Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

Holy Mother of Pearl!  Let me just say this was a really great book.  And that's not just the Limoncello talking.  Yes, I had a bottle in the freezer left over from when I visited Italy last year, and I polished it off tonight.  I still can't figure out if I like the stuff...it has a nice flavor, but it's a bit too sweet for my tastes, I think.  Edith Wharton, though, is none too sweet.  I read "Ethan Frome" in high school and "The House of Mirth" in college and there was nothing at all sweet about those books.  Man were they depressing...hellish glimpses of people coming to horrible ends after getting fucked over in relationships.  So why would a guy like me, without a girlfriend at the moment, have the balls to read more Edith Wharton?  Did I think it was going to motivate me to run out there and get hitched up?  Nah, actually I had the book on my shelf, and it intrigued me, and even though it's not on the list for this blog I decided to take a break and read it.  And wow, am I glad I did.  This book maybe my new favorite of all the ones I've blogged about so far, right up there with "Silas Marner" and "Anna Karenina".  It was entertaining, it was intellectually stimulating, and it made me weep.  I mean seriously, this book hit me over the head with an emotional frying pan at the end and had me totally bawling, and that's not just the Limoncello talking.  But then, we'd already established that last point.

"The Age of Innocence" takes place in Old New York.  I'm guessing 1870s/1880s, when high society folks lead rather trivial lives of socializing according to very defined rules.  Everyone knows what the rules are, but no one really talks about them.  Spouses don't really communicate on a deep level.  Everything is formal.  Newland Archer is a rich young lawyer who grows up in this world and gets engaged to his sweetheart, May Welland.  May is gorgeous, and Archer loves her.  All seems good.  Then May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, comes to town.  Ellen grew up in New York, and was a childhood friend of Newland's, but she married a rich Polish count and moved to Europe.  The Polish dude turned out to be a total asshole and cheated on her, so she ran off with his secretary, and then came back to the US. Everyone in New York high society is freaked out because she'd been living in Europe, and everyone knows those European people have mysterious ways that can't be trusted, plus why would any woman leave her husband?  Her family, and Newland, work to get her integrated back into New York society but she's always regarded with suspicion.  She's too free and unconventional, and everyone hates that.  Except Newland.  No, poor Newland suffers the fate of realizing how confining his pitiful life really is, and he totally falls for Ellen.  Especially as he slowly finds out his wife doesn't have much of an interior life.  He longs for more.  He tells Ellen he loves her, but they both agree they shouldn't upset other people with such trivial feelings such as love, so Newland goes ahead with his engagement and he and May get married.  Oh fuck, people, is it EVER a good idea to get married when you're in love with someone else?  No, but Newland and Ellen were trapped by their society so they decided to try to ignore their feelings.

Newland and May are married and settle down to their life in New York.  Memories of Ellen fade from Newland's mind until he runs into her again on a vacation out of town.  Ellen promises not to go back to Europe while they're still in love, but once again she says they must not act upon their feelings.  But after awhile, when Ellen moves back into New York City to take care of her grandmother who has had a stroke, she meets Newland again and they decide to consummate their affair.  FINALLY!!  But before that can happen Newland learns that Ellen is moving back to Europe, and May announces that they are to have a farewell dinner for her cousin in their house.  Newland is freaked out by all this, and not at all happy, but what can he do?  So they have this huge dinner party, and May makes him sit next to Ellen, and it's then he gets this totally paranoid feeling that everyone at the party thinks he and Ellen had an affair, and that this send-off is the best thing for him since it gets this adulterous bitch out of town so that Newland can focus on his wife who has always been true and faithful.  Or is this really merely paranoia?  After the guests leave, and Newland says goodbye to Ellen for what he presumes to be forever, May comes in to the study and tells him she's pregnant.  She also says she told Ellen this a few days ago, right before Ellen suddenly decided to go to Europe.  Ohh, snap!  This woman, May, who Newland regarded as innocent and unobservant has apparently engineered the removal of Ellen from the scene.

Flash forward twenty years.  Newland and May had several children.  Newland's life with May was content, and his longings for Ellen slowly receded, and when May dies of pneumonia he is genuinely sad.  He travels to Europe with his oldest son, who's grown up in a new generation where things aren't so stifling socially.  These modern kids, they hang loose!  In Paris his son suddenly says "Hey let's go visit our cousin Countess Olenska.  You really loved her, didn't you Dad?"  Newland's mind reels..."WTF did you just say, son?"  His son tells him that his mother (May) said to him on her deathbed that their father would take care of him and his siblings, that he was a good man because he gave up what he wanted most so as to keep his marriage vows and stay with his family.  This is where I started bawling.  Newland had felt so alone in his suffering over Ellen.  I know what unrequited love feels like and he suffered his over the course of years with a wife he didn't communicate with at a deep level.  And yet, all long she knew how much he had loved Ellen, and she knew what a sacrifice it was for him to give her up.  He hadn't been alone, but yet he never knew it.  He had regarded his wife as someone who was oblivious to life and yet she was way more clued in than he ever imagined.

Anyway, his son drags him to see Countess Olenska.  She's single and living in Paris.  Newland reflects that he's only 57 years old, and that times have changed and no one would think twice if he took up with Ellen.  They get to her apartment and Newland sends his son up, telling him he needs a moment.  Newland sits on a bench, reflects that he prefers to remember the Countess as she was, that she was more real to him in his memories, and so he gets up and walks home without going up to see her.  The End.  Wow, not a sad end, but not a happy one either.  Much like life sometimes.

I pondered the title "The Age of Innocence".  Is Wharton referring to the days before World War I, when society had these rigid rules of conduct?  Is she referring to youth...to the young Newland Archer who thought he could have it all, who didn't really know WTF he was doing emotionally?  I don't know.  After all, what do I know about literature, as I'm a biochemist tipsy on Limoncello?  But I do know I loved this book.  So sad, so wistful, and Wharton nails the psychology of her characters.  If you're looking for a great book to read, try this one.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book #54 - Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

I found this gem of a quote in the news yesterday:

"The institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise. The blacks who could endure those conditions and circumstances would someday be rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth."

-- Arkansas state Rep. Jon Hubbard (R), quoted by the Arkansas Times

I seriously doubt that Jon Hubbard ever read "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

There have been several books I've read for this blog project so far that have dealt with slavery.  Frederick Douglass' and Booker T. Washington's autobiographies, along with "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and "Beloved" all dealt with the issue in different ways, but none were so blunt and direct and powerful as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin"...well, OK, maybe "Beloved" but that was written years after slavery ended.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist and the wife of a seminary professor.  In 1850, congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which outlawed people in the north assisting runaway slaves.  In fact, if a runaway slave was caught in the north they had to be returned.  This fanned the flames of northern outrage against the institution of slavery and inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin".  Published in serial form, the book became a HUGE bestseller, and one source I read said it was the top-selling book of the 19th century.  The book drew widespread praise in the north, and condemnation in the south.  After the Civil War broke out about ten years later, Harriett Beecher Stowe was invited to a White House dinner, where Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, upon meeting her, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war".

The book is an interesting read to say the least.  First of all, it's almost impossible not to think about its historical significance when reading it.  Nowadays we are accustomed to thinking of slaves as real human beings who lived and suffered and died under terrible circumstances.  In particular, I can remember as a kid when "Roots" was on television, and it was a huge event.  And books by modern authors like Toni Morrisson have brought to life the experience of living under slavery.  But "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a first...it brought slave characters to life, and depicted in great detail the inhumanity of slavery to an audience that oftentimes did not regard slaves as quite being human.  In particular, the author was a mother who had lost a young child, so she was very good at depicting the horrors of children being separated from their mothers, and of families being broken up by the slave traders.  It's hard to imagine how shocking this book must have seemed to readers in the 1850s.  IT gave them a new way to look upon their world.

To a modern reader, even to one slightly tipsy from a delicious snifter of brandy (the most prevalent form of alcohol consumed in the book...which is weird because I kind of doubt that would have been the go-to drink of southern plantation overseers.  But then I would also bet that Harriett Beecher Stowe did not often encounter alcohol up close and personal, so maybe she was just improvising here.  But I digress...), the book can seem dated.  For one thing, it's very preachy.  HBS leaves no doubt as to her feelings on slavery, and she is not afraid to hit you over the head with it every few pages.  Characters go into long speeches debating slavery, which almost turns sections of the book into sermons rather than conversations between characters in a story.  And in the final chapter, after the story formally ends, HBS just comes right out and speaks directly to the audience about the horrors of slavery, and claims that all the characters and their lives are based on true incidents that she has known or has heard about.

Also the book is VERY religious.  Uncle Tom is a devout Christian, as are several other characters, and you are hit over the head with the idea that Christ helps them make it through their terrible struggles, and that they will be happy in the afterlife because they have lived good Christian lives.  I don't think I've read this religious a book in a very long time, maybe not since I read the Old Testament.  There's no doubt that the author was a very devout Christian, and she does not let you forget it.  However, she is not preaching Christianity at the audience like she is preaching abolition...instead, you can tell that she assumes her audience is Christian and she has no need to preach about that...instead she is hammering home the idea that since you (the reader) are a Christian, then you cannot possibly be supportive of slavery, because look how awful it is and look what good Christians some slaves are.

And finally the book seems dated because it's pretty damn melodramatic.  The author really knows how to pull at the heartstrings!  Beautiful angelic children die, and teach their parents the joy of accepting Christ as they pass away!  Hardworking, scrupulously honest, devout Christian slaves are tortured and beaten to death!  Beautiful young women slaves who are devout Christians are sold to gross, sleazy men who will use them for...well, you know what they will use them for!  Slaves escape to the north, barely eluding their pursuers at every turn, saved only by devout Quakers who have their backs!  And these same Quakers, when the evil slave pursuers are injured, nurse them back to health where they will learn to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and live good lives from now on!  Oh, the humanity!  And yet, one has to admit that yes it's all melodramatic, but the author does melodrama really, really well.  The book is a page turner, and is only slowed down here and there for some serious anti-slavery preaching and diatribes.

Not only is the novel melodramatic,  but the characters often seem like stock figures and not real human beings.  The character of Uncle Tom is one example.  Uncle Tom is a good man...portrayed as being completely honest, very hard-working, intelligent, loving to all children (both black and white), and an incredibly devout Christian who sings Methodist songs, reads the Bible, and teaches his fellow slaves about Christianity and the Bible.  He pretty much has no flaws.  Through his owners financial woes and death, he ends up on the plantation of the evil sadist Simon Legree, where he is flogged for not wanting to flog his fellow slaves, and where he is finally beaten to death for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of two fellow slaves who have run away.  He's too good to be true.  Which brings up an aside which has me puzzled after reading this novel...in popular culture, at least nowadays, an "Uncle Tom" refers to a black man who is obsessively subservient to white people, or to authority figures.  Now the Uncle Tom in the novel definitely respects the authority of his owners, and is an extremely hard worker, but he refuses to beat his fellow slaves when ordered, and he refuses to rat on his fellow slaves who have run away.  I see him as a character almost like Ghandi, or Martin Luther King...a man who practices non-violent, religious-based civil disobedience when asked to do something which would compromise his religious principles.  He goes along with his owners most of the time because he's a slave and doesn't know anything else and is a hard-working man, but his greater allegiance is to his God and Christ and he will not compromise those for any man, even if the man owns him, has a whip, and is not afraid to use it.  For this reason, Simon Legree hates Uncle Tom, because he knows that he can never terrorize him like the other slaves, and will never be able to break him, because his Faith keeps him strong.  Stock character or not, you have to admire the man.  He's definitely no Uncle Tom.

Most of the other characters seem like stock figures too...in particular, the angelic little white girl Eva, who Tom meets when he saves her from drowning when she falls off a riverboat, and who then convinces her father to buy Tom.  Eva has no faults and as a six year old can see the abject horror of slavery and is beloved by everyone in the household, both owners and slaves.  Of course, she's too good for this world, and dies of tuberculosis.  But she is unconcerned about her death because she believes in Christ and knows she's going to a better place.

Anyway, despite the melodrama and the anti-slavery diatribes and the overbearing Christianity and the stock characters I think this book is well worth reading.  For one thing it's worth reading for its historical value, because if we forget the huge horrific inhuman role that slavery has played in the history of this country then we're condemned to have to listen to idiotic quotes like the one at the start of this post.  Racial injustice and prejudice are still something we deal with in this country, and reading this book helps give a historical perspective on how far we've come (hey, we have a black president!) and how far we still have to go.  It's amazing that all this happened not so very long ago really.  It's part of our history and that history still continues.  But the book is also worth reading because even if it's often a contrived melodrama with stock characters, it's a damn good story.  Oops, I shouldn't say "damn"...