G. K Chesterton, Jane Austen and Mr. Wickham

In his collection of essays, “Come to Think of It” published in 1930 we find this little gem On Jane Austen in the General Election.  I’m not interested in what Chesterton writes about how political commentators are using – or misusing – Austen to argue about the New Woman as much as I am in his observations about George Wickham.  When my husband handed be a print-out of the short essay, I was just finished with my annual re-reading of Pride and Prejudice.  This includes re-reading the novel, watching the Colin Frith/Masterpiece Theater adaptation, and more recently, re-reading the P.D. James sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, so everything was fresh in my mind.

For anyone who has not read Pride and Prejudice or seen one of the many adaptations, there is a kind of love triangle between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett; the handsome, wealthy, brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy; and the charming, handsome, impoverished George Wickham.  Darcy is private and quiet; Wickham, open and talkative.  When we, and Elizabeth, first meet the men, Wickham is the more attractive.  Made more so, perhaps, by the fact that Mr. Darcy, proud and aloof, publicly refuses to acknowledge Mr. Wickham.

Wickham

It is Wickham’s explanation that Chesterton writes about.

….A writer in a leading daily paper, in the course of a highly optimistic account of the new attitude of woman to men, as it would appear in the General Election, made the remark that a modern girl would see through the insincerity of Mr. Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, in five minutes.

Now this is a highly interesting instance of the sort of injustice done to Jane Austen.  The crowd, (I fear the considerable crowd) of those who read that newspaper and do not read that author will certainly go away with the idea that Mr Wickham was some sort of florid and vulgar imposter like Mr. Mantalini. [Mantalini, a character in Dicken’s Nicholas Nickerby, is a handsome man who lives off his wife and eventually ruins her.  Also described as a gigolo.]  But Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that.  She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar imposter.  Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth.

Wickham tells Elizabeth the part of the story that puts Darcy in the wrong.  She has no reason not to believe him and neither do we until we learn the rest of the story from Mr. Darcy himself.  As the story unfolds we learn that while Wickham may not be vulgar, he has a lot in common with the gigolo, Mantalini.  But I digress.

Chesterton, thinking of the General Election, views Wickham as the perfect politician.

….For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections….And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures.  First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth.  And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret.

George Wickham as the perfect member of Parliament and perfect politician.  I love it!  Maybe the problem with politics today is there are not enough George Wickhams.

Photograph is a still of Adrian Lukis as George Wickham in the 1995 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Pride and Prejudice.

 

 

 

 

“The Tattoo Murder Case”

It is 1947 in post-war Tokyo and the police are confronted by a locked room murder in Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tatoo Murder Case.  The book was one of several Japanese mysteries I got for Christmas from my husband.  If the others are as interesting, he and David, the owner of Mystery on Main in Brattleboro, choose well.

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi was born in 1920.  According to both Wikipedia and eNotes, he studied metallurgy, but became a mystery writer when a fortune teller told him that was where his future lay.  He was a prolific writer up to the 1990’s; he died in 1995.  Only three of his books, including Tattoo, have been translated into English.

As with all good books, one learns a great deal.  Post-war Japan and the destruction in Tokyo are prominent.  At one point, we visit a house untouched by the war while the house next door is destroyed.  And I learned a lot about the art of tattooing.  Did you know that people with full-body tattoos have a shorter life span because the tattoo interferes with circulation?   Picking up facts like that is one reason I love good mysteries.

In the shadowy depths of Mount Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, there lived three powerful, wicked sorcerers who were masters of the black arts of magic and enchantment.  These mysterious magicians were known as Tsunedahime, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, and their legendary exploits have been the subjects of folk tales, Kabuki plays, woodblock prints, and some of the most spectacular Japanese art tattoos ever created.

This is the tragic story of three of those tattoos.

I’m not certain if that preface was written by Takagi or not, but assume that it was.  The folklore behind the tattoos plays as big a part in the story as the art of tattooing itself.  At the time of the mystery, tattooing is illegal in Japan, but there is a flourishing underground.  Tattooing is an art to the Japanese who are contemptuous of the random tattoos sported by the occupying Americans.  Their tattoos are referred to as sushi after a kind of rice featuring vegetables and other things scattered at random in flavored rice.  (Sushi refers to the rice and comes in many forms, not just rolled in seaweed or topped with fish.)  A good tattoo should be an entire picture and tell a story, not just be random names of girlfriends, flags, and anchors!

cover

The Tattoo Murder Case provides a glimpse into a different culture and time as well as a fascinating mystery.

Photograph of Takagi from Wikipedia.

Photograph of book cover from Amazon.

The book was translated by Deborah Boehm.

 

Reading mysteries in the summer

I’ve been spending considerable time this summer on our upstairs screened in porch watching the birds fly by (it must overlook some kind of bird flyway), the sky, and the squirrels dancing on the wires.  And reading.

In my reading life, I have always interspersed serious non-fiction and non-mystery fiction with lots of mysteries.  I’ve written in the past about some of my old favorites:  P. D. James, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh.  I began reading them in high school introduced by my mother who was also a prolific mystery reader.  But yesterday I was looking back at what I had been reading and re-reading this summer and it seems to be mostly three very different writers.

I had read the first two books in Archer Mayor/Joe Gunther series many years ago when they first were published.  I think my Vermont brother-in-law gave one to my mother who passed it on to me.  Fast forward.  I moved to Vermont a year ago and the local author, Archer Mayor, was just publishing Proof Positive.  I rushed down to the wonderful local bookstore, Mystery on Main, and purchased a signed copy.  I read it and loved it.  Now I was on a mission, one which has gone on into this summer, to read all the rest in the series before Mayor writes another.  I am probably not going to make it as it has a September release.  Six to go and I not only have to read them, but also find copies.

Archer

For anyone who hasn’t read Mayor, he writes about a Vermont police officer from my new hometown, Brattleboro.  At some point Joe Gunther stopped being a local Bratt cop and joined a made-up state investigative bureau.  The owner of Mystery on Main, some of the other members of the book group I just joined, and I were speculating that he had to go statewide because there just aren’t that many people murdered around here.  I have to confess that I find the books a bit uneven, but the best ones (The Skeleton’s Knee, Occam’s Razor, and Proof Positive) are excellent and even the ones I enjoyed the least (The Dark Root and The Disposable Man) are very good.  He evokes Vermont landscape and politics. One murder took place across the street from me.  I enjoy driving around town and locating scenes of the crimes.  Good reads.  I would call them a Vermont version of a hardboiled police procedural.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the English novels of Robert Barnard featuring Charlie Peace.  I’ve read a couple of Barnard’s over the years including the very funny Political Suicide, but until I found The Chaste Apprentice unread on my bookshelf, I hadn’t realized that he had a written series featuring a black police inspector.  The plots are entertaining as Barnard generally is, but the discussion of how being black in the Leeds, England area and the effect on detection show how stereotyping are not just American.  I’ve only read three and a half books in the series and not in order as I’m reading them as I find them in the library, but in one of the later books, A Charitable Body, Peace is married to a white woman and they have two children.  Felicity (I haven’t finished the book yet) seems to be critical in solving the mystery.  Barnard is expert at taking ordinary situations like a summer festival and inserting not only a mystery, but poking fun at his characters and settings.

Maron

The third group of books I’ve been reading this summer are the Margaret Maron/Deborah Knott books.  Maron’s books evoke North Carolina in the same way Mayor evokes Vermont and Barnard, England.  But Joe Gunther is basically a loner with a small team and a few friends while Deborah Knott has 11 older brothers with all of the wives and children to say nothing of aunts, uncles and cousins surrounding her.  Knott is a district court judge who over the course of 19 books has been involved in a great many of the murders in Maron’s imaginary Colleton County (somewhere near Raleigh/Durham).  They aren’t quite “cozy” but they are very family centered.  Maron’s twentieth Deborah Knott book will be published tomorrow.  She has announced she expects it to be the last in the series, but like the rest of her fans I hope she will change her mind at some point down the road.

I’ve read all 19 of the Deborah Knott books before so this summer I was re-reading a few of them partly in anticipation of the new release but also because the church burnings that followed the murders in Charleston, SC reminded of me Home Fires.  Home Fires centers around the burning of three black churches and the discovery of a body which is identified as a young black organizer who had gone missing years prior.  It is about race relations in North Carolina between whites and blacks as well as the hierarchy of color between African-Americans themselves.  It is a very different take on race and racial attitudes that Deborah confronts than the one facing Charlie Peace.  I’ll have think about this and explore it further.

But for now, I’m enjoying being variously in England, North Carolina, and home in Vermont confronting crime from a distance.

The Maya Angelou stamp quote

The U. S. Post Office has just issued a stamp commemorating Maya Angelou.  It is a very nice stamp with her picture and a quote.  The only problem is that the quote is not from her.  Josh Hicks wrote about the problem in his column in the Washington Post yesterday.

The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday released a new Maya Angelou stamp featuring a quote from a different author’s book, propagating a popular misconception about the original source of the line.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” the stamp reads.

Angelou, the late African-American author who wrote the famous 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” used the same line in media interviews, and President Obama attributed it to her during the 2013 presentation of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.

But the sentence never appeared in Angelou’s autobiography. The words came from Joan Walsh Anglund’s collection of poems, “A Cup of Sun,” published two years before the release of Angelou’s autobiography. (One difference: The pronoun “it” from the stamp quote appears as “he” in the poem).

A Maya Angelou stamp that was issued Tuesday features a quote attributed to her. But children’s book author named Joan Walsh Anglund says she wrote it first.

A Maya Angelou stamp that was issued Tuesday features a quote attributed to her. But children’s book author named Joan Walsh Anglund says she wrote it first.

Hicks goes on to compare the Angelou mistake with another:  The inscription on the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The release of the stamp comes less than four years after another fumbled attempt to honor an historic African-American figure. Controversy erupted in 2011 over an abbreviated quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorialthat critics thought would make the civil-rights leader appear immodest.

One of the inscriptions on the memorial read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” But King actually said, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

I was one of those who thought the editing completely missed Dr. King’s point.  But I think the Angelou stamp quote is different.  Lonnae O’Neal interviewed Joan Walsh Anglund about the use of the quote.

Joan Walsh Anglund also was hearing about the Angelou stamp for the first time Monday night. “I haven’t read all of her things, and I love her things, of course,” she said of the poet and cultural icon. “But I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she said.

“It’s an interesting connection, and interesting it would happen and already be printed and on her stamp,” Anglund said. “I love her and all she’s done, and I also love my own private thinking that also comes to the public because it comes from what I’ve been thinking and how I’ve been feeling.

“I don’t know about the stamp and I hope that it’s successful,” she added.

We can wonder if Angelou even remembered where she first heard the words that have come to be associated with her but the real lesson here is that we have to work harder at using words.  We need to be careful about how we edit other people’s words lest we change their meaning.  And we can all wonder at the human mind and how we associate certain phrases with specific people – so much so that even the person may come to believe it is theirs.

(Thanks to my friend Gary Bailey for bringing the story to my attention.)

Photograph:  USPS

Anne Perry: crime and punishment

A few years ago, a good friend suggested I try reading a book by Anne Perry.  She knew I enjoyed Victorian mysteries.  She also told me that when Perry was a teenager, she had been convicted as an accessory to a matricide by her good friend, served time, and now wrote mysteries.  I thought it curious that someone who had committed such a serious crime now wrote so well about crime, but I read my first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt book and was hooked.  After I retired, I went back and read all of them in order.  I’ve also read some of her William Monk books, but I find the Pitts very compelling.  I had forgotten about Perry’s criminal past until I read this past week’s column by Rebecca Balint in the Brattleboro Reformer. [link to be added when column is posted online,]

Becca is my neighbor and newly elected State Senator whose weekly column my husband and I always find interesting.  She had not known until recently that Anne Perry had committed murder.  Her column explores how she feels about Perry after finding out.

…Details of their delusions can be found in Parker’s [Perry’s friend] adolescent journal.  But the question persists for me:  Do I believe in rehabilitation and redemption?  If I do, as I have always claimed, then why do I view Anne Perry differently now that I know of her troubled past?  I’ve read her Victorian mysteries for years and always enjoyed them as inconsequential breathers from the dense non-fiction I read.  I’ve joked about some of her writing tropes but still find her characters compelling.  Yet, I feel undeniably uneasy about a convicted murderer as an author.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

I read this and wondered why I had reacted so differently.  I went back and located the interview I had read years earlier in the Guardian.

In 1954, Hulme felt as if she had been pushed to the limit. Three days before she took part in the killing of Honora Parker on June 22, her parents announced that they were to divorce – triggered by Hulme having found her mother, Hilda, in bed with a lover. At the same time, her father lost his job and she was to be sent to South Africa to stay with an aunt. The shock to Hulme – who had not been at school because of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered since the age of 13 – was cataclysmic.

She turned to her close friend, Parker, a working-class girl from a humble background. Some felt it was a curious friendship for Hulme, whose family were well to do, her mother glamorous and clever. The two friends believed they could stay together if Pauline’s mother would let her leave New Zealand. Her refusal triggered Parker’s murderous rage and Hulme believed she owed it to her friend to help lure Mrs Parker to a Christchurch park and cosh her with a brick in a stocking.

“I felt I had a debt to repay,” says Perry. “Pauline was the only one who had written to me when I was in hospital, and she threatened to kill herself if I didn’t help. She was vomiting after every meal and losing weight all the time. I am sure now she was bulimic. I really believed she would take her life and I couldn’t face it.”

Hulme served five years at Mt Eden women’s prison in Auckland – “supposedly the toughest in the southern hemisphere,” she says with what sounds like pride.

Yet Perry now calls her time in prison “the best thing that could have happened”. “It was there that I went down on my knees and repented,” she says. “That is how I survived my time while others cracked up. I seemed to be the only one saying, I am guilty and I am where I should be.”

In an interview with Ian Rankin, Perry explains further.

IR: I wondered: at what point does redemption come do you think, I mean at some point during incarceration?

AP: That is a very spiritual question, to which I can only give you my own estimate of the answer. The redemption comes when you no longer wish to be that kind of person. When you understand that… when you see it as ugly, and you understand why it is not what you want to be. Not what you should be, not what you want to be. And that’s the difference. Not because somebody outside is telling you: this is not what you do. But because you, yourself, say: this is not who I want to be.

IR: How do you feel about the fact that society requires people to be locked up, especially at such a young age, that we require what seems to be not redemption so much as a kind of vengeance.

AP: I suppose society does require a certain level of vengeance. It needs to be not only done but seen to be done because it is supposed to be enough to prevent other people wanting to do the same. I think it would have been the worst thing that could ever have happened to me in my life if somehow they had said: “Well, look. You know, you were under medical treatment. These are mind altering drugs. I am sure you are not really wicked. You go ahead and forget about it.” I think that would have been totally destructive to me.

IR: How important was the punishment to you?

AP: I feel it is vital. I think until you feel that you have settled the debt, you cannot move on. It is a bit like trying to walk with an open parachute open behind you. By paying, you cut the strings and then you can move on. You can allow yourself to move on. I can say it and look you in the eye, because I can say: Yes, I have dealt with it. I believe that I have paid. I believe that I have been forgiven where it matters. And it now for me no longer exists. I can move on and be the best person I am capable of being. But I think that is true of everybody. As long as you don’t say: “somehow it wasn’t really me, it was that person and somehow it didn’t matter and I don’t need to pay.”

I think this explains why she writes novels about crime and punishment.  I can read Perry’s books without thinking of her past because it is her past that allows her to write.

 

 

 

P.D. James, Queen of Crime

My mother introduced me to the mystery novels of P. D. James many years ago when I was a teenager.  James didn’t publish often; she was not a twice a year or even once a year mystery writer.  A new James was the occasion for celebration and we read all of them.  I believe there were 18.  The New York Times obituary outlines the story of her life.

She was born Phyllis Dorothy James on Aug. 3, 1920, in Oxford, the eldest of three children of Dorothy and Sidney James, a civil servant who did not believe in inflicting too much education on his daughter. The family settled in Cambridge when she was 11, and before she left the Cambridge High School for Girls, at 16, she already knew that she wanted to be a writer and that mysterious death intrigued her.

“When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” she was fond of saying, “I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?” But a marriage to Ernest C. B. White, a medical student, and World War II halted her plans for a writing career.

P.D. James, in 2010.

P.D. James, in 2010.

James was a hospital administrator for a number of years and used hospitals as the setting for some of her early novels.  But

[a]fter the death of her husband at 44, in 1964, Ms. James took a Civil Service examination and became an administrator in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs. The work would supply her novels with the realistic procedural detail on which she prided herself.

Although she rarely describes actual murder, the dead bodies in her novels always make an indelible impression on the innocent bystanders who chance upon them. “To many of them, it’s a really appalling and dreadful discovery,” Ms. James said. “I think that the reader should share that horror and that shock, so I make the descriptions just as realistic as I can.”

Her primary detective, Adam Dalgleish, was designed to be the anti-Peter Wimsey.

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.

A few months back, James was featured on the Barnes and Noble mystery section as one of the authors who discussed their favorite books.  It was interesting that she picked Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, two of the more complicated   stories by each author.  Also on the list were a book by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Fatal Inversion), the first Ian Rankin (The Complaints), and Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengance.  I have to confess that I don’t care all that much for Rendell, but I liked the other books on her list, so maybe I’ll try again.  There was one book, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, I had never heard of before.  On James’ recommendation, I ordered it and have it on my pile to read.

It is sad that there will be no more books by P.D. James, but I will spend them this next year re-reading and savoring all that she had left us.

Photograph:  Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Remembering Anne Frank

For anyone expecting a rant about Tuesday’s election, this is not it.  I think I may still be in a state of denial but I can’t write about it yet.  My secret hope is that the Republicans will be so busy squabbling amongst themselves that they won’t be able to pass anything major – just talk about it.  And they will be caught up in nominating a Presidential candidate, too.  Whatever.  For right now, i choose to think about Anne Frank.

I was 11 or 12 when I first read her diary, and like millions of girls around the world was inspired to start my own.  I went on to read the play, see the movie and to purchase a large annotated edition which restored parts that her father had edited out.  I don’t know if young girls still read her, but if they don’t they should.  It was through Anne that I began to learn about the Holocaust.

Sunday, November 9 marks another anniversary of Kristallnacht, the progrom of 1938 that many believe marks the beginning of open prosecution of German Jews.  The New York Times had a recent story about the anniversary and Anne Frank.

…People are fascinated or moved by the slimmest morsel of information about her. When watershed Holocaust dates come up on the calendar, like the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938, Anne’s surviving relatives and friends are invited to share tidbits as well as tell their own often harrowing stories.

Survivors who knew Anne retain the sacred mystique of ancient scrolls — touchstones to someone whose story helped cheat Hitler of his delusion of erasing Jews from the world’s collective conscience. And organizations appreciate these relatives not just because they give life to statistics like the six million Jews killed but because the stories underscore their missions and serve as a draw for raising funds.

Anne Frank, in 1941. Her diary has sold over 35 million copies.

Anne Frank, in 1941. Her diary has sold over 35 million copies.

One of her playmates remember her.

Eva Schloss, a playmate of Anne Frank’s in Amsterdam whose mother later married Anne’s father, recalls an 11-year-old who hopscotched, shot marbles, gossiped and talked so much her friends nicknamed her “Miss Quack Quack.”

Anne also had an intense interest in clothing, boys and Hollywood stars like Deanna Durbin.

A cousin who now lives in New York recalled

Anne was a lively girl who could be something of “a busybody,” Monica Smith said about her young second cousin — and she often had ink stains on her slender fingers.

“She was a writer,” said Mrs. Smith, who also remembered that Anne had a generous streak: “She would bring me peanuts. We were not choosy in those days.”

As with anything, there is controversy.  Who deserves to be considered a relative is a matter of much debate but

The personal stories relatives and friends tell are compelling, and not just when they intersect with Anne’s.

Monica Smith was born Dorothee Wurzburger in Stuttgart on May 10, 1923, six years before Anne, who was raised in Frankfurt. Her father was a manufacturer of steel used in Mercedes-Benz cars and was so important that the Nazis let him out of Dachau so he could continue conducting business. Mrs. Smith first saw Anne as a child of 3 when both went to visit grandparents in Aachen. Mrs. Smith’s grandmother and Anne’s grandfather were siblings, and their mothers were first cousins.

The memories grow clearer after Kristallnacht. Mrs. Smith’s parents put her on the Kindertransport to Holland that rescued 2,000 German-Jewish children, though one-third did not survive the Nazi occupation. Mrs. Smith, who was about 15, spent weeks quarantined in a barracks sleeping on a mattress on the floor, was taken to a more rural camp, and then to the Burgerweeshuis, an orphanage housing 75 refugee children.

Anne and her father, by then living in Amsterdam, visited the orphanage a dozen times, sometimes bringing treats. Mrs. Smith also saw Anne’s older sister, Margot, who was “totally different” — quiet and demure. Mrs. Smith remembers staying in the Franks’ modern apartment block on the Merwedeplein square and visiting Otto Frank’s spice-company offices on Prinsengracht — where he was to arrange for “the secret annex” that his family hid in for two years. And she remembers how engaged Anne and her father were with each other.

“The two of them were very close,” she said.

Mrs. Smith, a tall slender woman with a trace of a German accent, left Amsterdam a few days before the Germans marched in, reuniting with her parents in London, and immigrating with them to the United States. Adopting the nickname Monica, she scrubbed floors in the Bronx and worked as a saleswoman and clothing model at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. She married a Czech refugee, Francis Smith, and they had a son, Tony, who died at 4, and a daughter, Nicole Smith-Brody. Legally blind and hard of hearing, Mrs. Smith is filled with sadness when she thinks back to those days.

“What can be done to human beings!” she said.

What indeed?

No matter how you feel about using Anne Frank as a symbol for fundraising.  No matter the arguments as who might be a “true” relative,  the young girl who kept a diary and died just before she could have been liberated remains a touchstone at least for women of my generation.  She is the one who taught us about man’s inhumanity to man.  She was a girl who could have been one of us.

Photograph:  Anne Frank Fonds, via European Pressphoto Agency

Remembering Poe

Edgar Allan Poe died today, October 7, 1849 in Baltimore.  He was 40 years old.

My first introduction to Poe was “The Tell- Tale Heart”.  I think was in maybe the 5th or 6th grade when the teacher read it to us.  I found it frightening.  And then there were his other storied like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his very bad poetry.  I had always thought he was from Richmond – or maybe Baltimore, but have since learned he actually lived all over and went to school both at the University of Virginia and West Point.  After I moved to Boston, I found out that he had been born there.  I went looking for the tiny plaque in an alley honoring him.  There was also a reference in one of Linda Fairstein’s mysteries to the Poe cabin in the Bronx which is how I first learned of his New York connection.  So lots and lots of places claim him and there are at least three Poe historical sites:  Richmond, Baltimore and the Bronx.

But he and Boston had a terrible relationship.  According to the New York Times

Poe sneered at the city’s luminaries. Riffing off the Frog Pond in the Boston Common, Poe called the local swells “Frogpondians,” their moralistic works sounding like the croaking of so many frogs. As for residents here, they “have no soul,” he said. “Bostonians are well bred — as very dull persons very generally are.”

The Boston Globe explains that his relationship with “…with the city’s literary elite was famously tense…”

But now Boston has joined Baltimore, Richmond and New York with a tribute to Poe.  The New York Times quotes Boston’s Mayor

“It’s time that Poe, whose hometown was Boston, be honored for his connection to the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The Times describes the statue

Now the city is burying the hatchet, and not in Poe’s back. On Sunday [October 5], civic and literary folk, including Robert Pinsky, a former national poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, are to unveil a bronze statue of Poe near the Boston Common and, they hope, usher in an era of reconciliation.

The statue captures the writer in a purposeful stride, his cape billowing out to his left. On his right is an outsize raven, uncoiling for flight. Poe is toting a suitcase so overpacked that various manuscripts — “The Tell-Tale Heart” among them — are spilling out. Also popping out is a heart.

He is heading toward the house, two blocks away, where his parents lived around the time he was born, though it has since been razed.

So the only person to write a poem that became the name of a football team, the Baltimore Ravens, has finally been honored in the city of his birth.  I wonder what Poe would make of it.

Photograph:  DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

 

 

 

Professor Borges on reading

Jorge Luis Borges taught a course in English literature in 1966.  The lectures were recorded and transcribed (albeit not always accurately when it came to names which were rendered phonetically into Spanish) by some of his students.  The lectures have been translated from the Spanish and edited for clarity, but one can tell they were spoken and not written for publication. So far, I have only read a couple of them:  on Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Borges’ take on their lives and writings is unique to say the least and offers much room for new ideas.  It the kind of book where one can pick a lecture topic that is of interest and just read that section.

But it is Epilogue to the book that I want to post today.  It is not from a lecture, but an interview with him at the National Library in 1979.

I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory.  Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”?  What for?  Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek.  Obligatory happiness!  We seek happiness as well.  For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised by students:  If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read a book because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old.  If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost -which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also is not tedious to me.  But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.  Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment.  It is the only way to read.

Great advice for a retired person maybe, but not really the St. John’s College approach.  I believe it is in the famous Saturday Review of Literature article on St. John’s from the early 1960s that the phrase, “at St. John’s readings include some of the most boring books written” or something like that.  But if I hadn’t had to read Galen or Kant, I believe my life would be less rich.  Not true for everyone, probably, but true for me.  Sometimes plowing though something boring is good discipline.  But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I agree with Professor Borges:  Read only what you enjoy.

Borges

The book is Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  Edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis.  New Directions, 2013

College reunion: My 45th

I have to begin by saying that I have no idea what a “normal” college reunion is like.  I picture football games, halftime bands, sorority and fraternity parties and a good deal of alcohol consumption.  That last may be the one thing that a homecoming reunion at St. John’s College has in common with other homecomings.

My husband (who was in my class at St. John’s) and I hadn’t been to a reunion since the 25th, but we had been tapped as co-chairs for the 45th.  The first thing you have to understand is that St. John’s is a tiny school.  I think that there are around 400 current students on the Annapolis campus and an equal number on the Santa Fe one.  In the mid to late 1960s the student bodies were smaller.  I believe that the graduation rates have increased since my time, also.  Our freshman class was around 100 and if memory serves me, about 50 or 60 of us finally graduated.  This is my long-winded way of explaining why when 11 us (plus one spouse who is also the mother of a graduate) showed up, it was a pretty good number.

But what is a reunion all about?  You go to the place where you were x number of years ago and you hang-out with people you haven’t seen for years (and maybe didn’t know so well to start).  A reunion/homecoming at St. John’s is different. What makes a St. John’s reunion for me is several things.  First, the school is small enough that one knows people from other classes.  Second, because we all had pretty much the same curriculum and read the same books we could talk to friends (some old and some new) from the Classes of 1984, 1967, 1956 and 1965 with no problem.  And, third, the experience is intellectually stimulating.  Even the Friday night lecture, which wasn’t very good, sparked a breakfast discussion at our B & B about Dostoevsky and “The Brothers Karamazov”.  We came home and researched translations and will order and read the book again.

Our class had a seminar on Moliere’s “Misanthrope” led by two tutors that many of us had studied with back when we were students. The College also mixed in some current students.  It was a lively event with discussion on comedy, tragedy and what it means to be a misanthrope.  The play came up several times in other discussions over the weekend and my husband and I talked about it on the drive home to Vermont.  That is a powerful experience.  Seminars are the heart of any reunion at St. John’s but are not the only shared experience that is re-experienced.  There was also Freshman chorus (think of a bunch of mostly non musicians singing Mozart and rounds as we were once required to do. )  That was fun!

This was the anniversary of the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key who is an alumni of what we fondly refer to as the Old Program.  (St. John’s is the third oldest college in the United States after Harvard and William and Mary.)  In his honor we all toddled out to back campus after drinking much wine at dinner (and the pre-dinner reception) to watch the fireworks over College Creek after this year’s Freshmen sang the “Star-Spangled Banner”  It was a great Homecoming and Reunion.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John's College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John’s College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph: Tia Pausic