Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Category: Thoughts on the Greats (page 2 of 3)

Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: All of America in a Blade of Grass

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Little girl wearing white lacy summer dress lying on green grass with long red hair spread out.

“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*

In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself,  first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.

However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher.  For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”

I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.

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News! New Reading List on America’s Gilded Age Literature

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Wide-angle photograph showing entire elevation of Biltmore mansion, near Asheville, NC. In the style of a French chateau.

From America’s Gilded Age: The Biltmore Mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet.

Special Announcement! Now available on Readgreatliterature.com: a new reading list covering American literature from the “Gilded Age,” the period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the beginning of WW I in 1914. Click HERE to see the new reading list—but before you click, you might want to take a moment to read in this post about three important literary trends that happened during these years: Regionalism, Realism, and American Naturalism.

What is the Gilded Age?

First, what is the Gilded Age? These years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of WW I in 1914 ushered sweeping changes into American life and culture: rapid industrialization, large numbers of people moving from the country into cities, an explosion in immigration numbers (over 20 million immigrants between 1880 and 1920), increasing wealth, and pursuit of material success shown through conspicuous consumption. The era got its name from The Gilded Age, a novel published in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel satirized greed and political corruption that suddenly seemed more common in American life than it had before.

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Blown About by Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

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B & W Still Photo of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.*

Note: A few Plot Spoilers!

Wuthering Heights is often billed as a love story, and portrayed sentimentally in old film versions. But readers who come to Wuthering Heights expecting a grand love story won’t just be disappointed; they’ll be shocked. Right from Chapter 1, when readers encounter the Wuthering Heights family for the first time, following alongside the prissy, citified sentimentalist newcomer Lockwood, they are plunged directly into a whirlwind of primitive, raw, elemental emotions. Love is there, though not easily recognizable, along with unbounded vitality and lust for life–but also hatred, selfishness, derision, cruelty, vengefulness. What makes this stormy story a classic, and in the end, believe it or not, a truly uplifting read?

Foremost, Wuthering Heights is a realistically observed, elegantly written work about flawed, often dislikable, yet very powerful people, enough in itself to make it interesting, even informative. More than that: Wuthering Heights is a book about Big Ideas. Emily Brontë’s novel challenges readers to re-frame every common assumption about Love and Hate, Mercy and Revenge, Life and Death, Heaven and Hell. One function of great art is to enable people to witness painful realities and strange ideas by making them in some way beautiful, thus granting us a larger perspective from which to view and consider. And Wuthering Heights does precisely that, making it a work of art on more than one level.

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Ten Reasons Why Readers Love (and Sometimes Hate!) Dickens’s Bleak House

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B & W Illustration from Bleak House by H. K. Brown showing wards in Jarndyce meeting Miss Flite.

The Wards in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce meet Miss Flite*

 

Charles Dickens is known for his comedy as well as his social criticism and reformist temper, so when readers pick up most Dickens novels, they look forward to gaining hope and laughter along with their tears. However, the title of what many critics say is Dickens’s best novel, Bleak House, sounds pretty discouraging to new readers. “Bleak” can mean stark, bare, exposed, charmless, dreary, or without hope. What could possibly be cheerful or hopeful about a Bleak House? And yet, for over 160 years, readers from many different backgrounds have loved and praised this novel. Why?

Photo of Bleak House, Broadstairs, Kent, on which Dickens modeled fictional Bleak House

The Original Bleak House Dickens used as model for the fictional one. Is Bleak House Really Bleak?*

I can think of at least ten reasons people love Bleak House—strangely, the same reasons a few readers have hated it! Ultimately, though, most readers discover that Bleak House is not bleak at all, but rather ends with encouraging light and wisdom for all people who are oppressed by unjust systems gone out of control.

Here’s my list. Note: this book is so rich, not even ten reasons can cover all its events and characters. I’m saving my two favorite reasons to love Bleak House for last!

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Wordsworth Revisited: Can Nature Renew Us?

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Close-up of golden daffodils "fluttering and dancing in the breeze"

“A host of golden daffodils. . . / Fluttering and Dancing in the Breeze”*

Many of us are feeling that “The World is Too Much With Us” these days, as a famous sonnet by William Wordsworth puts it. We are downcast by politics gone awry or a general lack of civility in our public discourse. Where can we turn when, as Wordsworth put it in 1798, “. . . [t]he fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart”? As a central figure in the revolutionary English Romantic movement in art and poetry, Wordsworth did more than analyze the ills of a rapidly modernizing society. His beautiful, meditative poetry suggests one possible therapy for sick souls in a frenzied world: communing with Nature.

“Bathing” in Forests: Wordsworth New Again?

If sitting around contemplating the trees sounds silly, old-fashioned, or simplistic, consider that studies are now revealing the positive effects of “Forest Bathing.” See this Washington Post article for more information on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which means to spend time strolling quietly through a natural forest, now shown to aid both physical and mental health. If people are learning anew that spending time with trees is good for you, a fresh look at some old poems celebrating the benefits of nature might reveal a surprisingly fresh message.

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Pied Piety: Herbert and Hopkins Celebrate God’s Paradoxes

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Brilliant blue dragonfly perched on a green blade flashes iridescent colors.

Dragonfly wings flash iridescent colors into the eyes of beholders, an apt image of the divine diversity Hopkins perceived throughout God’s creation.

Born 250 years apart, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins are two English Christian devotional poets who conceived of God and their own walks of faith quite similarly. Both men of passionate faith, Herbert and Hopkins saw God in every aspect of created Nature, depicting it richly in their poetry. Their poems also make use of nature to convey the multiform aspects they perceived within God’s character: light and dark, sweet and sour, life and death. Their work celebrates God’s divine diversity. It also acknowledges paradoxes in people’s experience of God and the world: ecstasy and depression, obedience and rebellion, love and fear.

These ideas may sound heavy and complex, but paradoxically, the poems of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins are delightful to read. They are full of beautiful sounds, imagery, and surprising comparisons that burst pleasurably upon the mind, like solutions to beautiful riddles.

Let’s take a closer look at two brief poems by each author. Prepare to appreciate the paradoxical!

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A 20-Story Tour Through 19th Century American Literature

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Curving asphalt road winding between red hills beckons.

Tour American literary history: 20 days of stories!

It’s summer, when many of us make plans to visit beautiful or historic places, but we also like the idea of relaxing on our vacations. In today’s post, I offer you a way to do both. You can tour all of 19th and early 20th century American literary history without leaving your chair. Read one of these classic short stories each day for 20 days, and you’ll have a great sense of the variety, richness, and evolution of American fiction, from the Romantic era beginning in 1820 right through the late Gilded Age, ending in the first few years of the 20th century.

Girl in beach chair reading American short stories.

Relax while you read.

If you read through the whole list, you’ll be reading famous works by America’s most celebrated writers from the 19th century.

You’ll also be touring many areas of the country, and even the world, from New England forests and villages to a plantation in the south to a battlefield in Tennessee to Switzerland and Rome to the Wild West to the Yukon to Nebraska and back to New York City. All these stories are absorbing to read, though written in many different styles. It’s especially appropriate to approach American literature via the short story genre, since American writers were instrumental in developing this genre into an art form.

You can find all 20 of the stories on our tour list online; all but two are available on Americanliterature.com, a wonderful website that preserves and promotes classic American literature. For the stories that aren’t on that site, I provided a link to another online text. I also provide a brief note about each story and why I chose it for this list.

Pick and choose, or read them all! If you do read any or all of them, I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions. Please leave a comment at the end of the post. (You will enter your nickname and email, but your email will not appear on the site.)

Happy reading!

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Dorothea’s Brook in Middlemarch: Moral Streams and Ripples

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Shows large gray stone mansion Arbury Hall, its estate managed by George Eliot's father.*

Arbury Hall. George Eliot’s father managed Arbury Estate, giving his daughter ample opportunity to observe people from every background.

A Monumental Saga

The Wall Street Journal says we should read Middlemarch. In 2014, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum chose it as one of the top 100 novels written in English, ever. I have told friends for years it’s like a soap opera for smart people–or to update the comparison, let’s say it’s a binge worthy Netflix “town and family” saga. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is bursting with yearning, beautiful young people, dysfunctional marriages, bemused mothers and fathers, business people both honest and shady, medical men of various skill, clergy, manipulative rich uncles, politicians, newspaper publishers, innkeepers–people from every social class and background whose fates and choices form an interconnected web of mutual cause and effect.

The telling of this giant tale is liberally interlaced with gentle humor, empathy, psychological penetration, and philosophical discussion by one of the wisest narrative voices in literature. For these and other qualities, both the light and the deeply philosophic, I have loved Middlemarch for over 30 years. I love it for its humane and intricate presentation of the psychology of so many kinds of people. I love it for its careful analysis of how communities function—how opinions form and spread, whether well-founded or no, and how individual choices impact the larger social network. I love it for understanding how the petty daily-ness of life can chip away at our ability to achieve great and ideal goals, and yet, paradoxically, that’s all right.

Above all, I love Middlemarch for showing us that our individual moral choices matter. Our smallest moral acts, both good and ill, can spread like ripples in a stream, affecting others far beyond ourselves.

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Our Beloved Pets: Two Poems, Two Ways to See Them

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Close-up King Charles Cavalier Spaniel

We love our pets! But how do we define their natures? Two poems show us two different ways.

Goodness knows, we love our pets. Just look at how cats– silly, cute, or cuddly– dominate the Internet, followed closely, if not recently overtaken, by lovable, funny dogs.1  We live in close relationship to these animals, but how do we define this relationship? How do we conceive of these beings that seem so much like us, and yet so much their own, not-human kind of special beings? Two famous poems about pets showcase two different ways to regard our intimate animals: Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and Elizabeth Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog.

Gray’s more formal 18th-century poem views the beloved lost cat Selima from the outside, almost anthropomorphically. Her cat-like qualities seem human, her actions something people can observe and learn from. In her 19th-century work, Browning, on the other hand, praises the personal loyalty and love her Flush has for her, but acknowledges from the beginning that she and her dog are different kinds of beings. The poem celebrates Flush but also ponders the nature of the relationship between person and beast. Is the beast really a lower form? If so, what is the nature of their intense connection?

After reading, all you animal lovers can decide which way is closer to your own way of regarding your beloved pets: almost as another type of human, or as a distinctly different kind of creature? Maybe a bit of both? Replies with any thoughts on the topic will be welcome in the comment section!

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Those Near Death and Those Near the Dying: Thomas’s Portrayal in “Do Not Go Gentle”

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Man sitting on a high peak with clouds blanketing sky at his feet. Visual depiction of Thomas's "sad height"--but for whom is it sad? For the dying, or those left behind?

“On That Sad Height”: But for Whom is it Most Sad? For the Dying, or Those Left Behind?

A Conversation with Two Hospice Nurses

So often I am reminded how great literature accurately mirrors the true complexities of real human struggles. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with two longtime hospice nurses, Nancy and Debbie, about their experiences with people nearing death and the family members who cared about them. Most often, family included the adult children of the patient, who not surprisingly had a very different attitude toward the death that was approaching than the patient who was in the act of dying. These women’s report from the front lines between life and death made me think immediately of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” As I read this poem, “Do Not Go Gentle” portrays the same differing attitudes toward death that these hospice professionals observed in patients and their families.

Debbie recounted her experiences this way: “I can’t tell you how often I’ve had this conversation: An adult child of the patient will say to me, “Dad’s just giving up! Why doesn’t he fight?” I try to explain that there’s a difference between ‘giving up,’ and ‘accepting.’ ‘Giving up’ means a person still has some choices, some way to change what happens in their life. But when there is nothing that will change anything, and a person has reached the end of life, accepting this situation is a good, not a bad thing.” Nancy nodded, saying her experience had been similar.

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