H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

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Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Friendship is, at any rate, a relation of perfect equality. It cannot well spare any outward sign of equal obligation and advantage. The nobleman can never have a Friend among his retainers, nor the king among his subjects. Not that the parties to it are in all respects equal, but they are equal in all that respects or affects their Friendship. The one’s love is exactly balanced and represented by the other’s. (220–221)

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This lovely passage comes from the “Wednesday” chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The chapter, which is devoted to the question of this fundamental social relationship is one of the most memorable for me because it is looking at what an egalitarian relationship can look like, while acknowledging that most relationships between people fall far short of the friendship ideal. He perhaps takes too seriously the Confucian ideal of friendship (but if we ignore the rest of that system we can see that one part as redeeming). He goes beyond a strict definition of friendship and see friendship and love as a place of creative experimentation in social relationships. “Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.” (231) Only at that point does the usefulness of friendship come into play. It is almost presented as an afterthought in the chapter. What does come across strongly he is belief that the foundation of friendship is a more rational and just organization of society than in hierarchical or strictly pecuniary relationships. As a cooperative relationship it is better foundation for people to engage in individual re-creation and experimentation. Forgive a rather lengthy quotation:

I am never rich in money, and I am never meanly poor. If debts are incurred, why, debts are in the course of events cancelled, as it were by the same law by which they were incurred. I heard that an engagement was entered into between a certain youth and a maiden, and then I heard that it was broken off, but I did not know the reason in either case. We are hedged about, we think, by accident and circumstance, now we creep as in a dream, and now again we run, as if there were a fate in it, and all things thwarted or assisted. . . . When every other path would fail, with singular and unerring confidence we advance on our particular course. What risks we run! Famine and fire and pestilence, and the thousand forms of a cruel fate,—and yet every man lives till he—dies. How did he manage that? Is there no immediate danger? . . . No matter what imprudent haste in my career; I am permitted to be rash. (239–240)

It is compelling enough out of context, but in the context we realize that this freedom to explore and dare is the wages of friendship. Notice with me that Thoreau’s primary concern throughout A Week is a type of freedom that has a strong social foundation.

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“Thursday” and “Friday” are thematically united around creativity, first artistic and then scientific. As might be expected, Thoreau believed that nature was often a source of inspiration for creativity, but it is more than that. Art and nature are thematically united. “Art is no tame, and Nature is now wild, in the ordinary sense. A perfect work of man’s art would also be wild or natural in a good sense. Man tames Nature only that he may at last make her more free even than he found her, though he may never yet have succeeded.” (258) That last big seems a backhanded strike at industrialization, which tames Nature by making it a devastated servant of humanity’s more crass needs.

In these chapters, Thoreau may be foreshadowing Nietzsche in his definition of “the Man of Genius,” which includes artists. The Man of Genius is “an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored.” (267) In contrast to the Man of Genius (the Artist) is the Artisan, who applies such rules. The poet is a special case of the Man of Genius because his laws cannot be easily applied or decoded. It seems to me Thoreau may define the Man of Genius a bit too narrowly, in part to justify his own life and accomplishments, but there is still something to be said for the creative and promethean urge.

A Week ends with Thoreau’s summation of the role of Nature in human life. Rather than something to overcome, Thoreau sees nature as something that must be achieved. “Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remained veiled to his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth.” (307) In this end we find a tension in Thoreau’s vision articulated most clearly. He appreciates the creative urge and the risk-taking spirit in other parts of his work, but remains dissatisfied with what humanity has accomplished. This is less of a dilemma than you would think, because it is the very creative and promethean urge that is the essence of nature. Civilization is what limits our creativity. Perhaps for some this will be a call for primitivism, but there is no looking back in Thoreau’s writings, except for the brief lesson. His is a projectural philosophy.

A Week is a challenging book to read and certainly not one that can be dissected quickly in two short blog posts. Walden, when I first read it years ago, struck me as fairly straightforward compare to this. Perhaps we see two sides. A Week is Thoreau as a poet, Walden is Thoreau as an artisan. I suspect many people will find the mystical speculations of A Week appealing, but both works are actually interested in our social lives and our ways of being together, even when we seek out periods of isolation and solitude. This is one of those works I may come back to sooner, in hopes of digging deeper into Thoreau’s mind. But for now, I am not flustered. Yes, A Week was opaque to me from time to time but that is part of what keep it so fascinating.

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part Two

All this he had felt before; it was his old enemy, but now with this second attack began a new and even stranger sensation. In his distorted wits he fancied that he was in some manner changing, that he was becoming another man; worse than that, it seems to him that he was no longer human, that he was sinking, all in a moment, to the level of some dreadful beast. (203–204)

In the second half of Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute we painfully observe the steady decline of our hero until he is transformed into a proletariat. While we are led to feel sorrow for Vandover’s decline, it is important to remember that few of his contemporaries got to enjoy a young adulthood of comparable ease and pleasure. Thanks to the heavily mortgaged schemes of his father, Vandover lived a life of ease, pursuing his art, his education, and nurturing the “brute” through a life committed to cheap amusements. He never really needed to learn a craft that may have saved him (such as artisanal painting). As I argued in my last post, Vandover is not fully to blame for this. He was a product of his environment and we find it hard to blame him for seeking out comradeship and community in a world growing progressively more competitive and anti-humanist (social Darwinism is a hidden sub-text of the novel and in a strange way Vandover is the enemy of social Darwinism through his emotional generosity). To read Vandover as a hero does not take accepting much more than this, and acknowledging that his decline was really for all the right purposes, although made inevitable by his naivety.

The chain of events of Vandover’s decline began with the suicide of his girlfriend Ida, who he seduced and impregnated. This was devastating but not itself enough to lead to the triumph of “the brute.” Vandover follows this news with an overseas ocean voyage. The ship sank and Vandover was able to express self-sacrifice and solidarity. In fact, as I am suggesting, this was where his personal strengths lay. After returning home, his father died. He lost someone who was very important to him, more than he was willing to confess. This was also the start of his financial troubles. He learned from the lawyers that his father was not as well-financed as he thought. Having a career as a lawyer allowed him to life a comfortable life on top of his investments. Vandover is told that living just on those investments would require a drastic downgrading of his expectations. The properties were all heavily mortgaged. Still, with the rents and a significant bond, Vandover could enjoy a regular income. This, for a while, sustains his life and his art.

The next catastrophe came when Vandover was sued by Ida’s family for causing her suicide. This provided an opportunity for his lawyer friend, Geary, to take advantage of him. Vandover did not fully realize that he was being conned by both Ida’s family and the lawyer. He was simply too willing to believe the best in people. Geary knows the family will get little in court, but he figures a settlement may allow him to purchase Vandover’s properties cheaply. He talks Vandover into a scheme. Settle the lawsuit and raise the money by selling a large portion of his rentals to Geary (who has plans of his own to upgrade them). Vandover, personally devastated by the lawsuit, agrees just to make his troubles go away. This forces Vandover to painting as an artisan at a paint shop, something he dreads but it does allow him to make enough to survive.

It is all a steady decline from this point. Vandover begins gambling and loses the rest of his property and bonds (either by giving them away or losing them at games of chance). He loses his job at the print shop and by the final chapters he is homeless and penniless. He takes a job for Geary cleaning the properties that he once owned.

One easy reading of this is as a morality tale, in which Vandover finally is forced to pay for his life of cheap pleasures, waste, and sloth. I find this too simplistic, and ignores how sympathetic a character Vandover is. Rather than working as a warning, we are made to feel that given similar circumstances we would be as susceptible to “the brute” as Vandover was. Indeed, it is hard to identify what he really did wrong. His decline was carefully orchestrated by others, or emerged logically from his environment.

Another reading is that Vandover is living the process of proletarianization that accompanies maturing capitalism everywhere. He began the novel as a clear member of the bourgeoisie, but through a steady process of manipulation by people of greater legal talents, his wealth is usurped. Contributing to this reading is that Vandover does not simply become a drunken vagrant. Norris carefully moved Vandover step by step into the working class.

I guess you can’t give me any work that would be too dirty for me! I want to be honest, Mister Geary. I want to be honest; I’m down and I don’t mean not offense. Charlie, you and I were old chums once at Harvard. My God! To think I was a Harvard man once! Oh, I’m a goner now and I ain’t got a friend. When I was in the paint-shop they paid me well. I’ve been in a paint-shop lately painting the little pictures on the safes, little landscapes, you know, and lakes with mountains around them. I pulled down my twenty dollars and findings! (245—246)

Notice with me that Vandover is as horrified by his loss of companionship and the loss of his art as he is of the loss of his invested wealth.

Next, I will look at McTeague, which is in some ways the inverse story, where a working class person comes across wealth, leading to very different character arcs. Importantly these two novels were written simultaneously in 1894 and 1895.

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part One

This blog has been quiet for a week or so. The reason for this is that I was stricken with a fairly nasty sore throat early last week. Following that was the “Sunflower” student protests in Taiwan, which occupied my attention. Finally, I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s books, starting with A Week and found that I needed more time to fully understand and appreciate it. So after a reboot, I picked up my Library of America volume of Frank Norris’ novels, which I love. This was not an unfortunate refocusing. I have long wanted to do a series on industrializing America, covering the period from 1880 until the Great Depression. This period contains some of my favorite American writings, including the great (and in my opinion underappreciated) Frank Norris.

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Frank Norris

Frank Norris died tragically young at 32. Despite his youth he left a fairly impressive body of work of four novels, the last of which was published in 1914 (over a decade after his death), although was written while he was at Harvard. I will start with this novel, Vandover and the Brute, since it appears first in the volume and was the first novel he completed. Published during his life were three other novels: McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. These last two made up the first two novels in an incomplete trilogy surrounding the production, sale, and consumption.  The Library of America chose not to include The Pit, so we are left with just these three novels and some of his shorter non-fiction work. We will have to manage.

Vandover and the Brute is a quite rich and entertaining novel about an artist who graduates from Harvard but through bad habits and ill-luck is driven into poverty. On the surface, it is a reverse Horatio Alger story and reads as a morality tale. Certainly Vandover shares some of the blame for his decline, but I would like to suggest that he is not entirely at fault. He wrestled with demons, but Norris is not so simple of a writer to blame the “beast” alone for Vandover’s fall. He was also destroyed by the society around him, its expectations and its pressures. Norris wants us to sympathize with Vandover, which makes it difficult for us to take him as a lesson in what not to be. In this post and the next, I would like to argue that Vandover’s “beast” is as much an invention of Vandover’s society as it is a real thing. It becomes, for outsiders and often for Vandover, the scapegoat for his failure. Unwilling to accept the social causes of his poverty, he looks inward and blames his beast. The reality is, even had Vandover totally suppressed these negative characteristics, he would have been defeated.

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Some of the context of Vandover’s decline was inherited. He was raised with the false sense of wealth. Vandover’s father was a lawyer who was able to use to the system to create the false facade of wealth, an all too common strategy in Gilded Age America. He took two mortgages on various properties. The first to purchase the property, the second to buy another property. Thus he created a chain of rental units, heavily mortgaged. As long as the interests payments were less than the rents, he was able to provide for himself a nice monthly income. Making little effort to pay off the loans, he ensured that this wealth would always be fragile. In fact, it was really a near criminal act. It did allow Vandover to grow up in relative luxury and allowed him to pursue his art.

Vandover was a talented artist and could have started his career right away, but he want to Harvard as expected by his father and colleagues. He also sustained an appreciation for vulgar passions, but again this was largely a product of his peer group. It is not clear he got much pleasure from smoking, drinking and playing around with girls. His more authentic pleasures came from his work as an artist and his never-ending work on his masterpiece, a portrait of a wounded soldier fighting a final losing battle with a lion. He approached the vulgar side of life with almost intellectual curiosity.

When he returned from Harvard, Vandover fails to take responsibility for his life by getting a job as an artisan painter. His sense of entitlement and the very real support from his father lead him to pursue his masterpiece, even though it means he never is able to create for himself an independent foundation of his life, like many of his friends do. This keeps him in a more juvenile life, where the “brute” is more alive.

Gradually Vandover allowed his ideas and tastes to be molded by this new order of things. He assumed the manners of these young men in the city, very curious to see for himself the other lower side of their life that began after midnight in the private rooms of fast cafes and that was continued in the heavy musk-laden air or certain parlours amid the rustle of heavy silks. Slowly the fascination of this thing grew in him until it mounted to a veritable passion. His strong artist’s imagination began to be filled with a world of charming sensuous pictures. (21)

Vandover has a strong desire to be part of society, unfortunately, he lives in a world in which community is being rapidly degraded by industrialization. What is left is the stuffy, banal middle class culture that is expected of him but does not very much interest him, and the culture of the cafes and other public amusement, full of cheap liquor and cheap sex. He floats between the two with relative ease. His disaster comes when he seduces a well-off girl, Ida, at one of these low-brow parlors. When she becomes pregnant, she kills herself and Vandover is subtly accused of seducing Ida in her death notice. He is unable to handle the moral burden of his guilt. Never before has the life of the “brute” faced such consequences. His response to this is actually quite fruitful for him and allows him to spend part of his life more authentically, but it requires leaving home and taking a long trip on a passenger ship.

I will end for now at this point with the conclusion that Vandover’s pliable nature helped nurture the “brute.” It must be added, however, that Vandover is not so unlike many of us, eager for community. The early industrial city was destroying the communities that Vandover’s father grew up in. Some certainly thrive in the social Darwinian world that industrialism produced. We will see in the second half how one of Vandover’s friends is able to successful take advantage of this situation. I suspect that most of us are closer to Vandover, and face with terror the unrelenting loneliness of the world we live in. Cheap amusements fill in that hole in our lives.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1844–1852)

“The remarkable story of the snow-image, though, to that sagacious class of people to whom good Mr. Lindsey belongs, it may seem but a childish affair, is nevertheless capable of being moralized in various methods, greatly for their edification. One of its lessons, for instance, might be, that it behoves men, and especially men of benevolence, to consider well what they are about, and, before acting on their philanthropic purposes, to be quite sure that they comprehend the nature and all the relations of the business at hand.” (“The Snow-Image,” 1102)

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What a simple protest against the reformism of Hawthorne’s age, or any age. The same, it seems to me, could be said of any urban development project declared the necessity for the well-being of all, but affected only at the great destruction of communities, businesses, and homes. This short passage near the end of the tragic tale “The Snow-Image” is a wonderful summation of “seeing like a state.”

I have reached the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales, not including his retelling of ancient mythologies for children, written in his last decade. His writing became dramatically more allegorical (at least his short stories) and difficult as he matured. I truly miss some of his more optimistic tales exploring the creative vernacular side of life, but that theme still always lies on the edge of the dark clouds (I am borrowing from Melville’s description of Hawthorne’s writings here). The overpowering darkness of these stories is evident, but it is not overpowering because it is nearly always explicable. Hawthorne was describing a human heart, dark and terrible at times, but always rooted in a certain historical context. For instance, if we look at “Earth’s Holocaust” the demonic figure at the end suggests humanity to toss the human heart into the fire along with the rest of the trappings of civilization. Yet, it is not entirely clear that the human heart was fallen. This contradicts what I wrote on that tale yesterday, but now I want to believe that “Earth’s Holocaust” was not a warning that the human heart was part of the fallen world, but that the human heart is one of the redeeming features of humanity. (What Kroporkin would call “mutual aid” or what we simply call “solidarity.”)

One important issue that he kept coming back to is the figure of the artist and the line between the artistic and the real. It is the central theme of at least three of the stories in this last set, covering the eight years from 1844 to 1852. At least one of these considers the playful creativity of children and the hostile disbelief and indifference of adults, an issue I have seen emerge again and again in Hawthorne’s stories.

The stories I worked through for today are: “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” “A Select Party,” “A Book of Autographs,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “P.’s Correspondence,” “Main-Street,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Great Stone Face,” “The Snow-Image,” and “Feathertop.” This is also, by the way, the longest set of stories reaching almost 200 pages, compared to the earlier sets which were all around 100. Was Hawthorne getting long to prepare for his novels?

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“The Artist of the Beautiful” is one of those stories that explores the line between the artistic and the real. In this case, it is contextualized in the tension between the quest for artistic perfection and the “real” of commercial practicality. Owen Warland is a brilliant apprentice watchmaker who has little time to spend honing his craft as an artisan and instead focuses on creating small beautiful items. He indeed has a quest to produce “The Beautiful Idea,” which is not dependent on size. Since he enjoys producing miniscule works of art, it seems from the master watchmaker’s point of view that his talent is being wasted. He certainly has a skill with the small that would help him succeed in the craft. When he inherits the shop, he quickly runs it into the ground because he has little time for the practicality of business. This tension between the artistic and the practical runs through the story. “This it is, that ideas which grow up within the imagination, and appear so lovely to it, and of a value beyond whatever men call valuable, are exposed to be shattered and annihilated by contact with the Practical. It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy; he must keep his faith in himself, while the incredulous world assails him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and be his own sole disciple, both as respects his genius, and the objects to which it is directed.” (913) Eventually, he completes his work, a small butterfly, which is alive and departs, thus the act of creation becomes real through the art. “When the artist rose high enough to achieve the Beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes, while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the Reality.” (931)

A similar tale is told in “Drowne’s Wooden Image.” Here the artist is a sculpture tasked with created a figure-head for a ship. Much like Owen, the watchmaker, Drowne is a masterful craftsman and even draws the attention of Copley, the famous early American painter. What shocks Copley and other observers is that he wasters his talent on a mere figure-head for a ship (and not even a British warship). Like Owen, Drowne has abandoned wealth for the purity of the art, and his fame grows without padding his wallet. As with Owen’s butterfly the figure-head comes alive at the end, convincing the obsevrers that Drowne has sold himself to the devil. This is part of the Romantic era spirit of art for Art’s sake. Like Schubert, who died unable to pay his burial costs, Hawthorne was at a point of his life where he was kicked out of the Old Manse in 1845, with 12 dollars to his name and had to move in with his parents. (Note to college graduates, there is nothing wrong with moving back in with your parents, but you also no longer have an excuse not to create something wonderful.) The rejection of wealth for art may become more silly in the art world proper, where most production is for the private collections of the .1%, but as we see in the proliferation of blogging, there are millions (and yes most of us suck) who are still striving to create without hoping for financial rewards. I am glad this spirit lives on, proving that not everything can be bought.

The third in this series of stories on artistic creation is “The Snow-Image.” Again we see an artistic creation come alive. Akin to Frosty the Snowman, two children produce a “snow-image” that is so life-life the children’s parents deem it a real child. It plays with the girls. The parents insist on allowing this girl to come inside to warm up, despite the sister’s protest she is made of snow. Of course, when brought inside, she quickly melts near the stove. Here, creation is perhaps the most purposeless in any practical terms. Owen used his butterfly for courtship. Drowne at least got fame and prestige for his labors. These two girls created only a playmate. We are not surprised when it is the parents’ stringent rationality that destroyed the perfect creation.

Before I put a close to this series of Hawthorne tales (we still have the novels and the children’s stories to cover), it would be improper not to five some passing mention to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” simply because it is so often seen as one of his great stories. Like “The Birth-Mark” it is one of those stories that appears in science-fiction anthologies as an early American example of the genre. Beatrice is a young woman, locked up in a garden with some poisonous flowers. As a result she becomes poisonous herself while also gaining an immunity to the flowers. The young student Giovanni Guasconti lusts after Beatrice from afar. As Beatrice’s professor (really mad scientist) father explains: “This lovely woman had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element in life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison.” (996) Eventually, another scientist, Pietro Baglioni, attempts an antidote, which, of course, kills her, proving that the scientific experiment had fully transformed Beatrice’s being into poison. This story works as a polemic against scientific progress that might transform our nature, the reformist effort to transform nature, and the authoritarian power of parents over their children.

Conclusion
At the close of these nine posts on 92 Hawthorne stories, I am unable to provide for you a summary that would be adequate. I only suggest perusing my musings of the past two weeks and look forward to another week of Hawthorne as I look into the novels he wrote in his last decade. It seems to me that there is a true value in sitting down and enjoying the completeness of an artist’s work, with all its ups and downs. This breaks us away from the authority of the canon and the anthologies, which would have you read only 5 or 6 of these tales. I have done this with composers before to great personal benefit. Yes, it may mean you stop focusing on work for a while (maybe even a year or two) but there is nothing wrong with that. There is plenty of work being done already. You will not be missed.

Here is a movie based on some of Hawthorne’s works. Despite its title, only one of the stories in this anthology film was from Twice-told Tales. It includes a depiction of “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” I did not watch them.

Lynd Ward, “Prelude to a Million Years” and “Song without Words”

The second Lynd Ward volume from the Library of America contains two short works and his masterpiece Vertigo.  For this post, I will look at the two short works Prelude to a Million Years and Song without WordsThese two works, combined contain around 50 wood cut plates.  These two works have a common theme: what is the purpose of creativity in a world gone to shit?

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Prelude to a Million Years  (1933) was, according to Ward, a sequel to Gods’ Man in that it considered the fate of the artist in a fallen world.  He also acknowledged that he was a product of his times, a participant in the New Deal culture of artist as voice of the people.  The same spirit that gave us “This Land is Your Land” gave us Lynd Ward’s later works.  (To be pedantic, Prelude to a Million Years) was put together two years before the WPA, but I see a similar energy and question at work.)  “There were still some artists living in ivory towers, still totally immersed in the never-solved problems of an essentially private aesthetic, and still able to ignore the tremors that were moving in sucessive shock waves across the country and shaking the foundations of philosophic systems as well as of corporate structures.” (642)

The story begins with the artist within his “private aesthetic.”  His inspiration for a new sculpture emerged from his mind, as if from a flower.  He begins work on his masterpiece but like the Buddha is confronted with several scenes from life.  The first is a chest of his mementos.  Next he sees his neighbor beating his wife while she is completing her domestic drudgery.  Next he is mugged, then he comes across a strike action, which descended into violence.  Next, he comes across a patriotic march, praising the military and the violence of the state.  Finally, he goes to the house of an old girlfriend and sees her naked and drunk.  Dejected, the artist returns home.  The abused neighbor woman is on the ground and the iron she was working with started a fire.  The artist embraces his half-completed statue and apparently dies as the house burns down.

prelude

There are two ways to read this little tale.  In one, we can imagine Ward saying that the artist’s failing was his inability to speak to the horrors of the world around him through art.  Another reading is that it is futile to even try.  The artistic aesthetic cannot speak in the brutal language of the real world.  I prefer the first reading, because Ward himself seems to prove the second interpretation false.

The creation of Prelude to a Million Years also suggests that Ward believed that artists could be involved in positive change in the world.  Prelude was published by Equinox, which was a small, artist-owned and ran, cooperative.  It published a couple dozen works in the 1930s, including a biography of John Reed (which Ward illustrated).  Every book they produced was hand-made.  We have seen other examples of these anarchist publishers, who embraced democratic decision-making and cooperative systems of work.  Equinox provided a model that others would follow.  More than democratcy and collective ownership, Equinox emphasized the craft of book making.  According to Ward: “What this meant was a return to the basics.  What that meant was a reaffirmation of handiwork, a somewhat mystical belief that to touch directly the materials and processes of the making of a book would result in a better book.” (646)

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Song without Words is the shortest of his novels, at only 21 plates.  The story, such as it is (Ward called it “prose”), involved a couple preparing to give birth to a child.  The mother looks around the world and sees the rise of fascism, hunger, greed, violence, and death and must decide whether it is a good idea to create new life.  In the end, the mother decides to create new life as an act of resistance against these dark forces.  Unlike the artist in Prelude, this mother chooses creation as a weapon against evil.

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We live in a world no less uncertain.  The upcoming environmental catastrophe is as dangerous to the world as fascism was.  Many of us ask the same question.  Should we create new life?  Governments have actively dis-invested in creativity for years, preferring the training of a new class of technocrats that can at worst be the next generation of bosses and at best mitigate the ecological crisis through a new technocracy.  For millions, labor is less about creativity and more about sustaining gigantic institutions.  Neo-Malthusians preach the need for low fertility rates as the only path to post-scarcity.  Ward is not of our time, but he asserts that hope expresses itself only in the courage to create in a world where we are uncertain of the future.