Friday, October 31, 2008

The Real "Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

As I discussed here yesterday, Washington Irving's tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of those true rarities in American literature -- a tale nearly all of us can summarize, even if we've never read the original story.

Or can we?

Most of us recall Irving's tale mainly through a series of strong visual images: Ichabod Crane on horseback, looking like a scarecrow on a hobby horse. Ichabod Crane dancing gawkily with Katrina Van Tassel. Crane spurring his horse Gunpowder through darkened woods, with the Headless Horseman in hot pursuit. And, perhaps the sharpest picture -- thanks largely to Walt Disney -- a pumpkin hurled straight at Ichabod Crane's own head.

Irving -- who called his tale merely a band connecting a series of "descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc." -- would likely be delighted that so many of his mere "descriptions" have been burnt into our brains. But what we've buried among those strong visuals is the tale itself, which unfolds in a slightly different manner than we may remember, and ends with a bit of a twist and a flourish.

Let's revisit Irving's "Legend" -- or maybe you'll be visiting it for the first time -- and experience his tale as Irving really wrote it. I think you'll find it's just as good, if not better, than the way we think we remember it.

Much of "Sleepy Hollow" is actually set-up for the climactic chase, and Irving devotes pages to descriptions of his characters -- especially Ichabod Crane -- and their motivations. Here's Irving describing the physical traits of his gawky school teacher -- and you can see why this was a no-brainer for a Disney animator:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Next, Irving makes certain we understand that Crane is easily spooked and has a whiff of nervous-nelly about him, information we need for later: he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination . . . and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch's token....

...How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!

Now enters the love interest of the tale, Katrina Van Tassel, "a blooming lass of fresh eighteen," Irving says, "plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations." Not quite a "huge tracts of land" joke, but close. Anyway, Irving then establishes that Ichabod Crane's interests toward Katrina aren't based purely on the power of her looks or personality: he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness.

Vying for Katrina's hand -- and making up the third point in the tale's love triangle -- is the brash Brom Bones. While we likely remember Brom as either the bullying blowhard from the Disney cartoon, or the sulky Captain of the Football Team from the Tim Burton film, in Irving's original tale, Brom is actually a rather likeable rogue:

He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom . . . The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.

Irving has neatly set up the two rivals competing for the hand of the love interest -- now it's time to bring them together. In "Sleepy Hollow," Irving brings Ichabod and Brom to the Van Tassel home for an evening dinner and dance -- and where Ichabod listens to some of Sleepy Hollow's "sager folks" telling ghost stories. Here's Irving setting up the appearance of the Headless Horseman, as well as the rules of the coming chase. And you might want to check the doors and windows before you read it:

The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.

We’re approaching the climax. With the party over, Ichabod Crane -- who we've already seen is a nervous wreck about the dark -- rides away on his horse, Gunpowder. Here's how Irving describes the night, so effectively that you can practically feel the chill and hear the sounds. If this isn't a Halloween night, I don't know what is:

It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farmhouse away among the hills—but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed.

[. . .]

He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air . . . As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan — his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him.

As a famous television ghost hunter might say: Zoinks! And now, Irving unveils his ghost, giving him a casual entrance that may leave readers feeling as if they've just swallowed a whole snow cone:

In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

. . . Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame.

... On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless! —- but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!

And away we go, in the mad dash through the woods, as Ichabod sprints for the church bridge -- which, you remember, it was established the Horseman cannot cross! -- and nearly falls off his horse in the process:

His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod's flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse's head, in the eagerness of his flight.

As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase, but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer…

An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand . . . "If I can but reach that bridge," thought Ichabod, "I am safe." Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath . . .

Ichabod and Gunpowder finally make the church bridge . . . only to discover that the Horseman isn't about to play by the rules -- and provides poor Ichabod, and readers, with one of the most memorable departing gifts in literature:

Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

End of story? Not quite -- and here's the part most of us don't remember. Irving actually gives us three denouements to choose from -- the first of which is the creepier, Hammer horror film ending:

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master's gate...In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses' hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered . . .

Don't like that one? Here's the second:

It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and … that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court.

Did Ichabod Crane really survive his midnight ride through Sleepy Hollow, then? If so, was there really a Headless Horseman? And what became of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel? Irving answers our questions in the story's true payoff:

Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival's disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

Despite the punchline, Irving can't resist wrapping up his story with a creepy flourish, swirling his cloak about him as he ends his tale and disappears into the fog:

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

You can read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in its entirety by clicking here. And please do.

Have a happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Spooky Sleeper of a Tale...

Tomorrow is Halloween, which means it's time to re-read one of the classics of American literature, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Pull your copy down off the shelf, and turn to pa . . . what's that? You don't own a copy? You've never even read it?

It's okay.

Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of the great sleeper hits in American literature, a story whose elements stay in our collective American consciousness even as the book itself fades from college and high school syllabi or other reading lists. As I say often, it's become such a part of our American DNA that most of us can summarize the story even if we've never read it.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" made its first appearance on March 15, 1820, as the third and final story in the sixth installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of short stories and essays that Irving had been publishing at irregular intervals since June 1819. "It is a random thing," Irving said of his tale of Ichabod Crane, "suggested by recollections and scenes and stories about [Tarrytown, New York]. The story is a mere whimsical band to connect descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc."

While "Sleepy Hollow" takes most of its basic plot elements from Dutch and German folklore, it can rightly be called our first true American ghost story. Irving not only gives his tale a unique American setting, with distinctly American references (he mentions, for example, the tree where the spy John Andre was hanged during the American Revolution, and Ichabod Crane is said to be from Connecticut), but he tells the tale in a uniquely American voice -- funny, self-confident, and with just a touch of self-deprecating cockiness. It also contains all the elements we expect of a good Halloween story: a cold autumn night, a spooky bridge, a shimmering apparition, a clattering chase, and yes, there's even a pumpkin.

Irving's ghost story was an immediate hit. "In my opinion [it] is one of the best articles you have written," Irving's best friend, Henry Brevoort, wrote to him in April 1820. The critics agreed, even as they only somewhat joked that Irving was the finest British writer America had ever produced. "[Irving] seems to have studied our language where alone it can be studied in all its strength and perfection,” wrote a reviewer in the English Quarterly Review, "and in working these precious mines of literature he has refined for himself the ore which there so richly abounds."

"Sleepy Hollow" remains perhaps the most memorable item in Irving's large oeuvre, his perpetual crowdpleaser. So popular was the story in Irving's lifetime that when he prepared an Author's Revised Edition of his works late in life, Irving slightly reordered the essays in The Sketch Book to end the volume with "Sleepy Hollow" as its exclamation point.

Thanks in part to two movies -- the 1958 Disney short, and the 1999 Tim Burton film -- "Sleepy Hollow" remains as popular today as it did in Irving's time. And thanks to those movies, if I were to ask you to summarize Irving's tale, you'd probably come up with a series of images rather than the actual plot: Ichabod Crane sitting gawkily on his horse Gunpowder. Crane dancing goofily with Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod Crane riding Gunpowder for all his might, as the Headless Horseman gains on him. A flaming pumpkin hurled through a covered bridge, straight at the viewer.

That's all fair enough -- the story probably is more about mood than plot, and as Irving himself noted, the tale was simply a "whimsical band" to connect various "descriptions of scenery, customs, [and] manners." But there's still a bit more to it than that -- including an ending that no one seems to remember.

And tomorrow, I'll talk about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another (Relatively) Clean, (Somewhat) Well-Lighted Place

It's official: I've moved into the new office space.

Just to review, we spent this summer retrofitting our 1930s-era farmhouse for a geothermal air conditioning and heating system, a labor-intensive activity that required us to move nearly everything out of our basement and attic storage spaces. In the process of sorting through the mess, we decided to change the function of several rooms in the house; namely, my upstairs office, just off the master bedroom, would become a large walk-in closet, and we would move me into the front room of the basement, previously the most cavernous, oppressive, and generally yucky space in the house.

We spent the last few weeks steam cleaning and waxing the tile floor, priming and painting the walls, hammering down baseboards, sewing curtains, hanging drape rods, skooching around furniture, unloading book boxes, and rewiring electric and phone lines. There was a brief setback -- as I noted earlier -- when we discovered some leaky spots in the fireplace that had suddenly decided to go nuclear, but with a bit of KwikPlug, we're bone dry again.

As a reminder, then, here's what the area looked like before the conversion, albeit with a cleaned and waxed floor and the beginning of a coat of primer on the wall:

And here it is now, in a photo taken from roughly the same place in the room:

It's funny the things you surround yourself with. The stuffed bear you see on the mantel behind the desk was a gift my daughter Madi gave me about seven years ago, when I had just started to work on Washington Irving and became sick from a scorpion sting. She named the bear Washington, and he's one of my Very Favorite Things -- so there's something reassuring about having him there looking over my shoulder as I work.

To the right of him, you'll see two gifts from my wife, the first a short box where I keep a row of fountain pens, and then a stamp collector's box where I hold all my assorted stuff, like pens, ink, stamps, wax seals, and stationery. Centered above the mantelpiece is a framed watercolor of Sunnyside, given to me by my mother and stepfather to celebrate the weekend I spoke there. Sitting on the desk, just out of sight on the left side of the picture, is a Snoopy telephone I've had since 1983, and in storage since about 1996. It was nice to break him out again.

The desk I'm using here is just an old farm table that once served as a dining table in my first apartment. It's a lot smaller than the desk I was using in the old office, but that's because given the space in the basement, I could essentially split my work area into two stations. If you sit at the desk, then, and look to your left, here's the secondary work area -- right next to the cabinet with the TV and DVD player I use solely for research purposes, I assure you:

The table is already cluttered by my writing desk, where I've tossed the journals and binder with my preliminary notes on my potential work in progress. You can also see the . . . er, adult beverages on the TV cabinet, and, on the shelf to the right,the ceramic Milk Bone jar our dog Abbey already strolls down the stairs to stare at, hoping to psychically force me into opening it and feeding her. It usually works.

Mounted to the ceiling is the ductwork for the new heating/cooling system. I decided to leave it exposed, rather than having it boxed in. I'm still trying to decide how well I like it.

Finally, looking to the right of the table and down the long wall, is the main reason I'm so thrilled to be moving to the basement: there's finally enough room to put up my bookshelves and unload most of my books. The shelves are strictly IKEA, but the ability to quickly move shelves up or down is what makes it such an ideal system:

I've still got a few things to put away, but I'm finally back in business.

And now it's back to work -- once I shoo everyone out of here, that is. It's already become one of the most popular rooms in the house. Not that I mind.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)

I was saddened this morning to learn that mystery novelist -- and fellow New Mexican and University of New Mexico Lobo -- Tony Hillerman died of pulmonary failure this past Sunday at age 83.

I was only slightly acquainted with Tony Hillerman -- I began attending the University of New Mexico, and working at UNM's newspaper, the Daily Lobo, the year after he all but officially stepped away from the journalism department to dedicate himself full-time to writing. But I had the pleasure of talking with him several times and, briefly, I attended a writing class he taught at the UNM Honors Department. When I first became acquainted with him, he had just published Skinwalkers and was already hard at work on A Thief of Time.

At that time, Hillerman had been writing for more than 15 years -- his first book was 1970's The Blessing Way, and he had won the Edgar for his 1973 book Dance Hall of the Dead -- but he was still more of an underground hit, respected by writers as a hard working but unduly unappreciated master of the craft. That all changed with Skinwalkers, his first true commercial success. From that point forward, Hillerman was playing with the big boys.

Not that you would have known it. Hillerman was an incredibly humble guy. When students like me -- or even faculty members -- fawned all over him or gushed about his books, the rumpled Hillerman was genuinely embarassed by the fuss. He would flush and sort of roll his eyes in this you must be joking way.

He's considered one of the innovators of what we now call the "tribal mystery genre," and his detectives, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, have given readers such an even-handed, fascinating, and sympathetic look at Navajo culture that Hillerman was given the "Special Friend of the Dineh" Award in 1987 for his portrayal of the "dignity of traditional Navajo culture." He also made the State of New Mexico itself a character in his books -- and if you visit the state to seek out any of the landscapes against which Hillerman sets his stories, you'll find they look and feel exactly as he described them.

A genuine loss to New Mexico and to literature. My thoughts go out to his family and friends. Thanks for sharing him.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday Miscellany

Hard as it may be to believe, we've made the turn into the final week in October. The weather in central Maryland has finally turned distinctly fallish -- though it was still nice enough this weekend that I could do a quick mowing of the lawn, zipping around the yard like Richard Petty to trim the grass and mulch the fallen leaves. This afternoon, it's back on the ol' mower to aerate before the ground finally hardens for good.


We managed to finish up the office this weekend, and I'll have some pics up tomorrow. We experienced a slight delay when a Saturday rainstorm exposed some previously-unnoticed cracks in the masonry where the water was attempting to push its way through. But a late-night visit to Home Depot for some Kwik-Plug appears to have taken care of the problem, and we've returned to our regularly scheduled programming. Next up: the new walk-in closet.


It's taken me a while, but I'm nearly finished with Jon Krakauer's Under The Banner of Heaven, a book that's at once fascinating and infuriating. I knew only the basics of the Mormon religion, and had no idea of its rather bloody history. I was expecting more of a crime novel than Mormon history, but Krakauer blends it all together mostly seamlessly, though the lexicon of similar names often makes for some confusing reading. (As Linus once said of The Brothers Karamazov, sometimes you just have to bleep over the confusing names...)

Up next, Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, which I've wanted to read since the moment it came out, but didn't pick up until this weekend. I'm lame.


As the parents of a 'tween aged girl, Barb and I were obligated to see High School Musical 3 with our daughter this weekend. For those of you who haven't seen it yet but know you'll have to and may be dreading going -- yes, you know who you are -- I'm pleased to report it's surprisingly good. I didn't find any of the songs to be particularly memorable, but the plot is actually compelling enough that I found myself wishing we could get through the songs quicker so we could get back to the story. And Zac Efron was awesome. Oh, shut up.


I've decided I'm not watching any more talking heads news shows until after the election. It's starting to sound like Rocky Horror, what with all the shouting at the screen going on in our house lately.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Joe The Writer

Anyone catch the reference to Joe The Plumber's search for a book deal, as reported on last night's Countdown with Keith Olbermann? In case you missed it, here's a bit from Keith Olbermann's related blog entry over on Daily Kos:

I just managed to drop this in to tonight's "Campaign Comment" and there aren't a lot more details to be had, but I learned during Countdown tonight that Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher is now seeking a deal to write a book about his campaign experience.

This is from an unimpeachable source in the publishing industry, past whom very little in the field, gets. Good old all-American Joe, who has no motive whatsoever but keeping the electorate informed, who is the salt of the earth and the definition of America (now that Governor Palin isn't, any more) is hoping to cash in.
So, my fellow writers . . . most of whom have been writing for years, working hard to secure representation, and striving to perfect your craft to persuade an agent to take you on and/or a publisher to invest in your work . . . politics aside, how ya feelin' now?

Me, I'll be putting a sign up in my yard offering my services as a plumber. It's only fair -- because, after all, anyone can do that, too, right?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

An Update On Why I'm Not Updating

Good grief, have I really let this thing slide for three days? When I first started blogging, I was content to post maybe once or twice a week. Now I don't like letting it sit idle for more than a day or two, tops.


The main impediment here is a lack of computer. I'm in the process of relocating my home office, and several days ago, I unplugged my computer and all its attachments (i.e, printer, keyboard, iPod, wireless receiver, and what I think is a bugging device attached by the RNC), thinking I would be moving it to its new location quickly. Three days later, my CPU is still sitting upstairs in my old office -- sans keyboard and monitor and everything else -- still unplugged and still unused, all of which makes blogging rather difficult. The delay in moving it downstairs is due largely to the fact that it's taking longer to pull telephone in the new office than I thought, mainly because the wiring in the old house is -- typically -- not up to snuff. So we're taking apart, and putting back together -- which, given my patience, takes quite a while.

The end is near, however, and I'm hoping to be back up and running by this weekend, so I can get back to juggling projects. At least now I can do so in a room that actually has heat in it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Chaplin Revue

Congratulations to my colleague at Arcade, Dr. Stephen Weismann, for a pair of stellar advance reviews for his book Chaplin: A Life. Publisher's Weekly called it an "engaging…portrait of how a cinema artist is created and how he practices his craft," while the rock 'em, sock 'em Kirkus says it's "a fresh entry in the evergreen field of works devoted to Charlie Chaplin," as well as a "perceptive, literate take on the great screen clown." Awesome.

I've begged, borrowed, and cajoled my way into getting an advance copy of the book, and I'll let you know my thoughts on it, right here, as soon as possible. If you're even a casual reader of this blog, you know that Chaplin is one of my Very Favorite People Ever, and I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

Just for fun, here's four-and-a-half minutes of Chaplin doing what he does best, from my all-time favorite film of his, The Circus:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Freeforming

I had a great time last night speaking at the Goshen Historical Preservation Society. The crowd was responsive, the food was good, and we even moved quite a few books. All in all, a successful event, and I couldn't have asked for nicer hosts. My thanks to the GHPS and to all who came. I had fun.

Fall has officially arrived here in Maryland. After weeks of temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, we've finally settled down into a much more autumnal mood. The trees have known what time of year it is all along, though, and have gradually, almost sneakily, been skewing their internal tint knobs over to orange and red and dropping leaves all over the lawn. It's nice. I'll miss tending my lawn and the flower beds, but getting the fall weather and fall color is a completely fair trade.

If you've been following this blog for a while now -- and by god, why wouldn't you be? -- you know our house has been in complete and utter disarray for the past three months as we worked to retrofit our 80-year-old farmhouse with a modern geothermal heating/cooling system. As I reported several weeks ago, the system is up and running perfectly -- so we're now in the process of taking everything we moved out of the attic and basement to make way for the HVAC crew and putting it back. This gave us a perfect opportunity to sort through the clutter and get rid of some junk and, more important, change the function of several rooms.

You have to understand, our house has been added on to several times over its eight decades, expanding from the original one-bedroom/one bathroom farmhouse into its current hodgepodge of many odd-sized rooms. Some bedrooms are barely larger than closets, while others look like handball courts. A bathroom twists its way around the backside of a kitchen pantry. The upstairs doesn't match the downstairs, and there are no real closets to speak of.

That sort of non-conformity is actually very freeing, in that it's let us come up with some interesting functions for the various rooms and nooks and crannies. The upstairs room that once served as a makeshift kitchen, then, became my office several years ago. It's a long rectangular room, only about eight feet wide -- which was just wide enough for me to cram a desk and a bookshelf in one end of it. Our plan now is to move me out of the small office into the newly-organized basement, where I've got more room for bookshelves and all the random junk I like to collect. Knowing that I'm not much longer for my old office, then, I have adopted an I'll put it away after I relocate attitude with my space. Thus, my normally tidy little office now looks like this:

Yes, it's awful -- like a Nerd Bomb went off, or something. Anyway, our task this weekend is to begin moving me out of that space, and into this one:

This is the front room in our basement -- previously one of the yuckiest spaces in the house, but now gleaming with a new coat of wax on the old tile floor (notice the compass rose built into the middle of the floor -- a nice touch that was almost invisible under the 50-year-old coat of gunk and grime we scrubbed off) and shouldering an incomplete coat of primer as I prepare to give the old panelling a coat of paint (a tough call, but the room remains very dark otherwise). The fireplace doesn't work -- the chimney needs to be sealed -- but it's a nice room, and with the new heating system, it's the most comfortable room in the house.

There's still a lot of work ahead -- including running some new electric and telephone wiring -- but our plan is to have the room ready and up and running by the end of the month so I can get back to work.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Now Appearing in the Land O'Goshen....

Just a reminder that I'll be speaking tonight before the Goshen Historical Preservation Society, at 7:30 p.m. at the Church of the Nazarene in Goshen, Maryland.

Come join the fun as I give what I call my E! True Hollywood Story talk:
  • LAUGH! as Irving dances with the “fine, portly, buxom dame” Dolley Madison (even as he finds President Madison to be a depressing “withered apple-john”!)
  • CHEER! as Irving assists Martin van Buren in negotiating the West Indies trade agreement!
  • SWOON! as Frankenstein novelist Mary Shelley tries to put the moves on Irving!
  • HISS! as Edgar Allan Poe and James Fenimore Cooper flatter Irving to his face, then stab him in the back!
  • APPLAUD! as Irving hosts a public dinner for Charles Dickens in New York City (but botches the speech)!
And much, much more!

Come on, it’ll be fun! And I even made sure it wasn’t on a Presidential debate night.

I'll be speaking for at least 30 minutes and taking questions for as long as you want to ask them. I'll be happy to sign books -- and if you don't yet have one (I know the Borders and B&Ns in the immediate area are sold out), there'll be a limited number available for sale, if you're so inclined.

More details can be found here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hard Work vs. Magic

I'm obsessed with knowing how things work. More specifically, I love knowing how people work -- how they do their jobs, what their creative process is, what their working environments are like, and what challenges they face. I'm especially fascinated when it comes to learning more about how writers and artists produce whatever it is their particular craft might be.

When you hold a book in your hand -- or view a painting, watch a movie, or listen to music -- you're seeing only one part of a story -- and usually it's only the last chapter, ripped from the book and handed to you as the Complete Story. That bit of creative misdirection means that you're seeing only what the artist wanted you to see. The artist who produced that painting you're looking at, for example, doesn't really want you to know or care where he bought the canvas, who he scrounged the paints off of, what room he painted in, or that his mother always wanted him to be chef instead of a painter. The art itself -- which is the end result of the creative process -- is meant to be the statement; the rest is insignificant.

I tend to disagree with that. The biographer in me can't help but wonder how people were working and living their lives, even as they were creating their art.

I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes. I love visiting the homes of famous writers, artists, or politicians, for instance, and soaking up the atmosphere where they lived and worked. I enjoy poring through journals, letters, records and receipts, fascinated with what people write in the places where they believe no one will ever be looking. I'm one of those annoying people who watches every single "Behind The Scenes" or "Making of..." feature on a DVD, so I can see the interviews with the cast and crew, writer and director.

Creating art is hard work. And I think that hard work deserves to be explored and celebrated -- especially when it makes for such a good story.

Let me give you an example.

I've always been intrigued by the Beach Boys. It's not so much their music, which I'm not interested in much beyond what you might find on a typical greatest hits CD; rather, I'm fascinated by the relationship and creative dynamic between the Wilson brothers and their overbearing father, Murry. While I've not yet been able to find a biography of the group that truly rises to my expectations in this regard (the last one I read, Catch A Wave, was, I thought rather flat), I recently came across a primary source that's even better: forty minutes of open audio from a 1965 Beach Boys recording session, when the early takes of "Help Me, Rhonda" are broken up by the entry of a drunken, sometimes angry, sometimes weepy, but almost always abusive Murry Wilson.

Murry proceeds to take over the session, berating the singing of Al Jardine -- who's singing his guts out -- and lecturing Brian Wilson on sacrifice and hard work ("I'm a genius, too!" Murray testily proclaims). At one point, Murry and Brian can be heard scuffling over the controls, as Murry tries to turn off the recording equipment and Brian -- thankfully -- manages to leave the tape rolling.

It's a fascinating look behind the scenes, and makes you appreciate even more just how difficult it must have been for Brian Wilson to produce . . . well, anything. More than anything, you can see that Brian Wilson didn't create great music through magic; it was, for more than just a few reasons, hard work.

If I've peaked your curiosity, don't worry, I won't leave you hanging. Courtesy of WFMU, then, here's the full 40-minute version of the January 8, 1965 Beach Boys recording session. If you don't have 40 minutes, here's a highlight reel.

As an added bonus, here's the first installment of Peter Bagge's The Murry Wilson Show:

Part 2 is here, 3 is here, and part 4 is here.

My point is, sometimes what's going on behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain is just as interesting as the final product itself -- provided, of course, that you really want to look. But you tell me: Does that peek behind the scenes take something away from the final product? In other words, is the magic gone at that point? Or does knowing of all the hard work that went into it make you appreciate the final product that much more?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

That's What I Want...

"U.S. Forces Nine Major Banks To Accept Partial Nationalization," reads the front page, stacked-and-centered banner headline on today's Washington Post -- making this about the fifteenth day in a row we've seen an enormous banner headline in a newspaper that isn't normally known for such drama above the fold.* And as I do every day, I shake my head at the headlines, make a quick scan through the lead stories, and eventually lose interest before the stories make their jumps to the inner pages. I just don't get it.

As I tell my coworkers every day, I wish I understood all this stuff better, because I know it's important. Yet, I feel completely lost.

Until now.

Today I was pointed toward this website: The Money Meltdown: Everything You Need To Know About the Global Money Crisis. Site creator Matt Thompson -- an online journalist and blogger -- says he established the site as a way of pulling together "useful, authoritative, and comprehensive information about our current financial crisis in an accessible way."

As someone completely baffled by finance, banks, and stock markets, Matt's page is just what I needed -- and maybe you'll find it of some use as well. Click here to go get it.

* Okay, I'll amend that to add, "at least not when it comes to finance and the stock market." We see our share of big headlines when it's politics, not finance. We leave that to those snooty New York newspapers....

Monday, October 13, 2008


Happy Columbus Day!
"They continued on their course until two in the morning, when a gun from the Pinta gave the joyful signal of land . . .

"It was on Friday morning, the 12th of October, that Columbus first beheld the new world. As the day dawned he saw before him a level island several leagues in extent and covered with trees like a continual orchard. Though apparently uncultivated it was populous, for the inhabitants were seen issuing from all parts of the woods and running to the shore . . . Columbus made signal for the ships to cast anchor, and the boats to be manned and armed. He entered his own boat, richly attired in scarlet, and holding the royal standard; whilst Martin Alonzo Pinzon, and Vincent Yanez his brother, put off in company in their boats....

"As he approached the shore, Columbus, who was disposed for all kinds of agreeable impressions, was delighted with the purity and suavity of the atmosphere; the crystal transparency of the sea, and the extraordinary beauty of the vegetation . . . On landing he threw himself on his knees, kissed the earth, and returned thanks to God with tears of joy...."

-- Washington Irving,
Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828)

Enjoy your autumn.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Great Pumpkin

Tomorrow night -- and on every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from now through Halloween -- Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) is presenting the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. If you're in New York any time over the next four weekends -- or are planning to be -- then trust me, this needs to be on your agenda. Add it now. It's one of the coolest things you'll do this year.

The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze -- which actually started last weekend -- is a spooky walk-through attraction at one of HHV's neatest properties, Van Cortlandt Manor, an old stone Dutch manor house on the banks of the Croton River. The Blaze features more than 4,000 hand-carved, illuminated Jack O'Lanterns, gaping, grinning, leering, and laughing at guests as they wander through the woods on the Van Cortlandt property, with the spookily-lighted house looming up in the darkness. Round one bend, and you'll see dozens of flickering fish; round another, it's skeletons and witches. Round another, you'll see dinosaurs battling. And in one of the neatest -- and simplest -- effects, you'll see a lighted path of pumpkins disappearing off into the woods toward infinity as hidden speakers play the sound of an approaching horse. Creepy.

If that weren't enough, HHV is also presenting its Legend Weekend at Philipsburg Manor, on October 18, 19, 25 and 26. Stroll the grounds of this colonial-era farm at your own risk -- witches, pirates, and ghosts await you. And if you're lucky, you just might see the Headless Horseman -- straight out of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- come tearing by. Brrrr.

More information on the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze and Legend Weekend can be found here. Tickets are required for each -- but become a member of HHV, and you'll not only be entitled to free tickets, but you'll be helping preserve a unique part of America's heritage. I've been a member for nearly ten years, and I'm proud to support them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Business As Usual

So,was anyone else infuriated by this? I hope so; it's our money paying for it, after all:

AIG Spa Trip Fuels Fury on Hill
Pressing Executives to Concede Mistakes,
Lawmakers Blast Them About Bonuses

For some people at AIG, the insurance giant rescued last month with an $85 billion federal bailout, the good times keep rolling.

Joseph Cassano, the financial products manager whose complex investments led to American International Group's near collapse, is receiving $1 million a month in consulting fees.

Former chief executive Martin J. Sullivan, whose three-year tenure coincided with much of the company's ill-fated risk-taking, is receiving a $5 million performance bonus.

And just last week, about 70 of the company's top performers were rewarded with a week-long stay at the luxury St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, Calif., where they ran up a tab of $440,000.
The article in its entirety, from today's Washington Post, is here. Click away.

In my office, the discussions run from irate to incredulous, with "What were they thinking?" being the main question on the table. And my answer is "They weren't." Because in my experience, those who perpetrate such cosmically selfish acts of self-indulgence aren't thinking about much of anything other than . . . well, themselves.

I spent several years in the non-profit sector, working in an organization that had its heart in the right place, but was run by a CEO who enjoyed the trappings of the office more than the actual work. Consequently, one of her primary jobs -- fundraising -- became secondary, then tertiary, then finally dropped off the radar screen entirely. Meanwhile, even as the organization was beginning to hemorrhage and the rest of us were looking for ways to reduce costs, she proposed bringing the entire staff across the country for a staff retreat at Coronado Island, California. At still another time, we ended up eating the costs of several high dollar, non-refundable airline tickets because she had decided, the day before the scheduled trips, that she preferred to stay home.

There wasn't necessarily any malice in some of these actions; just a complete ignorance -- and sometimes disregard -- of How Things Really Work. "Clue free," one of our staffers used to call it.

Now, I expect better of Wall Street investors and insurers, of course, who claim to be smarter and wiser about business than all the rest of us combined. But I bring this to your attention merely to illustrate that at all levels of business -- whether it's a low-dollar non-profit, or billion dollar insurance agency -- there are always those who either don't know, or just don't care, how their actions and decisions affect others. In their world, money just sorta shows up from some place -- and you're entitled to it, after all, or you wouldn't be sitting where you are. So you might as well spend it on yourself.

I wish I had something deep and meaningful to say about all this, but I don't. My point is merely that greed and stupidity aren't limited to the AIGs of the world. I wish I could say I'm surprised or appalled by the behavior of the muckety mucks at AIG and elsewhere. But my own experience just leaves me thinking, "How typical." And I hate it that I feel that way.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

First Books: Alvin Fernald, Superweasel (1974)

In 1960, science and technology writer Clifford B. Hicks -- an editor for Popular Mechanics -- wrote the first of what would eventually be nine children's books featuring a spunky young inventor named Alvin Fernald. Alvin -- with the help of his own "Magnificent Brain," his best friend Shoie, and his sister Daphne ("The Pest") -- was always stumbling onto mysteries that needed investigating, codes that needed decoding, and various problems that needed creative solutions, usually with the help of one of Alvin's inventions.

I was never a hardcore fan of Alvin Fernald -- when it came to mysteries, I liked Encyclopedia Brown better, and I thought the world inhabited by Beverly Cleary's characters was far more interesting -- but when I saw Alvin Fernald, Superweasel advertised in the pages of the Scholastic Books catalog, I begged my mom for it. My second grade brain -- which was just beginning to soak up books, comics, and movies where radiation gave you superpowers instead of cancer -- was all but certain this book would be about a kid only a little older than me who had acquired the powers of a weasel through some freakish lab accident. I mean, he was an inventor, right? Surely, this was an example of Science Gone Horribly Awry, right?!?

No such luck.

As it turns out, Superweasel is basically a manifesto on environmental awareness for young adults. Alvin, appalled at all the trash and pollution in his hometown of Riverton, Indiana, adopts the guise of Superweasel as a way of carrying out a few acts of ecoterrorism without being recognized. Dressed as Superweasel, for example, Alvin climbs to the top of the tallest smokestack in town and plugs the top, sending smoke belching back into the factory and workers scrambling for fresh air. Mission accomplished, point made.

Yet, despite my disappointment that Superweasel didn't live up to expectations, I was glued to this book and couldn't read it fast enough. In the summer of 1974, I spent several nights sprawled out in a sleeping bag on the floor of my bedroom (it was the closest I liked to get to camping in New Mexico...), reading Alvin Fernald, Superweasel by flashlight, even as I fought to keep my eyes from slamming shut.

For that reason, Clifford Hicks' Alvin Fernald, Superweasel scores the first Two-Fer in the First Books feature: it's the First Book I Read With A Flashlight Under The Covers, and it's The First Time I Fell Victim To A Deceptive Title That Failed To Live Up To My Initial Expectations (cross reference: Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy).

More information on Clifford Hicks and Alvin Fernald can be found here.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Authors! Authors!

When it comes to games in our household, we're decidedly analog. We like dice games like Yahtzee, word games like Quiddler, board games like Sorry!, and we love card games. One of our favorites -- especially when we've got only a short amount of time -- has always been a game called Authors.

The object of Authors is a simple one: using Go Fish-type rules -- where you ask other players for specific cards -- you want to collect all four books by each of thirteen different authors. Each Ace, for example, represents Mark Twain, and each suit names a different book -- such as the Ace of Spades shown below at the far right, which features Tom Sawyer:

When it's your turn, simply ask another player if he (or she) has (for example) Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger and work to complete your set of four. If you come up empty, go to the draw pile and see if you luck into drawing it. If not, your turn's over. Simple. It's basically Go Fish for book lovers.

I played and loved this game as a kid -- it's actually been around since 1850 -- and it made a permanent impression on me. For one thing, beginning at grade two, I always remembered that Sir Walter Scott (whose face appears on each ten) was the author of Ivanhoe, and that Dickens (number two) wrote The Pickwick Papers. (Oddly, I did not remember that Washington Irving was one of the featured authors, scowling with heartburn from the face of each seven.) Now my own daughter has William Makepeace Thackeray's bookish face burned into her memory (along with his book Pendennis, which seems to be the card she's always missing), while my wife, who seems always to be stuck with James Fenimore Cooper, now refuses on principle to read The Last of the Mohicans.

If you're a parent who's looking for a fun, easy-to-learn -- and, yes, even (*gasp!*) educational -- game to play with your child, give Authors a try. Not only will you have fun, but you might even instill in your child a love of literature, and may inspire your young one -- or yourself -- to seek out some of the books featured on the cards. Our daughter is well beyond playing Go Fish-type games, yet this is still one we return to again and again, discussing the books and writers while we play, and sometimes doing funny voices for the authors pictured on the cards (I like to do a drugged-out Edgar Allan Poe, while Madi does an overly-excited Shakespeare.)

You can order Authors here. It's the best six bucks you'll ever spend.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Who The Hill Is Looking Out For...

From the Associated Press wire, as of 1:30 today:
House starts voting on $700B bailout bill

(AP) — The House has started a roll call vote on historic legislation providing $700 billion in government money to bring stability to reeling financial markets.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a vote for "Mr. and Mrs. Jones on Main Street."
My wife and I talked it over, and we've decided to accept their offer.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"A Time of Unexampled Prosperity"

From "The More Things Change..." Department, as we watch the financial drama unfurl on Wall Street and in Washington, DC, I thought I'd share with you a remarkably prescient essay Washington Irving published in 1855, as part of the collection of stories in Wolfert's Roost.

In this particular essay, "A Time of Unexampled Prosperity," Irving alludes to the Panic of 1837, a financial crash that was the result of unchecked speculation, and plunged the American economy into a rumbling pseudo-depression that lasted until 1843. Within two months, failures in New York alone totalled nearly $100,000,000 -- the equivalent of about $2 billion today.

Sound familiar? Here's Washington Irving's essay, "A Time of Unexampled Prosperity," in its entirety (it'll take you no more than five minutes to read, and trust me, it's worth every second):

In the course of a voyage from England, I once fell in with a convoy of merchant ships bound for the West Indies. The weather was uncommonly bland; and the ships vied with each other in spreading sail to catch a light, favoring breeze, until their hulls were almost hidden beneath a cloud of canvas. The breeze went down with the sun, and his last yellow rays shone upon a thousand sails, idly flapping against the masts.

I exulted in the beauty of the scene, and augured a prosperous voyage; but the veteran master of the ship shook his head, and pronounced this halcyon calm a "weather-breeder." And so it proved. A storm burst forth in the night; the sea roared and raged; and when the day broke, I beheld the late gallant convoy scattered in every direction; some dismasted, others scudding under bare poles, and many firing signals of distress.

I have since been occasionally reminded of this scene, by those calm, sunny seasons in the commercial world, which are known by the name of "times of unexampled prosperity." They are the sure weather-breeders of traffic. Every now and then the world is visited by one of these delusive seasons, when "the credit system," as it is called, expands to full luxuriance, everybody trusts everybody; a bad debt is a thing unheard of; the broad way to certain and sudden wealth lies plain and open; and men are tempted to dash forward boldly, from the facility of borrowing.

Promissory notes, interchanged between scheming individuals, are liberally discounted at the banks, which become so many mints to coin words into cash; and as the supply of words is inexhaustible, it may readily be supposed what a vast amount of promissory capital is soon in circulation. Every one now talks in thousands; nothing is heard but gigantic operations in trade; great purchases and sales of real property, and immense sums made at every transfer. All, to be sure, as yet exists in promise; but the believer in promises calculates the aggregate as solid capital, and falls back in amazement at the amount of public wealth, the "unexampled state of public prosperity."

Now is the time for speculative and dreaming or designing men. They relate their dreams and projects to the ignorant and credulous, dazzle them with golden visions, and set them madding after shadows. The example of one stimulates another; speculation rises on speculation; bubble rises on bubble; every one helps with his breath to swell the windy superstructure, and admires and wonders at the magnitude of the inflation he has contributed to produce.

Speculation is the romance of trade, and casts contempt upon all its sober realities. It renders the stock-jobber a magician, and the exchange a region of enchantment. It elevates the merchant into a kind of knight-errant, or rather a commercial Quixote. The slow but sure gains of snug percentage become despicable in his eyes; no "operation" is thought worthy of attention that does not double or treble the investment. No business is worth following that does not promise an immediate fortune. As he sits musing over his ledger, with pen behind his ear, he is like La Mancha's hero in his study, dreaming over his books of chivalry. His dusty counting-house fades before his eyes, or changes into a Spanish mine; he gropes after diamonds, or dives after pearls. The subterranean garden of Aladdin is nothing to the realms of wealth that break upon his imagination.

Could this delusion always last, the life of a merchant would indeed be a golden dream; but it is as short as it is brilliant. Let but a doubt enter, and the "season of unexampled prosperity" is at end. The coinage of words is suddenly curtailed; the promissory capital begins to vanish into smoke; a panic succeeds, and the whole superstructure, built upon credit and reared by speculation, crumbles to the ground, leaving scarce a wreck behind:

"It is such stuff as dreams are made of."

When a man of business, therefore, hears on every side rumors of fortunes suddenly acquired; when he finds banks liberal, and brokers busy; when he sees adventurers flush of paper capital, and full of scheme and enterprise; when he perceives a greater disposition to buy than to sell; when trade overflows its accustomed channels and deluges the country; when he hears of new regions of commercial adventure; of distant marts and distant mines, swallowing merchandise and disgorging gold; when he finds joint-stock companies of all kinds forming; railroads, canals, and locomotive engines, springing up on every side; when idlers suddenly become men of business, and dash into the game of commerce as they would into the hazards of the faro table; when he beholds the streets glittering with new equipages, palaces conjured up by the magic of speculation; tradesmen flushed with sudden success, and vying with each other in ostentatious expense; in a word, when he hears the whole community joining in the theme of "unexampled prosperity," let him look upon the whole as a "weather-breeder," and prepare for the impending storm.
Sounds like something right out of the op-ed pages of today's New York Times, doesn't it? Trust me, when Irving's good, he's very good. Click here to read Wolfert's Roost in its entirety.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Who Reads An American Book?"

I point you with amusement toward this interesting bit of literary playgrounding, courtesy of the Associated Press:
Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete

STOCKHOLM, Sweden—Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year's award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it's no coincidence that most winners are European.

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," dragging down the quality of their work.

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
(Click here for the article in its entirety.)

Apart from the "I know you are, but what am I?" tone of the remarks, I got a kick out of this because it sounds remarkably similar to the condescending tones Europeans used when tut-tutting American writers in the 19th century.

At that time, of course, Americans had something to prove. Despite defeating the most powerful army in the world during the American Revolution -- and even as a teeth-gnashing Thomas Jefferson provided foreign skeptics with skeletons to prove that American mammals were as large, or larger, than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic -- Europeans were convinced that Americans, for the most part, had merely gotten lucky. As far as Europeans were concerned, Americans were mentally, physically, and culturally deficient.

While Horace Engdahl might sniff that American writers are "insular" or "too sensitive to trends," his complaints are strictly amateur hour when compared to those of 19th century critic Sidney Smith, who blasted all things American in the January 1820 issue of the Edinburgh Review:
"The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton. Considering their numbers, indeed, and the favorable circumstances in which they have been placed, they have yet done marvelously little to assert the honor of such a descent, or to show that their English blood has been exalted or refined by their republican training and institutions...

"...they have done absolutely nothing for the Sciences, for the Arts, for Literature, or even for the statesman-like studies of Politics or Political Economy...

"In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? . . .

"When these questions are fairly and favorably answered, their laudatory epithets may be allowed: But, till that can be done, we would seriously advise them to keep clear of superlatives."
Suffice it to say, Americans were not amused--and it was in this rather poisonous atmosphere that an upstart American writer named Washington Irving dared to publish The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in London in the spring of 1820.

The Sketch Book had been well-received on its publication in the United States in 1819 -- rightly so, as it's the book that contains "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- and now, in an effort to protect his copyright from European piracy, Irving nervously issued a version of his book in the English market, under the imprint of London's most distinguished publisher, John Murray.

The Sketch Book not only sold spectacularly well -- it can, in fact, rightly be called America's first international bestseller -- but it won over even refined British readers, who grudgingly conceded that this American upstart could write. "Everywhere I find in it the marks of a mind of the utmost elegance and refinement," wrote a surprised William Godwin, "a thing as you know that I was not exactly prepared to look for in an American."

So, there you go, Horace Engdahl. European disdain for American writers is as old as American publishing itself. American writers have heard it all before, and they've generally proven the critics wrong. I'm confident that American writers will continue to rise above such condescension and defy such expectations -- for their ability to do so is also as old as American publishing itself.

Thanks to Brian D for bringing the AP article to my attention!