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.