Critics may argue about whether the greatest American novel is Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Harold Bloom doesn’t equivocate about the best poem. The “essential American poem” is Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he argues in his new The Anatomy of Influence.
“‘Lilacs’ seems to me the greatest American poem because its largeness of vision is inevitably expressed by a metric of which the poet had become a master,” writes Bloom, perhaps America’s most distinguished academic critic. “There is a biblical reverberation to Whitman’s elegy, and not only because the hermit thrush’s song of death echoes the erotic intensity of the Song of Songs.” Bloom adds: “With splendid tact, Whitman avoids praising Lincoln’s victory over his own countrymen, and creates an elegy of 206 lines worthy of comparison with Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais.’”
Slavery is evil, and so are the political and economic institutions that support it: These two great themes helped to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most important novels in American literature. But in the 1850s people didn’t see the book as a tract. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel set sales records, the scholar David S. Reynolds notes in Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton, 351 pp., $27.95). And if the book legitimized the Civil War for Northerners, it did so through a story that captivated them. Reynolds describes the appeal of the novel in his new book:
“No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.’ Henry James noted that Stowe’s novel was, ‘for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.’
“James was right. Sympathetic readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were thrilled when the fugitive slave Eliza Harris carried her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River and when her husband George fought off slave catchers in a rocky pass. They cried over the death of the angelic little Eva and were horrified by the fatal lashing of Uncle Tom, the gentle, strong, enslaved black man. They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They sneered at the selfish hypocrite Marie St. Clare and loathed the cruel slave owner Simon Legree. They were fascinated by the brooding, Byronic Augustine St. Clare and were appalled by stories of sexual exploitation involving enslaved women like Prue and Cassy.”
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In 1860 Comanches gang-raped, tortured and killed Martha Sherman, nine months pregnant and living with her husband in Parker County, Texas. Twenty-four-year-old Charles Goodnight joined a posse of Texas Rangers and Seventh Cavalry soldiers who pursued her assailants, and before doing battle with any Indians, he found a pillowcase with Sherman’s Bible in it. Why had the Comanches taken the book when they fled their victim’s cabin? S. C. Gwynne writes in Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall the the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History(Scribner, 2011), a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction:
“According to Goodnight, Comanche shields, made of two layers of the toughest rawhide from the neck of a buffalo and hardened in fire, were almost invulnerable to bullets when stuffed with paper. When Comanches robbed houses, they invariably took all the books they could find.”
A review of Empire of the Summer Moon will appear soon on this site.
Americans tend to mythologize Woodstock, the outdoor rock festival that helped to define the counter-culture of the 1960s. Historian Steve Gillon tries to put the event in context in Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America (Free Press, 2004):
“The biggest celebration of ‘peace and love and music’ took place on August 15, 1969, when 500,000 young people gathered at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm near Bethel, New York. ‘Woodstock,’ as it came to be referred to, included a stellar lineup of musical talent that included Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Joe Jocker, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone. Whether they attended the concert or not, the generation that came of age during the 1960s embraced Woodstock’s freedom-espousing spirit. …
“Woodstock emerged as a symbol of youthful rebellion, but it also underscored the problems plaguing alternative communities. Since most of the people attracted to rock festivals and communes were trying to escape society, they resisted all form of authority. The result was often anarchy. Woodstock organizers, for example, were overwhelmed by the size of the crowds. There was such a severe shortage of water, food, and medical and sanitation facilities that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller declared a state of emergency. ‘I went to Woodstock and I hated it,’ recalled singer Billy Joel. ‘I think a lot of that community ‘spirit’ was based on the fact that everybody was so wasted.’”
“Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. ‘Poverty,’ ‘war,’ and ‘love,’ for example, are not themes; they relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sentence – one clear sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.’’
From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (It Books/Harper Collins, 1997).
“Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation, ‘Every man has two countries, his own and France,’ bears witness to the great influence France has had throughout the ages. While the visual arts and music have of course played a very important role, it is perhaps above all through its written texts that France has exercised such a strong impact on world culture and thought.”
From One-Hundred Great French Books: From the Middle Ages to the Present (BlueBridge, 2010), by Lance Donaldson-Evans, professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania.
Parents tend to take it on faith that reading to children every day has benefits. Why shouldn’t they? The “Read to your child every day” mantra has advocates that include the American Library Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations.
But such authorities may have oversold the benefits of sitting down with a preschooler and a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, especially if parents hope that the habit will lead to success in school. Some of the evidence appears in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s bestselling Freakonomics, an exploration of many assumptions that Americans take for granted.
Levitt and Dubner note that in the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which aimed to measure the academic progress of 20,000 American children from kindergarten through fifth grade. That project found that, at least insofar as test scores are concerned, reading to your child every day has no benefit. Children with many books in their home do perform well on school tests, the survey found. “But,” the authors write, “regularly reading to a child doesn’t affect test scores.”
Linda Polman indicts humanitarian-aid abuses and journalists who turn a blind eye to them in her The Crisis Caravan (Metropolitan, 2010). In this excerpt, she quotes a former employee of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who saw the “churnalism”:
“Do aid workers use journalists? Of course, they do, said Jacques de Milliano, former director of the Dutch MSF. ‘To raise funds. It’s the job of journalists to provide balanced reporting, to refuse to prostitute themselves to aid organizations. There ought to be an element of journalistic pride.’
“Journalism seems to be moving in precisely the opposite direction. Costs are cut and standards are eroded by media proprietors, resulting in what the British journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News calls ‘churnalism’; in other words, ‘journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell their readers the truth about what is happening on their patch. This is journalists who are no longer out gathering but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.’”
Americans may have no monarchy, but they know how to treat people royally. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton describes how New Yorkers reacted to the arrival of Ellen Olenska, who had returned to the city after years in Europe:
“The Lovell Mingotts had sent out cards for what was known as ‘a formal dinner’ (that is, three extra footmen, two dishes for each course, and a Roman punch in the middle), and had headed their invitations with the words ‘To Meet the Countess Olenska,’ in accordance with the hospitable American fashion, which treats strangers as if they were royalties, or at least their ambassadors.”
Jerry Seinfeld joked that his long-running NBC sitcom was “a show about nothing.” Did Madame Bovary inspire the words that became one of the best-known catchphrases in television? Consider this passage from One-Hundred Great French Books (BlueBridge, 2010), by Lance Donaldson-Evans, a professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania:
“Flaubert once described Madame Bovary as a work ‘about nothing,’ a curious description for a book in which a great deal happens. What he really meant was that he had deliberately selected a trite subject in order to show that even banality could be redeemed by art. “