interesting actions, there is no means by which to examine his motives, to consider what may be happening inside George (or any other character).  The format precludes any kind of engagement with the cardboard cut-outs that comprise the dramatis personæ.  What few insights Marquand has to offer seem to me very pedestrian—yes, fathers are often overbearing and ungentle to their promising young sons; yes, the strictures of upper-class American society cause some people to reach the end of their lives and find that, to borrow from Thoreau, they had not truly lived; yes, on some level the older generation never does understand the younger generation, or the world in which they live.  Did it really take a novel to accomplish that kind of trite epiphany?

The problems are not devastating, in one sense—the book is rarely offensive, its characters occasionally turn a phrase worth pausing over, there are times when it glimpses something about human lives that I was not quite expecting.  But in another sense this is really damning, because Marquand is so tentative with the premise and so bound by the rules he establishes that the book isn’t worth getting excited about on any level.  The Pulitzers’ more wretched fare—Scarlet Sister Mary, to take but one example—at least has the merit of exuberance and almost cheekiness in its failure.  I really disliked that book, but I remember it.  I doubt very much that I will remember Marquand’s little story.  Devoid of meaningful conflict (it’s hard to be interested in the lives of people you never meet), reined in by an insufferable narrator character who can’t even manage to be boring enough to be funny, walled in by a strict chronological march of decades that saps the energy (or at least it did mine)—the novel is really a strange little work.  That this effort beats out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a bafflement.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author. Deutsch: ...

I get that Zora was too cool for the Pulitzer squares, but still, what an injustice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d go on at more length—this review’s a bit shorter than usual—but I’ve rung the changes on this book every way I know how in my previous posts.  Unlike many of the other novels I’ve encountered on the journey so far, this one’s like plain oatmeal, and I’m out of adjectives to describe how it fails to inspire much in me.  Some folks like Marquand, I know, and they’re welcome to him.

Historical Insight:

To the extent that the novel is a successful experience for me—which is to say, not very—it’s the fact that Marquand does explore some interesting New England (especially Bostonian) upper class phenomena.  The gentlemen’s club dinners, the ladies’ sewing circles, the family plots in ancient graveyards, the Copley portraits hanging in the hall and Revere silver on the dining room table, etc., etc.  I didn’t really feel I was breaking a lot of ground that I hadn’t already covered in a slightly more rural high-income old New England family in Early Autumn, or in a more or less equally high-income old family in New York in The Age of Innocence, but there were certainly a few new glimpses of that world, which I found useful.  I liked the fact that we get a little idea of how Harvard University changes over time (and how its alumni see it, in this period), and I think there were some nice things done with World War I and Prohibition.  But all of this is very slight—because I never really connect to the characters, these little pieces of trivia about the time and place are never quite as real as I want them to be.  It’s a bit sad, since I think “historical insight” is really Marquand’s motivation for writing the novel—it’s the only sense I can make of why he wrote what he did.  But he never gets there as successfully as I would have wanted, and in trying for it he loses too much.


My thoroughly unscientific ranking scale being what it is, I can only give The Late George Apley a “pass this by, as it fails to be interestingly bad”.  It’s by no means the worst of the Pulitzers.  Certainly it has its defenders, who I hope will speak for it (either here in the comments, or in other venues), since I feel no particular animosity towards the book.  But by virtually every measure I can come up with, this book generally failed to get my attention or to do anything worthwhile with it, when it did.  It might be fun to read a really bad novel and have a nice loud banter-filled conversation about it with a friend.  This novel won’t give you that experience (or much of any other kind of experience, either), so given the world of books and your limited free time, just keep on walking.

The Last Word:

To finish, as usual, with the author getting the final say, I’m going with one of George Apley’s last letters to his son, in which he comments on an essay by Emerson that he’d been reading, and applies some of it to his life.  If this grabs you, maybe you ought to give the book a try.  It comes closer to working for me than most of the rest of the book, and I can’t say it works, even then.  At any rate, here it is—the words of the late George Apley (though the ellipsis is mine):

“I have been amusing myself to-day by reading Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.  There is a brave ring to the words.  There is a courage about them which I like to think that Emerson and the rest of us, in a lesser measure, have drawn from the rocky soil and from this harsh climate.  I like to think we are all self-reliant in a way, but sometimes Emerson leads one’s thoughts along disturbing channels.  Emerson disturbed me this afternoon.

He made me do something which I have never really done.  He made me examine my life objectively, and I cannot say that I liked it very much; however, I could see myself as perhaps you and some others see me.  It seems to me that, although I have tried, I have achieved surprisingly little compared with my own father and his father, for instance.  I repeat that this negative result has not been for want of trying.  The difficulty seems to have been that something has always stepped in the way to prevent me.  I have always been faced from childhood by the obligation of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past.  In some way these have stepped in between me and life.  I had to realize that they were designed to do just that.  They were designed to promote stability and inheritance.  Perhaps they have gone a little bit too far. . . .

I have known the satisfaction of accomplishing something on which I have centred all my energies and hopes.  I have known the feeling of warm earth.  I have heard sleigh bells in winter.  All this has been very good.  Yet somehow I seem to have enjoyed very little of these pleasures, for I have never seemed to have had the time to enjoy them.  More than this, I will tell you frankly I have sometimes deliberately tried not to enjoy them.  I have turned away from them because I have believed that most of these were pleasures of the senses rather than of the intellect.  I have been taught since boyhood not to give way to sensuality.  I think this afternoon, now that it is almost too late, that this viewpoint may be a little wrong.  There has been too much talk in my life.  There has been too little action.”