A Book Made Ambiguous by Time: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

uncletomscabinI finally made it through Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It took me a couple of weeks to finish because, being published serially in 1851, it is very long. Stowe always gives the back story and full character detail for almost every person that we come across. After about the fourth time this happens, I started getting bored. 21st century literary tastes have changed so much that this kind of filling in of detail simply is not done anymore. However, in the 19th century, a reader would have appreciated full details for each character if they were reading it in serial form. This kind of thoroughness would allow them to re-establish a connection to the story each week when a new chapter appeared in print. This form of print publication changes not just how you tell a story but what kind of story you tell as Stowe moves between a rotating cast of characters: Uncle Tom of the title, is the noble Christian slave whose life proceeds on a downward trajectory to a swampy, forsaken cotton plantation; George and Eliza escape northwards to freedom in Canada; Mas’r George is the son of Uncle Tom’s first owner and he becomes important in the later plot; Saint Clare purchases Tom and is a key figure in Tom’s own development; while Eva becomes an angelic figure at the core of the narrative. Plenty of people to keep track of and no narrative is ever really complete as Stowe keeps them going simultaneously (a narrative technique that has come back into favor in the postmodern era).

When I say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book made ambiguous by time, I am referring to its anti-slavery perspective. Stowe’s book became a best-seller and runaway success when it was published, launching Stowe into the literary limelight. She wrote a host of other books, none of which had the same success as her first. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often credited with energizing the anti-slavery movement in the US during the 19th century, and it is very easy to see why. Stowe relentlessly criticizes the negative effects that the system has on enslaved and freed blacks. The whole plot is driven by the fact that Tom is sold as property (despite having a family and an assurance from his master that he will receive his freedom soon) because his master has accrued too many debts through poor business. Stowe is also clear that the Northern states (which did not have slavery) were just as complicit in keeping slavery alive and well in the South. This is all well and good and has enshrined Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the American literary canon. Where it gets more dicey is in the way that she represents her black characters. While she clearly seeks their freedom, her descriptions run into caricatures at many points with Uncle Tom becoming the saintly martyr, Aunt Chloe the black mammy, and a host of other slaves becoming lazy and idiotic buffoons. She explains these things as a result of their conditioning and lack of education, but I could not help cringing at various points. Moreover, even though she criticizes slavery, I could not help but feel that the overall depiction of slavery is that, in its more benign forms, it is not so bad. I am certain this was not her intention, but it begins to seem like it at certain points in the narrative (especially in Tom’s nostalgia for the Shelby farm and, later, for the Saint Clare estate). Finally, the fact that a number of the characters return to Africa is hugely problematic. It seems to suggest that blacks have no real place in the US, and that, in an ideal world, they could be returned to their homeland (conveniently ignoring the problem of those who stay in the US or the fact that for many families they have no real connection to Africa). Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been criticized for all of these things by black scholars, particularly during the Black Power movement by writers like James Baldwin. With time, views have tended to become more moderate with Henry Louis Gates Jr. taking a more nuanced position on the novel in his essay “Cabin Fever” (available here) and his 2006 annotated edition of the novel.

Overall, I’m not really sure how I feel about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The anger and violence in Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a good counterpoint to the resigned acceptance of fate by Tom. However, as a white Canadian (a definitive outsider), I don’t think I have any real say on this issue. The question of whether the novel is a good literary work depends on how you define literary value. Culturally, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is hugely important, but artistically I’m not sure that it is all there.

I would recommend this novel to students of American literature, but not to anyone else as it is a long, long read.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly. 1851. New York: The Heritage Press, 1938. Print.

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Welcome to Drugs and Transience: Jesus’ Son

9780312428747JF has been after me to read this one for a long time now. So, I finally sat down to read it and I simply devoured Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is in part because the stories are quite short but also because they open up the maniac world of a heroin addict/ alcoholic. I’m normally quite skeptical about drug narratives, I’m looking at you Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Johnson’s collection is something else entirely. I think there are two reasons for this.

The first is that the stories are written in, what was to me, a unique form. The narrative jumps around schizophrenically, so that you might be in the hospital one minute and out in a truck in a sudden snowfall in the next (“Emergency”). Johnson throws narrative logic to the wind and frees his stories to move around at will. Of course, it’s not a willy-nilly movement that makes no sense. Johnson is careful to tie his stories back together either explicitly or implicitly. In “Work,” the narrator begins with shooting heroin with his girlfriend in a hotel room before switching to a bar scene where he is invited along on a shady mission with Wayne. They travel to an abandoned suburb (because of flooding) and proceed to strip a house of its copper wiring, only for the narrator to find out that it was Wayne’s house. The two characters then seeing a beautiful naked woman paragliding behind a boat on the river before the narrator stops at a house off the highway so Wayne can talk to its inhabitant (the same naked woman the narrator soon realizes). The story (only 9 pages long) then ends back at The Vine (a run-down bar) where Wayne and the narrator are served by their favorite waitress who serves generous drinks. As you can see, this story follows a wild plot and refuses to justify its movements. Instead, we are left with a sense of awe at Johnson’s ability to make it work.

The final paragraph of “Work” also points to second reason why I think Jesus’ Son works. Johnson seems to be a poet in disguise with some jaw-dropping passages. Heroin and alcohol seem to open up the narrator to amazing insights and thoughts, and we are privy to these. I’m going to quote the last paragraph of “Work” because it illustrates this quite well:

“The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’ You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” (53-54)

I love the simile of approaching the cocktail glass like a hummingbird. It imbues a kind of golden/magic aura to the run-down bar and its inhabitants (I also have a strange fascination with dive-bars and old alcoholics). However, reality irrupts into this scene with the final lines where the narrator callously predicts her future while still paying homage to her as an alcoholic’s muse/siren.

If you are unsure about Johnson’s work, there is a New Yorker podcast of “Emergency,” read by Tobias Wolff that is a great introduction to the world of Jesus’ Son. I highly recommend it.

I also highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction. It is one of my favorite reads this year.

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. London: Granta, 1992. Print.

Well Worth Picking Up: Drown

8469_jpg_280x450_q85Junot Diaz’s Drown is a short collection of short stories, but it is well worth your time. Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is an American writer with very strong ties to the Dominican Republic. This comes through throughout Drown as the characters are almost all Dominican and move about in the Dominican immigrant community. Diaz’s writing is almost informal and casual but this belies the emotional complexity that underpins each story as his characters struggle through living in the United States as a FOB (Fresh off the boat), homesickness, language issues, and poverty. There is Spanish sprinkled liberally on every page but Diaz includes a short glossary at the back (and what isn’t covered by this makes sense contextually).

Drown was Diaz’s first publication and it is very well put together. Where some short story collections feel like a disparate group of pieces, Drown has not only thematic unity but also an over-arching unity. The central character, Yunior, is the younger of two brothers whose father immigrated to the US many years earlier and only now brings over his (estranged) family. He had been cheating on his wife before, had to get married to get citizenship in order to bring his family over, and once they arrive cheats with another woman. So, Papi is a bad guy. However, the final story in the book, “Negocios” (Spanish for businesses), tells Papi’s side of the story and Diaz pulls out all the stops to make readers empathize with the father. This doesn’t make him a good guy, but it does give him a more depth and a greater sense of humanity.

I should also warn you that Drown is rough around the edges. Several stories deal with violence, drug dealing and using, sexual abuse, and there is language throughout. This does not take away from Drown‘s impact but is a central part of it. Yunior lives in a violent world because poverty is everywhere, not just in the Dominican ghettoes of New York but also back in the Dominican Republic.

If I had to pick a favourite story, it would be either “Negocios” or “Edison, New Jersey.” The latter story deals with a pair of pool-table delivery men who travel into the swanky, elite neighbourhoods of New York to set up expensive tables. The dialogue between Wayne and the unnamed narrator (possibly Yunior) is quite witty and fleshes out the conflicted world of race relations between low-paid Latin American workers and the wealthy whites who purchase the tables. The heart of the story deals with the narrator’s interactions with a Dominican domestic at one of the homes. She is possibly an illegal immigrant and is caught in a much worse position than the narrator. The narrator takes her back to the Dominican neighbourhood to help her escape her problem only to nearly lose his job. I liked this story because it was emotionally compelling and dealt with the difficulties of living in a “multicultural” US. “Edison, New Jersey” shows a very different side of the American Dream, one that is probably more realistic than the high dreams that most American immigrants have when arriving in the country.

I would highly recommend Drown to any lover of short fiction.

Diaz, Junot. Drown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.

Why I Am A Not A Poet: Harmonium

HarmoniumWell, I had hoped that Wallace Stevens`Harmonium would be a great read and re-kindle my interest in modernist poetry. I can`t say that it has. At one point, I had considered going into modernism before I ended up in Canadian literature as a scholar, and reading Stevens`work vindicated that decision for me. It is not that Stevens is not a good poet, he is, but more that I was often left confused and scratching my head. Reading Harmonium was like riding a roller-coaster (a terrible cliche, I know), it had some amazing highs but also lots of lows and some moments where you are just clicking along hoping that the thrills will start soon.

Take the opening poem, “Earthy Anecdote,” for example. It is a short poem, 20 lines, with short lines. It concerns a firecat who makes the bucks swerve away from it. Who or what is the firecat? It is not the name of an actual animal, or at least not a recognized name for one. So do we take it as an allegorical animal or an actual one? The poem itself is quite elliptical, repeating itself and coming back to this action of the firecat threatening a hear of bucks in Oklahama. The poem ends with the firecat closing his “bright eyes” and sleeping, suggesting that it has eaten its fill and now rests. I read this poem a number of times, trying to make sense of it but ultimately coming to frustration. I cheated for this review and glanced at Bart Eeckhout’s “Wallace Stevens’ ‘Earthy Anecdote’: or, How Poetry Must Resist Ecocriticism Almost Successfully”.* He goes through a number of different readings of the firecat before settling on it as an actual predator of some kind. When I read the poem again, as I did just now, I still feel like there is a river of meaning to which I can only gain glimpses and small tastes rather than full mouthfuls. This is, perhaps, Stevens’ goal (and if so, he does it well). At its best, poetry fills  me with joy, longing, desire, and a raft of other emotions. At its worst, it leaves me feeling confused and wondering what I missed.

Harmonium does have plenty of interesting environmental themes running throughout it. In “The Snow Man,” the speaker ponders what it must take to truly regard winter in a place:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

The connection between bodily awareness of cold and the perception of winter here is intriguing and apt. Having grown up in Canada, I do feel that you do not truly perceive winter until you feel its cold biting into you so that your perception of icy beauty is also tinged with the pain of cold air on skin. The poem ends with:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This elliptical ending brings the reader back to the speaker standing in the cold trying to “see” the winter truly. Instead, he only sees that there is nothing there to behold (note the confusion of senses with him listening to the wind and regarding the frost visually at the poem’s beginning), and then he realizes the nothing that exists in winter. Having been outside on a day where the temperature fell below -50 with windchill, there really is no sound around, instead an absence of sound and movement (because everything else is just trying to survive in their hole/home).

I found Stevens’ environmental poems (if I can call them that), the most rewarding and I wish I had taken more careful notes on which ones I like best. However, too often I found myself confused by poems like “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Cy est pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les unze mille vierges” where the titles make reference to some event or character I don’t know and the words of the poem seem disconnected from that same reference. You could easily write a dissertation or three on Harmonium, but this is not what I wanted to do when I set out to read the collection. Perhaps, the fault lies in trying to get through it speedily rather than reading it several times over the course of a year. Anyways, this collection made me realize why I am not a poet: because I want my meaning to be understood, not always immediately, but at least accessibly in a way that does not require ten minutes of Google searching and Google book scanning to get a sense of what is there.

I recommend this books for grad students of American literature and the most ardent of poetry lovers. Otherwise, this probably is not for you.

Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. Print.

*The article is available on Eeckhout’s Academia.edu webpage or in Comparative American Studies 7.2 (2009): 173-92.

The Dark Soil of Georgia: Cane

book-cover-caneI had read some of Jean Toomer’s stories and poetry in a graduate course on cultures and modernism in the 20th century. The pieces were included in The New Negro, a key anthology that catalyzed the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s in the United States. I was intrigued by his work at the time and meant to read more at some point. Well, three years later here I am having just finished Toomer’s Cane. I am not quite sure what Cane is given that it includes both poetry and short stories (although some of the stories are more like vignettes or sketches than anything else). Perhaps, we can consider it a landscape of sorts. An attempt to document a place in a deep and meaningful way.

That place happens to be the United States’ South. Most of the stories are set in Georgia while some of the poems are more akin to folk songs than anything else. Toomer captures the deep-rooted racist tensions in the state as the black characters struggle against the lingering effects of slavery while trying to make their way. But this collection is not all misery and woe. There are some amazing moments when Toomer gets at intimate moments of beauty, of awe, and of wonder. In the story “Fern,” Toomer has some amazing lines describing her beauty. He writes:

“The soft suggestion of down slightly darkened, like the shadow of a bird’s wing might, the creamy brown color of her upper lip. Why, after noticing it, you sought her eyes, I cannot tell you. Her nose was aquiline, Semitic. If you have heard a Jewish cantor sign, if he has touched you and made you own sorrow seem trivial when compared with his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta” (14)

Toomer is very poetic in such moments and I revelled in these long, sinuous sentences. At the same time, J would despise this kind of stuff because it gets away from the meat of the stories themselves. I actually found myself struggling to get through some of Toomer’s headier moments because the prose moved away from narrative towards poetry. Yet when I gave Cane time, it really rewarded the work of reading it.

“Kabnis,” the final story of the collection and the longest, comes close to being a novella. It concerns Kabnis, a school teacher who loses his job because he is caught drinking in his cabin, and is attempt to feel at home in Georgia. The story moves from cultural politics to bawdy drunkenness, from southern Gospel praise to gossipy hen-pecking. Yet the story ends with this amazing moment of transcendence when Kabnis, hung over and forced to go back to work on Sunday, looks back into the basement he has left and sees two figures in a religious light. I was amazed at Toomer’s ability to move between a rich southern Gospel tone and drunken, coarse entertainment. This story alone is worth picking up Cane.

I would highly recommend this book to those interested in American literature and, particularly, African-American writers.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York, Liveright, 1975. Print.

Short and Sweet: Train Dreams

Train_DreamsAFJ has been bugging me to read this one for a while. He purchased it for my birthday and I think this is a great gift.  Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a (short) novella set in the Panhandle region of northern Idaho during the 1930s. It is almost minimalist as dialogue and narration is cut down to a minimum, yet there is one element that keeps it from being strictly minimal. At a certain point, magic realism seems to interrupt the narrative and I had mixed feelings about this. It seemed to jar with what had come before. This feeling might come from expectation that Johnson is following a Hemingway/Steinbeck line in the novel. It deals with a working class character in a poor area. There is death, sorrow, trains, and a loner protagonist. But there is also magic and wonder. I suppose this is more my fault than Johnson’s but I note it nonetheless.

The novella centres on Robert Grainier, a jack-of-all-trades who builds bridges, works in lumber camps, homesteads, and runs a delivery business. His life stretches across the early and middle portion of the 20th century although most of the narrative focuses on the 1930s. Grainier is a loner, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams. After the tragic death of his wife and child, Grainier returns to his plot of land and rebuilds his life on his own. He is a quiet and stoic figure. There is a rich cast of itinerant workers that Grainier interacts with including the humorous scene when Eddie tries to woo the widow Claire who seems more interested in Robert himself.

Trains are a constant thread throughout the novella (as the title suggests). Grainier works on their tracks, hears them outside his house, and travels on them to get around the Panhandle region.  I really liked this use of trains probably because after doing a fair bit of historical research on Canadian railways I feel like we as a culture lost something when we replaced the train with the automobile as our preferred mode of transit.

Johnson beautifully paints the Panhandle region and its strange beauty. A number of years ago I bicycled along the Yakima River and I had very vivid recollections of that experience reading this novella. Train Dreams evokes a lost way of life, one where humans lived more closely with the land and their horizon of travels was much more limited. I would not say this novella is nostalgic even if it made me feel that way. The introduction of tall tales and superstition enriched the narrative even if I did not love the ending (sorry J).

I would recommend this book to those with an interest in 1930s stories or those looking for a good short read.

Johnson, Denis. Train Dreams. 2002. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011. Print.

Vietnam War Stories and So Much More: The Things They Carried

thingsI was skeptical about reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried even though it came with a very high recommendation by my friend J. I am not a fan of war stories. I used to be, but at some point I just got sick of them. After reading this collection, I suspect that this was because I read too many bad or stereotypical war stories. O’Brien’s collection reflects on the Vietnam War and a group of soldiers including a character named Tim O’Brien. There is an autobiographical element to this collection as O’Brien actually did go to Vietnam and many of the characters are thanked in his acknowledgement. However, the first page also states this is a work of fiction “except for a few details regarding the author’s own life.” I am not going to treat the book as a work of autobiography not only because it does not enrich the material but also because doing so takes away from the more fictional and deliberately metafictional elements of the book.

A couple of different stories reflect on the narrator, O’Brien, hearing them and his own or his children’s reactions to them. These are amazing moments that puncture the veil of authenticity that may have saturated a previous story. “Speaking of Courage,” the story of a soldier struggling to come to grips with life after Vietnam as he drives around a small Iowa lake again and again, is followed by “Notes” a story about O’Brien composing “Speaking of Courage” after Norman Bowker, the protagonist, suggested he do it. The links between these two stories are rich and intriguing as that line between fiction and reality is continually bent. By the end of “Notes,” the narrator admits to making up Bowker’s failure to win the Silver Star, a key element in the story. Rather than simply being a “true” war story, O’Brien provides readers with a rich reflection on what it means to experience intense human violence and what it means to write about that violence. Trying to quantify one of these stories as more true and the other as less seems to me a kind of misguided quest.

The Things They Carried is an interconnected series of short stories so that each story meshes and blends with the other stories that surround it. This is not to say that you cannot read the stories as stand-alone pieces, but that you gain something more rich when you read the collection as a whole. Several stories stand out as “centre-pieces” if I can call them that: “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Speaking of Courage,” “In the Field,” and “The Ghost Soldiers.” These are the lengthiest stories and all were published in journals or magazines beforehand. Yet the shorter interconnecting stories craft a circular narrative about a writer’s own insecurities and anxieties about using his experience of the war as fodder for writing. “How to Tell a True War Story” is both a story about Rat Kiley’s story of a group of soldiers going stir-crazy in the quiet of Vietnam’s jungles and a story about the narrative structures and principles of war stories. At one point, the narrator drops this amazing line: ” In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'” (84). That was, in essence, my own reaction to many of these stories. There are no heroes here, there are no easy morals, there is some form of patriotism but it isn’t a “rah-rah, go America” type. In a way, this story colours all the other stories because it self-consciously calls into question how O’Brien has written all of his war stories. Later in the “How to Tell,” the narrator writes “often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again” (88). This, in my humble opinion, is how all the greatest stories work. There is no “real” point to them. They are just stories about life. Yes, you can draw out meanings, political agendas, strategies, literary devices and so on. I am an academic and this is what I do. But a story like, say, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or “Speaking of Courage” from this collection really cannot be boiled down to a single point. That is reduction at its worst.

I can see why J recommended this book and I can also see why this book is taught in many creative writing courses. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will, probably, at some point teach it in creative writing courses. It is so good. I highly recommend it.

(Apologies for the rantiness of this review – my brain has been a little scattered lately)

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.