Sunday, February 28, 2016

Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels and Essays (Library of America) by Charles W. Chesnutt

Charles Chesnutt was a turn of the century author whose work primarily dealt with Pre- and Post Civil War Society in the South.  His stories and essays explore the topics of race, the slave culture, and white culture both before and after the Civil War and the relationships that existed between white and black people during each time period.

A large selection of Chesnutt's short stories are a compilation of slave folk lore and superstition.  He uses the medium of a neutral observer.  In most of his stories this is a northern man and his wife who have moved to the rural south and bought some property, a large former plantation.  On this land there are several men and women who worked the land as slaves and are now free but are still employed on the same property.  

One particular elderly man, Julius, who was a child before the Civil War, is a storehouse of myth, legend, and history of plantation life.  With this northern couple, he shares his knowledge of conjure women, ghost stories and all sorts of supernatural events that occurred on the plantation.  The stories are amusing, informative but belie an undercurrent of tragedy as each one describes, in an almost off-hand way, the injustices committed against the African slave.  It's an effective method of getting a serious message across in an entertaining format.

Other short stories are centered around the newly freed black person and their ability to assimilate into a reality that has only begun to exist.  This is also true for the white people but,  in Chesnutt's stories, to a lesser degree since the white people he describes still own property and possess wealth and status.  Historically this isn't precisely true.  The Civil War destroyed the finances of many white families and caused wide-spread poverty among them, hence the massive migration of both races to the western territories to attain some kind of living.

The third type of story and, in my opinion, the most fascinating is the topic of race.  What constitutes race?  Because of the interbreeding, for lack of a better term, I can't call it marrying, between white slave owners and black slaves, a biracial class of people came into existence.  Some of these people were more apparently of mixed race but others were not.  More than a few of Chesnutt's stories center around people who "looked white" but were actually "black".  In these stories these "secretly biracial" people pass themselves off as white in order to gain the privileged status and opportunities afforded only to white people.

These stories show the tension and psychological predisposition to view someone in a degraded manner only by the knowledge that someone belongs to an "inferior" race.  Two stories in particular probe this subject.  

In the novel, The House Behind the Cedars, a white man falls in love with his business partner's beautiful fair, creamy-skinned sister and becomes engaged to her.  Through a series of coincidences he discovers that their mother is a freed slave.   Shocked, the man cannot bring himself to become "tainted" by marrying a "black" woman and deserts her.

The other is a short story about a man about to marry a woman he deeply loves.  He receives an anonymous letter accusing the woman of having black ancestors.  He begs her to tell him the truth.  She refuses and even though they marry, the man is haunted by the possibility that his wife is not truly white.

 Chesnutt shows the reader that even inside of the black community, stations and caste systems grew.  After the war, lighter skinned black people separated themselves from darker-skinned ones and created their own intermediary class.  The lighter skinned Africans were more prosperous and privileged than darker-skinned ones, even though they themselves were still segregated from white people.  This group eventually  assimilated into the white race and now no longer exists.

Chesnutt's particular fascination with this last group of people is no doubt due to the fact that even though both his parents descended from slaves, they also descended from slave owners.  He insisted on classifying himself as black when in fact he looks white.  (See photo below).

Not many people read Chesnutt's essays and fiction today and his style of writing is rather quaint and sentimental at times.  Even so, they are a valuable contribution to a significant epoch in American history and are worth reading.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV by W. H. Lewis,204,203,200_.jpg

Anyone who has read the Narnia Chronicles or watched the movies know about C.S. Lewis.  What many people don't know is that Lewis had a brother, Warren Hamilton Lewis who was also a writer, and a good one at that.

Warren Lewis did not write fiction like his brother and he did not produce much, unfortunately for us, because what he did write is delightful reading, told with a good sense of humor and wit.

This Splendid Century is a charming account of life in France under the reign of King Louis XIV.  Lewis starts with the King himself and all his idiosyncrasies.  How he was raised- he became king at age four- and lived under the tyranny of Cardinal Mazarin until the despot finally died.  We learn of his eating and sleeping habits, his many mistresses-each a colorful personality- how all the court was expected to imitate the culture he created inside his palace.  Much of it is ridiculous and could hardly be believable except that absolute rulers can act like spoiled, idiot children because of no accountability. This section of the book reads much like a supplement or corroboration of Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask (except there is no twin brother to the king).

From the King's personal habits, which were as particular as they were bizarre (he always slept with the sheets folded half down, winter or summer and you have to read for your self the table he kept and the eating habits he practiced and expected everyone in the palace to practice) to the people he was surrounded by in his court, in town and in the country, we are able to gather much of society's habits and caste system (one knocks on the doors of neighbors in town but in the palace one must grow the nail of one finger in order to "scratch"). If one wanted any financial support from the king, one stayed at court and let his land go to waste and ruin, otherwise it was assumed the king's patronage wasn't needed and Louis would withdraw needed funds to support the farmer and his family.  I'm not sure how this system lasted but it offers a lot of insight as to why there was a bloody revolution soon after.

Corruption was rampant.  Everyone was taxed mercilessly and consequently there was a lot of lying about property ownership and wealth.  There was also a significant lack of motivation to further one's prosperity since it was understood that no one got to enjoy the fruit of their labors.  Some of the tricks land owners used were rather humorous.  For instance there were those that would "sell" their land and move into a boat on the Seine and stay there until the tax man left, then "buy" it back again until next time.

The army wasn't any better.  The average French soldier was little more than a criminal ragamuffin snatched from the streets.  The Captains were commissioned with certain sums to draft soldiers but always drafted less than they were paid for and pocketed the rest of the money.  If an inspection occurred they borrowed soldiers from the next regiment and returned the favor when that regiment came up for inspection.  Another tactic was to grab local beggars and ruffians and stick them in line.  They were able to get away with a lot because there were no uniforms.  The way these "armies" treated the civilians where they were stationed isn't worth describing except to state that they acted like the criminals they were.  If it weren't for the King's Musketeers I frankly don't know how order could have been kept.

My favorite chapter was on the medical profession.  The Paris Medical school was jealous and made sure practically no one qualified for entry into their school and refused to acknowledge any other school.  In this way they accomplished the dubious distinction of keeping France short of doctors.  

Interestingly, surgeons were not considered doctors.  When looking at their origins, one doesn't wonder.  Surgery started in the barbershop and was little more than bloodletting and carving off of diseased limbs.  However, this eventually developed into the surgical operations we know today.  This didn't stop traveling "surgeons" to practice their skill on the countryside.  These itinerant surgeons worked on humans and animals alike and when they first started were "little more than assassins".  Still, practice does make perfect, so as the years advanced these men, and sometimes women, became as competent as the "trained" surgeons in town.

The Medical profession despised surgeons and refused to admit they were doctors.  A surgical school was founded outside of Paris and was invaded by irate Medical students and doctors.  A horrible fight ensued between the surgeons and the doctors, leaving several on each side knocked out and injured.  Really, someone needs to make a movie about that. 

In fact, either side was pretty appalling in their medical practices, which consisted largely of bloodletting.  Children as young as eight weeks old were bled, sometimes to death, to get rid of whatever diseases ailed them.

Another chapter describes the education of women.  King Louis' one time mistress and mother of several of his children, Mdme de Maintenon, started a school for girls, drafted some barely literate nuns as teachers and presided over the education of the daughters of the court and gentry.  An amusing description of their less than perfect education but perfection of manners is related.

The Church in all its goodness and not so goodness comes to light as does the plight of galley slaves.

The book finishes off with the great writers of the time and provides several pages of bibliography and suggested further reading.

Reading the book is a delightful trip through the courts of 18th century France and I enjoyed it as much if not more than the best movie ever made of The Three Musketeers.

There is a sequel called The Sunset of the Splendid Century which I intend to buy.  Stayed tuned for future reviews.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Final Destination: Bad Wimpfen

Our last town was Bad Wimpfen.  We walked around and I bought quite a few scarves and other goodies that would fit in my backpack.  As I did when I traveled through Europe two years ago, I did all my birthday and Christmas shopping for friends and family at the various shops in the different towns we visited.

I haven't really much to say about Bad Wimpfen other than it is one of the many medieval towns along the Rhine and Nekkar rivers, snaking through the heartland of Germany.   It is a historic spa town where people came to bathe in the mineral waters, hoping to improve their health.  It was settled first by Celts around 450 B.C., was conquered by Domitian and became a Roman province around 98 A.D. It came to Fraconia at 500 A.D. where Christianity bloomed and today holds some of the oldest Christian buildings, originating from this time.  It was a focal point of the Reformation with Erhard Schnepf being the most prominent preacher who spoke there. There are many extremely old historic buildings, some of the oldest we saw on this trip.

Half-timbered buildings in the town square.

Half-timbered house

Josh showing our state of mind after eight days and biking 240 miles from Koblenz to Bad Wimpfen.

Home of Johannes Denner (1655-1707), musician, maker of musical instruments and inventor of the clarinet.

As with Ebersbach, the town was built onto the side of the hill.  Josh and I had very little energy to climb up and down after a day of biking but managed somehow.  I'm sure we earned some kind of trooper award, but we were ready to quit.

Friends we had made from Germany, Denmark and Norway climbed the steeple to the top of the church.  We didn't.

Translation:  Former Inn Quarters of General Tilly vor der Schlacht during the Thirty Years War in 1622

Translation:  Attention drivers:  Beware of the dog.

Nekkar River

And that is the last day of our tour.  The next day we got on a bus, then a train and returned to Frankfurt.  After spending several hours at the airport we discovered that we had a bought a ticket with the wrong date (wrong month!) Thus began a race to cross the airport, buy two more tickets on the only available plane back to Dublin in order to catch our flight the next day back to the States.

So many mishaps to add to the tension.  The attendant behind the counter couldn't get our tickets to print out for, oh 45 minutes.  Then we got stuck behind someone at the customs line that the officer wouldn't pass through.  Actually we were several people behind him.  We asked the others if we could cut which they all graciously allowed us to do.

Back in Dublin there wasn't time to get a hotel so we stayed the night at the airport.  There was NO place to sit except at one available table.  I kept reminding myself that I was quite adept at sleeping in an upright position at a desk in high school, but still wasn't successful.

And here we are safe and sound back in Texas and considering our next destination.  We were thinking Athens and Paris next Christmas.  What's your opinion?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Great Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft

As I write, I have Mexican radio playing from my bathroom as an excellent renovator of bathrooms gives our guest bathroom a face lift. 

 Outside are several men in yellow, glow-in-the-dark  t-shirts that say "All About Trees" carving up a giant oak's branches-the reason I bought this house-after telling me only a fool would buy a house with a monstrosity like that only thirty feet from the foundation. No, they didn't use the words, "monstrosity" or "fool", but I can read between the lines. 

There's a lot of noise on my roof and I hope I won't be calling a roof repairman to fix any damage falling branches the size of logs may be incurring up there. Please, God, don't let a branch go through a window.  Like that one almost did.

And here I am about to write on a favorite author.  My husband's favorite, that is.  Still, I enjoyed the collection of twenty horror stories I read.  

At first I wasn't quite sure how to take Lovecraft.  I had always read good old fashioned vampire and ghost stories or science fiction.  The former being about evil beings in the metaphysical world, mostly from countries with a early pagan/Christian heritage and the latter about man's ability to conquer his environment with the invention of machines.

Lovecraft's stories are about neither, yet also both.  Kind of.  Lovecraft takes the traditional scary elements from the past but applies a humanistic, naturalistic cause to them.  Scary things that go bump in the night are no longer spirits or undead but rather, something from another planet, another dimension, or life forms previously unknown-often higher up on the evolutionary scale.

His goal is to create tension and suspense but provide no relief.  He wants the reader to leave the story still hanging on the cliff. Any relief I felt was to put the book down and remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction.

This is not to say his writing is not very good and he expertly pulls the reader into the surreal world he has created.  His descriptions are effective without being getting bogged down in detail and I could clearly see the environment and creatures he invented.  

He has a particular writing technique in common with another writer of horror:  Edgar Allan Poe.  Neither Poe nor Lovecraft will clarify what is going on until practically the final paragraph, preferably the final sentence if they can manage it.

It amazes and frustrates me how an author can string the reader along, telling you how dreadful something is ("I'm writing this from an insane asylum because no one believes me!") without telling you what is happening. They add bits of detail like strewing breadcrumbs along a trail in a forest, luring you deeper and deeper into the darkest part of the woods before jumping out from behind a tree and going, "BOO!"

Some of the better known tales in this collection are:

The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Herbert West Re-animator, and the Haunter of the Dark.  These stories involve creatures of great size and power from other planets, people from the Salem Witch trials possessing their descendants' bodies, bringing the dead back to life and transferring brains into metal canisters to take people's entities back to home planets.  How did Lovecraft go to sleep at night?  What a tormented soul he must have had.

The men outside just plowed through a fence and tore down a power line.  Now we're out of power.  Maybe I don't need to read about horror.  I seem to be living it right now.  Maybe they're not really men?  Are those lizard tails I see peeking out of those yellow shirts?  What if....?

What mutant life form is creeping out from under my pillow?!!