Thursday, April 8, 2010

The House of Manners, and maybe some Mirth on the side

Alright, so The House of Mirth is an extraordinarily clever book. Wharton clearly has such a sense of social “manners” and the intelligence to imply the underlying aspects of that culture that her prose is realistic, sharp and prying. The interactions between characters are remarkably clever and loaded with social constructs of the way things are and imply the way they feel they should be, notably the relationship between Selden and Lily.

Here’s a ditty that stuck out for me: “He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her.” This, in a way, and from the beginning of the book, sums up the sense of people in this time period. They are ordered, put into classes based on public perception by easily observable characteristics that are often socially agreed upon as to their meaning. At every sentence Wharton fumes with the definable, shallow perception of people and society. But at the same time, this shows without explicitly stating the human factors that are inescapable in the development of the plot and the conflicts that are the result of far more complex motives and emotions of these people that come forth and lead to quite a shock at every turn. Any followings of the characters into what their motives drive them to translate to the public/societal time frame as out of the ordinary. We see that ordinary is rather a construct in this book and higher society at large than a reality and it reflects Wharton’s prying intelligence into the overarching pointlessness of it all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

11 March 2010

Yorel Aloi

I loved how Iola Leroy flipped broader ideas of slavery and touched the deeper problems in the minds of the people that spent a very long portion of history repeatedly oppressing one group—African Americans. Harper’s stance was interesting and readable to me because it was wise, bringing forward all the ideas of slavery, segregation, African American discrimination and scrambled for a better understanding before proposing solutions that continuously fell short of solving the interracial problem that has greatly defined America.

In class, my group’s closer look at chapter XXVI illuminated the lack of a “right” solution on either side of the post-slavery American society. It seemed that everything came down to “what to do” with African Americans rather than how to redress the injustice of slavery and segregation. I, personally, saw the seemingly un-compromise-able differences in racial culture and how the dominating white American society at the time literally could not understand the people they had oppressed and only made it worse by keeping their hands in the matter, and then further how easily the lines drawn between races could be broken when not easily visible.

This seems to connect to our other readings as a more serious and focused jab at the racial issues in America like Twain, only for the later segregation after slavery.

And then for nowadays, it shows the massive foolishness of trying to eliminate prejudice and mold equality by further pointing out stereotypes, whether that means to point out not pointing them out or not. The attempts at "dealing" with prejudice and racism is exactly the opposite of the underlying point of ignoring differences unless necessary to arguments or relationships (gratuitous notice of characteristics, I would call it) which is aimless and without merit. It just screams the "if you have to ask, you'll never know" idea that is unbelievably present in a society that has unbelievable faith in its knowledge and understanding of the world. It's frightening to think that, as a society, we're still subjected to the same ridicule that's in Iola Leroy because equality is not something to be fixed but to be backed off of. Advantages and fear are just as much a symbol of perceived difference based on superficial characteristics as attacks and degradation, though it takes less of a cowardly mind to admit so.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

4 March 2010

Puddingheaded Wilson

Like many classical authors whose popularized works are not always the most profound and illuminating, Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson was an engaging humorous approach to issues of the time period and further, proving that his status as a humorist was merely his favored genre in his literary explorations—oh and yeah, back to the point, much sharper on my reader’s eyes than his “classics.” Basically, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was one child, Puddn’head Wilson was its older, stronger sibling.

For literary merit, I found that Twain embodied my favorite function of literature—meaning. It seems like every sentence falls just short of joke and into that wonderful territory of point without total shroud of humor, and on the whole, every piece of writing attaches itself to the story as well as the themes. Sure, there are the short jokes, but the whole book is the joke, the reality of the people is the joke.

As for those themes, I think we handled most of them in class with all those ridiculous characters that should be able to handle their lives better than they end up doing with their antics—Twain’s overarching aim, I believe. The dramatic irony is so heavy, I couldn’t help but identify at every turn with the seemingly predictable actions of these characters, that it’s so easy for the reader to see solutions and happenings that we might just look out from our own foolishnesses in our own foolish societal customs and ideals (goodness!).

I think I should have put my time in in high school and read the Twain we were supposed to read. Guess it took one of his more obscure works to get me to add him to my list of favorite authors.

It was sharp. We need sharpness.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Rise of that one guy who sold the mineral paint

Although I found The Rise of Silas Lapham a slow read, I found myself interested in its look at the heaving American business atmosphere and, again, how that intertwined with social aspects of the time. For me, the more I like a book (the more profound I find it), the slower I read it. There was a sharpness and consistent meaning in Howells’ words that requires subtle examination rather than plot overview. His humor was obviously a product of its underlying truth in the aimlessness (or maybe just speculative aim) of American ambition.

President Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.” The Rise of Silas Lapham seems to me an earlier portrayal of this sense and value, since Coolidge made that statement in the 1920s. Unlike most our previous readings, this work looked directly at the business, the wild, initially unstoppable prosperity and the relative sensitivity to decline that marked America as a ruthless business enterprise region. The book shows the interlocking rise and fall of Silas’ business and personal life, breaking the ideas of a separation between public and private pursuits. And then the moral issues that follow are indicative of this forming relationship that is not so straightforward and clean, causing conflict between the two sectors of individual humanity, one’s morals/ethics/practices and how those can be entirely different when in a personal as opposed to a business light.

Since this course is titled after the identity struggle in America, I can’t help but think this was one of the most encompassing and difficult texts exploring the lack of defined American practice and the individual conflicts that resulted, the financial re-defining of values that was one of the most common and pressing aspects of American lives.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Daisy Winterbourne (but not really)

Daisy Miller has been my favorite read so far for this course. I love stories so heavily interested in the interactions between characters, where the characters are the plot. It was enlightening to see the sharp distinction between the two different cultures, suggesting that social responses are not so heavily reliant on inherent characteristics but, rather, the codes of societies that prove impregnably (pun intended) different even with their similarities—namely American and English-speaking European. Nurture over nature, I suppose.

Like we discussed in class, Daisy and Winterbourne just cannot “get” each other even though they try, and in the end it just turns out to be a matter of how long they want to keep up the acquaintance, as Mrs. Costello said. Well, at least for Winterbourne it seemed so; for Daisy, she died.

Otherwise, I found that this, my first read of Henry James, was very similar to other “books of manners,” specifically E.M. Forster who wrote about the conflicts within even these seemingly perfectly polite and rigid European societies, and those who break out of the mold the same as in any culture. Though E.M. Forster actually was only being born when Daisy Miller was published, I couldn’t help wondering how long this had been a serious cultural interest needing exploration, and it proved to me how accurately and similarly the fictions from that time and place depicted society. As an opposing allusion, in terms of character in Daisy Miller, I see the expansion of that “American commonness,” or attitude like Daisy Miller—the character—in the works of Hemingway depicting a “lost generation,” partly due to war but also to the expansion of American culture into European society that, in Henry James’ time, held strong against foreign cultural influence. Essentially I see a joint in English-speaking history between Winterbourne and Daisy Miller that not only emphasizes my simplistic enjoyment of the literature but resonates historically as well as socially.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Blithedale Romance/Suicide

I assumed, as I do too much, that The Blithedale Romance would be in the sense of everything romanticized and feely rather than a two-peeps-in-love story (multiple peeps for this reading). In fact, I read most of the story before I was given the historical background and it led me to a sense of a simpler gathering with less expectations, and further, led me to a different sense of the characters who I really liked and felt immersed in.

I liked Coverdale. There, I said it. He seemed to me as though he was trying very deeply to overcome the conflicts in his mind about what he's doing. He knows that the city hasn't worked for him and he wants to leave but he's also cynical with basis because he expects no better, though he'll try to some degree with his fellows. His character struck me as a natural observer and a mind without actions, and omnipotent narrator who isn't really omnipotent or separate from the story (make sense?).

I saw the end of the book as the true revelation of why their community failed and similar communities failed, historical implications, social implications, etc., etc., blah, blah, etc. I saw that it came down to simple relationships between these people and how they went about not doing anything worth doing other than being silly whimsical people as a symptom of what they were trying to do with their community--perfection. Then someone dies and its not a big deal because everyone is so overwhelmed with their own feelings and such.

In that sense, I suppose it ended up giving me both interpretations of the "romance" in The Blithedale Romance. All in all, I liked the book and believed that it could be a reflection of what actually happened in that time and Hawthorne's sarcasm is well placed now that he looks back on such an extreme--maybe extremely silly--approach to re-creating functioning society. It may have had its merits, its theoretical solidities, but it completely left behind the physical for the spiritual thinking that approach would be better than leaving the spiritual behind for the physical seen in the society they fled.

Of course, I liked The Scarlet Letter unlike everyone else who ever read it ever so maybe that's me at an even mind plain of sorts with Nate Hawthorne.

Austen Szott