Tag Archives: american literature

‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories From the Sketch Book’, by Washington Irving – review

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories From the Sketch BookThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories From the Sketch Book by Washington Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Washington Irving is more of a representative American writer than many contemporary readers, general or academic, wont to think of in spirit and style with an agenda to set the new distinctive culture in Postcolonial America. He is also a forebear of self-indulgent American narrative style in the manner of indolent solipsistic monologue principally via stream of consciousness. Independent of the genre, unpretentious of caliber, Irving is a freelancer writing when he could, not when he should, in the vanguard of American literary pioneers including Robert Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories from The Sketch Book is emblematic of Irving’s unique literary bent that fuses American consciousness’s singularity and the commonality of the universal mind. The book is a fascinating collection of 35 stories written by the curious spirit of whimsical and perceptive observation of people, places, and events – real or imagined, American or international – that grab the reader’s attention without distraction.

Irving is, first and foremost, an engaging raconteur with a dazzling combination of erudition and heart crisscrossing the boundary of time and culture. He is an American version of Homer and Aesop in creating legends in the likeness of truth and anchoring it in reality with ingenious storytelling skills and knowledge drawn on a wealth of letters and original scholarship. To illustrate, the story of “Roscoe” represents a new model author unassuming of his learning and generous of sharing it with the public. “The Art of Bookmaking” is an amusing tale of literary poacher witnessing a fantastic literary masquerade of great writers of all time coming alive in the British Library gallery. Irving criticizes the British intelligentsia’s snobbishness that belittles honest-to-goodness American hospitality toward strangers but extols the joy of British folks in ‘The Inn Kitchen.’ Irving’s admiration of Shakespeare’s natural wit and genius use of the language transcendent of ages and societies is touchy-feely in ‘Stratford-on-Avon’ without blind idolization of the Bard. Besides, Irving’s perspective on American Indians is a heartfelt testimony against sordid mistreatment of them by his civilized proud countrymen without a sanctimonious statement in the selfishness of the lettered case.

Irving’s honest narratives speak of the practical purpose of language of literature, which he tries to attribute to the bedrock of American literature. The social function of language as the active medium of cultural transmission that embeds the amiable and noble feeling of humanity becomes the foundation of Irving’s cultural agenda of establishing unique American culture independent of the old world’s cultural and political authority in consequence of the Revolutionary War. His use of the war exploits inventive thematic elements of folklore and history in the background of a tremendous chaotic break with the Empire via circuitous engagement. In this regard, Robert Waldo Emerson is a direct descendant of Irving to confirm the American literary baptism in the Living Streams of Knowledge that always flows in new, functionary divides.

The book is Irving’s textual testimony to the American literary and cultural independence trying to mark itself in the world’s literature following its seismic detachment from the mother country as if to rebel against the authoritarian upbringing that would stunt the growth of the child. However, contemporary American intelligentsia seems to betray Irving’s advocation of the inclusiveness of language. It’s either too cerebral or overtly esoteric with an excessively complicated play of words that do not consider general readers in mind. Knowledge is free to all, and by the charity of sharing the light of education, the cultural enterprise thrives in the continuation of civilization. Writers are extraordinary because they represent humanity by the medium of words from intellect with a heart across the divide of time. For this reason, this collection of stories defies the encroachments of time, regaling the posterity with the pleasure of vivid storytelling dipped in wit and erudition that is remarkably American in the bliss of eternal youth.

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The legend of the Catskill Mountains

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courtesy of google

Where the earth meets the sky on the mountain, 

An old mountain spirit opens and closes the doors

Of Day and Night every day at the proper hours

And works the wonders of nature in the divine design.

 

The vault of heaven, the dome of Sky God’s palace

She frescoes with celestial ephemerals every night

With new moons hung and old moons cut into stars

Sprinkled across the nightly firmament golden bright.

 

The garden of the earth, the parterre of Earth Goddess

She waters with rains spun out of soft summer clouds

Woven by early morning’s gossamer cobwebs and dews

Flake after flake, like those of fluffy white cotton balls.

 

The wise mountain spirit, the wonderful divine artist

Adorns the heaven’s frescoes every night with cheer;

The wise mountain spirit, the wondrous fairy gardener

Cherishes nature’s garden every day with delight. 

 

P.S. This poem is based upon my reading of Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ in which the fictional historian character named Mr. Knickerbocker relates to the native American legend of an old squaw spirit living on the Catskill Mountains in New York. I envision her as a fantastic fairy version of Michelangelo frescoing the vault of the Sistine Chapel and as a fabulous gardener tending the earthly garden with tenderness and quiet assiduity. What a fascinating vision of a magical magnitude it is!

‘Plain Girl’, by Arthur Miller – review

Plain GirlPlain Girl by Arthur Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first came across this book while looking for my next read on the train, I was immediately hooked on by the simple no-nonsense title of Plain Girl and incredulously surprised by the famous name of Arthur Miller, a celebrity playwright who had once married Marylin Monroe in his prime. Such an incongruous admixture of the images sprang in my mind like phantasms from a presumed association between the Dolorous and the Gorgeous, the Lonely and the Lovely, the Unlucky and the Lucky, all compactness in this beautifully elliptical and deeply heartfelt story about a plain girl whose jewel of beauty was wrapped in a dull, grey, crude titular epithet.

Janice Sessions, an intelligent young Jewish woman living in New York City, seems to share the sentiments of the introverts whose quiet modes of behaviors and shyness often make them unnoticed, if not obscure, among vociferous, glamorous crowds. Think Maupassant, who at the hour of his death confides in his close friend, “I coveted everything and enjoyed nothing.” And Charlotte Bronte, who always thinks she is deprived of beauty and fortune, which prevents her from a delight of love as a prerogative of beautiful fortunate women. And then the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein whose deformity puts him in a cruel shackle of absolute loneliness with an outcry of “I see inside but dare not to go inside!” They are the concerted echoes of estrangement – whether voluntarily or involuntarily imagined or devised – from lonely souls roaming around, wandering about in a search of happiness in life that can culminate in the union of loves, both Eros and Psyche, the spiritualization of sensuality in totality. This Janice is in want of, this is the source of her existential distress, noogenic frustration that keeps her away from anything miraculous and wonderful every happening to her.

In fact, I wonder if Miller writes this story of a plain girl on the thematics of existential frustration in which his protagonist is made to believe what she really isn’t, whereas her extraordinariness of resilient spirit against endless disappointment and distress renders her all the more distinguished from her peers whose ordinary femininity looks banal and trifle without stories to tell. Such emotional distress may arise from an existential vacuum caused by a collective value, such as in this story the disillusioned tenets of political and social ideologies ultimately culminating in World War II and the aftermath thereof. And Miller so elegantly and dexterously accounts for a woman’s solitary quest for the meaning of life, a sense of purpose in life as a woman of true value against epochal tides of world crisis. The apex of Miller’s literary finesse manifests in every sentence delicately nuanced sentiment wrapped in his elliptical expressions and laconic use of plain words, defying every streak of intricately baroque literature that does not communicate straightforwardly to the hearts of readers.

This book is not to discuss woman’s liberation or to lecture about the superiority of spiritual beauty over physical beauty that so many of you would quickly respond with stock answers. Janice’s doubt about her value of being loved and her preoccupied consciousness to her appearance makes her all the more palpable and realistic to those of you who find a kindred spirit in her and feel that you are not alone in loneliness and that what you think you are may not be the truth. Janice doesn’t need the glamour spell to transform herself into beauty because Janice is not a plain girl, nor has been, and will never be. The same goes for you.

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‘West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder’, by Laura Ingalls Wilder – review

West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915 by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Looks can be deceiving, for sure. It can yield an ill-judged misapprehension of the true person and therefore, form a certain prejudice about the person. A person’s appearance is a false shadow for the substance, but our faculty of mind based on a sensory perception with the works of imagination often falls into fallacy. That said, this charming little book comprised of lovely missives to her beloved husband Almanzo back home in Mansfield, Missouri comes surprisingly pleasant twist of the image of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the creator of Little House on the Prairie, whom I always considered to be stoic and imperturbable, a kind of austere and puritanical mid-west matriarch, who turns out to be one sweetheart with the untainted sensibility of feminity.

In these letters written to her batter half she called ‘Manly Dear’ during her travel to San Francisco and her stay there too in 1915 following an invitation from her only child Rose, you will read the words of her heart and soul enveloped in tenderness, colored in vivaciousness, and sealed with love, all the marks upon pages in the felicity of vivid descriptions wonderfully mixed with the perspicacity of reflective introspection, so jolly that reading them makes you feel like reading love letters from a smitten maiden to her smashing beau.

It’s one of the reads that require no practical analysis of the psyche of the author or of the social, political climates to make revisionist commentaries. It’s a pure mental delight of peeping into the inner world of the author that puts a smile on your face. Also, it’s a great read to while away your time at one sitting. On a personal note, if you have read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, the magisterial biography of Ingalls, this book is a lovely accompaniment to feel this great American writer of all generations closer to you as none other than her true person, talking about her journey to you as a great story-teller.

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‘A Summer of Hummingbirds’, by Christopher Benfey – review

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson HeadeA Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher E.G. Benfey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Greeks called it Ethos, and the Germans named it Zeitgeist. The world has always seen and experienced epoch-making changes of guiding ideals or beliefs that particularize ideology of an era under the cataclysmic reconstructions of social modus operendi, cultural trends, and memes. Something like that happened in the mid-late 19 century post-Civll War America, and it was something of American Renaissance. Emily Dickinson saw it as a flash of a hummingbird’s flight into a route of evanescence – of the antebellum social arrangements, hierarchies, puritanical morality, and intellectual formations, all of which seemed unseemly and even contumacious in a dawn of new era. So Christopher Benfey presents in this beautifully ethereal book his sensitive and illustrative script of Post-Civil War American literary scenes in which the likes of Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain are played on the same epochal screen, using the image of a hummingbird as a cross-cutting medium to interweave the lives of the American intelligentsia.

Benfey draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the American literary intelligentsia with a tender and intelligent contemplation on action and thought in the culturally sophisticated realms of East Coast America in the aftermath of the Civil War. For instance, he introduces the reader Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a passionate collector of expensive paraphernalia, whose Byronic-like charm and charisma led him to a famous scandal involving a love affair with the wife of his friend and parishioner. But Benfey sees the reverend as breath of a fresh air in the stuffy Protestant tenets of mortification of sensualism, which is only a friori natural to God-given human nature. In fact, Beecher substituted the drab and dreary Calvinist doctrines of predestination and infant damnation with the love of nature, the tender love, and mercy of God who created Beauty to be realized and appreciated, not to be despised and avoided. Besides, Charles Darwin’s Evolutionism manifested a perfection consistent with the Christian views: that all living things evolved into their most advanced forms meant the perfect beauty made in the Image of God. Indeed, such perceptions of God and his creations bespoke liberalization of Protestant moral codes that often yielded to perverted acts of unnaturally repressed desires. It was a leap into a new world of “fluidity and flux”.

All this seemed to conspire to reckon the moment of new arrival of intellectual zeitgeist with a divine revelation or a sibylline prophecy in this book, which is why it is deemed a contemporary nonfiction that reads like a classic fiction. Rich in detail and vivid in description that successfully resurrect the period, it is a riveting tale of the American literary legacy to be told with Benfey’s poetic use of simple language with a fascinating take on the felicitous subject worth the reading. The book embroiders on the lives of the American literary celebrities of the time by interconnecting their lives with the gossamer threads of contemporary providence or fortuity in one way or another, willed or unwilled, when a pre-Civil War mindset and post Civil War necessities still clashed. Nevertheless, Americans after the war came to see a new substratum of social order and diverse directions in all aspects of life, fittingly found in the figure of a hummingbird, an indigenous bird of the American continent, that is uniquely American. IT was also a time of Transit of Venus, as the new tone and sensibility for new era became dawned on the American social and cultural horizon. This book is a tessera elegantly and delicately put together by Benfey’s appealing narrative and approachable scholarship in a mosaic of American Art.