Category Archives: Early 20th Century
I vaguely remember reading My Ántonia back in high school AP English but in the decades between then and now, which included getting a degree in English + 21 hours of graduate studies, I did not read anything else by Willa Cather. Until reading O Pioneers! last week. How could such a thing happen? Isn’t that like living in Washington DC and never visiting the Smithsonian? I guess it’s just mathematics: so many books + so little time + busy life = not getting around to Willa Cather (and too many other great authors to count).
Oh well. I will focus on the wonders of the books I have read and not on the mountains of books I have not. A climber of Mount Literature faces a task far more daunting than a climber of Mount Everest – but certainly a far more pleasant one. What climber of Everest gets to wrap of in a warm blanket drinking hot coffee while climbing?
But if we are to get around to talking about O Pioneers! we must leave all mountains behind and descend onto the stark plains of Nebraska. This novel, the first in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, is about the hardy people who set out to farm the American plains in the 19th century – that is, the first settlers of European ancestry. Native Americans do not appear in O Pioneers! but I understand they play a role in the next in the series, The Song of the Lark.
My first reaction to this book was a feeling of cleansing, as if I were showering off all the layers of technology and infrastructure that have accumulated since the late 1890s: highways, strip malls, cell phones, televisions, Wal-marts, income tax forms, junk food, top forty songs, Hollywood, and super models. It felt so refreshing to transport my mind to a place where none of these things exist, a place where people’s minds are free of most of what occupies our minds in this era. If the mind is stripped of all this 21st century clutter, what can be left to fill it up? In the Nebraska of this novel it turns out there is more than enough to occupy the minds of the characters: things such as eating, weather, harvests, family conflicts, hopes and dreams, and the rarest human necessities, love and friendship.
Willa Cather was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old where Her father tried farming for 18 months, and then moved his family to the town of Red Cloud and opened a real estate business. The vast flatness and stark beauty of the land as well the character of the people, mostly recent European immigrants, made a huge impression on young Willa.
The story is told in a plain-spoken third person narration, suitable to the strong simple characters and the hard realities of their lives. The story focuses on the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American settlers.The main character, Alexandra Bergson, is able to succeed where many people fail due to a combination of intelligence, perseverence, and quality of strength that is hard to describe, but which Cather captures beautifully. I liked that through her difficulties Alexandra never becomes hard or unkind, but remains a cheerful kind person, always seeking the best for everyone but strong enough to avoid letting people take advantage of her.
Alexandra’s extraordinary character contrasts with that of her brothers Lou and Oscar, both of whom have their good points and good intentions, but who simply do not possess the necessary traits to succeed in the challenging new land, at least without the good sense and business acumen of their sister. When story begins, Alexandra is about 20 and has come to town to pick up some supplies. She has brought along her five-year-old brother Emil and runs into her best friend Carl Linstrum, a skinny teenager who lives on a neighboring farm. We also a meet charming little girl in the general store named Marie, a Bohemian child dressed in “Kate Greenway” style. Marie later plays a major role in the plot.
Carl accompanies them part of the way home and Alexandra tells him how worried she is about the future. Her father is dying. Later that night her father tells her brother Lou and Oscar, 19 and 17, that Alexandra is to be in charge if the business-end of the farm and is no longer to work in fields.
I loved the way the novel deals with the core basics of life – working the land, erecting houses on the bare land, and the basic needs even among the strongest for love and friendship. How many families do we know in which one person plays the part of the “strong one” or the anchor so that everyone else can be weak, neurotic, adventurous, and foolish. Alexandra is the poster child for that strong family member; for the next 20 years she puts her needs on hold for the sake of family and farm in loyalty to her beloved father. But she has her limits and life eventually brings her to edge of her emotional endurance.
When she faces the worst does she fall apart, triumph, or a little of both? This is not a saccharine story. There is both great joy and crushing heartbreak, just like real life. There are elements of naturalism and elements of the Victorian omniscient narrator, but Willa Cather’s voice is her own. The Great Plains trilogy was very popular but later Cather faced a lot of unkind criticism for not get on board with the modernist movement of the 1920s and ’30s. I’m glad she didn’t. My writing/life lesson from this novel is stick faithfully to your own voice and style, even if it does not happen to be trendy.
I have just finished listening to What’s Wrong With the World? by G. K. Chesterton. This is actually my second reading of this book. I have learned a few things since the last time I read it a couple years ago and have come to see things in a different light. GKC speaks from a Catholic point of view and last time I read the book I was seriously considering returning to the Catholic Church. I needed a sense of continuity in my life I suppose, and also a spiritual home. I thought the Catholic Church might fulfill both purposes. I liked that it was rich in tradition, music, and history and it might have the right balance of structure and space to support my spiritual needs.
That was in 2014. In 2015 I decided against the idea. I can’t say this is my final decision. Until this life ends there is always the possibility I will change my mind. I sometimes wish I could just commit to an idea and stay with it. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I wish my soul could select its society and shut the door. My soul seems to like to hang out with a society for a while and then sneak out the back door that it always leaves ajar.
In reading What’s Wrong I realized I pretty much still agree with GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view. But maybe GKC’s version of the Catholic point of view does exactly jibe with the point of view the Church has expressed through the last few centuries. GKC thinks the Church accommodates the moral needs of human nature and is a good institution for broad spiritual guidance. This is the ideal, but it seems to me the Church has too often gotten wrapped up in protecting itself as an institution and has not always stood for the rights of the individual vs the state. It has sometimes been an agent of the state and of state-sponsored violence when it should have been a voice for non-violence and love. That’s one of the reasons I decided against committing to it again.
GKC disagrees with Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that violence is always wrong, at least if you profess to be a follower of Christ. GKC seems to accept that violence is sometimes needed to protect what is good and part of being human is the desire to protect what is good. There are huge problems with admitting the necessity of certain categories of violence, but this is not the post to go into that. Obviously the world agrees that violence is a necessity for the human race. I think I agree that we humans do want to protect what is good but more often we want to protect what we think is our own, which, as far as most of us are concerned, is exactly the same as what is good. GKC would agree, but he thinks we need to get clear on what should and should not be our own.
What is wrong with the world, according the GKC, is that everybody needs to have a very specific something of our own – a house with a door and a small patch of earth, perhaps three acres. In early 20th century England, a small segment of the population had taken over all the property and the vast majority of souls were left to scramble and scrape to get by on scanty mine or factory wages. Instead of a house with a few acres they had to live in slums, the workhouse, or the streets. In this series of 49 essays GKC talks about what led to this state of affairs and why it is so difficult to fix.
GKC is always funny and charming but in this book I actually perceive some anger coming through, such as when he talks about a certain law that required girls of poor families to cut their hair short to control lice. Why, he asks, do we not address the conditions that lead to little girls living in lice-infested conditions rather then demanding that children adapt their hair to the conditions? Parliament, he says, would not dare to demand such a demeaning thing of children of the rich.
Chesterton was a proponent of distributionism, a social theory that was neither socialism or capitalism. It said that everyone who wanted to should be able to own a private home and a little land. It advocated distribution of land but not by force – rather landowners should be encouraged to bequeath their land to the poor upon their death. Not sure if the idea ever took off.
GKC skewers socialism of the type that tells people they do not want what they want, the type of socialism that tries to engineer society to benefit the state. The exploitation of people for the benefit of industrial profit fairs no better. These interests are represented in the book by two hypocrite politicians named Hudge and Gudge who, as it turns out are really working together, against the interests of poor “Jones”, the ordinary man who simply wants to live a peaceful life in a home of his own.
This quote, I think, expresses the heart of the book’s message:
“Whether we can give every English man a free home of his own or not, at least we should desire it; and he desires it. For the moment we speak of what he wants, not what he expects to get. He wants, for instance, a separate house; he does not want a semi-detached house. He may be forced in the commercial race to share one wall with another man. Similarly he may be forced in a three-legged race to share one leg with another man; but it is not so that he pictures himself in his dreams of elegance and liberty. Again, he does not desire a flat. He can eat and sleep and praise God in a flat; He can eat and sleep and praise God in a railway train. But a railway train is not a house, because it is a house on wheels. And a flat is not a house, because it is a house on stilts. An idea of earthy contact and foundation, as well as an idea of separation and independence, is a part of this instructive human picture.
I take, then, this one institution as a test. As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of woman, every normal man desires a house to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair beneath him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions.”
What’s Wrong With the World was first published in 1910 so I am sure some readers will have problems with Chesterton’s discussions of women and the suffrage movement. It seems absolutely stone-age when you read of a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. But it’s also interesting to enter into new insights about that time. The State and its doings were not always considered all that important to the mass of the population. Chesterton discusses the importance of the private home to men, women, and children and why its importance ought not to be superseded in importance by the demands of either the government or commercial industry.
Note: I have long since made the decision not to be offended by points of view popular in the past that are widely considered insensitive now. I just don’t want anything (such as anger) to stand in the way of gleaning what wisdom the past has to offer. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the past few decades, mostly for the better. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to be women in the 1960s, especially after watching Mad Men, but it was what it was, and I want to be free to seek understanding of the world wherever and whenever it can be found.
A question occurs to me. Why do I feel compelled to read social theories from 1910? In this book GKC actually provides an pretty good answer to that question – the question of why we might want to look to the past for answers to current problems. I may need to talk about that topic in the next post.