Friday, February 16, 2018

Radio show: This'll Take A While

The other day I was changing channels on Sirius XM and landed on BYU Radio, which I had no idea even existed. I was getting ready to change the channel when I realized the conversation was on Moby Dick, and I ended up listening to the remainder of the show. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and when I got home I found a list of shows and listened to another episode. The description of the program on their website is

BYUradio's "This'll Take a While" brings you engaging and often digressive conversations about film, books, geography, culture, art, hockey, and pretty much everything else. Join Professor Dean Duncan of the BYU Film Department for expansive and captivating conversation.
Judging by what I heard, I'll second both the 'engaging' and 'digressive' parts of the conversations. I'll list some of the episodes that pertain to literature, at least generally (through early February 2018) with their description in case others are interested in listening to them. There are several ways to listen and/or download episodes, but I'll limit my links to the show's website. It looks like the show recycles through older episodes in between the newer ones, so check their schedule and listen in if you're a satellite radio subscriber. And if you find other shows as engaging as this one, please let me know!

BYU Radio is currently channel 143 on Sirius XM. "This'll Take A While" comes on at 1pm Pacific time.

Exploring the Nature of Evil, in Literature (original air date Feb 5, 2018)
The BYU English department's Dennis Cutchins joins Dean to discuss the benefits of reading challenging, difficult material. They also consider those occasions when a reader might just decide to get himself out of there!

Moby Dick (Jan 22, 2018)
BYU English professor Stephen Tuttle joins Dean to enthuse at considerable and joyful length about Herman Melville's inexhaustibly great 1851 novel.

Two Anxious American Authors (Jan 8, 2018)
Carl Sederholm is a professor and administrator at BYU's department of comparative literature. He is also a connoisseur of the weird, which is why we have invited him to illuminate the wild and continuingly resonant work of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

Stephen King, mostly (Nov 27, 2017)
The University of Vermont's Tony Magistrale and BYU's own Carl Sederholm visit the show to assess, analyze and celebrate this undeniable American literary and cultural phenomenon. Have you ever wondered where to start reading this guy, or if you want to start at all? We've got you covered!

On Swedish Literature, Mostly (Feb 27, 2017)
BYU Comp. Lit's Chip Oscarson discusses some of the chronologies, key motifs and powerful practitioners that have helped overachieving Sweden so repeatedly catch the world's attention and imagination. And as usual, Denmark and Norway keep trying to butt in.

Are Myths True? (Aug 8, 2016)
BYU classicist Seth Jeppesen visits Dean to explore the deep roots and continued relevance of Greek and Roman mythology.

A Short History of Comic Strips, Comic Books, Graphic Novels (Jul 11, 2016)
American Studies scholar Dr Kerry Soper joins the program to draw out some of the surprising and productive family resemblances that exist between these popular and so-very-present art forms.

Classical Foundations (May 30, 2016)
Dean welcomes BYU classicist Roger MacFarlane for a conversation about how present in and important to contemporary life those old Greeks and Romans really are.

Walter Scott and the Evolution of the Novel (May 29, 2016)
Dean welcomes literary scholar Paul Westover to discuss the numerous innovations and vast influence of this great and too often underappreciated Scottish man of letters.

Your Autobiography (Apr 25, 2016)
BYU English department chair Phil Snyder joins Dean to open up some of the whys and ways of examining your own life, and writing your own history.

Don Quixote (Apr 11, 2016)
Spanish scholar Dale Pratt joins Dean for a celebration of Miguel de Cervantes' incalculably important, inexhaustibly enjoyable literary milestone.

Commedia dell'Arte (Aug 9, 2015)
Commedia dell'arte is a type of Italian theater that revolutionized the stage. Dean's conversation today starts with Janine's own theater history in Utah, taking courses in Italian and history at BYU, and her heavy involvement in Dramaturgy as well. Anyone interested in stage productions today can learn more about a branch of theatrical history during this episode.

Brush up Your Shakespeare (Feb 24, 2015)
Elizabethan scholar Rick Duerden joins Dean to discuss some of the surface challenges and endless benefits of studying the world's greatest writer.

The American Short Story, Pt. 2 (Feb 6, 2015)
Dennis Cutchins returns to talk about ten short stories that will change your life. Inhospitably, Dean waxes skeptical about the impulse to make lists.

The American Short Story, Pt. 1 (Jan 28, 2015)
Dean and BYU English’s Dennis Cutchins use Bill Murray’s "The Man Who Knew Too Little" as an entrée into their discussion about American short fiction. Listener beware!

Translated (Feb 27, 2014)
Daryl Hague, a translation professor in BYU’s Department of Spanish and Portugeuse, talks about the letter and the spirit of language and its translation.

Chris Crowe II (Oct 1, 2014)
Chris returns to our program to discuss the need for tough topics and tough talk in teen literature. He and Dean also get grumpy about all those lucrative fantasy franchises for young readers.

Reading (Jan 23, 2014)
Bruce and Margaret Young get beyond books in a discussion about the innumerable texts that moderns need to decode, and the expansion that attends their successfully doing so.

Teens, Reading (Dec 23, 2013)
We’ve got a glut here! Navigational tips from Chris Crowe, a distinguished scholar and writer in the field of adolescent literature.

Writing Books is Hard, Pt. 2 (Nov 20, 2013)
One would think the work would be done upon completion of writing a book. In reality, there's an entirely new battle to fight after you finish. Veteran author Ignacio Garcia discusses the details with Dean.

Writing Books is Hard, Pt. 1 (Nov 13, 2013)
Do you think reading academic books is a long and tedious task? You should try writing one! Fellow-scholars Daryl Lee and Megan Sanborn Jones join Dean to talk about the travails of academic authorship.

Learning to Read (Jul 6, 2012)
Dean talks with Bruce and Margaret Young about reading, how we learn it, how we may have to re-learn it, and some of what we get out of the whole arrangement.

Why I Read Long Books (Jun 1, 2012)
Some people won’t read a book that exceeds a certain number of pages, but BYU Humanities professor Joe Parry is not one of those people. Join Joe as he talks with Dean about the reason he ventures into books that some people would only use to keep their boat trailer from rolling.

Harry Potter (Jul 12, 2011)
Dean delivers a radio essay about JK Rowling’s beloved franchise. He discusses narrative trajectory, filmic adaptation, and the benevolent place that popular culture so often plays in our private lives.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen

The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen
Pegasus Books, 2017

I have to admit I've never really connected with Zola's books. I find things I appreciate and like in his writing, but its more in fits and starts than for a sustained reading. What interested me in this book was Jean Barois by Roger Martin du Gard, which included a cameo by Zola during one of the trials in the Dreyfus affair, and my interest in following up on what happened after Zola's libel trial.

A little background if you aren't familiar with Zola's famous 'J'Accuse' letter printed in the Parisian daily L’Aurore on January 13, 1898: 
French Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been accused of passing French military secrets to the German embassy. Based on documents believed to be forged, Dreyfus was convicted of treason. The case received heightened public scrutiny as Zola and others were convinced the French army was trying to cover for the real guilty party(s) and also because of antisemitism (Drefus was Jewish). Zola's letter was addressed to the French president, laying out his beliefs that deceit, forgery, incompetence, antisemitism, villainy, and "the defeat of justice and plain truth" in the case resulted in a guilty verdict. Zola highlights that his letter exposed himself to a libel charge, hoping that such a trial would allow new evidence in the Dreyfus case to exonerate not just himself but Dreyfus, too. During Zola's trial, Dreyfus' case was not reviewed and the author was found guilty of libel. About to be fined and sentenced to a year in prison, Zola fled to England.

Rosen's book follows the author's flight across the channel and his time in England (February 1898 to summer 1899), when he was able to return to France after Dreyfus' verdict was overturned and Zola's follow-up trial was postponed. It's a lively story at first, as Zola arrives in London without any luggage not able to speak English, having to pantomime any request. Just four years earlier he had been the focus of adulatory receptions in London's literary circles, but now he was a fugitive intent on hiding his identity. Eventually he settles in a Norwood hotel suite for most of his stay in England.

Making matters even more complicated was Zola's thorny personal life. His wife Alexandrine and his mistress Jeanne Rozerot (and her two children with Zola) came to visit the author in England at different times, reflecting a similar arrangement the trio had arrived at in France so Zola could share time with both women. While in England, Zola maintained his writing habits and was able to begin a new series of novels (Les Quatre Évangile), as well as other short works. 

Rosen reconstructs what happened through Zola's fastidious letter writing to Alexandrine and Jeanne, the memoirs of his daughter Denise, and a book written by Zola's English translator and publisher Ernest Vizetelly. The account can become monotonous at times, resulting from Zola's tendency for a structured, repetitive routine.  Other times, though, his fugitive life provides something out of a spy thriller (although not nearly at the same level). His flight to England generated many newspaper articles in Paris as the press published articles claiming he was in Switzerland or Norway before finally confirming he was only across the channel. His political maneuvering earned him reticent friends in socialist circles, but they were instrumental in Dreyfus' eventual pardon Dreyfus. Rosen sums up the contradictions Zola had to deal with upon his return to France, in that

throughout the period of the Dreyfus case, his exile and the last months of his life was that the France he wanted (republican, humanist, secular, democratic and evolving toward socialism) was not the France he had written about in 'J'Accuse', faced in his own trials, or fulminated against in his most miserable moments in exile. So when, in his literary mind, he placed France at the head of a movement to humanise the world, this was a France that he knew didn't exist yet. What's more, by identifying imperialism as an evil that other powers were guilty of, he had either to efface the imperialism of France itself or claim that whatever France did, could do or should do outside of its own borders was as a humane, civilising force. (page 231, hardback)
The upper echelons of the French military never forgave Zola for his role in publishing their conspiracies regarding the Dreyfus case. Zola's stay in England proved to be a great strain, something he never seemed to fully recover from. The antisemitism he fought against ended up making him a target of the same hatred and prejudice. Three years after returning to France, Zola and his wife died from carbon monoxide poisoning related to a stuck chimney flue, with rumors of murder never confirmed.

Rosen has produced a mostly lively account, where the severe turbulence of this period of Zola's life clashes with his desire for spending time with his family. *ahem* Families. At times the recounting of the author's routine and his concerns became repetitive (because Zola repeated them often) , but overall it's an solid documentation of the author's place and standing in the Dreyfus case while examining Zola's life in general and this period in particular.

Also included in the book is a postscript that highlights the BBC Radio 3 program "Zola in Norwood", covering parts of this story in an interview with Madame Martine Le Blond-Zola, Émile's great-granddaughter. Also included is "Angeline," a short story by Zola, inspired in part by some of the English countryside the author visited. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

January 2018 posts updates

If I see something interesting—post, video, etc.—that ties in well with a book I've posted about on the blog, I'll go back to the original post and update it with the link to the new item. I realize not everyone will go back to something they have already seen, so I thought an occasional "Update" post would be good. Here are a couple of updates I made in January that might be of interest.

Primo Levi The Periodic Table, posted almost ten years ago.
Carole Angier provides not just a nice overview of the book, but also includes the chapter “Cerium” with detailed commentary, at Aeon.

Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

I didn't realize it, but Thomas Penn narrated an hour-long 2013 documentary titled Henry VII: The Winter King. It is currently available for Amazon Prime viewers, with several versions of it on YouTube. It is a good overview and introduction of Henry VII, but if this documentary piques your interest you'll want to read Penn's book. He goes into much more detail on every aspect covered in the show.

Books I plan to post on in February:
The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen
The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle
Brutus: The Noble Conspirator by Kathryn Tempest
The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill
I've also been winding my way through The Landmark Julius Caesar and thoroughly enjoying it. I'm not sure how or when I'll post on it, but I definitely will.

On a side note, I want to thank everyone for their kind words. Things have returned almost to normal after my last surgery and it is such a blessing not to be in constant pain anymore. Now if my days were only half again as long so I could get caught up on everything...

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Avignon Papacy Contested by Unn Falkeid

The Avignon Papacy Contested: An Intellectual History from Dante to Catherine of Siena by Unn Falkeid
Harvard University Press, 2017
Series: I Tatti Studies in Itallian Renaissance History

The aim of this book has been to explore some of the most significant critics of the Avignon papacy, critics who in many ways came to prepare the ground for the harsh disputes in the coming two centuries in Europe. The critics have been selected because of the strength and originality of their arguments, their authorial voices in the contemporary debates, and the general impact of their work on later generations. ... Despite their striking dissimilarities—an expelled Florentine poet [Dante Alighieri], a physician trained at the University of Padua and later a rector at the University of Paris [Marsilius of Padua], a Franciscan friar and theologian from England [William of Ockham], a humanist at the papal court in Avignon [Francis Petrarch], a princess from Sweden [Birgitta of Sweden], and an uneducated young woman from the Sienese popolo grasso [Catherine of Siena]—these thinkers shared a series of factors. Primarily, their works were produced during the era of the Avignon papacy, which they all profoundly despised. ... [E]ach of them challenged in specific ways papal power and the papacy's stay in souther France, and they all played key roles in contemporary public debates. Moreover, a network of people and events links them together, and some of them probably even met each other in person as well. Finally, together they offer us a rich and detailed glimpse of the bitter and multifaceted conflicts over the legitimacy of the Avignon papacy from 1309, when the pope settled in Provence, to Pope Gregory XI's final return to Rome in 1377. (176-7)

I remember my interest in the 14th century began when I read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror in high school. I knew I didn't understand everything going on, but the turbulence she described was fascinating to me. Plus it was the first time I heard or read about the Avignon papacy. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict this book won't be on too many holiday wish lists or "best of" lists, but it's one of my favorites of the year. Unn Falkeid has produced an overview of leading literary criticism of the papal move to Avignon in the 14th century as well as providing detail on how some of the critics' works addressed the problems they saw. There is a wealth of scholarship in this book, but Falkeid's "hope is that this book will spur on further interest. There is still much to explore...". (177) I'm in full agreement since there's quite a bit more I want to delve into after reading her book.

So what were these writers contesting? One area they focused on would be the struggle for power, both within the Catholic Church and between the church and states. Before the move to Avignon, Pope Boniface VIII issued the Clericus lacios bull in 1296, stating jurisdiction over clerics and their property was not subject to lay powers. Boniface later issued the bull Unam Sanctam in 1302, firmly asserting the pontiff's power over secular rulers. The pope, in other words, had full power on earth for spiritual and temporal matters. Even though this bull was later annulled by Boniface's (short-term) successor, the marker had been laid for the desired power of the papacy.

Pope Clement V moved the papacy and supporting cast to Avignon in 1305, where he and the next six popes resided until Pope Gregory XI moved the papal court back to Rome in 1377. Several of contesting writers saw Rome as the proper center for the church, but things didn't necessarily work out well on that front. Despite the return to Rome, the papacy was not fully embraced or welcomed. Political and religious turbulence flourished as religious schisms were on the horizon. Falkeid asserts in the introduction that she doesn't intend to give a detailed account, historical or otherwise, of the Avignon papal era. Instead she explores how writers of the time responded to the "Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy" and their political and religious implications.

The move from politically unstable Rome (and "Italy") to the more peaceful and pliant location of Avignon in southern France provided an opportunity for the papacy to bolster its power and wealth. Soon after Pope Clement V moved the religious court to this crossroad of trade and religious travel, Italian companies established trade/bank divisions located there, clearly following the money and power. They recognized what others would eventually see as the papal court bolstered their power and wealth in three main ways. First was the nomination of benefices, or appointing clergy to ecclesiastical offices. This move made priests, cardinals, etc. more indebted to the papacy. Second, Pope John XXII (1316 - 1334) began a system of papal taxes that created "an intricate, specialized fiscal system, which, together with the spoils from the newly banned Templars, rapidly developed the papal curia into a court that outshone all the secular courts in Europe in power and wealth." (21) Third was the growing power of the papal seat itself as it adopted a monarchical structure. This consolidated power and money insulated the pope not just from state leaders but also from high-ranking religious leaders attempting to challenge his power. Even with this consolidation of power and the resulting economic growth, the papacy would still have to navigate the tense political situation in Europe. It was the excessive claims of ecclesiastical power that led to much of these writers' criticisms.

Each chapter of the book provides a case study showing how the six figures tried to cope with the precarious situation that the Avignon papacy had created. Dante, Marsilius, Ockham, Petrarch, Birgitta, and Catherine did not only come to have a decisive influence on the political events of their time; as well as being significant political agents, their literary works dominated the agenda of the contemporary political and intellectual debates, with far-reaching effects for the political discourses of early modern Europe. (6)

Falkeid goes into some detail for these authors' criticisms and their suggested solutions. My brief notes here will cover only a few highlights of what she presents in the book. Dante, in Paradiso VI and Monarchia reveals how enamored he was with the Roman Empire. In Paradiso VI, Dante presents emperor Justinian looking at the separation of the powers of church and state and both of their divine origins. Since man has a dual nature of "the corruptible body and the incorruptible soul," man has two realms where he needs guidance. The emperor and the pope have similar missions but in different spheres, so the papacy's infringement on secular power caused Dante to lay out his concerns in Monarchia. Marsilius of Padua's Defensor pacis (The defender of peace) agreed with Dante that the church's creeping jurisdiction into political/secular matters was something to resist. Where Dante viewed both church and empire as divine gifts, though, Marsilius viewed both institutions as human inventions. Therefore power in each was to be derived from the people. Justice in each realm would be recognized by their smooth functioning, something sorely lacking in the 14th century. William of Ockham's Breviloquium de principatu tyrannico (A short discourse of tyrannical government) focuses on divine and natural rights granted as all human beings' fundamental liberties. This work, presented in the form of court testimony, examines the limitation of human rights granted by God and nature, which existed before any papal power. Because Ockham believed the pope's actions countered many of these divine and natural liberties, the pope was committing heresies.

In the mid-14th century, the writers Falkeid highlights begin to combine their attack of the physical location of the papacy with the ecclesiastical reforms that needed to be made. Petrarch's letter to Cola di Rienzo shows the author wading into the political fray after Cola's 1347 revolution in Rome. Petrarch's letter marks a trend in viewing papal legitimacy tied to its return to Rome. Birgitta of Sweden's Liber celestis revelaciones (Celestial book of revelations) records her visions as filtered through her scribes, translators, and confessors. Birgitta weaves politics and theology together as she presents herself as a widow of Rome, offering advice on how the miserable state of the church could be improved. Catherine of Siena's letters emphasized that it wasn't enough for the papacy to return to Rome—reforms were needed, too. While working as a peacemaker between warring factions in Italy, she made it clear she believed in the separation of powers between secular and ecclesiastical rule. She pointed out that the religious rulers would benefit from reforming the church in addition to returning to Rome. Not only benefiting the church, she predicted such moves would settle the chaos she witnessed in Rome.

By involving themselves in the political and ecclesiastical questions of the day, these writers helped shape some of the political thoughts of their time. While the book isn't meant as a complete overview of the times or of each author, it can serve as a wonderful introduction that should spur further investigation into the times and writings. Very highly recommended, especially for readers with some knowledge of the period.

A few of the books referenced

  • Avignon and Its Papacy (1309 - 1417): Popes, Institutions, and Society by Joëlle Rollo-Koster
  • The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile by Edwin Mullins
  • Dante, Poet of the Desert: History and Allegory in the Divine Comedy by Giuseppe Mazzotta
  • Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (Princeton Legacy Library) by Giuseppe Mazzotta
  • Dante and the Making of a Modern Author by Albert Russell Ascoli
  • Dante: A Critical Reappraisal by Unn Falkeid
  • Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy by Alan Gewirth
  • The Political Thought of William Ockham by Arthur Stephen McGrade
  • Petrarch: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works by Victoria Kirkham and‎ Armando Maggi
  • St. Birgita of Sweden by Bridget Morris
  • Catherine of Siena by Giulia Cavallini

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Available now: The Landmark Julius Caesar

I posted about this earlier this year, but I'm excited to say that The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works is now available and it is beautiful. While Robert Stassler is still the series editor, Kurt A. Raaflaub did the translation and editing. If you're not familiar with the series, it presents classical historical works with additional notes, maps, and essays that make the texts more accessible to the lay reader. The previous Landmark series include Herodotus, Thucydides, Arrian, and Xenophon. I've commented on the first three (and need to correct the omission of Xenophon's Hellenika).

Included in this release are Caesar's Gallic War and Civil War, as well as four additional works by contemporaries that fill in some gaps. The maps are superb as usual, with possibly more than previous releases supplementing the text. Because additional contemporary sources are available on Caesar's exploits, even more notes to the text are available than previous books in the series. One major difference from previous releases is that most of the informative essays are supposed to be available online (although I've tried to access it without success...I'll update about the essays as I find out more).

If you've ever thought about tackling some of the ancient historians but felt overwhelmed at where to start, The Landmark Ancient Histories are an ideal place to begin.

Update (2017 Dec 17): Great news! The online essays are available.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


Yesterday was the first day in about sixteen months that I was pain-free for a few hours. I cannot tell you how great that felt. It turns out I got very little done during that time, though. I found myself simply enjoying the feeling. Or lack of it, I guess.

I know I've said this a few times already, but I'm hoping to begin blogging again (not to mention reading for more than a few minutes at a time) once I get back to some semblance of normal, or to whatever the new normal happens to be. There's another procedure planned for the end of November, which may be the last of what is needed to be something resembling whole again. We will see how things go. Thanks so much for your patience!

Monday, September 04, 2017

Currently streaming: Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live... And More (2017)

Picture source: Big Star Third Live Facebook page

I have wanted to post something...anything...but haven't felt up to it for a while. I've posted about this tour elsewhere, but I'm pleasantly surprised how much I liked the documentary release covering one of its performances. There are some interviews with a few of the performers, but thankfully it avoids a hagiographical treatment (well, as much as you can with a tribute) of the group and focuses of the music. Plus, it's gratifying to see Jody Stephens included in the project.

I'll have to apologize...I'm not up for a history of the band, recordings, etc., but I will say I was a little surprised that the focus for the tour was Third. Fortunately, that focus works well in the film (and I'm sure live, too). Big Star was a group with multiple daemons, and Third captures many of them quite well. It was a recording out of time, out of mind, and out of any type of definition. I believe it was Robert Christgau that asked, about Radio City, if a group could be so twisted and catchy at the same time. The answer, fortunately, is available for everyone to judge, and much easier to access than when I was collecting vinyl records.

The first half of the movie shows performances of Big Star songs from #1 Record and Radio City (and an inclusion of the solo Chris Bell song "I Am the Cosmos"). Most of the songs on Third fill the second half, although without the covers from the various versions (I believe...I'm not committing to anything while I'm still trying out different pain meds). The songs are too self-conscious. They are too eccentric. They are too depressing. And yet I still find them uplifting, in some strange way. OK...not for everyone, but I still highly recommend it.

Jody Stephens, drummer for Big Star (same picture source as above)

Friday, June 23, 2017

30 Door Key (based on Ferdydurke) on YouTube

Another week, another trip to the hospital for an infection. Fortunately this was caught early enough that medication may be enough to handle it. On to brighter things...

The above video appears to be the 1991 movie 30 Door Key based on Witold Gombrowicz's book Ferdydurke. I'll be checking it out this weekend. I had posted clips from the movie before, but had been unable to locate the full movie. Hopefully this is it.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A post..which will hopefully lead to more posts

I seem to be all over the place in reading lately, but with little time to post about it. I seem to focus on big-brush topics at times and while I always hope to post on them, it never seems to work. So I'm hoping with a little prodding on my own part, I'll follow up on my intent with actual posts. We'll see how this works...

There have been several topics I'm digging into of late. Sparta/Athens is a constant one. But lately I find I've been focusing on the American Revolution, but more so from the Tory side. I think it was the realization that this was our first civil war (hardly a new thought) that has drawn me into it a little more. As well as discovering some wonderful books. Naturally.

First a digression. Have you watched any of the AMC series Turn? I rarely get hooked on a TV series, and yet this one drew me in. I've read some of the books on Washington's spy ring and I realize the series takes a LOT of liberties with the known facts. And there are a lot more liberties taken in other areas. And yet the overall feel rings true. I think part of the appeal lies in the major figures—Washington, Arnold, etc.—playing pivotal roles, but the focus in on "supporting" figures. And if you've read any of the spy-ring books, you'll know that those involved in such activities left little to draw attention to their actions. Similar to what I mentioned about Dumas' treatment of historical fact and the introduction of conjecture in The Red Sphinx, there's a lot of room to insert what you want as long as you're consistent with the overall trajectory. The point I want to make is that the details of those involved at the grass-roots level is what drew me in to the series. You realize what they are risking, whether for England or America. And you also see that deciding which side you were on wasn't always a clear-cut decision on right and wrong.

Several years ago I read Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. I hope to resurrect my notes and post them here, because it was a wonderful book on what was at stake for those that chose to side with England during the war and how that played out after the Revolutionary War. All of which led me to other books. First there was Peter Oliver's Origin and Progress of the American Revolution: A Tory View, which is a marvelous first-person view of what happened in Massachusetts during the Revolution by the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of the province. Needless to say, he has a favorable view of Thomas Hutchinson and isn't quite as friendly toward the Otises or Samuel Adams (and those that came under his sway, such as John Hancock). Again, I hope to post more on his book.

If you favor fiction, Kenneth Roberts' Oliver Wiswell (if I were a urologist, I'd change my name to this), is a great historical novel that looks at the revolution from various regions of the colonies. At times it's a no-holds-barred view of what a revolution entails, to which the American version was no exception to the usual incorporation of terror tactics. What doesn't make it into the text (because it wouldn't make sense) is the comparison of the American Revolution to other revolutions in a similar timeframe. The story offers great narrations on war and its costs. Like the other books, I hope to make more comments on this wonderful (out-of-print) book.

The last book I'll mention here is Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth by Holger Hoock, which has recently been released by Penguin Random House. I've just recently picked this up and hope to comment on it soon.

So much for this "good intentions" post. Feel free to comment on related books.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Hugh Kenner on Firing Line

I have had the above video open in a browser for several weeks without watching it. I wanted to see Hugh Kenner, but the topic title, "The Political Responsibility of Artists," put me off. I finally screwed up the courage to watch and found it stimulating...I shouldn't have let the title guide me. Kenner is engaging and there's an obvious comfort-level between host and guest. I highly recommend it for Kenner's comments and responses.

A few background facts on the show, which was recorded on June 28, 1974. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been driven out of the Soviet Union earlier that year, making him one of the major topics of the show. Also of relevance was Kenner's resignation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences after Ezra Pound's Emerson-Thoreau Medal was rescinded by "central committee" (as Buckley put it). The Academy's actions occurred two years earlier, shortly after Kenner had published The Pound Era. A few other writers of note mentioned during the show include Milton, de Sade, and Céline, particularly in discussions about honoring the art but not the artist.

My favorite section of the show was Kenner's discussion on Samuel Beckett and his involvement in the French Resistance during World War II. At the 29-minute mark, Kenner demonstrates why Waiting for Godot may have been inspired by those experiences. After giving a concise overview of the play, Kenner remarks about a few of the play's lines, “Nobody recognizes that is almost a literal transcription of a Resistance anecdote.”

Even funnier is Kenner's observation that the best American literature are essentially instruction manuals. You'll see what I mean in the video. Kenner's renown may have been for Modernist writing, but he demonstrates a wide-ranging knowledge of literature. His comments on the best of politically inspired writing and what helps it transcend potentially narrow strictures are insightful. Again, highly recommended.

Kenner: “The ability to see the realities that politics handles in non-political terms is a gift which the artist can confer on the rest of us. We are so trapped in political categories that we cannot see any others.”