>> = Important Articles
** = Major Articles
Is the work of lasting interest? Are the comments the author makes about people, about the pressure, rewards, and problems of life still relevant? Is the theme of the work as pertinent now as it was at the time it was written? Oedipus Rex, for example, was written over two thousand years ago, but we are still awed and moved by its portrayal of the inner conflicts of a proud ambitious man who brings on his own doom.
Does the work, regardless of when and where it was written, have meaning for people throughout the Western world? (I specify “Western” because most of us are not sufficiently familiar with the Asian cultures to judge the impact a piece of literature might have on them.) Huckleberry Finn, for example, although it has been called the first truly American novel, deals with a universal theme, the loss of innocence.
Is the work credible? Does the author make us believe what is being said? Such a standard cannot, of course, be applied literally. We do not believe in the literal truth of Gulliver’s Travels or Candide, but we understand that the authors are using fantasy and exaggeration to communicate basic truths about humanity. Moreover, a good novel, story, or drama should give us the feeling that what happened to the characters was inevitable; that, given their temperaments and the situation in which they were placed, the outcome could not have been otherwise. Everything we know about Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, for instance, makes his suicide inevitable. A different ending would have been disappointing and untrue.
4. Effective language
This is a matter for which it is difficult to set precise standards. The study of such authors as James Joyce, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Henry James reveals that writers can use language effectively in a variety of ways. In general, however, we can expect the language in any literary work to be forceful, fresh and not hackneyed, and suitable to the purposes of the work. Thus, the gentle style of Washington Irving would be as unsuitable for Gulliver’s Travels as the complex, ornate style of Henry James would be for Huckleberry Finn.
This may seem like a strange requirement, somewhat as if I were saying, “Good stories should have a moral to them.” The term morality, however, is intended in the much broader sense of “sense of value.” Applied to literature, this standard means that a work of art should say something of value. It should draw attention to human problems, say that some things are worth doing or believing in, condemn or applaud certain ways of living or certain viewpoints; in sum, it should make a statement that is more significant than the “Chocolate cake is the world’s best dessert” kind of comment we talked about in an earlier chapter. We cannot, however, require that the statement the author makes be one that we agree with. We cannot, as we can with arguments, challenge a creative artist’s a priori assumptions. The work is an author’s own creation, and he or she is entitled to personal values. Although we may not, like Voltaire, believe that human beings are basically foolish or selfish, and we may not agree with Dreiser that people are simply victims of circumstance, we must grant any author the right to personal opinion. If our criticism is truly objective, we should judge only the way an author expresses and illustrates that viewpoint. This critical tenet is, needless to say, difficult to observe.
by Jay Nordlinger
“Jay, I’m a native Southerner and an assistant professor of chemistry in Virginia. As a frequent reader of your Impromptus, I know you’re from Michigan, so I find it interesting how often you use the word ‘y’all.’ I think it’s an excellent contraction and a much better candidate for you-plural than ‘youse,’ for example. [We certainly need a you-plural — other languages have them, but we don’t. That’s why I say “y’all” or “you-all” or “you guys” — but mainly “y’all” and “you-all,” not just Southernisms, but necessities, for understanding’s sake.] Nevertheless, I thought you might be interested in the following:
“At a recent conference, I had a conversation in which I mentioned the utility of ‘y’all.’ Another scientist — one at a university in Texas, no less — said, ‘“Y’all’ won’t become widely used because it’s too politically incorrect.’ I was stunned by this assertion and asked him how in the world this inoffensive term could carry such baggage. He replied, ‘Because of all the atrocities that have happened in the South.’
“I had no idea how to respond to this comment. Perhaps this fellow should listen to any current rap album: The use of the word ‘y’all’ in the lyrics would offend him more than the violence and misogyny.”
Okay, sports fans, what you’ve long been waiting for (some of you): Great First Lines. The nominations come from readers, and the project — or whatever it has been — is now closed (thank you very much). As you may recall, my two favorite first lines are these: from Marchette Chute’s The Search for God, “Job was not a patient man”; and from one of P. G. Wodehouse’s golf stories (can’t remember which one, just now), “It was a morning when all nature shouted Fore.”
But, as I said in my last treatment of this topic, the all-time champeen — as a reader pointed out — is “In the beginning . . .”
I will go in no particular order — and if you don’t see your nomination or nominations, please forgive me. It’s probably not that I’ve deliberately omitted them: just that I’ve been careless.
From my NR colleague Julie Crane:
Whittaker Chambers: Witness: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.”
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”
Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
And this is not a first line, but an epigraph: L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
One seams-loving reader said: “I think careful and objective consideration will cause you to agree that this is the greatest opening line of any printed work: ‘Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.’
“It is, of course, Rule 1.01 of the Official Rules of Baseball.”
More nominations: Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae: “The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for and the public curiosity is sure to welcome.”
(I pause here to tell you that I’ve checked none of this: titles, authors, lines. So please be indulgent — and, again, this particular case is closed, enjoyable as it’s been.)
From T. E. Lawrence: “Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
Mitchell Smith, Due North: “She stood on the fox until it died.”
A reader writes, “While ‘Call me Ishmael’ is no slouch, I couldn’t help but think yesterday morning, as I walked up a rainy Fifth Avenue, of another line in that opening paragraph: ‘whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul . . .’”
“Hi, Jay: One of my favorite first lines is from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first of the James Bond novels (making these words, of course, the first words presented in the lore of James Bond): ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’ [Ooh, that is good, isn’t it.] I like this line because it is in stark contrast to the popular image of the Bond of blockbuster-movie fame — and it illustrates why books are almost always better than movies.”
From a Hemingway short story, “In Another Country”: “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.”
Writes a reader, “Though it’s actually the first sentence of the second paragraph, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’ (from Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood), is a near opening line that’s always stuck with me.”
From John Varley’s Steel Beach: “Ladies and gentlemen, the penis is obsolete!”
From Charlotte’s Web: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
Here are the opening two sentences from Ring Lardner’s Champion: “Midge Kelly scored his first knockout when he was seventeen. The knockee was his brother Connie, three years his junior and a cripple.”
Comments the reader — the nominator — “What more do you have to know about Midge Kelly?”
“I very much enjoyed your recent Impromptus relating favorite opening lines. As a longtime P. G. Wodehouse fan, I especially appreciated your personal choices. May I recommend another from the master? It’s from the hilarious The Luck of the Bodkins: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’”
(FYI, many readers submitted this opening — especially British ones.)
From Ayn Rand: “Who is John Galt?”
From Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”
From Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
The Sun Also Rises: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.” (That was two lines — cheating — but okay.)
Catch 22: “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
“My favorite first line comes from Donald ‘Skip’ Hays in The Dixie Association: ‘I sat in my cell, packing my sh** in a cardboard box.’ By far, this is the best book about baseball I’ve ever read. Interestingly, we read this book in a class taught by a very left-wing feminist professor. It was introduced as a book about sex and baseball.”
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: “You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.”
F. Marion Crawford, The Witch of Prague: “A great multitude of people filled the church, crowded together in the old black pews, standing closely thronged in the nave and aisles, pressing shoulder to shoulder even in the two chapels on the right and left of the apse, a vast gathering of pale men and women whose eyes were sad and in whose faces was written the history of their nation.” (Whoa — shivers.)
From Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea: “The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.”
From Poe’s “Silence — A Fable”: “Listen to me, said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head.”
Max Shulman, Sleep till Noon: “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life . . . But first let me tell you a little about myself.”
“Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk” (two again — sorry).
“Life is difficult” — The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We were an hour outside of Barstow when the mescaline kicked in.”
Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry: “When I was seven, I hid under a table and watched my sister kill a king.”
“Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage / black and murderous, that cost the Greeks / Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls / Of heroes into Hades’ dark / And left their bodies to rot as feasts / For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.” — Iliad, Book I, Lombardo translation
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” — Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
“Tell me, what is happiness?” — Iain M. Banks, The Use of Weapons
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’” — Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
A reader writes, “‘I wear the ring,’ from Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline. Admittedly, it does not have broad appeal because the book is about a sometimes-anachronistic military school in South Carolina. But as I am a graduate of The Citadel, the school upon which the book is loosely based, it ‘rings’ true with me!”
George Orwell, Coming Up for Air: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”
“‘Call me Ishmael’ is a tough act to follow, but Sena Jeter Naslund came close in her book Ahab’s Wife, with this line: ‘Ahab was neither my first husband, nor my last.’”
“I was born in the house my father built” (Richard Nixon, Memoirs)
Robert Heinlein, Year of the Jackpot: “At first, Potiphar Breen did not notice the girl taking her clothes off.”
“My all-time favorite is from William Gibson’s 1983 sci-fi classic Neuromancer: ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’”
Charles Portis, True Grit: “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I know.”
Orwell, “England Your England”: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
Kurt Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron”: “The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.”
Says a reader, “I can’t think of an opening line that better captures the essence of the story to follow than this one, from A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean: ‘In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.’”
Stephen Becker, The Chinese Bandit: “That summer, they hanged a fat man from the western gate, as a warning to all.”
V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River.: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Okay, guys, to end, a couple of last lines? That seems fitting:
“Overhead, one by one, the stars were going out” (Arthur C. Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God)
The end of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four: “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
And can anyone beat Fitzgerald? “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Or is that one of those faux-profound sayings — pretty, but stupid?
That was strictly a rhetorical question, thank you very much.
Many thanks, guys — I mean, y’all (or y’unz — for all my Ohio Valley friends).
Okay, Impromptus-ites, here is our last installment of Great First Lines — am devoting the entire column to it (them). I can’t really remember how this got started. I had some occasion to mention my two favorite opening lines in literature. (They are, “It was a morning when all nature shouted Fore,” from P. G. Wodehouse’s “The Heart of a Goof”; and “Job was not a patient man,” from Marchette Chute’s The Search for God.) Then, I was sort of inundated with others’ favorite opening lines. And I published a few. And then I was further inundated — and it snowballed (to switch from water to colder water).
We have already decided — we, the great collective “we”: my readers and I — that “In the beginning . . .” is the all-time champion. Everything else is competing for second place.
So, I will publish final responses below. I will do so in no particular order. Sometimes I’ll just give basic information (and, as before, I have done no checking, so this is just the memory or word of the particular contributor); sometimes I’ll publish an entire letter, just for context, further observations, and kicks.
Anyway, it’ll be fun. Enjoy. I have.
Peter Benchley, Jaws
“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.”
“Dear Mr. Nordlinger: My candidate is ‘The road was blue with them.’ In six words it sets the storyline of Unto This Hour by Tom Wicker, a historical novel of the Civil War.”
(Don’t say that nothing good was ever said about Tom Wicker in this column. I haven’t read any of his novels, but I do remember his Times column.)
David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.”
Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits
“I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.”
Iain Bainks, The Crow Road
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Southern Mail
“A sky as pure as water bathed the stars and brought them out.”
Babe Ruth, The Babe Ruth Story
“I was a bad kid.”
Stephen King, The Gunslinger
“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”
Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, first romance
“It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon when he was king of all England and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil.”
Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, final romance
“In May, when every heart flourisheth and burgeoneth (for, as the season is lusty to behold and comfortable, so man and woman rejoiceth and gladdeth of summer coming with his fresh flowers, for winter with his rough winds and blasts causeth lusty men and women to cower and sit by fires), so this season it befell in the month of May a great anger and unhap that stinted not till the flower of chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain.”
Louis L’Amour, Sackett’s Land
“It was my devil’s own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father’s teachings.”
(Remember how smart people were terribly upset when Ronald Reagan gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Louis L’Amour, one of his favorite authors?)
Tom Clancy, Patriot Games
“Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.”
“Mr. Nordlinger: Just wanted to add in the line that starts Proust’s glorious ramble A la recherche du temps perdu: ‘Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure.’ Moncrieff and Kilmartin translate this: ‘For a long time I would go to bed early.’”
I just love that description of that book: a “glorious ramble.”
Chaim Potok, In the Beginning
“All beginnings are hard.”
Frederick Buechner, Godric
“Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.”
“Dear Mr. Nordlinger: An obvious classic is from hack Lawrence Sanders. Actually I’m being unkind, as several of his books were quite good. Anyway the first sentence of his The Tomorrow Files is, ‘She was naked.’ Maybe this makes me a perv, but I got a kick out of it as a first-sentence attention-getter.”
Don’t you just love the word “perv”?
E. A. Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado”
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
“In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.”
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
“Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”
Jean Giono, The Song of the World
“Night. The river shouldered its way through the forest.” (Two lines, but okay.)
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Nice timing.)
“Marley was dead: to begin with.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
“Mr. Nordlinger: My choice is from the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant: ‘My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.’ Vintage Grant — blunt, clear, vaguely un-PC, proud yet matter-of-fact.”
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.”
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative
“It was a Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate.”
George Burns, Gracie: A Love Story
“For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”
And now, eight opening lines from Peter DeVries:
Into Your Tent I’ll Creep
“It wasn’t until I had become engaged to Miss Piano that I began avoiding her.”
“‘The last place to have a ball, my dear Mrs. DelBelly, is at a formal dance.’”
Let Me Count the Ways
“Man is vile, I know, but people are wonderful.”
“For as long as I can remember, my father hibernated.”
The Mackerel Plaza
“Like most irritable people I rarely lose my temper (a dog that’s let out for regular exercise isn’t apt to run away when it does escape), but I was losing it this morning.”
I Hear America Swinging
“I had just been through hell and must have looked like death warmed over walking into the saloon, because when I asked the bartender whether they served zombies he said, ‘Sure, what’ll you have?’”
The Glory of the Hummingbird
“We must love one another, yes, yes, that’s all true enough, but nothing says we have to like each other.”
The Prick of Noon
“The trouble with treating people as equals is that the first thing you know they may be doing the same thing to you.”
End of DeVries
Rudyard Kipling, The Fringes of the Fleet
“The Navy is very old and very wise.”
The Vale of Laughter
“Call me, Ishmael.”
Terry Patchett, The Light Fantastic
“The Sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.”
Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins
“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?”
Wodehouse, The Magic Plus Fours
“‘After all,’ said the young man, ‘golf is only a game.’”
H. H. Munro, The Byzantine Omelet
“Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage.”
“Dear Mr. Nordlinger: I noticed the first line of Atlas Shrugged in your list. Of course, the opening line of The Fountainhead is much better [please, no mail, Objectivists]: ‘Howard Roark laughed.’ I love that, given the context of standing naked on a cliff, preparing to dive into the water below, laughing at fear, laughing with life. Outstanding.”
“Mr. Nordlinger: My most unforgettable first line comes from Camilo José Cela’s classic Spanish novel about the ultimate dysfunctional family, La familia de Pascual Duarte: ‘Yo, señor, no soy malo, aunque no me faltarían motivos para serlo.’ (Loosely translated: ‘I, sir, am not evil, although I have no lack of grounds to be such.’) Those words have resonated in my head ever since I read the book 19 years ago in a graduate-level Spanish-literature course.”
“Dear Mr. Nordlinger: If you can have the first sentence from the baseball rulebook, you can surely have the first line from the preamble to The Laws of Cricket: ‘Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.’”
Now, that is beautiful.
Douglas Fairbairn, Shoot
“This is what happened.”
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers
“I always get the shakes before a drop.”
J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
“We, the People of the United States . . .”
1. William Shakespeare
2. Edgar Allan Poe
3. Mark Twain
4. Fyodor Dostoevsky
5. Charles Dickens
6. George Orwell
8. Oscar Wilde
9. Dante Alighieri
10. John Steinbeck
11. Lewis Carroll
12. Victor Hugo
13. J.D. Salinger
14. Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy
15. Marcel Proust
16. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
17. Truman Capote
18. Alexandre Dumas
19. Hermann Hesse
20. Robert Louis Stevenson
21. Edith Wharton
22. Robert Penn Warren
23. Vladimir Nabokov
24. H.G. Wells
25. Franz Kafka
26. C.S. Lewis
27. Flannery O’Connor
28. Jane Austen
29. E.M. Forster
30. Graham Greene
31. Harper Lee
32. Johann Wolfgang Goethe
33. Louisa May Alcott
34. James Joyce
35. Jules Verne
37. Charlotte Bronte
38. Joseph Heller
39. Mary Shelley
40. Johnathan Swift
41. Upton Sinclair
42. Aldous Huxley
43. F. Scott Fitzgerald
44. William Faulkner
45. Emily Bronte
46. Jack Kerouac
47. Joseph Conrad
48. Anthony Burgess
49. Roald Dahl
50. Thornton Wilder
51. Albert Camus
52. D.H. Lawrence
53. Ernest Hemingway
54. Rudyard Kipling
55. Thomas Wolfe
56. Geoffrey Chaucer
57. Ralph Ellison
58. Sinclair Lewis
59. Willa Cather
60. Arthur Koestler
61. Malcolm Lowry
62. Ford Maddox Ford
63. Jean-Paul Sartre
64. Herman Melville
65. James Baldwin
66. Thomas Hardy
67. James Dickey
68. Dorothy Parker
69. Jack London
70. Henry Miller
71. Carson McCullers
72. Walker Percy
73. William Golding
74. Evelyn Waugh
75. Nathaniel Hawthorne
76. Saul Bellow
77. Thomas Mann
78. Daniel Defoe
79. Henry James
80. George Eliot
81. James Jones
82. Robert Graves
83. Samuel Butler
84. Theodore Dreiser
85. Margaret Mitchell
86. Gertrude Stein
87. James Fenimore Cooper
88. Arnold Bennett
89. Harriet Beecher Stowe
90. Virginia Woolf
91. V.S. Naipaul
92. Ayn Rand
93. Norman Mailer
94. John Cheever
95. John O’Hara
96. Horatio Alger
97. Denis Diderot
98. Gustave Flaubert
99. Jorge Luis Borges
100. Paul Bowles
101. Alexander Pushkin
102. Sir Walter Scott
103. Jean Rhys
104. Wallace Stegner
105. W. Somerset Maugham
106. John Fowles
107. Lawrence Durrell
108. Iris Murdoch
109. Selma Lagerlof
* 1984 -- George Orwell
* Absalom, Absalom! -- William Faulkner
* Adam Bede -- George Eliot
* Aeneid, The -- Vergil
* Age of Innocence -- Edith Wharton
* All the King’s Men -- Robert Penn Warren
* All Quiet on the Western Front -- Erich Remarque
* American, The -- Henry James
* American Tragedy, An -- Theodore Dreiser
* Animal Farm -- George Orwell
* Antigone -- Sophocles
* Anna Karenina -- Leo Tolstoy
* Arms and the Man -- George Bernard Shaw
* Arrowsmith -- Sinclair Lewis
* As I Lay Dying -- William Faulkner
* Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The -- Benjamin Franklin
* Awakening, The -- Kate Chopin
* Babbitt -- Sinclair Lewis
* Barchester Towers -- Anthony Trollope
* Black Boy -- Richard Wright
* Billy Budd -- Herman Melville
* Bleak House -- Charles Dickens
* Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley
* Brideshead Revisited -- Evelyn Waugh
* Brothers Karamazov -- Fyodor Dostoevski
* Buddenbrooks -- Thomas Mann
* Caine Mutiny, The -- Herman Wouk
* Candide -- Voltaire
* Canterbury Tales, The -- Geoffrey Chaucer
* Castle, The -- Franz Kafka
* Catcher in the Rye, The -- J.D. Salinger
* Cherry Orchard, The -- Anton Chekhov
* Crime and Punishment -- Fyodor Dostoevski
* Crucible, The -- Arthur Miller
* Cruel Sea, The -- Nicholas Monsarrat
* Cyrano de Bergerac -- Edmond Rostand
* Daisy Miller -- Henry James
* Darkness at Noon -- Arthur Koestler
* David Copperfield -- Charles Dickens
* Death Comes for the Archbishop -- Willa Cather
* Death in the Family, A -- James Agee
* Death of a Salesman -- Arthur Miller
* Demian -- Hermann Hesse
* Divine Comedy, The -- Dante
* Doctor Zhivago -- Boris Pasternak
* Doll’s House, A -- Henrik Ibsen
* Don Quixote -- Miguel Cervantes
* Dr. Faustus -- Christopher Marlowe
* Dubliners -- James Joyce
* East of Eden -- John Steinbeck
* Emma -- Jane Austen
* Emperor Jones, The -- Eugene O’Neill
* Enemy of the People, An -- Henrik Ibsen
* Essays -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
* Far From the Madding Crowd -- Thomas Hardy
* Farewell to Arms, A -- Ernest Hemingway
* Fathers and Sons -- Ivan Turgenev
* For Whom the Bell Tolls -- Ernest Hemingway
* Forsyte Saga, The -- John Galsworthy
* Ghosts -- Henrik Ibsen
* Giants in the Earth -- O.E. Rolvaag
* Glass Menagerie, The -- Tennessee Williams
* Go Tell It on the Mountain -- James Baldwin
* Good Earth, The -- Pearl Buck
* Grapes of Wrath, The -- John Steinbeck
* Great Expectations -- Charles Dickens
* Great Gatsby, The -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
* Gulliver’s Travels -- Jonathan Swift
* Handful of Dust, A -- Evelyn Waugh
* Hard Times -- Charles Dickens
* Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The -- Carson McCullers
* Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
* Heart of the Matter, The -- Graham Greene
* Hedda Gabler -- Henrik Ibsen
* House of the Seven Gables, The -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
* How Green Was My Valley -- Richard Llewellyn
* Human Comedy, The -- William Saroyan
* I, Claudius -- Robert Graves
* Iliad, The -- Homer
* Importance of Being Earnest, The -- Oscar Wilde
* Inherit the Wind -- Jerome and Robert E. Lee Lawrence
* Intruder in the Dust -- William Faulkner
* Invisible Man -- Ralph Ellison
* Jane Eyre -- Charlotte Bronte
* J.B. -- Archibald MacLeish
* Joseph Andrews -- Henry Fielding
* Jude the Obscure -- Thomas Hardy
* Jungle, The -- Upton Sinclair
* Les Miserables -- Victor Hugo
* Light in August -- William Faulkner
* Long Day’s Journey into Night, A -- Eugene O’Neill
* Look Homeward, Angel -- Thomas Wolfe
* Lord Jim -- Joseph Conrad
* Lord of the Flies -- William Golding
* Madame Bovary -- Gustave Flaubert
* Magic Mountain, The -- Thomas Mann
* Main Street -- Sinclair Lewis
* Major Barbara -- George Bernard Shaw
* Man for All Seasons, A -- Robert Bolt
* Master Builder, The -- Henrik Ibsen
* Mayor of Casterbridge, The -- Thomas Hardy
* Metamorphosis -- Franz Kafka
* Middlemarch -- George Eliot
* Mill on the Floss -- George Eliot
* Moby-Dick -- Herman Melville
* Moll Flanders -- Daniel Defoe
* Moonstone, The -- Wilkie Collins
* Mourning Becomes Electra -- Eugene O’Neill
* Mrs. Dalloway -- Virginia Woolf
* Murder in the Cathedral -- T.S. Eliot
* My Antonia -- Willa Cather
* Mythology -- Edith Hamilton
* Native Son -- Richard Wright
* New Testament -- The Bible
* Nine Tailors, The -- Dorothy Sayers
* Northanger Abbey -- Jane Austen
* Oedipus Rex -- Sophocles
* Odyssey, The -- Homer
* Of Human Bondage -- Somerset Maugham
* Of Mice and Men -- John Steinbeck
* Old Testament -- The Bible
* Oliver Twist -- Charles Dickens
* On the Beach -- Nevil Shute
* On the Road -- Jack Kerouac
* Once and Future King, The -- T.H. White
* Our Town -- Thornton Wilder
* Out of Africa -- Isak Dinesen
* Passage to India, A -- E.M. Forster
* Pere Goriot -- Honore de Balzac
* Picture of Dorian Gray, The -- Oscar Wilde
* Plague, The -- Albert Camus
* Plays and sonnets -- William Shakespeare
* Poems -- Robert Browning
* Poems -- Emily Dickinson
* Poems -- Langston Hughes
* Poems -- John Keats
* Portrait of a Lady -- Henry James
* Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man -- James Joyce
* Power and the Glory, The -- Graham Greene
* Pride and Prejudice -- Jane Austen
* Prince, The -- Machiavelli
* Pudd’nhead Wilson -- Mark Twain
* Pygmalion -- George Bernard Shaw
* Rabbit Run -- John Updike
* Red Badge of Courage, The -- Stephen Crane
* Return of the Native, The -- Thomas Hardy
* Room with a View, A -- E.M. Forster
* Saint Joan -- George Bernard Shaw
* Scarlet Letter, The -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
* School for Scandal, The -- Richard B. Sheridan
* Secret Sharer, The -- Joseph Conrad
* Sense and Sensibility -- Jane Austen
* She Stoops to Conquer -- Oliver Goldsmith
* Short Stories -- Edgar Allan Poe
* Siddhartha -- Hermann Hesse
* Silas Marner -- George Eliot
* Single Pebble, A -- John Hersey
* Sister Carrie -- Theodore Dreiser
* Sons and Lovers -- D.H. Lawrence
* Sound and the Fury, The -- William Faulkner
* Steppenwolf -- Hermann Hesse
* Stories -- O. Henry
* Stranger, The -- Albert Camus
* Streetcar Named Desire, A -- Tennessee Williams
* Sun Also Rises, The -- Ernest Hemingway
* Sword in the Stone, The -- T.H. White
* Tale of Two Cities, A -- Charles Dickens
* Tender Is the Night -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
* Tess of the D’Urbervilles -- Thomas Hardy
* To the Lighthouse -- Virginia Woolf
* Tom Jones -- Henry Fielding
* Trial, The -- Franz Kafka
* Turn of the Screw, The -- Henry James
* Typee -- Herman Melville
* Uncle Tom’s Cabin -- Harriet Beecher Stowe
* Vanity Fair -- William M. Thackeray
* Victory -- Joseph Conrad
* Waiting for Godot -- Samuel Beckett
* Walden -- Henry David Thoreau
* War and Peace -- Leo Tolstoy
* Way of All Flesh, The -- Samuel Butler
* Wild Duck, The -- Henrik Ibsen
* Winesburg, Ohio -- Sherwood Anderson
* Wuthering Heights -- Emily Bronte
* 20,000 Leagues under the Sea -- Jules Verne
* Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The -- Mark Twain
* Adventures of Sherlock Holmes -- Arthur Conan Doyle
* Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The -- Mark Twain
* African Queen, The -- C.S. Forester
* Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland -- Lewis Carroll
* Amos Fortune, Free Man -- Elizabeth Yates
* Around the World in Eighty Days -- Jules Verne
* Bell for Adano, A -- John Hersey
* Ben-Hur -- Lewis Wallace
* Big Sky, The -- A.B. Guthrie
* Black Arrow, The -- Robert Louis Stevenson
* Bridge of San Luis Rey, The -- Thornton Wilder
* Bridge over the River Kwai, The -- Pierre Boulle
* Bridges at Toko-Ri, The -- James Michener
* Christmas Carol, A -- Charles Dickens
* Cimarron -- Edna Ferber
* Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, A -- Mark Twain
* Count of Monte Christo, The -- Alexander Dumas
* Cry, the Beloved Country -- Alan Paton
* Dandelion Wine -- Ray Bradbury
* Death Be Not Proud -- John Gunther
* Deerslayer, The -- James Fenimore Cooper
* Diary of a Young Girl -- Anne Frank
* Dracula -- Bram Stoker
* Drums along the Mohawk -- Walter D. Edmonds
* Ethan Frome -- Edith Wharton
* Fahrenheit 451 -- Ray Bradbury
* Frankenstein -- Mary Shelley
* Goodbye, Mr. Chips -- James Hilton
* Gone with the Wind -- Margaret Mitchell
* Green Mansions -- W.H. Hudson
* High Wind in Jamaica, A -- Richard Hughes
* Hiroshima -- John Hersey
* Hobbit, The -- J.R.R. Tolkien
* Hornblower series, The -- C.S. Forester
* Hunchback of Notre Dame, The -- Victor Hugo
* Illustrated Man, The -- Ray Bradbury
* Innocents Abroad -- Mark Twain
* Island of the Blue Dolphins -- Scott O’Dell
* Ivanhoe -- Sir Walter Scott
* Johnny Tremain -- Esther Forbes
* Journey to the Center of the Earth -- Jules Verne
* Kim -- Rudyard Kipling
* King Must Die, The -- Mary Renault
* King Solomon’s Mines -- H. Rider Haggard
* Kon-Tiki -- Thor Heyerdahl
* Last of the Mohicans, The -- James Fenimore Cooper
* Le Morte d’Arthur -- Sir Thomas Malory
* Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The -- Washington Irving
* Life on the Mississippi -- Mark Twain
* Life with Father -- Clarence Day
* Little Men -- Louisa May Alcott
* Little Prince, The -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
* Lord of the Rings, The -- J.R.R. Tolkien
* Lorna Doone -- Richard D. Blackmore
* Lost Horizon -- James Hilton
* Madame Curie: A Biography -- Eve Curie
* Martian Chronicles -- Ray Bradbury
* Member of the Wedding -- Carson McCullers
* Men of Iron -- Howard Pyle
* Mutiny on the Bounty -- Charles and J.N. Hall Nordhoff
* Mysterious Island -- Jules Verne
* National Velvet -- Enid Bagnold
* Night to Remember, A -- Walter Lord
* Northwest Passage -- Kenneth Roberts
* Old Man and the Sea, The -- Ernest Hemingway
* Ox-Bow Incident, The -- Walter Clark
* Pearl, The -- John Steinbeck
* Pilgrim’s Progress, The -- John Bunyan
* Poems -- Robert Frost
* Prince and the Pauper, The -- Mark Twain
* Profiles in Courage -- John F. Kennedy
* Raisin in the Sun -- Lorraine Hansberry
* Rebecca -- Daphne Du Maurier
* Ring of Bright Water -- Gavin Maxwell
* Robe, The -- Lloyd C. Douglas
* Robinson Crusoe -- Daniel Defoe
* Scarlet Pimpernel, The -- Baroness Emma Orczy
* Sea Wolf, The -- Jack London
* Separate Peace, A -- John Knowles
* Shane -- Jack Schaefer
* Snow Goose, The -- Paul Gallico
* Stories -- Saki
* Story of My Life -- Helen Keller
* Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The -- Robert Louis Stevenson
* Thirty-Nine Steps, The -- John Buchan
* Three Musketeers, The -- Alexander Dumas
* Through the Looking Glass -- Lewis Carroll
* Thurber Carnival, The -- James Thurber
* Time Machine, The -- H.G. Wells
* To Kill a Mockingbird -- Harper Lee
* Tortilla Flat -- John Steinbeck
* Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A -- Betty Smith
* Two Years before the Mast -- Richard Henry Dana
* Up from Slavery -- Booker T. Washington
* Virginian -- Owen Wister
* Wall, The -- John Hersey
* War of the Worlds -- H.G. Wells
* Wind, Sand and Stars -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
* Yearling, The -- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
* ...and Now Miguel -- Joseph Krumgold
* Adam of the Road -- Elizabeth Janet Gray
* Anne of Green Gables -- L.M. Montgomery
* Bear Called Paddington, A -- Michael Bond
* Bears on Hemlock Mountain, The -- Alice Dalgliesh
* Ben & Me -- Robert Lawson
* Betsy series -- Carolyn Haywood
* Big Red -- Jim Kjelgaard
* Black Beauty -- Anna Sewell
* Black Stallion, The -- Walter Farley
* Blueberries for Sal -- Robert McCloskey
* Book of Nonsense -- Edward Lear
* Born Free -- Joy Adamson
* Borrowers series, The -- Mary Norton
* Cabin Faced West, The -- Jean Fritz
* Caddie Woodlawn -- Carol Ryrie Brink
* Call It Courage -- Armstrong Sperry
* Call of the Wild, The -- Jack London
* Captains Courageous -- Rudyard Kipling
* Carry on, Mr. Bowditch -- Jean Lee Latham
* Cat in the Hat, The -- Dr. Seuss
* Cat Who Went to Heaven, The -- Elizabeth Coatsworth
* Charlotte’s Web -- E.B. White
* Cheaper By the Dozen -- Frank B. and Gilbreth
* Children of Green Knowe, The -- L.M. Boston
* Child’s Garden of Verses, A -- Robert Louis Stevenson
* Chronicles of Narnia series -- C.S. Lewis
* Cinderella -- Charles Perrault
* Courage of Sarah Noble, The -- Alice Dalgliesh
* Cricket in Times Square, The -- George Selden
* Curious George series -- H.A. Rey
* Dark Frigate, The -- Charles Hawes
* Doctor Doolittle series -- Hugh Lofting
* Door in the Wall, The -- Marguerite De Angeli
* Enormous Egg, The -- Oliver Butterworth
* Ernestine G. Carey -- Frank B. and Gilbreth
* Fables -- Aesop
* Fairy tales -- Hans Christian Andersen
* Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon -- Dhan Ghopal Mukerji
* Ginger Pye -- Eleanor Estes
* Goodnight, Moon -- Margaret Wise Brown
* Grimm’s Fairy Tales -- Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
* Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates -- Mary Mapes Dodge
* Harry the Dirty Dog -- Gene Zion
* Heidi -- Johanna Spyri
* Henry Huggins series -- Beverly Cleary
* Hitty, Her First Hundred Years -- Rachel Field
* Homer Price -- Robert McCloskey
* House at Pooh Corner, The -- A.A. Milne
* House of Sixty Fathers, The -- Meindert De Jong
* Invincible Louisa -- Cornelia Meigs
* Jungle Books, The -- Rudyard Kipling
* Just So Stories for Little Children -- Rudyard Kipling
* Kidnapped -- Robert Louis Stevenson
* King of the Wind -- Marguerite Henry
* Lassie Come Home -- Eric Knight
* Laughing Boy -- Oliver LaFarge
* Light in the Forest, The -- Conrad Richter
* Little Bear -- Else Holmelund Minarik
* Little House series -- Laura Ingalls Wilder
* Little Women -- Louisa May Alcott
* Madeline series -- Ludwig Bemelmans
* Make Way for Ducklings -- Robert McCloskey
* Mary Poppins series -- Pamela L. Travers
* Matchlock Gun, The -- Walter D. Edmonds
* Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The -- Howard Pyle
* Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel -- Virginia Lee Burton
* Miracles on Maple Hill -- Virginia Sorenson
* Miss Hickory -- Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
* Misty of Chincoteague -- Marguerite Henry
* Moffats series -- Eleanor Estes
* Mr. Popper’s Penguins -- Richard and Florence Atwater
* Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle -- Betty MacDonald
* My Friend Flicka -- Mary O’Hara
* Now We Are Six -- A.A. Milne
* Old Yeller -- Fred Gipson
* Onion John -- Joseph Krumgold
* Peter Pan -- J.M. Barrie
* Pippi Longstocking series -- Astrid Lindgren
* Rabbit Hill -- Robert Lawson
* Red Pony, The -- John Steinbeck
* Reluctant Dragon, The -- Kenneth Grahame
* Rifles for Watie -- Harold Keith
* Secret Garden, The -- Frances Hodgson Burnett
* Secret of the Andes -- Ann Nolan Clark
* Snow Treasure -- Marie McSwigan
* Story of Babar, The -- Jean de Brunhoff
* Story of Ferdinand, The -- Munro Leaf
* Story of Mankind, The -- Hendrik Van Loon
* Strawberry Girl -- Lois Lenski
* Stuart Little -- E.B. White
* Swiss Family Robinson -- Johann Wyss
* Tale of Peter Rabbit, The -- Beatrix Potter
* Tom’s Midnight Garden -- Philippa Pearce
* Treasure Island -- Robert Louis Stevenson
* Trumpeter of Krakow, The -- Eric Kelly
* Twenty-One Balloons, The -- William Pene Du Bois
* Velveteen Rabbit, The -- Margery Williams
* Wheel on the School, The -- Meindert De Jong
* When We Were Very Young -- A.A. Milne
* White Fang -- Jack London
* Wind in the Willows, The -- Kenneth Grahame
* Winnie-the-Pooh -- A.A. Milne
* Witch of Blackbird Pond, The -- Elizabeth George Speare
* Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The -- L. Frank Baum
Philosophy and Literature 21.2 (1997) 500-511 An excerpt (pages 504-507) from
Every once in a while a book comes along with the power to alter permanently the view of a subject you thought you knew well. For me this year, that book is Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner (Princeton University Press, $14.95). When I picked it up, I thought it a general writing guide with examples, like Robert Graves’s and Alan Hodge’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder. But it is actually a treatise on one particular style, which the authors call classic prose. This is a specifiable kind of writing that can be found in every literate culture, they insist, even if their examples are all European. At the center of the classic style is the nonfiction essay, although it is a style used for fiction as well. They begin with a sentence from La Rochefoucauld:
Madame de Chevreuse had sparkling intelligence, ambition, and beauty in plenty; she was flirtatious, lively, bold, enterprising; she used all her charms to push her projects to success and she almost always brought disaster to those she encountered on her way.
This sentence is contrasted by Thomas and Turner with another, from Samuel Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”:
That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied them by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.
The Johnson sentence, however masterful, is not classic prose. We follow it through complicated paths; it does not telegraph its structure from the beginning, and quite possibly must be read twice for certain meaning. The end of the sentence is not a conclusion drawn from the beginning, nor it is a light which shines back onto the rest of the sentence altering or vivifying its sense.
This, however, is exactly the case with La Rochefoucauld’s sentence. It may look easy to write, but that is part of the trick of classic prose. It is efficient and precise, and seems utterly spontaneous. However, that natural sound is not the sound of speech, Thomas and Turner say, it is the sound of writing. Writing such as La Rochefoucauld’s embodies or expresses a certain attitude toward the truth. For Johnson’s sentence, writing is “hard and noble,” as they call it, and truth is something that cannot be captured in mere speech, but is rather “the reward of effort.” For the classic style, “Truth is a grace that flees from earnest effort. The language of truth is ideally graceful speech.”
When I pick up a style guide, I expect something on mechanics and rules of writing, split infinitives or preposition placement. But Thomas and Turner are digging much deeper than mere correctness. They are trying to identify the qualities that support claims that someone writes “with style”; they are interested in what might be called the character of writing. As they explain it, the classic style involves an attitude on the part of the writer toward three key elements: reader, presentation, and truth. First the reader: in the classic style the reader is an equal in a conversation. As a competent, intelligent person, it’s assumed that the reader could take up the other side of the exchange at any moment. While the writer may have access to information the reader does not possess--indeed, that probably occasions the writing--there is no special authority the classic writer has over the reader. The reader and the classic writer are intellectually symmetrical, with equal competence to assess the relevant understandings of the world presupposed or discussed in classic prose.
The classic prose stylist therefore need never descend to grinding persuasion; an unobstructed view of things is always enough. Every decision of the writer is presumably the same decision that the reader would have made. It is a tone and stance they trace in the modern epoch to Descartes’s Discourse on Method, although it is found in writing of all ages. Thomas and Turner contrast this particular relation to the reader with what they detect in a passage from Foucault’s “What is an Author?” Foucault assumes a position of privileged insight that goes well beyond the reader’s. He adduces an argument in which his superiority virtually defines what would count as evidence for his thesis. He does not show the reader why his hypotheses would be recognized as proven by any competent reader; the reader therefore can only be told what to believe and accept it on Foucault’s authority.
The classic style calls for presentation to be unproblematic. It eschews self-conscious special-pleading. This does not mean that there are no doubts surrounding the classic prose stylist’s situation. It is simply that, since the reader and writer know them so well, it would be tedious to enumerate them. Many contemporary academics imagine they can add depth or importance to their writing by injecting problems at every juncture: “And how should I, a white, middle-aged male, approach reviewing a book on writing style? And what gives Thomas and Turner the authority to instruct us on the style choices of individuals? Is not my activity of reviewing itself hegemonic?” Such confessional questioning, by which writers try drearily to convince us what swell, self-aware people they are, is the antithesis of the voice classic style attempts to achieve. This goes along, Thomas and Turner say, with an absence of hedges in classic prose, the device so common in legal, business, and especially philosophical writing, where the author is in terror of being caught out in some generalization. In classic prose, the rule is: clarity everywhere, but not always letter-accuracy. The classic writer does not rehearse every possible exception to each generalization: the reader knows the spirit in which the generalizations are made and understands their likely limits. If there are exceptions worth noting, the classic stylist can be counted on to note them.
The classic stylist’s confidence derives in part from the manner in which the writing is addressed intimately to a single reader, rather than a large and possibly disparate group. Groups have to be persuaded, but friends don’t have to explain everything in conversations. I’m reminded of the proper style for radio presentation: the skillful announcer knows instinctively to speak to a single listener, even if there are a million of them; the radio neophyte can sometimes be heard addressing “you people out there.” That, in fact, is the style of oratory, and the classic style--cool, intimate, personal--is anything but oratorical.
The most essential aspect of the classic style is its stance toward truth. Since classic style treats all matters discussed as though they would be open to verification by the reader, it presupposes possession of truth as a possible attainment. If the classic stylist is skeptical, it is because it is true that certain contingent facts will never be ascertained; it is not because contingent facts are always beyond our grasp. We may not know the actual number of planets, but classic prose assumes that the number is what it is independent of anyone’s wishes or ideologies. The classic stylist freely acknowledges our inadequacies: “we are victims of our ambitions; fully accurate self-knowledge is unavailable; self-interest leads to self-deception; we are inconsistent, unreliable, impure.” Yet for the classic writer this is not a cause for despair; the task then becomes to penetrate this “unfortunate layer of corruption over fundamental soundness.”
Finally, the achievement of classic prose is a perfect performance in which every word counts. Classic prose is energetic without being anxious or rushed. It reveals the individual personality of the writer, but only as a by-product of an effort to present truth. At its best, Thomas and Turner say, it is animated by a “jolt of passion,” the excitement of personal conviction. This imprint of personality distinguishes it from banal political speech (the politician has no intention of acting on those vague promises), all kinds of bureaucratic writing, and the smell of moralizing and potential hypocrisy that emanates from writing motivated by faddish ideologies. The classic stylist never speaks for a committee or is controlled by an organization’s policy: “The classic writer is an individual; his model audience is an individual.”
On a personal level, Clear and Simple as the Truth explains why I found it so painful last year to write a lengthy, official statement on behalf of a government body in New Zealand, advising a ministerial review committee of the Australian federal parliament. It seemed unnatural, almost inhuman, to adopt the voice--or is it a chorus?--of one committee addressing another, and I’m thankful not to have to do it often. (I imagine the ethos of the United Nations, or the Georgetown area of Washington, both populated by functionaries whose foreign-service careers have been bent toward learning to write and think in tones of gray: the dinner parties must be torture.) Thomas and Turner have also deepened for me the meaning of our twentieth-anniversary editorial last year, in which Pat Henry and I summed up the authors of this journal: “In terms of style, subject, or doctrine, there is not much their work carries in common, except a sense for three imperatives: present an argument, provide evidence to support it, and write as though the truth matters.” Shades of M. Jourdain: we’ve been searching for classic prose, whether we knew it or not.
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
A question that occurs to every thoughtful person sooner or later, generally around age 17, is: Why have numerically tiny, not very well favored, groups of human beings — the ancient Jews, Greece in the 5th century B.C., Renaissance Italy, Tudor England — produced so many works of artistic and literary genius, when far bigger, more prosperous, more secure populations have dragged their weary lengths along for centuries without leaving behind them anything worth remembering? The population of Attic Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War was, according to Kitto, around 350,000, of whom half were citizens, a tenth resident aliens, and the rest slaves — say 180,000 free citizens. The population of my county is seven times that. Where is our Aeschylus, our Socrates, our Phidias, our Demosthenes, our Xenophon, our Thucydides? Shouldn’t we have around seven of each here in Suffolk County, other things being equal?
On the same logic, the state of New Jersey, with a current population of eight and a half million, should boast around 47 Aeschyluses, Socrateses, etc. If great artistic and literary talent were spread evenly across time and space, the Garden State would be teeming with dramatists, architects, and philosophers of the highest caliber. And the leading poet of the state would be a literary genius of such authority and power that his verses would be passed down the centuries with reverence, to be treasured by our remotest descendants.
New Jersey’s leading poet is in fact a fellow named Amiri Baraka. Such, at any rate, is the judgment of New Jersey’s Council for the Humanities, the state’s Council on the Arts, and the state governor, Democrat James E. McGreevey. Those first two bodies endorsed Baraka for the post of state poet laureate earlier this year, and Gov. McGreevey duly appointed him in August. The job comes with an iron-clad two-year tenure and a stipend of $10,000.
The cultural panjandrums of New Jersey are not, I hasten to add, the only people in awe of Mr. Baraka’s shimmering talent. The American Academy of Arts and Letters described him as “one of the most important African-American poets since Langston Hughes” when they inducted him last year. Never to be caught napping on any matter of high cultural import, the New York Times chimed in with an editorial calling him “a powerful and respected poet.”
What kind of verses does he turn out for his ten grand, this Trenton troubadour, this Hackensack Homer, this companion-in-arms of Chaucer, Milton, Poe, and Longfellow? Read and savor.
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
This is from a longish (226 lines) opus read out by Mr. Baraka at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J. on September 20. The title of the piece is “Somebody Blew Up America.”
As a former teacher of English literature, accustomed to describing and analyzing poems for the benefit of students, I should like to give you an outline of the thing. This, however, is not easy to do. I have mentioned elsewhere the criteria for poems to be submitted to the Literary Review monthly competition: They must rhyme, scan, and make sense. I have also offered my opinion that, in the present state of English-language poetry, I would happily settle for any two out of the three. “Somebody Blew Up America” scores zero. My guess is that Mr. Baraka probably regards rhyme and meter as contemptible Ice People devices, far too verkrampt to contain his ebullient African soul. Possibly he’s right. Still, a little sense might have been nice. Langston Hughes didn’t go much for formal structure, either, but at least his poems had some kind of internal logic. “4000 Israelis” working at the Twin Towers — including, apparently, Ariel Sharon? The entire population of Israel is less than six million. Four thousand of them in just two buildings seems like a lot. And who did tell them all to stay home? Is this a rhetorical question, or is Mr. Baraka going to let us in on the answer?
I’m not sure, but I think it’s the former. Most of the poem, in fact, is in the interrogative mood. 162 of the 226 lines begin with the word “Who.”
Who do Tom Ass Clarence work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly [sic] to be a wooden negro
A little exegesis is called for here, I think. “Tom Ass Clarence” is Clarence Thomas, a hate figure to black radicals, who think that writing his name that way is screamingly funny, even after eleven years of doing it. “The Colon” is Colin Powell — this is another thigh-slapper around the black-studies department watercooler. A “skeeza” is a woman with a bad reputation. “Condoleeza” is of course Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national-security adviser, one of the smartest women in America (Nicholas Lemann has a good profile of her in the Oct. 14-21 New Yorker), and “Connelly” must be Ward Connerly, the well-known opponent of race quotas, another hate figure to the blacker-than-thou crowd.
So what is the answer to all these questions? Even rhetorical questions have answers, you know. If you have any acquaintance with black radicals, you might suspect that the answer is: the Jews. (To make a Jesse Jacksonism out of it: “The answer to the whos / Is the 13-letter-expletive Jews / Ain’t no use askin’ ‘Why me?’ / We pinned it on you, Hymie.”) There is indeed some supporting evidence for this suspicion. There are the lines above, obviously, and also:
Who know who decide
Jesus get crucified
This seems to be a rephrasing of the oldest anti-Semitic cry of all: They killed Our Lord! And then again:
Who know why five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
Looks like for sure it’s those bloodsucking Jews. But wait a minute: at line 162 we have:
Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Mr. Baraka is a self-declared communist, you see. Line 161: “Who put a price on Lenin’s head.” (Whoever it was, I’d like to shake his hand. — JD) He is also a black man. Now, Hitler thought blacks were an inferior race, and he also persecuted communists. Mr. Baraka therefore feels under a double compulsion to dislike Hitler. But, whoa! — Hitler killed Jews, didn’t he? And Jews are evil, aren’t they? You might think this would be a tough circle for Mr. Baraka to square. Not a bit of it. Some of those Jews were communists, you see. Line 166: “Who killed Rosa Luxembourg [sic... I’m going to leave out the sics from now on — just take it from me, the spelling of proper names is not Mr. Baraka’s strong suit. Spelling, after all, is just another one of those soul-constricting Ice People gimmicks], Liebneckt / Who murdered the Rosenbergs...” Communism trumps Jewishness, you see. Communists are, in fact, sort of honorary black people — even when they’re Jewish! And a black communist is, of course, to die for: “Who poison Robeson / Who try to put Du Bois in jail.”
This still leaves us with some puzzles. “Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo, / Chiang kai Chek.” Leaving aside the Hobbit — how did he get in there? — and the pre-Castro Cuban dictator (whose regime was described by U.S. ambassador Sumner Wells as “frankly communistic,” and who was praised by the communist leader Blas Roca as “the father of the Popular Front”), at least part of the answer in the case of the other two was: Stalin. The Soviet dictator went into alliance with Hitler, after all, and sold him all the war materiel he’d take. He backed Chiang Kai-shek to the very end. The last person Chiang shook hands with on the Chinese mainland, before departing for exile in Taiwan, was the Soviet ambassador.
Mere historical truth is of course beneath the notice of a poetic genius like Amiri Baraka. If you actually try answering some of his questions, in fact, you get into some very confusing terrain. “Who killed the most Africans?” Other Africans, without any doubt. Tribal warfare has been endemic in Africa since remote antiquity, except for the few brief decades when European colonizers suppressed it. “Who bought the slaves, who sold them?” Same answer, mostly. Every single pre-colonial African society was slave-owning, and some post-colonial ones have resumed the tradition. “Who killed Malcolm?” Some black radicals he’d fallen out with. “Who keep the Irish a colony?” I dunno — ask Bertie Ahern, prime minister of the Irish Republic. (Then tell me whose navy shut down the Atlantic slave trade.) “Who got rich from Armenian genocide?” You got me on that one, Amiri. Who did?
Then, just as you start to feel that the contradictions have piled up to an unacceptable height — wheeee! With one bound our hero is free. Employing the rhetorical device poets call metastasis (change of subject, more or less) he leaps from dark speculations about the origin of AIDS and the fate of Paul Robeson to... exploding owls. Yep, you heard it right.
Explosion of Owl the newspaper say
The devil face cd be seen.
I have to confess, Mr. Baraka lost me here. Who is this exploding owl? Where did he fly in from? Could this be some sort of typo? No, twelve lines later we get showered with feathers again:
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
This leads in, somehow, to a closing crescendo:
...We hear the questions rise
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!
I never did figure out what the exploding owl is doing in there, but by the time I got to “Whooooooooooooooooooooo!” I felt pretty sure I knew the answer to all those whos. It’s us white devils, the ones who aren’t communists, and most especially those of us who are Jews but not communists.
Pleased with having got to the bottom of this “powerful and respected” poet’s challenging production, I felt inspired to have a go at something along the same lines myself. I cannot hope to compete with such a giant of American letters, of course, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I hope Mr. Baraka will take my feeble effort in that spirit. Everybody has to start somewhere, after all. Amiri Baraka, for example, started out as LeRoi Jones, a humble organizer of race riots back in the 1960s. Who knows? If I keep at it long enough, maybe I could become Poet Laureate of New York State. I could sure use 10,000 bucks. OK, here goes.
Somebody Stuck It To New Jersey Taxpayers
by John Derbyshire
Who took help from Jews when getting his scam started
Then turned and spat on them when a cozy sinecure came along
Who praises despots, wreckers of nations
Murderers, despoilers of innocence — Kabila, Lumumba, Lenin, Che
Who thinks Nkrumah was a benefactor of anyone but himself
Who believes the most transparent driveling anti-Semitic lies about 9/11
Who thinks “Tom Ass” is a really, really funny way to write “Thomas”
Who mau-maued the governor
Who put one over on the guilty white liberals at those fool Art Councils
Who’s an illiterate moron
So stupid he can’t even keep his racism straight...
Amiri Baraka--who was named poet laureate of New Jersey nine months after writing “Somebody Blew Up America”--may get canned after all.
MAYBE it’s all Christie Whitman’s fault. After all, it was under her stewardship as governor of New Jersey that the idea of a state poet laureate was first hatched. But how could she have known in April 2000 that the innocuous role of poet laureate would fall under intense scrutiny? Back then, the distinction of New Jersey’s first poet laureate was bestowed upon Gerald Stern, whose works include “This Time: New and Selected Poems,” winner of the National Book Award. And the poet laureate gig is a pretty good deal: It involves a two-year term and a $10,000 stipend--Stern used the money to travel around the state, reading poems.
New Jersey is no stranger to poetry--native sons include Walt Whitman (Camden), William Carlos Williams (Rutherford), Robert Pinsky (Long Branch), and Allen Ginsberg (Newark). Also born in Newark was Everett LeRoi Jones, a 1960s black radical who changed his name to Amiri Baraka, who last July became New Jersey’s second poet laureate, and is now at the center of a political firestorm.
It all started on September 19 at a poetry festival in Stanhope, New Jersey, when Baraka read aloud “Somebody Blew Up America.” The stanza receiving the most attention reads as follows:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League accused the poet laureate of anti-Semitism and Democratic governor James McGreevey demanded Baraka resign his post. But last week at the Newark Public Library, Baraka held his ground, “I will not apologize, I will not resign.” About 200 of his supporters, who were on hand, applauded. He went on, “This trashy propaganda is characteristic of right-wing zealots who are interested only in slander and character assassination of those whose views or philosophies differ from or are in contradiction to theirs.”
As the law currently stands, not even the governor can fire Baraka. But this week, legislation was drafted to amend the law and allow Governor McGreevey (not exactly a right-wing zealot) to force him out. The governor’s spokeswoman, Ellen Mellody, tells me that the legislation is “widely supported by both Republicans and Democrats” and that they are trying to expedite its passage. She also reminds me that McGreevey has already frozen the $10,000 stipend.
“We’ll fight this,” Baraka recently told the Star-Ledger. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court. The only thing they’ll do is put me in a position to defend the rights of poets and the First Amendment.” Regarding the charges of anti-Semitism, Baraka is quick to point out other stanzas in “Somebody Blew Up America” that ask, “Who put the Jews in ovens” and later, “Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt” and “Who murdered the Rosenbergs.” (In his subsequent statement defending his position, he continues to misspell Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s names.) Baraka insists that he does not accuse the Israeli government of plotting the attacks of September 11, but he says on his website:
“I WAS NOT SAYING ISRAEL WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ATTACK, BUT THAT THEY KNEW AND OUR OWN COUNTERFEIT PRESIDENT DID TOO!” [All-caps in the original.]
Tell that to Liat Levinhar, whose husband, Shai, a 29-year-old assistant vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed in the World Trade Center. Did Shai, an Israeli, somehow miss Ariel Sharon’s call to skip work that day?
Reading Somebody Blew Up America , it’s obvious that, charges of anti-Semitism aside, the poem itself is a rambling rant. It features a series of “who” questions: “Who the fake president” and “Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And crackling they sides at the notion” and “Who put a price on Lenin’s head.” All of which begs the question: Who made this guy poet laureate of New Jersey?
That would be a four-person panel convened by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, in consultation with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. One of those panelists, ironically, was former poet laureate Stern: “I don’t like what Baraka did, and I’ve called his poem stupid,” he told the New York Times last Tuesday. But Stern says the effort to remove Baraka “smacks of state control.” The NJCH, meanwhile, has reversed its recommendation of Baraka. In a letter to New Jersey Senate president Richard Codey, NJCH executive director Jane Rutkoff said the council “deeply deplores the comments made by Amiri Baraka, comments which the Council believes have compromised his ability to fulfill the duties of his position.” She then calls for the remedy of a statute to provide for the direct removal of the poet laureate.
Still, one wonders how the panel could have picked Baraka in the first place. After all, he wrote “Somebody Blew Up America” last October--nine months before he was named to the post in July 2002.
Last week on “Connie Chung Tonight,” Baraka said, “My intention was to show that not only did Israel know, . . . but the United States knew. . . . And Germany and France and England. And this is confirmed.” Chung was aghast and called the claim preposterous. Baraka goes on, “One of the reasons that . . . Cynthia McKinney, the congresswoman from Georgia, got put out is because she said the same thing. I have a press release of hers in my bag that says the same thing.” When asked about evidence, he began by saying “There is any number of articles on the Internet.” (As Clarence Page points out, Baraka “is one of those people who disbelieves what he hears in the major ‘media’ but believes everything he sees on the Internet.”)
The sooner McGreevey and the state assembly can agree on a resolution and get rid of Baraka, the better. Then the ex-poet laureate can write as many poems as he wants, whether it be about the Zionist conspiracy that ousted him, or about those terribly racist remarks made by Tommy Hilfiger. Or maybe he will extol that great Kurt Vonnegut commencement speech about wearing sunblock, or how, if you send out an e-mail to all your friends, Microsoft and Disney will send you a check for $500. Even better, maybe he and that Nigerian businessman will be able to collect the frozen $48,000,000,000 USD.
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.
Suddenly Christian fiction is big business. What has made the difference?
A woman in your church has a bruise on her cheek. She says she tripped, but you have your own suspicions. You could: mind your own business; offer advice over a cup of coffee; buy her a book on relationships; lend her your copy of Sadie’s Song, a suspense novel that tells the story of a Christian woman who comes to realize she is being abused by her husband, a deacon.
Deborah Gyapong of Ottawa says she’d give the novel because it meets an abused person’s need “to see a spark of recognition, compassion and understanding from a Christian standpoint.” This from a communications expert and former CBC producer, whom you might expect to recommend a non-fiction documentary instead.
Toronto science writer Denyse O’Leary agrees. “After I read it and lent someone my copy, I bought two copies for a therapist friend to give to religious women patients who had abusive husbands.”
What’s going on with these women is not new, but it is increasing: more and more people are reading novels by Christian authors. Christian fiction is in a growth phase like the one Christian music was in 10 years ago. Fiction sales are now 15% of the Christian book market for adults, compared to a mere 4.3% in 1985 (see sidebar on The Trajectory of Christian Fiction).
How far the boom in Christian fiction will go is uncertain. In the secular adult market, fiction makes up 51% of sales. If the sudden growth that Christian music experienced 10 years ago is any indication, secular booksellers will need to pay increasing attention: Christian music now constitutes 14% of the total music business.
So why the new popularity? Christian fiction is beginning to overcome the shortcomings that kept away readers in the past. Changes in the market, changes in the content of the novels, and changes in our perception of the value of fiction have all contributed to its growing success. Once dismissed as “prairie romance” or “end-times pulp” Christian fiction has dramatically changed.
Much of the recent interest in Christian novels is the result of the unexpected success of the Left Behind novels, an end-times series that took advantage of a wave of year-2000 anxieties and kept going. Christians and non-Christians alike have flocked to read these books, some for the action-packed stories and some because they see the books as a blueprint for the future, not caring that they are fiction.
Others have been drawn to fiction by the “Oprah effect.” Book discussion groups have been popularized by television superstar Oprah Winfrey. Although Oprah’s taste in fiction is not shared by all Christians, the cultural phenomenon that she helped shape has also taken root in churches. In the last five years, many congregations across North America have begun hosting vibrant book-discussion groups.
These and other changes have increased the visibility of Christian fiction. (For example, most Christian publishers have been bought by multinational corporations and so have increased marketing muscle.) The summer of 2002 saw a cover story in Time magazine, a full spread in Publishers Weekly, and a story in the Los Angeles Times—all devoted to Christian fiction.
Content of novels is changing
Christian novels have evolved in their content, and this has drawn a wider audience. The suspense novel Sadie’s Song, written by New Brunswick author Linda Hall, is an example of a new breed of Christian novels that are resonating with readers because of their deep character development, fast pace, and realism.
In the past, many novels were constrained by the overriding desire to avoid offending any potential customers. Publishers were inflexible in their demand for books with a clear takeaway message and no offensive words or behaviour. At the same time, many writers began with an agenda—something specific they wanted to say. Enduring fiction usually has an emphasis on character rather than plot or theme—with the story coming out of the characters, and the theme coming out of the story. Beginning with a theme and plotline, as most Christian novels used to do, and then developing characters to fit is not the best way to write. The result has been too many books with cardboard characters, superficiality, preachiness, lack of realism, and failure to address tough issues.
As well, more and more evangelicals have been to university and studied the great writers. Consequently, they are looking for books with the ability to touch people’s hearts as some great writers such as Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis have done—books more concerned with honesty than safety. So the demand to get beyond squeaky-clean novels is growing.
Lando Klassen, owner of the House of James bookstore in Abbotsford, B.C., thinks that the new writing is starting to meet that demand. “In the past five years the quality of the writing has completely changed—it’s getting better all the time.”
What has improved? Primarily, topics that used to be taboo are now being dealt with realistically. Sadie’s Song, for example, deals with spousal abuse in a Christian family, something that years ago would not have been talked about, let alone used as a major theme for a Christian novel.
Despite this new boldness restrictions are still the norm. The publisher originally would have liked Sadie’s Song to end happily with the family together. However, Hall knew that would not likely happen in real life. The resulting compromise, with no mention of what will happen in the future, allows the integrity of both publisher and author to be maintained.
Growth in the suspense genre has also opened a door to a whole population segment that has been largely ignored—namely, men.
Admittedly, Christian publishers have aimed particularly at women in the past, because market research shows that more women buy books than men do. The Christian adult fiction market went so far in that direction that only 15% of its readers were men—far less than in the secular market.
Margo Smith, co-owner of three Hull’s Family Bookstores in Winnipeg, where fiction makes up 19% of adult book sales, believes that the reason more men don’t read Christian fiction is the lack of books geared toward them. “This of course means the tail is wagging the dog and we don’t know who would buy Christian fiction if it were more broadly aimed.” Smith believes the success of the Left Behind series is due in part to its appeal to men.
The recognition that boys will read if they find books written just for them is finally hitting home in the Christian market, says Alberta author Sigmund Brouwer, who has written nine series of kids’ books aimed particularly at boys who are reluctant readers, as well as 12 adult novels. Men and boys “aren’t going to read Little Women no matter how good a book it might be. Their needs are different.”
Vancouver Mystery, co-authored by Andrew Snaden, is one of the latest novels to try to meet those male needs. “Some of my characters are Christians,” says the accountant from British Columbia, “but I don’t write to preach. I write to keep people turning pages. I hope readers will take something away with them on how those characters dealt with life’s problems.”
Change in understanding fiction’s use
Changes in content and character development are pulling more and more readers into Christian fiction, but they are also finding new ways to use it. Many Christians in Canada are discovering that novels can change lives for the better.
Books that teach people have been seen as far more important than fiction, which is often regarded as fluff or, at best, something to take along on holidays at a sunny beach. Most seminaries don’t teach courses on how to use novels as tools for discipleship or outreach. The tendency is to rely on the Bible, theology, or self-help books.
Some Christians are actually afraid of fiction, says Larry Willard, executive director of Augsburg Press Canada and its imprint Castle Quay Books. “Theology we know what to do with; fiction we don’t know what to do with.”
But this hesitation may change as more people talk about how fiction has influenced their lives. Michael Coren, speaking at the God Uses Ink writers conference in June, was asked what books had affected him the most. He mentioned reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a young child, and said he believes seeds sown then bore fruit years later.
Author and professor Maxine Hancock points to Grace Irwin’s novel Least of All Saints as a book that had a great influence on her life.
“If you don’t have time to read, read fiction rather than Christian living books,” argues Lando Klassen, the Abbotsford store owner. “With straight teaching, the author only gets one chance to get a point across and it’s gone. But if it’s a story, you’ll probably talk about it with someone and keep thinking it over. I would say, “Are you really learning from these other books? Try reading a good story and see.’ “
This understanding of fiction as more than entertainment is shared by most Christians who write fiction. They believe they are performing a ministry that can help others learn about God, gain understanding about themselves, and grow.
Perhaps such aims are most obvious in historical fiction.
Connie Brummel Crook of Peterborough, Ont. has written novels about Nellie McClung, Laura Secord and other figures from Canadian history to show how Christian faith was a crucial part of their lives. Her novels, aimed at young readers, are not published by or marketed to Christians in particular, but are popular and widely acclaimed. Her most recent novel, The Hungry Year, was a Regional Silver Birch winner (an award voted on by grade 4-6 students across the province). It also won the 2002 God Uses Ink novel award.
Hugh Smith tells the story of the first Hutterite settlers in Canada in his recent novel, When Lightning Strikes. “I wanted the story to portray elements of universal human experience played out against a unique backdrop. The facts and cultural milieu are accurate to the best of my understanding, and the characters and their stories completely fictional.”
Many romance authors, despite their reputation as offering shallow escapism, also aim to do more than entertain.
Gail Sattler’s romance, My Name Is Mike, portrays a young man who is an alcoholic. The novel clearly demonstrates how concerned Christians who live out their faith, together with a forgiving God, can help change a life.
Sattler’s books are humorous and uplifting, and they offer hope in a world where hope is sometimes in short supply. People come to her books for a temporary escape from a busy life, says the author from Maple Ridge, B.C., but she gives them more. A well-written happily-ever-after ending can show that “all things are possible when God is placed in the centre of people’s lives,” she says.
Suspense novels, too, can make a difference in people’s lives beyond entertaining them.
Linda Hall’s fiction helps bring emotional and spiritual health to hurting Christians. A pastor’s daughter, she grew up in a conservative evangelical environment and so understands where many Christians are coming from.
“The books that have affected me and caused me to make changes have been fiction. Non-fiction touches our intellect, but fiction touches that deep sense—our soul—our emotions. I want people to come away with a sense of who they are in God’s eyes. I want their emotions to be touched so that they will make changes,” she says.
Hall has talked to many women and men who have found hope and comfort in her books. “One woman who had been in an abusive relationship said that reading Sadie’s Song made her feel it was okay not to have stayed with her abusive husband.” That knowledge gave the woman peace and the freedom to go forward.
Seeing lives changed. That’s why Christians write novels. And they love to hear from readers and know that something they wrote made a difference.
Sigmund Brouwer says, “A lot of the ideals that I took into adulthood I [first] absorbed through fiction.” Now he gets dozens of letters, many from boys and men, saying, “This was something I needed to read” or “This helped me in my life.”
Raymond Reid took five years to write and self-publish his historical novel, The Gate Seldom Taken. Now the Guelph, Ont., author has files full of letters from people who “insist the book has had a major impact on their thinking.” The work was worth it!
In a sense, this discovery by evangelicals that fictional stories can change lives is actually a rediscovery. “Stories” are what people of all cultures have used to teach principles and retain their heritage. Mythology and legends are merely stories transmitted from one generation to the next to pass on values and cultural mores.
Why do we read stories?
Aesop’s fables were stories written to illustrate truth. All of us know the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” We also know about the three little pigs, Cinderella, King Arthur, Aladdin—why do these stories beg to be told and retold in so many forms? Because the truths in the stories remain with the readers, often for life.
That’s why Jesus used stories. The prodigal son, the rich man and the foolish man, the sower and the seeds, the pearl of great price—all stories.
The prophets told stories as well. The most famous is probably the story Nathan told King David about the poor man and his lamb. David had no difficulty getting the point.
These stories entertain us, make us laugh or cry, strain to guess the outcome, and exert our imaginations while helping us forget our problems, work out our frustrations, and—assuming the author has done a good job—feel satisfied and energized.
Many readers will choose Christian novels because they want an overt message or books that they can trust to be free of unwelcome language or plotlines. There is certainly justification for having books that can be given to someone without any possibility of embarrassment. Kathy Stouffer, owner of the Master’s Choice bookstore in Haliburton, Ont., says her customers want “fiction they know will be clean and have a positive focus.” But at the same time they want “a good author with meat.”
The problem with “meat” is that different people enjoy different kinds.
“Christian fiction writers and indeed their readers are often much more comfortable when the ugly side of life is portrayed” by non-Christian characters, says Margo Smith. “But the best Christian writers effectively weave in the theme of ordinary people committing evil, which is much more interesting, applicable and even helpful to those of us who are trying to come to grips with a complex world.” Different preferences as to the portrayal of the realities of sin will undoubtedly continue among Christian readers, requiring the continuation of a range of fictional approaches.
For those who choose carefully, much of today’s Christian fiction can be a terrific resource for growth, not only for ourselves but for those we want to serve. Dorienne Peterson, a reader from St. Catharines, passes on her books to neighbours and friends and uses them as an opportunity to talk about Christian ideas. “I’m careful and not pushy,” she says, “and I try to select books I think they will like. I ask them where they stand [spiritually] and how they respond to what I give them.”
In a world full of stress, everyone—even Christians—needs to relax. A novel can be a little get-away but a very stimulating one. It can instruct, encourage, challenge, entertain, and empower. Most of all, it allows us to step into another world for a few brief hours and explore what it would be like if . . . in a safe, secure environment. Yes, you could watch TV or a movie, but the truth is a novel can stimulate your mind and imagination—and your faith—much more.
The Trajectory of Christian Fiction
::N. J. Lindquist
Christian fiction comes of age
The swift rise surprised many observers at first. But now the industry is scrambling to meet firm estimates of continuing growth. The upward movement began with Alberta author Janette Oke, whose first novel, Love Comes Softy, was published in 1979. Oke’s more than 75 books, many of them prairie romances, have sold over 20 million copies. The movement continued with Frank Peretti, whose unusual suspense novel, This Present Darkness, topped the Christian bestseller list in 1988. Bodie and Brock Thoene’s meticulously researched historical novels brought in more readers. In 1994, Jan Karon’s Mitford series about an older Anglican priest in a small present-day parish came out from Lion Publishing. Now mass marketed by Viking, the series has sold 10 million copies in both the secular and Christian markets. The 1990s also saw “secular” romance authors switching to the Christian market, with the likes of Francine Rivers, Terri Blackstock, and Dee Henderson bringing in new vibrancy and greater realism. In the late 1990s, the Left Behind series of end-times novels exploded onto the scene with numbers that astonished everyone (current total: 50 million products, including children’s and audio), forcing secular bestseller lists to pay attention and enticing new writers and secular publishers to enter the Christian fiction field.
N. J. Lindquist is the director of The Word Guild, the author of five novels, and a speaker. She has provided Faith Today with a list of authors that she recommends, available here.
As promised in her cover story from Sep/Oct 2002, here follows a list of fiction recommended by N. J. Lindquist:
Popular contemporary authors you will find in most Christian bookstores:
designates writing that appeals particularly to boys or men
Lynn Austin: Hidden Places, Candle in the Darkness
Terri Blackstock: Covenant Child, Cape Refuge
Sigmund Brouwer: The Leper, Out of the Silence www.coolreading.com
T. Davis Bunn: The Great Divide, Different Drummer
Vinita Hampton-Wright: Broadman and Holman
Linda Hall: Sadie’s Song, Island of Refuge, etc. www.writerhall.com
Robin Lee Hatcher: The Forgiving Hour, Whispers from Yesterday, etc.
Dee Henderson: the O’Malley Family Series, the Uncommon Heroes series
Randal Ingermanson and John B. Olson: Oxygen, The Fifth
Shane Johnson: Last Guardian, Ice
Jan Karon: the Mitford series
Karen Kingsbusy: On Every Side, Gideon’s Gift
Jane Kirkpatrick: A Name of Her Own, A Burden Shared
Stephen Lawhead: the Pendragon Cycle, the Dragon King trilogy, Byzantium, etc.
Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time, A Ring of Endless Light, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, etc.
Beverly Lewis: the Heritage of Lancaster County series, etc.
Bill Myers: the Wally McDoogle series, Threshold, Eli, etc.
Janette Oke: The Winds of Autumn, etc. www.janetteoke.com
Frank Peretti: Piercing the Darkness, The Oath, The Visitation, etc.
Tracie Petersen: the Desert Rose series, etc.
Francine Rivers: Atonement Child, Redeeming Love, etc.
James Schaap: In the Silence There are Ghosts, etc.
Debra White Smith: Second Chances, etc.
Patricia Sprinkle: The Remember Box (also has a secular mystery series)
Brock & Bodie Thoene: the Zion Legacy series, etc.
Jamie Langston-Turner: A Garden to Keep, etc.
Kathy Tyers: the Firebird series
Lori Wick: the Rocky Mountain Memories series, etc.
Canadian Christian novelists you may not find in most Christian bookstores
Carolyn Aarson: Twin Blessings, etc. www.telusplanet.net/public/caarsen/
Hugh Cook: The Homecoming Man, Home in Alfafa, etc. www.redeemer.on.ca/~hcook/
Connie Brummel Crook: The Hungry Year, Laura’s Choice, etc. www.conniebrummelcrook.ca
N. J. Lindquist: Shaded Light, Circle of Friends series, etc. www.njlindquist.com
Michael O’Brien: Eclipse of the Sun, etc. http://studiobrien.com/
Gail Sattler: My Name is Mike, etc. www.gailsattler.com
Hugh Smith: When Lightning Strikes www.freeyellow.com/members8/stagewrite
Andrew Snaden: Betrayed, Vancouver Mystery www.geocities.com/kiwielle/Authors/QRSTU/AndrewSnaden.html
Rudy Wiebe: Sweeter Than All the World, etc. http://www.ucalgary.ca/library/SpecColl/wiebebioc.htm
BONUS! Margo Smith of Hull’s Family Bookstores ( www.hullsbookstores.com ) compiled these names from the staff of their three stores:
Authors who aren’t as popular yet but who write quality work
Randy Alcorn Silvia Bambola
Lisa Dawn Bergren Brandilyn Collins
Ted Dekker Linda Hall (see above)
N. J. Lindquist (see above) Bette Nordberg
Gary Parker Walt Wangerin
A little out-of-the ordinary but musts on their shelves:
Frederick Buechner Michael O’Brien (see above)
Susan Howatch Shusaku Endo
P. D. James
Other writers of the 20th century or earlier they recommend:
C. S. Lewis J. R. R. Tolkien
Flannery O’Connor George MacDonald
G. K. Chesterton Graham Greene
Evelyn Waugh Charles Williams
For those interested in reading about fiction, Lando Klassen of The House of James ( www.houseofjames.com ) recommends two books:
The Rock that is Higher by Madeleine L’Engle 0877887268
The Christian Imagination by Leyland Ryken 0877881235
If you are interested in learning more about writers or writing, there are two organizations for Christian writers in Canada:
www.thewordguild.com (includes a catalogue of many Canadian authors who are Christian)
www.inscribe.org (a.k.a. www.icwf.com)
John J. Miller
Everybody knows the story of A Christmas Carol. We’ve seen the stage productions, the TV specials, the movies — the thing has been filmed more than 200 times. Some folks have even read the book, by Charles Dickens. Yet it may also be one of the great unread books in our culture, because the story has become so well known that we don’t feel the need to bother.
A few people are probably even in my weird predicament: I think I read A Christmas Carol years ago. But I’m not totally sure, and in my mind’s eye the role of Ebenezer Scrooge is played by George C. Scott. The Ghost of Christmas Past has refused to materialize and clear things up.
So I recently decided to read A Christmas Carol again. Or for the first time. Whatever.
You should, too, because it’s a great book. Dickens composed A Christmas Carol in the fall of 1843. He wrote it in a hurry — but then he wrote everything in a hurry, knowing what an advantage it is to be a writer who not only writes well but also writes fast. The book was published shortly before Christmas and sales were phenomenal. Profits were low, however, because Dickens had priced his gilt-edged volume at a mere five shillings so that all might afford it, even those working on Bob Cratchit’s measly salary. Yet Dickens raved about the result. “A most prodigious success,” he called it, “the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved.”
Dickens wrote a number of highly regarded books — Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities — but this brief one is his best known and best loved. It also single-handedly created a new genre of popular literature that still thrives today: the Christmas book. Recent bestsellers like John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas and Richard Paul Evans’s The Christmas Box owe everything to Dickens. There probably wouldn’t be a Grinch if there hadn’t first been a Scrooge.
After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote a special Christmas story or essay every year between 1843 and 1867 (with one exception). He never duplicated that initial achievement, but then nobody else has, either. In a way, it’s been downhill from the peak of Mount Crumpit ever since.
Reading A Christmas Carol now reminds me of the old joke about the guy who encounters Hamlet for the first time: “It’s a good play,” he says, “except for the clichés.”
Think of all the clichés A Christmas Carol has given us: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future; Tiny Tim announcing “God bless us every one”; and, of course, Scrooge spitting out his famous invective, “Bah humbug!”
The book also has one of the great opening lines in English literature: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
Then, as fate would have it, Dickens offers us a subtle apologia for clichés:
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
A Christmas Carol isn’t an especially conservative book, but there’s no arguing that Dickens buried a conservative sentiment in the heart of this paragraph. The phrase “dead as a door-nail” was as much a cliché to Dickens as it is to us. It is possible to think of an innovation that improves upon that old standby. But “dead as a coffin-nail” doesn’t have nearly the same ring. It seems better in theory, but it fails to work as well in practice: This, in fact, is the essence of liberalism. Old Marley simply needs to be “as dead as a door-nail.” He can be no other thing.
Maybe one of those 200 or so films has tried to give life to this little Dickens nugget. I can’t imagine it working well. A Christmas Carol is eminently adaptable, but people who don’t actually read the book are passing up something special.
Another example: When the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives in Scrooge’s bedroom, the narrator injects himself into the story: Scrooge, he says, “found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew [the curtains]: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”
I am standing in the spirit at your elbow. It’s impossible to read these words and not lift your eyes from the printed page and look to see if there’s anybody in the vicinity of your elbow. Even then, when you see nothing, can you really be so sure that nothing’s there? It’s an effect only literature can realize. Sound goofy? Well, then you’re too much of a rationalist. “My own mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject of ghosts,” Dickens once said. “I do not in the least pretend that such things cannot be.”
One of those clichés from Hamlet springs to mind: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Many other fine moments can only be experienced in the book.
Here’s an early description of Scrooge, and an example of first-rate writing: “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel has ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
And here’s another bit I like, after Scrooge has become a new man: “Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don’t dance while you are at it. But, if he had cut the end of his nose off, he would have put a piece of sticking plaster over it, and been quite satisfied.”
Dickens is sometimes called the greatest English novelist. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s hard to deny that he has given us one of the most enduring books in our language or any language. So don’t just watch A Christmas Carol — read it, before the Ghost of Christmas Future has to tell you what you’ve missed.
Is that him standing in the spirit at your elbow right now?
[Kwing Hung: aweful state of Nobel prizes. They are no longer credible representation of excellence. That shows what the Swedes have become. Pity!]
SWEDEN HAS A REPUTATION for a high suicide rate. But a psychological crackup striking an ordinary Scandinavian, brooding in the long, dark winter, is merely a personal tragedy. By contrast, the moral suicide of a whole institution, like the Swedish Academy--which has responsibility for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature--is messier and more disturbing.
Yet like a pack of lemmings drunk on home-made aquavit, the Stockholm snobs have continued their rush to fully discredit the literature Nobels, by selecting Harold Pinter as their 2005 laureate. Pinter is an exhausted English playwright whose sole and obvious current qualification for the prize is his strident participation in the America-baiting, Israel-hating protests against the liberation of Iraq.
Pinter himself admitted that his career no longer has anything to do with literary aspirations. Notified of his good fortune, since the prize includes a $1.3 million payout, he snarled today, “I have written 29 plays and I think that’s really enough. I think the world has had enough of my plays.” He then declared that he has given up playwriting altogether.
Given that Pinter has produced no significant work for the stage in 40 years, one should perhaps admire the candor of his self-criticism. But viewed from another perspective, the Swedes have written a new chapter in ignobility, presenting the world’s top literary honor to an author who considers his own work irrelevant. That, at least, could not be said of some of the anti-democracy miscreants previously so recognized in Stockholm. They have included the 1999 choice, German novelist Gunter Grass, a veteran of the Nazi forces in the Second World War and unsparing foe of Western values; the 1998 laureate, the Portuguese Jose Saramago, a former Communist censor, and his immediate predecessor Dario Fo, a tireless enemy of religion. Some have never forgiven the ignominious past selection of Pablo Neruda, a fervent Stalinist and clandestine agent for the Soviet secret police. But, at the very least, none of those puffers and fakes would have disclaimed the importance of their writerly efforts.
Pinter, the George Galloway of literary London, has his eyes on bigger things than creative achievement. No longer a star in the world of theatre, he retains a theatrical personality. He is a pathological Bushophobe, whose hatred of our president is only exceeded by his disgust with Tony Blair. Pinter has called Blair a “deluded idiot.” (With characteristic gentility, the prime minister’s office commented, “Of course we congratulate Harold Pinter on the recognition that he has received.”) Some in the media described Pinter’s Nobel as “surprising,” but the Swedes were actually reprising the scandal they perpetrated last year when they presented the award to an obscure Austrian pornographer, Elfriede Jelinek, whose only claim to fame was her production of a work attacking the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
That disgrace caused a rift within the Stockholm academy itself. This week Knut Ahnlund, a member of the once-august body, angrily announced his resignation, denouncing the Austrian termagant with the piquant argument that his fellow-academicians had not read any of her work at all.
But why should they have? She, like Harold Pinter, owes her Nobel to her posturing against American foreign policy. Jelinek herself has been quick to praise the Swedes for choosing another leftist as a recipient of the award.
Perhaps it is time to simply ignore, and forget, the Nobels.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.
Florida governor Jeb Bush has chosen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as the centerpiece of his “Just Read, Florida!” program, and he’s already coming under left-wing fire. “Some are concerned that the selection is an attempt to Christianize the students of Florida,” complains blogger Michael Schaub.
And so it begins: The controversy over whether impressionable schoolchildren should be exposed to the nefarious influence of C.S. Lewis. It will only grow louder as we approach December, when the big-budget movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reaches theaters.
But in the meantime, you may have a more basic question. Perhaps you’ve seen the super-cool trailer for the upcoming film, and you’ve decided to read the book beforehand. You go to the bookstore, look up C.S. Lewis titles, and locate the seven volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia. But the label on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe says it’s the second book in the series. The first one is called The Magician’s Nephew. That’s not how you remember it. Aslan moves in mysterious ways, but something doesn’t seem quite right.
So which comes first: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Magician’s Nephew?
The short answer is this: Jeb is right.
The long answer is this: Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe before any of the other Narnia books, and traditionally it has been considered the first in the series. For years, its publisher marketed it that way. Then, about a decade ago, Narnia became a piece of real estate in the HarperCollins empire. The renumbering took place “in compliance with the original wishes of the author,” as a small-print statement on the copyright page of the new editions says.
The decision was based in large part upon a 1957 comment in which Lewis expressed a mild preference for the books to be read not in the order of their publication, but based upon their internal chronology. It also involved the input from Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s son-in-law. “I don’t think people should feel enslaved by the numbers on the books,” he says. “But I recommend starting with The Magician’s Nephew and going from there.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the best advice. The irony is that Lewis himself probably would agree that readers shouldn’t look to him for much guidance on the subject. And I’m fairly certain that if Lewis were still around — he died on the day JFK was shot — I could buy him a drink at the pub and persuade him he was wrong.
Just for the record, here are the seven titles in The Chronicles of Narnia, listed in the order of their publication: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950); Prince Caspian (1951); The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952); The Silver Chair (1953); The Horse and His Boy (1954); The Magician’s Nephew (1955); and The Last Battle (1956).
Here’s the order HarperCollins now gives to the series (with their traditional numbering in parentheses): The Magician’s Nephew (6); The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1); The Horse and His Boy (5); Prince Caspian (2); The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (3); The Silver Chair (4); and The Last Battle (7).
Yet the case for reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first rather than second is overwhelming. Most important is the fact that the book introduces the world of Narnia to its readers far better than The Magician’s Nephew, or any of the other books in the Chronicles. Lucy’s initial encounter with Aslan’s domain is one of the great moments in whole series, as she passes through the wardrobe, hears the “crunch-crunch” of snow beneath her feet, and walks toward a light in the distance.
The device of the portal, which transports readers from our world to another, is crucial. For starters, it’s a traditional feature of fantasy literature for children — see, for instance, the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland or that railroad platform in Harry Potter. The portal described in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is more detailed and compelling than the ones found in subsequent books, which employ portals but don’t dwell on their significance. (With the exception of The Horse and His Boy, each of the Narnia books has a portal.) The early chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe focus on the important question of whether there can even be portals. “But do you really mean, Sir,” asks Peter, “that there could be other worlds — all over the place, just around the corner — like that?” Replies the professor: “Nothing is more probable.” This is a meaningful conversation on many levels, and not least because it confirms the reality of Narnia in the space of the story.
What’s more, when Lewis began writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he did not even conceive of writing the other books at all. As a result, he presents Narnia with a freshness that won’t be found elsewhere in the series. You might compare it to the freshness of the crunching snow beneath Lucy’s feet. Not only does Lewis lead his readers into a new world, but he’s looking upon it for the first time himself, and it shows.
There’s no such freshness in The Magician’s Nephew, which begins this workmanlike way: “This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began.” These opening words assume readers will know there’s a place called Narnia and that there are comings and goings between it and our world. In other words, the passage takes for granted a familiarity with tales Lewis already has told.
Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead make the point well in their new book, A Reader’s Guide Through the Wardrobe: “To read The Magician’s Nephew first would be to undercut the very fabric by which Lewis so carefully constructed his previous tale. Once readers know ‘all about’ Narnia, they can no longer experience the full strangeness of Lucy’s discovery of a mysterious world within the wardrobe,” they write. “If the reader first experiences Narnia by reading The Magician’s Nephew, all of this significant suspense is lost.”
Then there’s Aslan. He is of course as important to The Chronicles of Narnia as Jesus is to the gospels. And once again, Lewis brings him into the story with enormous care. His name first appears in chapter seven, when the Pevensie kids hear Mr. Beaver speak it: “They say Aslan is on the move — perhaps has already landed.” Next Lewis writes:
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning — either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.
This passage certainly belongs in the first book of the Chronicles. That’s especially true for the second sentence: “None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do.” This line could not be spoken to people who already have read other Narnia books. Moreover, the very final words of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe sound like the appropriate final words for the first book in a series: “It was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.”
There is nothing comparable to any of this in The Magician’s Nephew. (Final words: “But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman.”) No part of The Magician’s Nephew demands that it be read before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is in fact a kind of prequel to the other six books in the series, but this is no more a problem in the overall narration of the Chronicles than a flashback scene is a problem on a television show.
The case for pushing The Magician’s Nephew to the forefront rests almost wholly on the apparent fact that Lewis himself believed it should be read first. He doesn’t seem to have held this opinion with great conviction. He expressed his view in a letter to a child in 1957, in a conversation with one of his biographers, and evidently nowhere else. He certainly didn’t order his publisher to take any special action. By the time HarperCollins rearranged the titles, Lewis had been dead for more than thirty years.
But even if Lewis had been a fervent believer in the primacy of The Magician’s Nephew — writing manifestos, screaming from rooftops, paying for TV ads during the Superbowl — his readers wouldn’t owe him any special consideration. And Lewis definitely was a fervent believer in this principle.
In the 1930s, when Lewis was a relatively unknown scholar at Oxford, he debated E.M.W. Tillyard over how to interpret John Milton. Tillyard maintained that it was important to understand what was on Milton’s mind as he wrote and that such an understanding would help reveal the true meaning of Paradise Lost. Lewis, by contrast, was frustrated to find many of his students more interested in authors’ lives than their works. And he thought Tillyard’s approach was pure balderdash. In an essay, he called it “The Personal Heresy.” He believed that readers should try to share a poet’s consciousness rather than study it. “I look with his eyes, not at him,” wrote Lewis. “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.” Lewis put the matter more succinctly in a letter toward the end of his life: “An author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his own story better than anyone else.”
Lewis of course understood the meaning of Narnia. But a wise expert is not the same thing as a final authority — and on the question of which Narnia book should come first, Lewis was utterly wrong. Thank goodness the people who are behind new movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — as well as Jeb Bush — got it right. You should, too, if you decide to explore Narnia not just on the silver screen but also on the printed page.
— John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France He is author of the upcoming A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.
An institution set up to train students to fight abortion and low birth rates recently opened in South Korea, becoming the first bioethics graduate school in Asia.
Pro-life champion H.E. Nicholas Cardinal Cheong – whom the school is named after – said he hopes the school will train “students [who] will serve to overcome the culture of death and contribute to the proclamation of the good news of life in the light of the Catholic principle of respect for human life and dignity,” according to AsiaNews.
Cheong, who is the archbishop of Seoul and chairperson of the Board of the Catholic Academy Education Foundation, emphasized that the school is urgently needed as South Korea has one of the highest abortion rates and lowest birth rates in the world.
South Korea had a birth rate of 10.8 per 1,000 people in 2005 – one of the world’s lowest that year, according to the country’s National Statistical Office. Moreover, the Catholic Church maintains that some 1.5 million babies are aborted each year since 1973 – a figure if added up would be greater than the whole population of South Korea.
The country also suffers from a high suicide rate – 24.2 per 100,000 people – the highest rate among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 30 members, according to its 2004 report.
“I hope this new school can help people respect human dignity, the only weapon against the culture of death,” said Cheong during the school’s inauguration ceremony on Mar. 12.
The archbishop added, “[I]t is urgently needed that the Church proclaims the good news of life and promotes respect for human life in the Korean society which has marked world record of abortion rate and the lowest birth rate in the world.”
The Nicholas Cardinal Cheong Graduate School for Life, part of the Catholic University of Korea, offers a master program that includes specializing in bioethics and life culture as well as genetic research and birth rate support. It has master’s courses in the department of bioethics and the department of life culture.
“I hope this Graduate School for Life contributes to formation of experts on bioethics armed with the Catholic spirit so that they can take the initiative to create the culture of life in our society,” said the Rev. Remigio Lee Dong-ik, first dean of the Graduate School.
By Mary Grabar
As predictable as a college freshman telling me that the “A” sewn on Hester Prynne’s dress symbolizes Puritanical hypocrisy were the commentaries about the Puritanical hypocrisy of the prosecution of men (like Eliot Spitzer) for engaging the services of a prostitute.
The charges of “Puritanism” echo those made during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, and feature such notables as Huffington Post’s Chris Weignet asking us to “get beyond our Puritanical roots” in a commentary titled “In Defense of Hookers.” The Economist saw the Spitzer affair as the latest example in American history of “Puritanism deranging the law.” Legal and ethical scholar Martha Nussbaum, whose feminist “caring” ethic fills college anthologies, begins an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial, “Eliot Spitzer, one of the nation’s most gifted and dedicated politicians, was hounded into resignation by a Puritanism and mean-spiritedness that are quintessentially American.” She then expresses her “caring” for “sex workers”—the latest group of the oppressed in the Marxist universe of the American university. Our more prestigious campuses now host an annual sex workers show. “Sex workers,” unlike us “word workers” who toil at grading papers, were paid good money for their performances.
The Chronicle of Higher Education appropriately gathered such commentaries in its March 28th issue, appending a note by Robert Laslsz about the “perennial hot-button issue” of the legalization of prostitution. He comments, “What’s different about the present discussion is that there’s now economic, anthropological, and sociological analysis of sex work upon which to draw.” Yes, indeed, thanks to all those research grants!
Although literacy rates plummet as teachers substitute “visual” and “aural” aids for old-fashioned words in books, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter remains required reading in many high schools. This work is put on syllabi in order to fulfill what seems to be a major learning objective: to expose hypocrisy. The favorite target is the Puritans, who presumably provide a contrast to the students’ own refreshing candor and openness in all areas—including sexuality.
One of my favorite novelists, Richard Russo, can count on The Scarlet Letter as a point of reference in his own contribution published in The Washington Post, called “Imagining Eliot,” wherein he imagines writing a novel about Eliot Spitzer. Russo connects the character “Eliot” to Reverend Dimmesdale, the father of the child for which Hester Prynne is condemned to wear her scarlet letter A, standing for adulteress. His secret eventually drives him to madness and his death. Russo writes that he has grown “fond [of] my own messed-up untidy Eliot. So American in both his ambition and the disgrace that seems to flow from it so naturally. . . . he connects to my long-held conviction that people (in fiction, in life) aren’t meant to be saints, or to be treated like saints. That’s the hard lesson Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale learned from the pulpit.”
The implication here is that we all “mess up” (not sin). Being real eclipses being good. Listen to any group of teenagers on a campus or MTV. Saintliness implies good, which implies a standard of right and wrong, an alien concept in our culture of tolerance. In our postmodern, post-moral universe, the choice is to either try to be a “saint” (and therefore be hypocritical) or be “real.”
The appropriation of The Scarlet Letter to disseminate this message to high school students represents an example of the perfunctory inclusion of “classic” works, but interpreted to fit a political agenda.
Students parrot the misrepresentations of this novel. “Hmph,” say girls sitting indignantly at desks in revealing strappy tops, “It was the woman who was punished, not the man.” Students revel in their sophistication, at the exposure at such hypocrisy, as do writers for the Huffington Post.
My anecdotal observations from 16 years of teaching college were confirmed by a perusal of Prentice Hall’s eleventh-grade American literature textbook, which is used in every high school in DeKalb County of metro Atlanta. Various units, or periods, have an “Author’s Desk” feature, intended by appearances to make a period of American letters “relevant” by a connection to a writer or scholar. Most often these connections are strained in order to offer a photo of a person of color or someone whose work is politically appropriate. For the period 1946 – Present, (“Prosperity and Protest”) the recently departed Arthur Miller, “a legend of the contemporary American theater, [who] has chronicled the dilemmas of common people pitted against powerful social forces” is presented, with his own indictment of American Puritanism and Hypocrisy, The Crucible.
In this unit’s “History Connection,” (one of the myriad graphics-studded sidebars), the editors offer John Hathorne, a forebear of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a judge in the Salem witchcraft trials, as a “historical counterpart” to the characters in Miller’s play. The editors point to Hawthorne’s turning back to Puritans for subject and setting, but then claim, “In Puritan rigidity and repression he found an expression for his dark vision of the human soul. Hawthorne’s best-known novel, The Scarlet Letter, examines the repressive side of Puritanism and the hypocrisy and pain that such an atmosphere produced.”
I imagine putting the editors into stocks at the front of the classroom for misrepresenting Hawthorne’s real message: the moral degeneration of American culture since the Puritans. In fact, in The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne drawing upon his experience at Brook Farm, criticized social experiments in living that did away with the traditional ties of marriage and property. Hawthorne’s moral conservatism has been praised and referenced by everyone from Flannery O’Connor to the 2003 President’s Council on Bioethics by the inclusion of his short story, “The Birth-mark,” in their publication, Being Human.
Hawthorne shows the greatest respect for the morality of his Puritan forebears and the strict code that they enforced. In the lengthy introductory section to The Scarlet Letter, “The Customs-House,” Hawthorne sets up the frame by using his experience as a government worker in the customs house to contrast his epicurean co-workers living off political sinecures with his admirable forebears. In speaking of William Hathorne who made an “appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become a city” nearly “two centuries and a quarter” before his own time, Hawthorne writes of his “attachment” of “dust for dust” as he walks the streets of Plymouth.
“But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur. . . . It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim to a reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil.”
Hawthorne’s style—both in terms of sentence structure and ideas—jars with current reading habits of easily digestible sentences and similarly structured messages that conform to predigested ideologies. Part of the problem of teaching works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and similar writers is that teachers, according to the teaching manuals and directives of school districts, have relied on visuals, assigned work in groups, and encouraged impulsive responses regarding the student’s feelings (with such questions, “How would you feel if you were Hester Prynne? How has our society changed? Aren’t you glad that single mothers or sexually empowered women are no longer condemned?”).
But if one has the patience, one can discern the nuanced attitude Hawthorne holds. Clearly, Hawthorne while recognizing his ancestors’ failings, holds great admiration for them: “[William Hathorne] was likewise a bitter persecutor,” of Quakers. The son “too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.”
But rather than pointing accusingly at his forebears, Hawthorne, in true Christian fashion, asks for forgiveness of his ancestors’ sins and casts the sin-detecting eye upon himself:
“Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler [as a writer] like myself.”
Hawthorne recognizes both good and evil in his forebears, and unlike those who use his work to dismiss claims of morality as Puritanical cruelty, acknowledges the reality of sin and the burden of living with its consequences.
Hester Prynne’s redemption comes from recognizing her sin and acknowledging it through the wearing of the scarlet A. Her repentance takes a lifetime; these are the wages of sin. Hawthorne, as opposed to his progressive Transcendentalist peers, very much believed in sin, Original Sin. It is those who deny their sin, like Dimmesdale, who suffer and are doomed.
It is instructive to look at the closing pages of the novel where, with her daughter grown, we find Hester living alone in a cottage. There she uses her experience to counsel women, and Hawthorne describes her thus:
“But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel. . . . Women, more especially,—in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged misplaced, or erring and sinful passion,—or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,—came to Hester’s cottage. . . . Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period . . . in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
Hawthorne, in showing sympathy for the trials and tribulations of women, both acknowledges the need for Hester’s punishment and the value of her redemption as a result of it.
This is hardly the ethic that infuses debates in our post-feminist era. Today, in “progressive” circles, sexual promiscuity is viewed as empowerment, rather than something to be “sorrowed” over. Indeed, Fox television viewers were polled about what Spitzer’s favorite prostitute, Ashley Dupre, should do. Should she cash in? A large majority said yes. In the back of their minds was that high school English class where they learned about “Puritan hypocrisy.” They now symbolically and proudly wear the letter A, as various forms of un-dress. Yet they are incapable of reading and understanding a nuanced novel like The Scarlet Letter whose author tells us that such behavior is to be “sorrowed over.”
By Adam Kirsch
The hero of I.B. Singer’s newly reissued The Magician of Lublin is torn between bohemia and bourgeois respectability, Jews and Gentiles
A few weeks ago, writing about Antony Polonsky’s history of Eastern European Jewry in the late 19th century, I remarked on the way that American Jewish nostalgia and guilt toward the vanished “old world” makes it difficult for us to see that world as it really was. The reputation of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose novel The Magician of Lublin has just been reissued in a 50th-anniversary edition, is one major example of this kind of confusion. A large part of Singer’s popularity, there can be no doubt, comes from the way he lends himself to being read as a folklorist, writing about dybbuks and holy fools in an age-old Jewish landscape. That the world he wrote about, and the Yiddish language he wrote in, were practically extinguished in the decade after he came to the United States, in 1935, only increases the sense that he was a messenger from another world.
The Nobel Committee’s official biography of Singer, who won the literature prize in 1978, sums up this view perfectly: He wrote about “the world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived in cities and villages, in poverty and persecution, and imbued with sincere piety and rites combined with blind faith and superstition.” One commenter recommending Singer’s stories in a web forum puts the basic idea more naively: “If I could have chosen a grandfather, I would have chosen this man for the stories alone.”
Look a little closer, however, and it becomes clear that Singer, far from being gentle and grandfatherly, was as shockingly modern a writer as Dostoevsky. He is a chronicler of spiritual disintegration, exploring the devastating effects of appetite and passion—even of thought itself—on souls unprotected by faith. When devils appear in his work—as in the great story “The Gentleman From Cracow”—they are not quaint folk-devils, but figures of genuine, terrifying evil. And in his post-Holocaust ghost stories, like “A Wedding in Brownsville” and “The Cafeteria,” he seems to transcend parable, as if only the literally incredible—a party full of murdered Jews who don’t know they are dead, the appearance of Hitler in a Broadway café—could be adequate to the unbelievable truth.
The Magician of Lublin may not exactly be “a lost classic,” as the cover of the new paperback claims—it went through several editions in the 1960s and 1970s and was even made into a movie in 1979, starring Alan Arkin. But its republication is still very welcome, because the novel is one of the clearest examples of the ways this urban, intellectual, 20th-century writer makes use of the materials of the Jewish past. Take the title, which sounds like it could be a Hasidic folk tale about a wonder-working rabbi. In fact, Yasha Mazur, the title character, is a magician in the sense that Harry Houdini was a magician; he is an acrobat, contortionist, and escape artist, who performs at theaters around Poland while he dreams of making it big in Western Europe. Another way of putting it is that he is an impostor, using sleight-of-hand to show people the kinds of miracles they so desperately want to believe in.
In this way, Singer makes clear, the magician is a stand-in for the novelist, whose powers of imagination are also a kind of secular enchantment. And Yasha serves Singer in much the same way that Moses Herzog served Saul Bellow in Herzog, a novel published a few years later: as a surrogate self, a way of turning his own experiences and reveries into fiction. Certainly the plot of The Magician of Lublin is one that must have resonated personally for Singer, since it is substantially the same as those of Enemies: A Love Story and Shadows on the Hudson: A man suffers a spiritual crisis as he juggles love affairs with three different women.
When we first meet Yasha, he is at home with his wife, the pious Esther, who “wore the customary kerchief and kept a kosher kitchen; she observed the Sabbath and all the laws.” But, crucially, she is unable to have children, and Singer makes much of the fact that Yasha has never assumed a father’s stake in the community. He remains a kind of overgrown child himself, only dropping in on Esther for a few days between performing tours. And once he is back on the road, his assistant Magda, a Polish Gentile, doubles as a common-law wife—so much so that her mother treats Yasha as practically a son-in-law.
As the novel opens, however, we learn that this comfortable quasi-bigamy has been upset by Yasha’s love for a new woman, Emilia, a professor’s widow who lives a precariously genteel life in Warsaw. It is clear, in the way of a fairy tale, that each of these women also represents a fate: If Esther is Jewish tradition and Magda is artistic bohemia, Emilia represents bourgeois striving. Unlike Yasha’s other lovers, she will not sleep with him until they are married, and she will not marry him unless he converts to Catholicism, takes her away to Italy, and works toward becoming famous and respectable.
The plot, which unfolds over a few days, is driven by Yasha’s uncertainty about which woman, and which life, he wants. There is also the further complication that, to make Emilia’s dreams come true, he will need to get his hands on a large sum of money. For the most part, the book consists simply of Yasha’s restless roaming through the city as he tries to make up his mind. This gives Singer the chance to imagine the Polish capital in the 1870s, in the process of transforming itself into a metropolis:
In Warsaw, wooden sidewalks were ripped up, interior plumbing installed, rails for horse trolleys laid, tall buildings erected, as well as entire courtyards and markets. The theaters offered a new season of drama, comedy, operas, and concerts. … The bookstores featured newly published novels, as well as scientific works, encyclopedias, lexicons, and dictionaries.
As he goes from apartment to tavern to synagogue, Yasha also keeps up a frenetic internal debate. Like Bellow, his contemporary and sometime translator, Singer makes a middle-aged man’s joyless womanizing a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis. In the first few pages, he contrasts Esther’s piety with her husband’s skepticism: “Yasha spent his Sabbath talking and smoking cigarettes among musicians. To the earnest moralists who attempted to get him to mend his ways, he would always answer: ‘When were you in heaven, and what did God look like?’ “ It is a mocking question, but also, as the book unfolds, a deadly serious one. For it becomes clear that Yasha’s lusts are the product of boredom and despair: “Like a drunkard who drowns his sorrow in alcohol, he thought. He could never understand how people managed to live in one place and spend their entire lives with one woman without becoming melancholy. He, Yasha, was forever at the point of depression.”
But if Yasha is unable to commit to Esther, or to his ancestors’ beliefs and way of living, he is unequally unable to commit to Emilia and break with his inherited conscience. He changes his mind about God and Judaism literally from one page to the next. When he stumbles into a prayerhouse and puts on tefillin for the first time since adolescence, he is filled with a sudden sense of God’s presence: “Yes, that there were other worlds, Yasha had always felt. He could almost see them. I must be a Jew! he said to himself. A Jew like all the others!” So ends chapter six; as chapter seven begins, he starts to wonder, “Why all the excitement? What proof is there that a God exists who hears your prayers? There are innumerable religions in the world, and each contradicts the other.”
Yasha’s ambivalence finally takes a concrete toll. In a rush of manic self-confidence, he decides to break into a miser’s apartment, where he knows there is a fortune hidden. But whether it is a sign from heaven or the revenge of his superego, all his dexterity deserts him. Not only does he fail to get the money, he breaks his leg jumping from the second-story balcony. The last part of the novel is colored by Yasha’s increasing pain, and his reckless refusal to get the leg treated—as if he is half-consciously willing himself to die, as the only possible escape from his quandary. “His fingers had become white and shrunken, the tips shriveled like those of a mortally ill person, or of a corpse. It was as if his heart were being crushed by a giant fist,” Singer writes.
As it turns out, the novel has a different ending in store for Yasha. His sins will be punished by death, but not his own; and the guilt of this culminating tragedy will drive him into an act of penitence that recalls both the legends of the Baal Shem Tov and the stories of Kafka. The dark power of The Magician of Lublin is nowhere clearer than in its concluding message—that, for a modern man, to return to God may require a decision as violent and frightening as any crime.