The Agent Reply


Melting Clocks

Fiction Friday is here.   Enjoy this original short story.  I will send this out for publication soon.

The Agent

“Good Morning Gladys,” said the sixty year old Dentist, wearing light blue dental scrubs and looking more like 45, except for the awful quaff of obviously fake red-blonde hair that flapped in a perfect wave as he walked, in part thanks to nature, but in part thanks to the gluttonous amount of aqua net hairspray he applied as part of his daily regiment.

“Good morning Hank.  You had three calls since yesterday.  Mr. Finwick would like to know if he can finally get in for a cleaning. Mrs. Waltz says she chipped her filling.  And a Mr. Davenport said he met you a few weeks ago and would like to schedule an initial consultation.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Same thing I’ve said for the last two years.  No available appointments for six months and Dr. Sparks isn’t taking new patients,” she said, a bit bored.

“Good. I’ll be in my office.”

Hank walked down the wood paneled hallway, adorned with pictures of various famous cemeteries and grave sites – Arlington National, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, JFK’s eternal flame, The Hapsburg Crypt in the Capuchin Church of Austria, the Church of the Sepulcre —  to his office as the two dental assistants murmured about Hank’s decision to retire, but not tell anyone.    He opened the door to a chorus of chimes, whistles and bells, and thirty-three clocks that filled every empty space in the Dentist’s office.  Listening for a moment, Hank peered suspiciously at one oak brown mantle clock with a glass front and miniature brass pendulum, and whispered along its back, “you seem to be out of sorts.  Let’s get you straightened out.”

Hank, retired three years ago from the tedium of dental practice.  Now his time was spent with three occupations – clocks, graves and his wife Larissa.   Larissa every morning would walk through the smallish but ample courtyard of their home and dream of life in other places, like in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles, Author’s Camelot, The Hapsburgs’ summer Palace Schönbrunn, or any other place that began with “old” or sounded royal.  Her house was full of antiques, some that were real and others that were just made to feel antiquarian. Larissa herself couldn’t tell the difference, but bought the antiques because the salesman selling the pieces offered up a steady supply of “yes Ma’ams” and “good gracious,” and “lawd almighties,” which were enough to tell Larissa this man’s trustworthiness was impenetrable. “He’s clearly from the old ways,” she would think.  She was particularly fond of old wives’  tales and would pass them on as conventional wisdom.  “A dream told before breakfast will come true,” she’d say when a child started telling the fantastic dreams from the night before.

Between Larissa’s obsession for old things and Hank’s obsession for clocks, nearly no space was left uncovered with some tchotchke, replica or time piece — cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, mantel clocks, atomic clocks, tidal clocks, water clocks, hairspring clocks, clocks that look like cats with big bulging eyes and tails for pendulums, and more.  Every room of their home was filled with several clocks, all inevitably set to different times, creating a chorus of chimes, whistles, cuckoos and tick tocks for at least five minutes on every quarter hour and sometimes longer depending on the hour being struck.  Precision of time never struck Hank as being important.  Most dentists carefully monitored their amalgam settings to ensure they dried properly.  But Hank, knowing their nature, prided himself on never having had a patient sit too long or leave too soon before a filling was done.  Things, particularly clocks and people, responded to their own rhythm and time.

Larissa and Hank’s uneventful lives never called attention to themselves in a bad way. But never one to lose the opportunity to point out a virtue, Larissa kept tedious track of their good deeds so as to instantly repel any rumor or insinuation that anything negative might be said of them. An awkward art, she managed to shame others into keeping conversation shallow just to save themselves from hearing Larissa say anything at all.

A few months back, Larissa showed her power of redeeming an awkward conversation by reminding those listening of her virtues.  While having tea at a local café with Hank, Larissa began commenting on her love of Gone with the Wind.   “Oh, how I would love to live in Scarlett OHara’s Old South.  Life must have been so grand for her and her Rhett Butler.  To sit on those porches and have servants bring you tea in the afternoon.  It would have been delightful.”  Hank looked slightly sheepish, not sure how to respond to such a strange sentiment. He finally said quietly, “Larissa, keep your voice down. There are other people here,” wincing towards the black couple a table over.  Larissa feeling the need to redeem herself said loudly, “Oh, I’m not racist. How dare you insinuate such a thing.  Just last year I bought winter coats for the little colored children of that lady who came by asking me for a job.” This statement reverberated through the café, making everyone in the café cringe, except for Larissa, who at that moment felt a lump in her throat thinking of the ways she helped that poor family.  It was that moment when Larissa noticed the African-American couple sitting in a both nearby. Hank noticed them too, and studied them from toe to top, noticing that both were missing their third finger from one hand.   Hank tended to notice such details, though he rarely assigned them meaning.

“Pardon me,” Larissa said to them, “do I know you?”

“No, I do not believe you do,” said the African-American lady politely.  But before she could say her name.

“Well, you just look so familiar.”

“My name is Alice and this is my husband Randall. We have tea here every week.  Maybe you have seen us here? We see you all the time…”

Larissa interrupted without hearing.  “Surely not!  Why I know everybody that has tea in this café at this time, and I have surely not seen you here.”

“Perhaps we just miss each other by a few minutes.”

“I would say not!  No, I know you from some place else.” And then Larissa said as if coming to it, “I know it.  You are the nice couple I showed a house to in the colored section of town a few weeks ago. Such an odd couple.  Both were doctors and wanted to purchase over in Station’s Landing.  But you know, they just wouldn’t have fit there…”

“No ma’am.  That was not us,” said Alice ignoring Larissa’s condescension.  “We have lived in our home for a long time now,” said Randall with a mournful look.

“Well, it’s my pleasure to meet you.  If you need anything, my name is Larissa Sparks and I am happy to help you find a house or coats or jobs or whatever I may be of assistance for you.”  Later that day, Larissa would congratulate herself to several different people for trying to help “those two unfortunates” she and Hank met earlier.

Hank himself tried to remain underwhelming in both thought and deed.  When the time came for Hank to retire from his dental practice, it just seemed unbecoming to let others know that he was getting older or had made enough money to allow him this ordinary stage of life.  So, instead, he just simply stopped taking patients at his practice or scheduling appointments for his current patients. He continued to employ dental assistants who would tell patients when they called “we just won’t be able to schedule you for six months,” or “I’m sorry Dr. Sparks is no longer accepting new patients.”  If the patient insisted on seeing Dr. Sparks even with such a long wait, he would wait until that day and then abruptly cancel the appointment due to a necessary funeral, business appointment or illness that made Dr. Spark’s unavailable. When they asked if he could see them soon after, the standard response, “Oh, I’m sorry.  Doctor Sparks is completely booked for the next six months.”  And for three years, Hank Sparks woke up every morning, put on his dental scrubs, prepared his hair to be precisely in place, and drove to his dental office where he sat in his office calibrating clocks to be exactly the right time for each clock, which was never the same and never in harmony with any other clock. “Time was just not something that one should pinpoint,” he thought, “but rather was personal to every being and object.”

While Hank attended to his clocks during the day, Larissa sold real estate to prospective buyers.  She would meet a client and instantly know what house or neighborhood she would show them.  She sold houses like a minister sang salvation songs.  She believed that the environs where one lived and the neighbors one kept indicated not only the kind of social person you were but reached down to the quality of your soul.  “Bad neighbors reflect the kind of person you are yourself,” she would say to clients as she urged them to purchase in one area or another.  “Oh, would you look at that.  I just can’t believe they would ruin a perfectly wonderful home by leaving their children’s bicycles laying about in the front yard,” she might be heard saying to clients as she showed a home.  She was also known to lecture clients on not only the tidiness of their home, but also their neighbors’ tidiness.  It was also rumored that Larissa, uninvited, was once run off from a former client’s home for trimming their row-hedges in a perfectly rectangular shape.

In his spare time, Hank had recently decided that he and Larissa needed to get serious about cemetery plots.  For Larissa, this became a moment of utmost importance.  “You don’t want to be buried next to a néer-do-well.  After all, it’s your neighborhood for eternity.”  So Larissa inspected the cemeteries and burial plots with the utmost care. She would bring lawn scissors and gardening gloves to manicure the gravesites around the potential last-home, just so she could see all the potential for where they might decide to buy. She interrogated and antagonized one poor cemetery groundskeeper on a particular weekend visit asking: “why haven’t you planted new flowers by the entrance of the Stonewall section?” And, “Dear sir, why do you insist on allowing weeds to grow up over those grave stones? Those people surely expect you to keep up their grave-homes don’t they?” And finally, “You know more living people would probably visit these poor souls if their neighborhood didn’t look so shabby.”  The poor groundskeeper finally, laid his shovel down and walked towards the historic Jewish mausoleum, causing Larissa to audibly sigh and then comment to Hank about the inability to find good help.

Sunday afternoons were consumed with inspecting potential burial spots for the two of them.  After a while, Hank and Larissa had exhausted the supply of local plots and began looking at nearby towns.  “There are burial plots in Osawatomie’s Memorial Grove,” suggested Hank, but on visiting, Larissa would find the perpetual care promised to be not so perpetual.  “Look at these weeds growing in the grass,” she would say.  “Look at these dead flowers no one has taken the time to freshen up on these grave sites.”  And, “Can you believe the tree roots that are dislodging those grave stones.  You would think they would care enough about the dead to cut down that silly thing!” she said in an exhausted voice, putting her gardening sheers away.

One weekend, Hank and Larissa drove nearly a hundred miles to see a  promising plot in the Oakhewn Cemetary in the town of Chambersbourg.  Guarded by two lovely oaks at the entrance, the cemetery’s white limestone grave markers glistened like whitecaps in the open water as the sun assaulted the green and white landscape. “Well it certainly does make an impression coming in,” said Larissa as if commenting on a grand stairway in a house.  As they walked around the cemetery and looked at various graves, they finally came to the plot that Hank was told was available.  Larissa seemed to be less impressed than Hank after a while. “Yes, Hank,” Larissa agreed, “Oakhewn cemetery is nicely maintained.  But you know the plots that we saw were near the Jewish section of the cemetery.”

Hank, sighed.  “Larissa, those plots were several hundred feet away from the Jewish section and besides, they were in the old historic section of the cemetery. We would be buried near a colonel that served with Teddy Roosevelt from the Spanish American War. These plots are golden, just golden, my dear.”

“No, no, no! These will just never do.  Yes, I like the historic section and yes, it would be nice to be buried near a colonel with presidential ties,” as if she had given this extensive thought in the past.  “But really, I just don’t like the idea of being buried so near those people. Sure I do business with them.  But I don’t live near them nor do I want to rest for eternity in such close proximity.  Your gravesite is like your neighborhood.  It should be filled with people you like.  No, I want to be with my own people.”

“You did invite the Goldbergs to your Christmas Party last year, dear,” Hank said triumphantly.

“First Hank, I invited them because Moises Goldberg works at the bank where I closed three deals last year.  Second of all they didn’t even come,” said Larissa. Then she said more quietly, “so inconsiderate.”

Hank sighed and began his usual whistle in the sound of the three quarter hour Westminster chime while walking back to the car. “Hank. What did I tell you!  If you whistle in the cemetery you’ll summon the devil.”  Hank shrugged his shoulders and walked on.

Hank continued to look for cemetery plots and for nearly a year. Hank and Larissa travelled out of town nearly every Sunday to cemeteries.  Country cemeteries, urban cemeteries, public cemeteries, family cemeteries, veterans cemeteries, municipal cemeteries, religious cemeteries (except for Jewish cemeteries of course). They even switched denominations, all within the Christian faith of course, just to see whether they would enjoy being buried next to their religious decedents to broaden their options.  But alas, nothing seemed to fit.

It so happened that Hank came across an ad in the paper one week that warranted a call.  “Marital Plot with Perpetual Care in Reading’s Olde Towne Historic Cemetery.  Call for appointment.”  Hank Called.

“Hello, Thomas Percy Walker, eternal care realtor at your service.”

“Hello.  We are looking for a plot for two people. I saw your Olde Towne listing.  It’s just that my wife is particularly…let’s just say, particular.”

“Oh yes sir, I understand.  I’ll tell you what.  I have several different options that I could show you.  If you can meet for brunch on Sunday, I can find out what you are looking for and see if I can help you.”

So Sunday came and Hank and Larissa woke up at 5:30 AM to drive two hours and meet Thomas Percy Walker at one of the finest brunch restaurants in the town of Reading.  Wearing a brown seer-sucker suit and bow-tie, Thomas walked in, carrying a brown portfolio under one arm, and a bouquet of daisy’s in the other.  “Why, here you are madam.”

“For me?” Larissa said, surprised by the kind gesture.  What she noticed more was that after his hands were free, he tipped his hat, and bowed his head.  “Well now that’s a gentleman a lady can trust.”

“Well now, you don’t even know me yet,” said Thomas. “I could be the most untrustworthy person here.”

“A lady knows good people.”

“Well, shall we sit?”

They sat at the square private booth and Thomas placed his leather bound portfolio on the table.  “Now I’m not sure what I’m going to show you will be exactly what you are looking for, but I can get an idea of what types of amenities you have in mind.”

“As someone in a similar line of work,” commented Larissa looking skeptically, “I always found it was important to understand your client before trying to show them properties.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Thomas.  “Now this one is a fine set of plots near an older church property.  The building is a historic one, but the gravesites are not all that old – early part of the last century, though a few date to the previous century.  Millhaven Lawn has become one of the more popular places to be buried in the county.”  He passed the portfolio to Larissa and Hank who flipped studiously through the pictures of the cemetery.

“The Nuevo dead,” Larissa smirked.  “It looks nice but they are all so uniform.   Are the cemetery plots all arranged so similarly?”

“Yes ma’am. That is one of the features of Millhaven Lawn. Everyone is the same in the after-life they say.”

“Well that’s just not true!  I believe in heaven and hell for a reason and I can tell you where I belong,” said Larissa with conviction.

“I can’t agree with you more,” said Thomas.  “I don’t judge what others believe, I just show the properties.  But I can certainly tell you are a lady of impeccable taste.”

“Well you shouldn’t judge what someone else may be or want, especially when they know for themselves who they are.  But I wouldn’t expect you to.  You are a professional and a gentleman at that.  Impeccably trustworthy!” Larissa said.

“Now this one is a bit different.  It’s more of an older traditional family burial plot, but you’ll have to be buried along side another family,” Thomas said cautiously. “This cemetery is the most exclusive and would be an excellent place to spend eternity.”

“Now that’s intriguing.  Who is this family we would be buried next to?” Larissa asked.

“That’s the thing that may make this plot unattractive.  The reason the plot is available is that the family remaining behind has hit hard times and found themselves unable to keep up the perpetual care agreement with the cemetery.  The cemetery has foreclosed on the plots to make up for the maintenance costs necessary to keep the Historic Chamber-Felt Grove Cemetery beautiful.”

“Absolutely not!” Larissa said.  “I refuse to be buried in a foreclosed plot next to the family of scoff-laws who do not pay their bills. I mean Hank, those people could be visiting us!” she said, sounding repulsed.

“I completely agree with you madam.  It’s the worst kind of human being, the one who doesn’t plan appropriately.  After all, one never knows if your kin will care for you in the same way that you deserve.  That’s why I guarantee to see to every grave I sell myself.  Perpetual care is a part of my service.”

“Oh my.   That is very comforting.  And I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Larissa.  “Our children, bless their souls are too burdened being successful to worry with taking care of us, isn’t that right Hank.”

Hank pulled his attention away from the midcentury Sears and Roebuck Wall Clock with its deep teak wood brown starburst pattern and elongated numerals that marked the hours, and gave a slight nod as if he agreed.

“OK!  We are agreed that there should be no nouveau-riche and no deadbeats buried near your plot.”

“I would think that would be obvious just looking at me,” said Larissa “but as a professional I know you can’t make assumptions.”

“Entirely right my fine lady.  Now, I have one more to show you and I think this one will be exactly what you’re looking for.  It’s a historic cemetery here in Reading.  Its on the national registry of historic places and has several plots that date back to before the Revolution.”

“Before the Revolution,” Larissa exclaimed, catching Hank’s attention from the Sears and Roebuck clock ticking against time on the wall.  “I must see this plot,” Larissa exclaimed.

“Well, as luck would have it, I can show you the plot today!”

The three paid the check and decided to ride together to the Reading Historic Cemetery, nearly two hours away.  Larissa fidgeted with excitement, and told Hank to be sure to bring some paper to write down the names of the persons surrounding the plot.  Hank fiddled with the car clock, trying to get the time precisely to the minute that it should be.

They arrived at the Cemetery and it was as majestic as Thomas’s photos portrayed.  Positioned just off of the historic down town district, the cemetery overlooked Reading Bend, with oak and sycamore trees shading the eternal resting spots of those surrounding them.  The family plots were decorated with a variety of tombstones – obelisks, mausoleums, statuary, and tombstones littered the landscape in a tapestry of gray and limestone that gave brilliant life to the tediously cared for grass and shrubbery surrounding the graves.  They pulled the car through to a plot just at the back of the cemetery near the old river bend where benches provided ample seating for mourners and visitors alike.

“This is just beautiful,” cried Larissa.  “I think this is it.”

“Well now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Thomas.  “You must see the plot itself.  The best is yet to come.”

“Truly a professional of the highest order,” Larissa said, admiring Thomas’s reserve.

“Here we are,” said Thomas, pulling up to an empty plot, marked by the freshly piled dirt on the ground before a rectangle outline.  “As you can see, your neighbors would be several persons from Long-River’s past, three of which are identified on the Long-River National Historic Grave Registry.”

“That means they get visitors often,” said Larissa to Hank, who’s attention was turned to the tall brick and stucco façade clock tower downtown, with its four cream and rust dripped faces that pointed east, west, north and south. “Oh I love these plots,” said Larissa.  “They are even near one of the oldest plots in the entire cemetery.  How much for these?”

“Well, you haven’t even tried it out.  Don’t you want to lay down in it to see if you’d be comfortable for all eternity?”

“You know you’re right.  I do plan to make this my final resting spot.  It sure better be comfortable,” Larissa said.  She kneeled down carefully, so to avoid her dress lifting inappropriately, and gently grabbed the side of the grave and lowered her legs down gently until she was hanging on the side.  Then with one umpf, she dropped the remaining foot and a half down to the bottom of the grave.  “Hmmm, this is roomier than I thought it would be, she said out loud.”

“You do have to remember its large enough for two of the finer, more elegant coffins,” said Thomas.

Larissa laid down folding her arms over her chest.  “Why this certainly feels right.  Hank.  Hank.  Come lay down next to me.  Come join me in our forever home.”

Hank was nowhere to be found.  He had wandered off, allured by the sounds and sights of the town square clock ringing in the distance.   “Thomas, Thomas, help me out Thomas!  I would like to talk to you and Hank about buying these plots.”

Thomas, looked down, his eyes unclear creating a look that masked the color and the comfort from a gentleman’s eyes.   “Don’t worry about coming out of there now, my dear.  Just stay comfortable for a while, we can talk from here.”

“Well, ok,” said Larissa, not seeing any other choice.  She thought as she moved from sitting, to laying down, to standing and looking up, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.  I mean this is the oldest trick in real estate.  You take the person to the home, you get them comfortable and then convince them there is no way other than for them to have this particular place to live.”  But then as she lay there, she thought, “Thomas wouldn’t do that though.  He is a gentleman and a professional!”  Thoughts continued to roll through Larissa’s head: “I cant believe I may have fallen prey to a realtor’s emotional ploylook at the beautiful sunset over the riverwhere is Hank for gracious-sake; I bet people will think we are related to that Colonel Brisby that we saw two graves over; it sure is getting dark now, and a bit cool, I should probably remember to be buried in something warm; where did Thomas go and where is Hank!” 

After a few hours of fluctuating about how grand her after-life would be in this three-by-six foot plot and vexing about how Hank could just wander off and leave her stuck in a grave, Larissa cried out: “Thomas, I think I am ready to sign off on this one.”  Thomas appeared again, as if from nowhere above her, wearing denim overalls and pulling a bottle from his hip pocket, and holding a shovel in his left hand.   “Wonderful news Larissa. This grave is yours now.  I just need a single payment of one digit.”

“Wonderful,” said Larissa. “If you help me out, I will certainly get Hank and we can pay you.”

“Oh, there is no need for that my dear.  We can take care of this transaction right now.  I just need you to cut off your ring finger.  I keep them as the promises I’ve made to my clients to tend their graves. And their promises to be good neighbors to each other.”

“My ring finger?” said Larissa. “With what am I supposed to do that with?  Not to mention, what am I supposed to do without a ring finger?”

“Oh, you don’t need a ring finger my dear.  That’s the most useless of all the fingers.  It’s only good for promises.  And what better promise is there than the one I am making now – that I will take care of you for all eternity.  Besides, all your neighbors have given up their ring fingers to me.  It’s our pledge to one another to take care of each other. Now my dear, if you would be so kind as to snip off that finger, we can finish this deal.”

“Well, this is absurd.  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Who are you?”

“I’m just a simple agent.  A proprietor of good will for the after-life.  Some say an attender of death. And here at Reading’s Historic Cemetery, I am the keeper of promises – but I assure you, I have many promises.  In fact I have over thirty promises I keep, measured long and stubby by the fingers I hold.”

Larissa saw Thomas’s eyes clearly for the first time and realized that the plot was becoming more and more hers as every minute went by.  She dipped her head and asked up to Thomas “Can’t we bargain about this?”  But her voice, betraying her, anticipated Thomas’ reply: “What’s left to bargain for my dear.  Why, I think we have taken all of the normal preliminaries.  Did I miss something?”  Larissa, having never sold a cemetery plot couldn’t think of anything.  “No, I suppose that we did cover everything.”  What was more, Thomas’ sincerity of tone suggested that the transaction concluded exactly the way he intended. And while she wondered about his choice of payments, a feeling of admiration came over her.  “He is the utmost professional in his dealings,” she thought.  “No emotion, fear!”  

Taking the knife Thomas tossed to her deep in the grave, she began to saw off her finger, crossing between the agony of losing something she always had, the pain of the metal crossing flesh and bone, and thinking this surely was the most bizarre transaction she’d ever done.  But then she also remembered that several times she would tell her clients that good blood sometimes cost a few digits.  Of course, she was talking about houses, neighbors and dollars.  She never imagined she might be paying her own digit to reside near good blood.

Finished with her finger cutting, Larissa tossed the finger and the knife up to Thomas who said, after taking another drink, “it sure was a pleasure doing business with you.”  Then he said to her, “if you will most kindly lay down and hold these daisies,” and Thomas tossed her the daisy bouquet he had handed her hours before.

“Well that’s absurd.  Of course when I go, I won’t be holding daisies in the after-life, such a common flower its practically a weed.  I’ll be holding lilies like the Lillie of the valley. Besides” Larissa said, “we just finished the deal. Help me out of here!”

“Not just yet,” said Thomas.  “We need a final measurement to ensure the coverage is adequate. Now if you please just remain very still.” Larissa laid back down holding the daisies over her chest, thinking to herself: this is just so distasteful — pretending to be buried with a flower so unrepresentative of who I am.  Really!” And Thomas began burying Larissa. As the dirt thumpf’d upon Larissa’s chest and covered her light blue dress, Larissa caught a few glimpses of the shiny shovel spade against the white moon, until her body, stained with blood from her hand and holding the daisies over her chest was completely covered with six feet of dirt.  As she laid there, she thought about “how unprofessional to mock a burial with flowers that were so unbecoming.”

As Hank wondered back to the cemetery, having lost all track of time, he looked in vain for where he thought he left Larissa and Thomas. Instead, all he found were an elderly African-American couple, who looked familiar, as if they’d had tea with him sometime before. The couple stood a few gravesites over laying flowers on a grave of two people long passed. Grasping eight fingers interlocked together, the couple silently wept. Hank walked behind them in the distance and looked down at the gravestone marking the final resting place of Alice and Randall Stowe. In the distance, Hank saw a man in coveralls toting a silver shovel and tending the various gravesites around. As Hank wondered away, calling for Larissa and wondering why she would leave him here, he ignored a greyish head stone underfoot that read “Here lies Larissa Sparks, She Promised to be a good Neighbor.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Books as of 2016 and Ten Books to Read this year Reply


Top Ten plus some hangers on

Top Ten plus some hangers on

Everyone is doing top ten lists.  This the season, I suppose.   But reading over Neil Patrick Harris’s list in the New York times made me think what are my favorites. And how often does that list change.  For me, there was no change from 2015.  That’s not to say I didn’t read some very good books.  Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises came close as did the Flannery O’Connor collection of short stories (while many of her stories would make my all time favorite short stories list, the collection falls just short). Robert Penn Warren’s Democracy and Poetry (which I reread this year) also ranks in the upper echelons but its more a collection of essays than book per se.  Perhaps I need time to marinate on them and my affinity to categories.  But so far, as of this post, nothing I read in 2015 cracked my all time list.  So that said, I am going to list my top ten books of all time here and then list ten books I plan to read for this coming year, some for the second time.

Top ten favorite books:

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

Barbara Kingsolver The Poisenwood Bible

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale

Fydor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Fydor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Louis Menard, The Metaphysical Club

Kazoo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Saint Augustine, The Confessions

Jean Paul Sartre, The Words

Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Ten Books to Read

Homer’s, The Odyssey*

James Joyce, Ulysses

Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

Richard Ellman, Yeats: The Man and the Masks

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle*

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces*

Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities*

Theresa of Avilla, The Interior Castle

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal

* indicates that I have read these before (perhaps they will make the all-time cut in 2016). 

What books make your top ten list and what are you planning to read in 2016?

Telling Stories of being human Reply


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Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the whaling ship the Essex is complex. Its complex in the sense that modern historical narrative is complex — filled-in with more details about the details than the narrative itself.  Maybe that in itself should tell us something.  Perhaps there is substance beyond the surface of the story that calls us to the whale ship’s story some 190 years later. The whale ship essex is about far more than survival.  Its the story about being human in an age where humanness was defined by sharp boundaries. Those boundaries included the color of one’s skin, the identity of one’s religion, and the status one held in community.  All of these and much more emerge in Philbrick’s telling of the Essex.

The overall narrative is fairly straight forward.  The whaling ship Essex set out from Nantucket Massachusetts with a cast of characters fit for a shakespearean play.  There was the youngish 28 year old Captain at his first command who isn’t as sure of himself as his position might demand. At his side was his ambitious first mate who comes off more nautical book-smart than sea-smart; he also seems more fortuitous whether by destiny or sheer force of will, thus making his name — Owen Chase — a name that seems right at home.  Also on board was the young cabin boy Nickerson who’s memory plays a vital role in Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex, but who otherwise is rather inconsequential to the ship’s fate.  There are the dumbshows that emerge from time to time, whether they are the Captain’s cousin or the three shipwrecked sailors that remain on a deserted island.  And there is of course, the whale that delivers fatal blows to the whale ship, setting her crew loose on the high seas in three small whale boats and few supplies.  If you watched the trailer to the movie based on Philbrick’s book, one might come away with the impression that the whale is the main character of the story.  While the whale is certainly the antagonist that sets the Essex’s crew adrift in smaller whale boats to peril the open waters, Philbrick’s story is at core a human story.  Its the story of a crew that suffers being separated, finding land that lacked significant water and food, and cannibalism — an eventuality of survival  where so many shipwrecked persons tend to turn.

Much has been made of the connections between the Whaleship Essex and  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Indeed, much has been written of late by numerous writers, including the Smithsonian Magazine, this review in the Telegraph, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s discussion of whether Moby Dick was a real whale.  To this end, Philbrick’s history is like all the others — connecting a writing that is so American to its context and creating a greater appreciation of Melville’s layers of complexity in Ahab’s pursuit.  As Philbrick suggests, perhaps the Ambitious Owen Chase’s single-minded pursuit was to bring the whale that did in the essex to justice after obtaining his own command.

But as I said before — Philbrick’s work is not about a whale, but rather about the Humans after the Whale.   What may be more interesting is the way men live after coming to the brink of living as non-men.  The tale is certainly not unique.  Edgar Allan Poe placed this question at core of his only novel The Narrative of Authur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, describing the anguish which four shipwrecked sailors consider the possibility of cannibalism.  Yann Martel described the story telling capacity of humans to explain cannibalism. And court cases that have dealt with the legalities of the act have considered how legal structures deal with those accused.  It is in this tradition, more than any other, that Philbrick’s work should be considered.  Indeed, there are other books and works on whaling in the nineteenth century.   But to explain how humans return from being non-human, Philbrick endeavors to live where very few have endeavored to exist.

In Poe’s The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s cannibalism story is quite small.  After the crew of his unlucky vessel are shipwrecked and survivors are cast in boats, the Pym and his ship mates running low on food and water begin to wonder whether they should look to each other.  The narrator’s initial instinct is to reject the possibility.

“I had for some time past, dwelt upon the prospect of our being reduced to this last horrible extremity, and had secretly made up my mind to suffer death in any shape, or under any circumstances rather than resort to such a course.  Nor was this resolution weakened by the present intensity of hunger under which I belabored.”

The narrator makes plain that his plan was to avoid resorting to this type level of survival no matter the pain.  Yet, its the urging of his comrades that brings him into the fold of those that would cast lots for who survived and eat the unlucky sailor.  The sailor wants to make plain — its the act of the community that causes this action, not the act of the individual.  Thus, at first forced to participate, and then convinced to acquiesce to this type of plan.  Yet, when time comes to satisfy the hunger and thirst through the fallen man, our narrator says little.

He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead.  I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality.  Let it suffice to say that, having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim, and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet and head, throwing them together with the entrails, into the sea, we devoured the rest of the body piecemeal, during the four ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth,and twentieth of the month.

Perhaps this is not so unusual.   I have said in other places that the most human thing we do is tell stories to one another.  Our stories and culture elevate humans above other creatures of the earth because through hem we create a collective memory — a memory that is moral, moving and rational.  Its not surprising that Poe’s narrative would spend more time discussing the decision of whether and how to go about this act, where rationality and morals remain in one’s grasp.  But after the decision is made, there is little to say, save the few strands of redemption that one might cling to, such as removing the markers of humanness from the victim’s body. The sailors of the Essex when they engaged in cannibalistic acts also detached the heads, hands and feet of their comrades so as to separate the humanness that once was, from the sustenance that remains.  But to talk about it  — to tell stories about what happened — that most human of activities — perhaps reveals the inhuman act that took place.  Perhaps some things can’t be retold.

Captain Pollard of the Essex seems to have the opposite approach.  According to Philbrick, Pollard tells what happened in detail, as if reaching beyond the grave to recapture some aspect of humanness — from either himself or his fallen sailors.  These questions are not unique.  Poe wrestled with these questions in the context of a shipping culture and suggests like in his other works that morals and choices do not require delving into a moral oblivion — they are far more simple. You are human or you are not, and when you’re not, then why should we expect you to act like a human — like telling stories.

The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket like the Essex conjures other real life events.  In a manner that only Poe is able to achieve, there is mysticism, mystery and a strange convolution of time, since the events that are most related to Poe’s narrative take place nearly 60 years after the novel was published.  (I’m not joking).  Its not just the tale of cannibalism (apparently a not so uncommon occurrence for shipwrecked persons on the high seas) or the means in which it occurs (casting lots was also not so uncommon) but rather the name Richard Parker who in both Poe’s novel and in the case R. v. Dudley and Stephens, is the loser of the lots and confined to death and a cannibalistic faith.

Many rationales are given in the Dudley and Stephens case, including that the act was inconsequential (the boy would have died soon anyway); necessity (that not doing so would have doomed the others); futility (that there was no prospect of hope or survival anyway, so, in other words, why not). But non of these questions answer the question that Poe and Martel are seemingly trying to understand — if so, then what can we say about ourselves.  For Poe, the answer seems to be nothing.  For the courts, the answer is in its utility or lack there of.

There is another voice.  Yann Martel asks the question in the context of a more complicated culture, where humanness can be described through different stories with different strands.  Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, another story about a shipwreck where the main protagonist is confined to a cannibalistic route for survival, forces us to consider the role of humanness and story telling in a far more straight forward manner. But unlike the Essex, or Poe’s Narrative of Author Gordon Pym, Martel talks at length about being eaten — the fear, the observation, and the ultimate act.  Except that in Martel’s novel, the cannibalism is disguised in allegory and allusion, where those that cannibalize and those that are cannibalized are reimagined as animals.  When pressed to explain how the narrative with the animals may be true, the protagonist tells a different story with his family and some crew in boats and one by one being subjected to cannibalism. Then the boy asks his interrogators:

“Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without?”

Like Captain Pollard of the Essex, Martel’s protagonist recognizes that to be human is to explain.   But even in explanation, unlike Pollard, Martel’s protagonist struggles to bring the narrative actually alive.   But perhaps what Martel’s protagonist suggests is that there is more than one way to tell the story of being human.   Certainly the protagonist’s background as someone that had dabbled in the religious beliefs of Christianity, Hindu, and Islam, affirming his belief in all three suggests his willingness to find humanness is multiple stories.

Humans ability or inability to tell tales of inhuman things reaffirms the ways in which we do continue to reflect a moral understanding of humanness in our culture.  Perhaps its not the stories we tell that shape the parameters of human culture, but rather the stories we don’t tell.

My Christmas Story Reply


I decided to write a Christmas Story for my daughter this Christmas.   I hope you enjoy it as well. Merry Christmas to all.

The Christmas Tree

We lived in a brown tudor house at the end of Northwood drive.  We celebrated Christmas there every year generally the same way.  On December 15th, the family would pile into the Army-Green Pontiac Sedan — three boys in the back, aged evenly apart between 13 and 17, and me aged 4, to buy the family christmas tree.   My father only bought from the local Lions club — specifically from the Lions club across from the Piccadilly on Forsythe Avenue, not the Lions Club that set up in the local baptist church parking lot, even though it was probably about ten miles closer and 45 minutes with less hollering, crying, and other mischief that happened when three boys aged thirteen to seventeen and a four year old piled in the back of a Pontiac.  But December 15 was the crucial day — if you bought the tree before the fifteenth then the tree would inevitably die (probably because no one could be trusted to keep it watered) and after the fifteenth then there wouldn’t be any good ones left.

We rode to the Lion’s club tree lot on Forsythe, and passed plastic lighted manger scenes, houses with large tear-shaped lights that were colored and magical, and one house that had a raised balcony where the owners had positioned a lighted sleigh and nine reindeer, the first with a bright red nose shining in the dark.   “I see him,”  I remember saying as we turned the corner and the lighted sleigh could be seen.  Every year the Santa sleigh house announced the time to buy our tree like a prophet proclaiming that this year everything would remain the same.  “He’s not real you know,” the thirteen year old said caustically from the middle seat, earning a quick as lighting flash-slap across the cheek bones from my mother followed immediately by a finger held firm in posit1ion exactly two inches from his nose and a look that said in so many words, “Don’t you dare!” and causing a quick retort  in fearful quivering “I meant the plastic one — that’s not the real Santa Claus.”

I didn’t care.   As the youngest bother by nine years, it was rare that I got a window seat in car rides.   I was lucky to get a seat at all frankly, sometimes being consigned to the arm rest between my parents or the bottom floor board at my brother’s feet.  Christmas was a time to soak in the sights and sounds that the rest of the year were deprived of.

We arrived at the Piccadilly and went through the cafeteria line — getting jello and fried chicken and macaroni and a coke at the end of the rail.   My mom would implore me to get some green beans but my father would remind her that it was Christmas and Macaroni was fine. We ate quickly bypassing desert — jello is a salad at the Piccadilly — and crashed out of the door towards the tree lot.  Clinging to my mothers faux-fox jacket and following my father’s march while the other three boys picked up fallen branches from the pathway swatting each other between momentary glances by my mother to make sure all order was right.   Branches would be swished behind their backs or along their sides as my mother would say optimistically “do not swing those branches – you’re going to hurt someone.”  I, looking around from the faux-fox coat, between sequined stockinged legs, watched as branches flew in a chorus across the three bother’s faces and then moved into a resting position as we turned corners bringing mom and dad’s peripheral vision into view.

Father negotiated with the tree seller for about five minutes, looking at a few different trees.   The seller was a slightly over-weight man, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt with the legs tucked into a pair of work boots.   They settled on a tree at the back of the lot paying $32.50 for a 10 foot spruce with flocking, stand, loading and ropes.   The tree seller grabbed the tree like he was a Paul Bunyan and this tree was his last cut of the season.   He threw the tree on a work table made of plywood and saw horses grabbed a chain saw lying nearby.  After two pulls to prime the saw, he fired it up, and held it to the side walking to the tree.   The chain saw was the first instance that the three older brothers attention was peeked.  The second bother moved close at hand and asked the seller if he could give it a try.   My mother jerked him by the shirt collar back and said “not if you want to see Christmas this year you won’t.”   The seller laughed, letting a bit of chewing tobacco escape from his yellow mouthed teeth and turned back to the tree and made a “fresh cut.”  Then he nailed on a wooden “T” with a eight inch spike coming from the top.  Three whacks with a  hammer and a jerk from the middle and the tree was then standing upright on its own.  The sales man then grabbed the tree and drug it over to a tented area.

“What kind of flocking you want on this tree — we got baby blue, white, and pink.”  Mom’s eyes lit up when he said pink, looking at my father hopefully.

“White will be fine,” my father said and my mother was fine with that.  After all who has ever heard of pink snow, or baby-blue snow for that matter.   Christmas was a time for truth and pink snow on a tree was certainly not true.   After-all, it never snowed in the part of Louisiana we lived in so the white-flocked snow christmas tree was as close as we would see a white Christmas.  When he finished, he dropped a larger clear plastic wrap over the tree and drug it to the Pontiac.  With a big hurl he threw the tree on the roof, giving the pontiac a distinct army tank appearance carrying a white Pershing missile on top.  He opened all four doors to tie down the tree to the roof.  We piled in and rode home with the tree, along the way the thirteen year old popping the ropes on the ceiling of the car like a rubber band, and my father in his terse voice saying don’t pop the ropes that hold the tree.  I sat in my window seat watching the lights as we crossed over the river reflecting from the other side — trees, houses, Santa Clauses, manger scenes danced along the river like an orchestrated ballet moving us closer and closer to the time when the Pershing missile on the roof would be be our Christmas tree.

The tree unloaded and the three older boys along with my father began to carry the tree into the house.    The ten foot spruce had the girth of what you imagined a large opera singer to look like.  My father measured and gesticulated at the door for several minutes thinking of the best way to bring the tree into the house.   My mother from the house hollered out “let’s put it in the formal living and dining room — the white tree and my white carpet will be beautiful.”  After studying the problem, my father called out to his helpers — “ok boys, let’s lift it up….  wait, wait, don’t walk in yet… ok bring your end around so… ok hold… you two — walk about three feet towards me…. ok thats good….

“Come on Dad, let’s go already.   This thing is heavy.”

“Hush.  Ok carry your end into the house and walk straight towards the hall way…. hold! hold! stop!  that’s far enough…. ok Y’all turn the stand end around towards me … good good… now all together Innnnnn.

“You boys take off your shoes before you walk that into the formal living area,” mom pleaded as they walked in the door.

“We are holding a ten foot Christmas tree mom!”

“I don’t care what your holding, you take your shoes off before you walk into the formal living area.  That’s white carpet!”

“Mom!  I can’t take off my shoes”  I’m going to drop this tree!”

“Don’t you drop that tree,” my father said from the foyer.

“Here… I’ll untie your shoes for you….”  And mom crawled under the ten-foot tree to each of the boys legs and untied their shoes and grabbed them off their feet moving them out of the way.  The boys then lunged the tree into the formal living area and set it up in the window.

Dad, then went up into the attic and grabbed six brown and bruised boxes, with metal strips where the boxes closed and green twine that held the lids together.  Inside were ornaments that were collected through the years wrapped in paper towels and newspapers.   There was the Mr. and Mrs. Claus ornament lying asleep in bed and Mrs. Claus skiing, and a wooden white frosty the snowman in a sleigh, and a little toy soldier with paint that wore off.  And of course there was the nativity ornaments with three wise men in purple, blue and pink dress, an angel, and the baby Jesus in a manger.   The lights were big tear drop shaped and colorful and wrapped around the tree carefully through wires that were stretched from years of use.  After all the ornaments were placed on the tree and the lights were strung, we threw silver tinsel, that my mom called icicles and strewn in a way that looked natural and organic — at least as organic as a tree with colored lights, white flocking, plastic trinkets and silver strands of shiny paper can look.  But underneath, the real live christmas tree was there, even if covered up.

Over the next few weeks, presents would grow under the tree as Christmas day approached.  Christmas morning we all slept restlessly as we waited for the signal from mom and dad telling us that we could come in the room.  They liked to get up before everyone to take pictures of what Santa had left us all but the truth is that we were always awake long before they started taking pictures.  That morning, the second and third bother would find dueling Dallas Cowboy and Pittsburg Steeler bathrobes, which would begin one of many fights from across the room.  One brother gave the other a baby doll, which sent the second youngest into tears. One of the brothers got a bright red punching bag. I found an electric racetrack and a castle Greyskull set that only Santa knew I wanted.   After the turmoil of opening the presents, we would all get dressed and pile into the Pontiac for Christmas at my grandmothers house, which included a piñata of candy — which was really a pillow case full of candy that one of my Uncles held on a ladder and dropped ceremoniously for all the cousins to scavenge.

That night we would return to the house and sit in the formal living room for only the third time that year looking at the tree that was now bare underneath.   In a few days, the white flocking would begin to fall to the white carpet with brown needles sprinkled around the tree’s perimeter and we would drag the tree to the curb, less careful for how it went out than how it went in.  A few weeks after that we would have a massive snow fall — the only snowfall I remember from my Childhood and a rare one for North Louisiana— and a few months after that we would move from the brown tudor home at the end of Northwood drive to a new town where I spent the rest of my childhood.   That was the last year we bought a live tree.

 

 

What Robert Penn Warren Might Say about Go Set a Watchman Reply


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Earlier this month, I joined several other posters at the Faculty Lounge providing thoughts on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  I commend the whole series to you but in case you are interested in what RPW might have said, I have reposted that entry here.  Enjoy!

I’ve always thought Harper Lee’s themes and styles in To Kill a Mockingbirdclosely resembled some of Robert Penn Warren’s themes relating to the South. Namely, as I have written in other places, in early to mid-20th century Southern Literature, black people are often passive persons where things happen to them (notably horribly bad things), and that the response to those things is what makes us believe the characters to be either progressive or non-progressive.   Likewise, in both Warren and Lee’s narratives, the place becomes a character itself.  Both the South and the specific places in the South are alive in both writers’ prose.

That place-centric identity can be characterized as what I have called in other places a form of Southern Exceptionalism. If the American experience is explained by exceptional qualities, then the Southern Experience may be described by a different reference to the past: “defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems.”  The south eagerly adopted the idea of American exceptionalism for itself, believing the society to be set apart, unique, and validated by moral superiority.  But as eminent southern historian C. Vann  Woodward’s The Search for Southern Identity argues, time proved that the real southern experience was characterized by “grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt.”  Sheldon Hackney has argued that Southerners have had to define themselves in opposition to a presumed American norm.  Similarly, Orville Burton contends that the Southerner remains an “other” or “stranger” in the American narrative. For our purposes, Robert Penn Warren embraced the idea that Southerners found themselves looking backward more than forward so to speak – consistently defining themselves, their environment, and their identity against the backdrop of how the exceptional failed in its promise, and the fact that the war was not won.  This is revealed in Warren’s life experience and works. We see similar themes in Lee’s Mockingbird and now Watchman.  

In To Kill a Mockingbird, we tend to resonate towards Atticus because he appears progressive against the backdrop of a non-progressive place and non-progressive people.   The questioning of Bob and Mayella Ewell along with the epic scene where Atticus stands guard over Tom Robinson as a gang of citizens seek to take justice out of the hands of the law gives Atticus the distinctive impression as one of the forward thinking citizens of Maycomb. The reality is that Atticus only appears heroic because the setting and people in it seem to be the opposite. Like Atticus in Mockingbird, Robert Penn Warren’s views of Southern racial politics might appear progressive when compared to other Southern writers at the time.

Warren’s earliest work on the race problem in the South was an essay titled the Briar Patch, which appeared in a collection of essays by 12 Southern Writers titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.  Amongst the essays, Warren appears to be more progressive along side his contemporaries because he can envision a world where segregation does not exist, but rather where Black and White persons might exist in a mutually beneficial society.  He describes the race problem as one stemming from unnatural animosity between black persons and poor whites and engages various thoughts whether the problem was one of market access or political equivalency.   Notably, many of the other writers specifically chided Warren’s views in their essays, believing Warren’s approach to be contrary to the aim of the book’s overall purpose.

Still early Warren may have only appeared progressive.  His views in Briar Patch may be quaintly described as hopefully dismissive – suggesting that the race problem in the South was primarily one of common respect, which would not be resolved by a plan of forced desegregation.   This view seems very similar to Atticus’s views in To Set a Watchman where the natural course of events will take care of themselves.  Like Warren, it seems easy to call Atticus comparatively progressive, especially when set against the backdrop of Maycomb.   And yet, To Set a Watchman leaves us unsatisfied because the former hero of Mockingbirdturns out to be not nearly as progressive as we previously thought him to be.

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I think that Warren would greatly relate to both Atticus Finches — the one that appears heroic in Mockingbird and the one that appears less-than-heroic in Watchman.  Warren observed that his view of race was primarily informed by his image of south.  He said “The image of the south I carried in my head was one of massive immobility in all ways, in both its virtues and vices – it was an image of the unchangeable human condition, beautiful, sad, tragic.” Despite changing his views on segregation, one aspect of Warren’s perception of the race problem did not change – its source.  Warren still believed that much of the angst against African Americans stemmed from poor whites that were afraid that Black Mobility meant diminished economic opportunity for white folks.  Warren saw this challenge as one that led to increased violence by poorer white persons who felt isolated by their wealthy white counterparts and black workers looking to obtain a foothold.  Thus Warren wrote in the Briar Patch, “What the white workman must learn… is that he may respect himself as a white man, but if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.” 

     These views of respect as a foundation for the race problem in the South did not change.   In his book titled Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, Warren interviews black and white people around the South in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Warren describes this mutual respect not as a market problem (as he did in Briar Patch), but as a moral problem. In a other work titled Who Speaks for the Negro, Warren most directly states his regret for his earlier work Briar Patch, stating he did not realize its racist and seperationist overtones.

If we are comparing the nature of Watchman, we have to point out that Warren’s hypothesis seems a bit myopic.  One of the most interesting tensions in the book is Calpurnia’s supposed transition from loyal worker to disaffiliated and individualized person.  If the Finch’s were the non-white trash as Hank explains to Jean Louise, then labor and race relations were equally at their doorstep even though they may have been caught unawares.  Still, the narrative told through the eyes of Southern Whiteness tells of Calpurnia’s leaving as response rather than individual choice.

 In Warren’s South – there is always a conflict that is prevalent in how choices are made.  This conflict is prevalent in a number of similarities that unfold in the writing of both Lee and Warren.  In both writers’ works, the South and specific places in the South are characters with views that influence how individuals respond.  What Warren might say about Watchman is that Watchman’s Atticus represents one whose views were shaped only by that unique place Maycomb.  I believe Warren would accept the Atticus of Watchman as most believable while wondering how the Atticus of Mockingbird comes about

 

When King’s Die Reply


Legal fictions abound with contradictions that we all too often overlook.  As law is engaged in a project of narrative-making. Fictions fill gaps between otherwise irreconcilable doctrine and reality.  The best of those fictions will operate subconsciously, as if the law gives effect to the falsehood and animates its life.  But when the fiction is vulnerable to reality — when the law fails to prop up the fictional undertone — then the law becomes vulnerable to attack.  Justice Stevens wrote in a 2014 Law Review that historical myths play a greater role in Supreme Court adjudication than we sometimes recognize, and that sometimes, the court itself is responsible for those myths. (See his excellent essay Glittering Generalities and Historical Myths in the Louisville Law Review).

In Retelling English Sovereignty, I venture to consider how the fiction of Sovereign Immunity  came to the United States — its underlying narratives that animate its life.  From bad kings to incompetent kings, Retelling English Soveregnty traces the doctrine through the concept of the KIng’s two bodies, a mystical understanding of the monarchy’s dualism.  This legal fiction was propped up by other fictions, such as the Corporation Sole, where a collective enterprise was represented by one person as representative of other persons across ages.  See e.g., The Monarchy, Parsons, and the Chamberlain of London.  The article traces legal, political and theological thought across early british writers, including Lord Coke, William Shakespeare, F.W. Maitland, John Locke, Blackstone, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Hobbes, Adrian Fortescue, and many more.  It also contextualizes the theology of kingship and the political harmony of revolt, particularly in the narratives of the seventeenth century that gave rise to the regicide of Charles I and the Glorious Revolution.

In this space, I would point to some of the literary moments of the article.  Two I think are of relevance — the contrast of how Shakespeare sees the myth of king-making in good kings, such as Henry V and the irony of the double king, with that of bad kinds, such as Richard II.  Shakespeare’s work on Henry the V provides not only the prose recognition of the duality of the kingship, but the literal physical duality as the king walks about his men in disguise.  During dialogue with his men about whether the king will ransom himself or not, while in disguise, the king suggests that he would challenge the men to a duel to show that the king will be faithful to his word to not be ransomed should he be captured.   In this scene, we see that the king has the luxury of living outside of time that his men don’t have.   While his men may certainly die, and never know the outcome of whether the king indeed ransomed himself, the king himself has the luxury of being twin burned to greatness — subject to the vulnerabilities of an imbecile, while subject to it across time.

Likewise, Shakespeares discussion of Richard II poses a monarch that is not only subject to the imbecility, but who finds himself at odds with the character of a king.   Yet, as Shakespeare’s prose suggests, the blemish’d crown may be redeemed from pawn.  Its time that serves the redemption for the monarchy.   And time that distinguishes the monarchy from other men — its ability to live on without consequence of the actions of one man who holds the crown, while preserving the dignity of the ages.

What Role Law and Literature Should Play in a Law School Reply


The following is cross-posted at Concurring Opinions.

Some may ask what role should liberal arts style courses play in law school where we are increasingly focused on bar exams and practice ready skills. But it may take me a while to unravel that answer with the gusto and the framing it deserves. I think anyone that regularly teaches Law and Literature has been asked some variant of this question. The course doesn’t have the safe luxury of “well its on the bar exam,” or even the more sardonic return of “well, but of course it underlies much of legal thought and practice.” See, e.g., Law and Econ, Law and Social Theory, and Legal History.

Let me make a bold proclamation. The law and literature course, perhaps more than any other, asks students to wrestle with their subjective views of the law. It’s interesting, in a course that deals with Constitutional Law, for example, there is the finality of how the court approached the problem (whether we agree with the outcome or not). In Law and Literature on the other hand, the course encompasses the views of the professor, the authors, and their fellow students as they encounter these views. Sometimes worlds are created in which those concrete legal frameworks are disembodied (See, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Sometimes, the fictional worlds embrace the world as we know it, and offer stunning critique to its foundation (See, e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). That’s not to say that other courses, (take a UCC course), is not rife with highly charged emotional queries (notwithstanding my critique, my explanation for whether the disposition of collateral equates to proceeds is a highly charged event!). It is saying that in a time where the ABA is prompting law schools to create standards that push the law school experience towards so-called objective standards of evaluation (see revision of section 302 in the ABA standards), the role of encountering, critiquing, explaining, and understanding different subjective understandings of the law is critical. We should not be afraid to encounter nor express our subjective views in the context of critical dialogue.

My view is that Law and Literature is a course that offers students not only the opportunity to understand themselves better but to learn to dialogue about the subjective views of law. A few years ago, Yale Law School offered a course titled “The Book of Job and Suffering.” Unfortunately, at many law schools such a class would never be taught for fear that the subject strayed too far from what law schools are suppose to do — at least not under that title. However such a course is precisely the kind of law and literature course we should be teaching. Isolating the critical component that suffering may play in the narrative for law students, I imagine, was a powerful experience for those students and the professor. Powerful because they all have suffered something, I’m sure, though undoubtedly it was uneven. Students learn to dialogue about themselves and the text in a group where each other’s respective experiences help frame and isolate the way the text moved within the group. At one and the same time, students in a law and literature class learn about themselves, as members of a group, a class and as an individual. This is the idea of Law and Literature that James Boyd White framed so well — the engagement of the reader with the text forcing the reader to accept or not accept the writer’s framed world. [Perhaps Boyd’s best framing of this encounter is his book This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, in which Boyd wrestles with the text as reader primarily].

This role of teaching students about themselves is critical if not necessary to shaping who they are as counselors and advocates for their clients. Of course they are things we should care about as shaping lawyers. But should we have to isolate them into an ABA objective or standard. In a way, it cheapens the process to do so.

I fear that courses like Law and Literature, in which students engage in thoughtful discourse, may find themselves replaced with others that fail to live up to the promise of helping students understand themselves in a legal environment and instead only focus on the particulars of interacting in the legal environment. There is nothing wrong with a movement in legal education that attempts to focus institutional resources to critically examine whether the law school is best preparing students for the modern legal environment. But, that doesn’t mean that our students [or our faculty] are better off without having the dialogues and communities that law and literature help promote and shape in the law school environment.

Why We Should Still Read Ender’s Game in Spite of Orson Scott Card — Part II 1


Special Appearance by Zach Powers


SEER SUCKER PERFORMANCE

This is the second post the Literary Table presents by Zach Powers from SeerSucker Live discussing Orson Scott Card and his work Ender’s Game as a reflection of and distinctive from his identity. You can find his first post here  Like their Facebook page to stay up to date on performances here in Savannah and abroad.  (Because everything outside of Savannah is just abroad!). 

Zach is a writer that lives in Savannah, and his work has appeared in South Magazine, the Savannah Morning News, and other publications.   Welcome back Zach!

’m not so naïve to believe that a creative work is completely separate from its creator, but the disheartening fact is that even a jerk can create something full of humanity and compassion. The problem becomes more tangible when an author is still living, when it seems that to purchase a book is to put money directly into the pocket of a person with whom you strongly disagree.

But here’s the thing with Ender’s Game. There is absolutely none of Card’s hate within it. In fact, one of the main themes is empathy.

“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the same way they love themselves.”

So speaks our hero, Ender. I’ve carried that sentence with me for twenty years. It might be the very sentence that allows me now to stand in opposition to the opinions Card espouses.

The novel’s other themes include isolation, ostracization, and innocence, and all are handled with admirable compassion. Ender must learn, at once, to make friends and also fend for himself. He must face down personal demons while learning to accept them. He must battle against those who seek to define his existence. He must, above all else, prevail.

Ender is a creature of almost pure empathy, of crystalline understanding. Through this character, Ender’s Game explores and teaches a philosophy directly opposed to the arguments Card makes against LGBT rights. The young author argues against his older, commentator self.

My argument is this: The potential benefits from reading this book, especially for a teenaged audience, greatly outweigh the negative effects of indirectly supporting Card in his reactionary mission. For a young adult dealing with an emerging LGBT identity or any similar struggle, this would be one of the first novels I’d recommend. It shows how to face hatred, not just from the outside, but self-hatred as well. It teaches that being different is a source of strength.

What’s the broader benefit of depriving Card of a few more dollars? His rants reach only the choir, and nobody outside of that choir is giving his arguments weight. Buying a copy of the novel will not increase his stature. Renting the movie of the book will not elevate Card to the level of Ender’s would-be emperor brother, Peter. I picture Card shouting down one of the long, curving corridors of the Battle School, his voice echoing back only to his own ears. Eventually, he’ll shout himself out.

The book, however, will endure for people like me. Twenty years, thirty readings later. How many times have I invoked that one phrase, “love them the same way they love themselves,” instead of rushing to judge someone? So I won’t judge Card now. There are enough people doing that already, rightfully so.

I refuse to boycott a book that can mean something real to someone in need of that reality. Card’s book is better than he is, and it would be a shame to silence a great work in a futile attempt to shut him up as well. There is more good to be found in the book than any evil Card can actually enact, even if he pleads for such evil with all his strength.

If my approach still doesn’t sit well with you, let me offer a final compromise. After I saw the Ender’s Game movie, I donated twice the ticket price to the It Gets Better Project. That will provide significantly more for a good cause than any pennies Card might receive to indirectly fund his fringe ramblings. I prefer positive action to acts of negation.

The movie opens with a quote from the novel, a line that Ender speaks just before the one I quoted above:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that moment I also love him.”

When it comes to the issue of love, Orson Scott Card is my enemy. I have a hard time understanding him, though. I suspect that’s OK. He probably wouldn’t react well to a profession of love coming from another man, anyway.

If you want to hit Card where it hurts, share his book, and let it teach a new generation to accept and love all people in a way that Card himself can’t.

 

Zach can be contacted via his website http://www.zachpowers.com.  For the latest news and writings, follow his twitter feed @z_powers. 

 

 

Warren’s Exceptionalism in Flood1 Reply


Part IV of Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism

Over the next few days I am posting a paper I delivered at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City last week.   Today, I will wrap up these posts by considering exceptionalism in Warren’s novel Flood: A Romance of our time. 

Warren’s Irony of Loneliness 

Flood’s deeper meaning towards the South has been described in a number of ways: “representative of an obliteration of a relatively homogeneous way of life;” “the microcosmic death of Southern Rural culture;” as a narrative in contrast to the “rootless urbanites continuing desire for a tangible history.”[1]  But Flood represents best a tale of people coming to a “new awareness of the past while accepting a personal responsibility for the present.”  Two physical places mark where this activity happens in the Town of Fiddlersburg – the graveyard, where residents go about disinterring their loved ones (or not) before the flood waters rise; and the penitentiary, which remains outside the flood’s reach.  In both of these places, the vision of Fiddlersburg becomes clearer by understanding certain aspects of southern exceptionalism.

      The graveyard scenes in the novel are primarily premised on Brad Toliver looking for Izzie Goldburg’s grave, so he can eventually disinter his old friend’s remains.  Izzie Goldburg, was remembered fondly by Toliver as

The little tailor – the only Jew in Fiddlersburg, live one I mean, when I was a boy.  He taught me to play chess and never let me win He would look at a sunset or at a man  or a dog in the same way, a way that made the thing seem real.  He was not Fiddlersburg, but he made Fiddlersburg real.

Izzie, like Toliver, was an outsider to Fiddlersburg.  But also like Brad, saw Fiddlersburg as the only place he could be.

      Similarly, the Penitentiary is described by the common Warren referent as being lonesome.  The Warden of the penitentiary says that the reason people end up in the Pen is lonesomeness – “some folks are born lonesome and they can’t stand the lonesomeness out there. It is lonesome in here maybe, but it ain’t as lonesome when you are with folks that knows they are as lonesome as you are.”   Then the Warden describes the punishment of solitary confinement:

“Ever see a man come out of Solitary?  Sometimes, it is like they wanted to lay their head in your lap and cry.  They are so grateful to see you.  Solitary – you can’t run a prison without it. It is the last lonesomeness. It is the kind of lonesomeness man can’t stand, for he can’t stand just being himself.   (Flood 156)

Warren then brings both the graveyard and the penitentiary  (and Izzie and Fiddlersburg) more together more directly in a later scene where Brad Toliver returns to look for Izzie again.   Again ruminating on Izzie, Toliver remarks that Izzie was “alone but not lonesome,” he was “Fiddlersburg and at the same time he was not Fiddlersburg.  He was non-Fiddlersburg and he was anti-Fiddlersburg.”  Then Brad contemplates:

Hell your Philosopher friend [the Warden] was right.  It is the lonesomeness.  The only reason everybody in Fiddlersburg does not get himself in the Pen out of lonesomeness is because Fiddlersburg is kind of a Pen already, and everybody knows already he is with folks who are as lonesome as he is.”

It is here that Brad Toliver / Warren begin to explain the connection of Loneliness to the South and Southern Exceptionalism.

      Hell, the whole south is lonesome.  It is lonesome as coon hunting, which has always been a favorite sport, and it is lonesomer than anything except frog-giging on a dark night in a deep pond and your skiff leaking and some folks prefer it that way.

      Hell the south is the country where a man gets drunk just so he can feel lonsesomer, and then comes to town and picks a fight for companionship.  The confederate states were founded on lonesomeness.  They were all so lonesome, they built a pen around themselves so they could be lonesome together.  The only reason the confederate army held together as long as it did against overwhelming odds was that everybody felt it would just be too damned lonesome to go home and be lonesome by yourself.

      “The South…. Folks say ‘the South’ but the word doesn’t mean a damned thing.  It is a term without a referent.  No – It means something, but it does not mean what people think it means.  It means a profound experience, communally shared – yeah.  But you know what that shared experience is that makes the word South?

      “It is lonesomeness,” Brad said.  “ It is angry lonesomeness.  Angry lonesomeness  makes southerners say the word South like an idiot Tibetan monk turning a broke down prayer wheel on which he has forgotten to hang any prayers.

      “Hell no southerner believes there is any South.  He just believes that if he keeps on saying the word he will lose some of the angry lonesomeness.  The only folks in the South who are not lonesome are the colored folks.  They may be angry but they are not lonesome.

      “That is the heart of the race problem.  It is not guilt.  That is crap.  It is simply that your southerner is deeply and ambiguously disturbed to have folks around him who are not as lonesome as he is….Especially if they are black folks.  Fiddlersburg is a praying town, just like the South is a praying country.  But it is not that they believe in God.  They do not believe in God.  What they believe in is the black hole in the sky God left when he went away. (Flood P. 165)

In Warren’s writings, the concept of lonesomeness is a symptom of a greater problem – the inability to not be lonesome – or to be comfortable with one’s own lonesomeness.  This ability to hold two contradictory moments together – to be both something and not-that-something – reflects Warren’s views on history, self and responsibility.  As in All the King’s Men, where Willie Stark conflates concepts of good and bad into indiscernible motivations – You only have the bad to make the good from and how Jack Burden contemplates the meaning of being alone with oneself and all the many selves that one had – it’d be quite the party he notes — Brad conflates the meaning of belonging and not belonging to an individual’s ability to be lonesome. These three characters find themselves out of place due to a striking self-awareness.  Like Izzie Goldburg, they realize that they walk in tangles of contradiction – which both allows them to feel at home and at the same time out of place with those that don’t share the same sense of irony around them.  The South might know its lonesome, but understanding what its lonesomeness creates is a different story.

Concluding Thoughts

In Warren’s world, law stands as the impartial arbiter of society.   Segregation, he wrote early in his career was not the problem – it was the tendency of white southerners to treat African Americans poorly in Segregation.  Eventually coming around to the view that Segregation too had to end, Warren’s solution for the South remained consistent — treat all men fairly.  Warren’s work presents some rich ironies when considering places.  The Prison remains the only standing structure in Fiddlersburg – the place where law and responsibility meet most directly.  The Graveyard finds itself buried with the town – taking on a second death as it were for the residents that remain interred.  The Schoolhouse built with dirty money (and legally) in All the King’s Men tumbles under faulty workmanship, killing three children and launching Willie Stark’s political career. Willie does legal and not-legal things and is not immune to backroom deals and public projects that favor politically powerful people.  But Warren doesn’t want to confuse good and bad, right and wrong, “legal and illegal.”  Perhaps its best to simply be aware of the irony.


[1] John T. Hiers, Burried Graveyards: Warren’s Flood and Jone’s A Burried Land, 75 Essays in Literature 97 (2007).