Archive for the ‘American Literature’ Category

Moral Man and Immoral Society, Part 1

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Moral Man and Immoral Society

Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Neibhur, was written during the period of the Great Depression (1929-1940). In Moral Man, Reinhold insists on the necessity of politics in the struggle for social justice because of the sinfulness of human nature, that is, the egotism of individuals and groups. He fervent hopes–and that is all it can be–that a person can experience redemption, and redeem his socidety, by a Hegelian, reductionist struggle with sinfulness. Niebuhr advanced the thesis that what the individual is able to achieve singly, cannot be simply regarded as a possibility for social groups. He marked a clear distinction between the individual and the group; lowering significantly the moral capacity of the group in relation to that of the individual.
He sees the limitations of reason to solve social injustice by moral and rational means, “since reason is always the servant of interest in a social situation” (xiv-xv). This is his critique of liberal Christian theology, which strongly believes in the rational capacity of humans to make themselves be moral, and he accepts this vulnerability as our reality. In other words, Neibhur correctly saw the immorality of systems in society (e.g., social welfare) and its futile attempts to ameliorate individuals and their needs through systemic interventions.
Neibhur cautions us about embracing “herd mentalities.” According to him, individuals are morally capable of considering the interests of others and acting. That is, individuals can be unselfish. Societies, however,  cannot. “In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others, therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships” (xi-xii).
My point is, some politicians may be sincere in their understanding about several issues.  In fact, they may be right about some issues.  But when that group gains political hegemony, it can lose focus and direction.

Masters of Disguise: The Christian Life 2

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

 I am an inveterate Johnstown cuisine lover.  My love affair, my wife Karen would say, has put 80 pounds on me in the last 21 years, but she is being ungenerous since I mostly eat her wonderful cooking.  And what fine cooking it is!  I remember the first meal Karen cooked for me in 1977.  It was broiled chicken seasoned with salad dressing and boiled broccoli seasoned with lemon pepper.  Until then, I had never eaten broiled chicken—my chicken was always fried—unless Big Momma served her famous chicken and dumplings.  Broccoli, southern style, was cooked longer than it took General Grant to capture Vicksburg, MS, and I had heard of pepper (and used it liberally after I coated everything with salt) and lemons (which I put in my sweetened ice tea)—but never both together.  Actually, my first meal was pretty good and the next 33,000 or so she has cooked me—my expanding waistline is a testament to my thorough conversion to Nouveau Yankee cuisine.  Yummy good!
 Well anyway the New York Time’s article argues that finally—finally—there is a vegetarian burger that rivals the most delicious Whopper or Quarter Pounder.  Apparently, while the rest of us languished in the throes of the new Angus Quarter Pounder, inventive New York chefs have been working tirelessly to create the penultimate veggie burger.  Food reviewer Jeff Gordinier is veritably overcome with joy when he writes “Veggie burgers . . . have explored into countless variations of good, and in doing so they’ve begun to look like a bellwether for the American appetite.” 
 Bellwether for the American appetite.  Excuse me, but I doubt it.
 Can you imagine cruising through the MacDonald’s drive through and asking for a veggie burger with fries and milk shake?  Hum . . .
 But excuse me.  I respect vegetarians.  More power to you.  But, why do you want to copy my food?  Do I try to copy yours?  Respectfully, I doubt, even in NYC, that one can find broccoli and asparagus that will match the effervescence of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
 Nonetheless, “There is something very satisfying about holding one’s dinner in one’s hand.”  Indeed.  But it can’t be done.  Not really.  A meatless burger is an oxymoron and it can never b e a dinner.
 And here is another oxymoron—and this is where I am taking this—our society is desperate to emulate the Christian life.  The Christian life, like the hamburger, is genuine, real, juicy, and full of protein.  Lived in the right way, it can bring great life to a person and to his world.  And it cannot be replaced by good feelings, good intentions, or other existential offerings.  As Tolstoi writes in War and Peace, “Let us be persuaded that the less we let our feeble human minds roam, the better we shall please God, who rejects all knowledge that does not come from Him; and the less we seek to fathom what He has been pleased to conceal from us, the sooner will he vouchsafe its revelation to us through His divine Spirit.”

New History

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I am excited about the new edition of my BRITISH HISTORY that will be available in July.  FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS will offer 8 different history choices:  American, British, World, Epoch I (Creation to the Middle Ages), Epoch II (The Middle Ages to French Revolution), Epoch III (French Revolution to Gilded Age), Epoch IV (Gilded Age to the Present).  The following is a section on “Druids,” in my British History:

A druid was a member of the priestly class active in Gaul (Northern Germany), and in Celtic Britain.  They were priest, judge, scholar, and teacher to their Briton communities. The core points of druidic religious beliefs included reincarnation and human sacrifice.

Druids were highly educated for their culture.  Yet, they wrote nothing.  Some Druids spent 20 years memorizing oral traditions of Druidic lore. The Druid priesthood was open only to males.  All instruction was communicated orally so there was no record of Druid ritual or theology.

Druids could punish members of Celtic society by a form of “excommunication”, preventing them from attending religious festivals.  Druids, then, had both priestly and political roles and were instrumental in maintaining order.

Druid religion included rituals performed at so called Druid temples, usually stone structures built into the side of a hill.  Stonehenge may be an exception.

Stonehenge is a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids, and for certain others following pagan or neo-pagan beliefs, but it was probably nothing more than a burial site.

One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones. It included several hundred burial mounds.

Archaeologists had believed that the iconic stone monument was erected around 2500 BC. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC.

Stonehenge was associated with burial from the earliest period of its existence. Stonehenge evolved in several construction phases spanning at least 1500 years. There is evidence of large-scale construction on and around the monument that perhaps extends the landscape’s time frame to 6500 years.

Scholars believe that Stonehenge once stood as a magnificent complete monument. This cannot be proved as around half of the stones that should be present are missing, and many of the assumed stone sockets have never been found.

One final personal message. If one asked this author, when I was an eight year old, what my favorite holiday was, he  would have enthusiastically proclaimed: Halloween!  Haunted houses, costumes, candy–it all captured his imagination.  But that was 1961 and this is today.

Halloween clearly is not a Christian holiday.  In fact it is anything but Christian.  In fact the origins and traditions of Halloween can be traced back thousands of years to the Druids.  The eve of October 31 marked the transition from summer into the darkness of winter.  On this night, the spirits of the dead rose up.  Demons, fairies, and ghouls roamed about the town.  They destroyed crops, killed cattle, soured milk, and generally made life miserable . . . unless an appropriate appeasement was offered.  Namely, a human sacrifice.  So, anticipating these goblins, Druid towns annually, on October, chose young maidens and sacrificed them in honor of the pagan gods.   This is not the same as having a Christmas tree, or believing in the Easter Bunny–Halloween is a celebration of death, destruction, and hell.

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  He is hope and mercy and love–not death, destruction, and murder.  There are alternative celebrations you know.  Some parents hold costume parties and have the kids dress as Bible heroes (no trick or treat though!).  Other groups hold hayrides and harvest celebrations. Halloween is a time to rejoice in the fact that “the Son of God appeared that He might destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8)!”  God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).  You were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light . . . and do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them (Eph. 5:8,11).

Webinar Vignettes – Part 8

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Hart Crane (1899-1932)

Hart Crane was a disturbed young poet who committed suicide at age 33 by leaping into the sea. He left striking poems, including an epic, The Bridge (1930), which was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, in which he ambitiously attempted to review the American cultural experience and recast it in affirmative terms. His exuberant style works best in short poems such as “Voyages” (1923, 1926) and “At Melville’s Tomb” (1926), whose ending is a suitable epitaph for Crane:

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore once wrote that poems were “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Her poems are conversational, yet elaborate and subtle in their syllabic versification, drawing upon extremely precise description and historical and scientific fact. A “poet’s poet,” she influenced such later poets as her young friend Elizabeth Bishop.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

One of many talented poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s — in the company of James Weldon Johnson and others — was Langston Hughes. He embraced African- American jazz rhythms and was one of the first black writers to attempt to make a profitable career out of his writing. Hughes incorporated blues, spirituals, colloquial speech, and folkways in his poetry.

One of his most beloved poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921, 1925), embraces his African — and universal — heritage in a grand epic catalogue. The poem suggests that, like the great rivers of the world, African American culture will endure and deepen:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 7

Friday, January 29th, 2010

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

A painter, e. e. cummings was the first American poet to recognize that poetry had become primarily a visual, not an oral, art; his poems used much unusual spacing and indentation, as well as dropping all use of capital letters.

Like Williams, Cummings also used colloquial language, sharp imagery, and words from popular culture. Like Williams, he took creative liberties with layout. His poem “in Just ” (1920) invites the reader to fill in the missing ideas:

in Just –
Spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman
whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring…

Webinar Vignettes – Part 6

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was a practicing pediatrician throughout his life; he delivered more than 2,000 babies and wrote poems on his prescription pads. His sympathy for ordinary working people, children, and everyday events in modern urban settings make his poetry attractive and accessible. “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923), like a Dutch still life, finds interest and beauty in everyday objects.

Williams cultivated a relaxed, natural poetry. In his hands, the poem was not to become a perfect object of art as in Stevens, or the carefully re-created nature scene as in Frost. Instead, the poem was to capture an instant of time like an unposed snapshot — a concept he derived from photographers and artists he met at galleries in New York City.

His epic, Paterson (five vols., 1946-58), celebrates his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, as seen by an autobiographical “Dr. Paterson.” Williams wrote this very unpretentious narrative poem to celebrate the ordinary. Like Whitman’s persona in Leaves of Grass, Dr. Paterson moves freely among the working people.

-late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!
- and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
the proof)
himself among others
- treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!
laughing, calling to each other -
Wait for me!
(II, i, 14-23)

Webinar Vignettes – Part 5

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Born in Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens was educated at Harvard College and New York University Law School. He practiced law in New York City from 1904 to 1916, a time of great artistic and poetic activity there. On moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to become an insurance executive in 1916, he continued writing poetry.

Stevens’s poetry dwells upon themes of the imagination, the necessity for aesthetic form, and the belief that the order of art corresponds with an order in nature. His vocabulary is rich and various: He paints lush tropical scenes but also manages dry, humorous, and ironic vignettes.

Some of Stevens’s poems draw upon popular culture, while others poke fun at sophisticated society or soar into an intellectual heaven. He is known for his exuberant word play: “Soon, with a noise like tambourines / Came her attendant Byzantines.”

Stevens’s work is full of surprising insights. Sometimes he plays tricks on the reader, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock” (1931):

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

This poem seems to complain about unimaginative lives (plain white nightgowns), but actually conjures up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Stevens is not easy but well worth the effort.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 4

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Robert Lee Frost was born in California but raised on a farm in New England United States until the age of 10. The New England countryside became Frost’s favorite setting. A charismatic public reader, he was renowned for his tours. He read an original work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that helped spark a national interest in poetry. His popularity is easy to explain: He wrote of traditional farm life, appealing to a nostalgia for the old ways. His themes were universal and immutable– apple picking, stone walls, fences, country roads. His subjects were ordinary people. He was one of the few modern poets who uses rhyme. This endeared him to American readers.

Frost’s work is often deceptively simple. Many poems suggest a deeper meaning. For example, a quiet snowy evening by an almost hypnotic rhyme scheme may suggest the not entirely unwelcome approach of death. Beneath the falling snow and gentle raindrops are pain and unhappiness. Some critics blame Frost’s bitterness on the early years of his marriage when he tried to make a living on an inhospitable New England farm. From: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923):

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweepOf easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 3

Monday, January 25th, 2010

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T. S. Eliot was both an American and a British writer of unprecedented stature. He was the best! He lived on two continents but he belonged only to God . . .Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a well- to-do family with roots in the northeastern United States. He received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College, the Sorbonne, and Merton College of Oxford University. He studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, which influenced his early poetry. Later, he became a born again Christian. Like his friend Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas, and championed the importance of literary and social traditions for the modern poet.

The famous beginning of Eliot’s “Prufrock” invites the reader into tawdry alleys that, like modern life, offer no answers to the questions of life:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Similar imagery pervades The Waste Land (1922), which echoes Dante’s Inferno to evoke London’s thronged streets around the time of World War I:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many… (I, 60-63)

The Waste Land’s vision is ultimately apocalyptic (i.e., end times) and worldwide:

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (V, 373-377)

Webinar Vignettes – Part 2

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a turning point in American history. The innocent optimism of the young nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. Reconstruction grew out of this fatigue–it was as if the American political system was not going to try to solve its problems. Before the war, Idealists and Romantics championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau remained as icons of inevitable American progress. However, many philosophical changes were in the air. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, robber barons and trust busters, when Darwinian evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon. Naturalism grew naturally out of the fertile ground of social Darwinism. This so-called “Gilded Age,” a term coined by Mark Twain, was an age of thoughtless excess.

Business boomed after the war. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. More than 23 million foreigners — German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter — flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. American business interests imported Asian contract laborers on the West Coast. This created tensions that remain in America even today. In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half the population was concentrated in about twelve cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared. From 1860 to 1914, the United States changed from a small, young, agricultural country to a huge, modern, industrial nation.

America, however, was full of problems. The differences among people groups were immense and growing larger. It was to this world that men like Stephen Crane wrote. He attacked social problems. American literature openly discussed significant social problems. Previously American fiction was entertaining and didactic, but not evaluative. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation of the vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength and, above all, individuality. No longer is there a hint in American literature that there is a loving, caring God. The world that Anne Bradstreet knew is dead . . . Research the Gilded Age and write a three page explanatory essay on this important era.

A particularly popular writer of the Gilded Age social history was Sinclair Lewis. Lewis brought late 19th Century Americans into the small towns and bedrooms of American homes all over the land. Why not read one of his books?