How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: great writers (Page 2 of 3)

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

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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Style, the Writer’s Unique Music: Reading Fiction Step 1

His own style: Man wearing casual jacket and turtleneck playing violin outdoors in front of stone wall, with Vermeer print on wall behind him.

Style is the distinctive music created by an author’s words. Can you hear it?

Style in fiction is the distinctive music created by the way an author handles words. Many readers put Style last on their list of things to notice when reading a fictional narrative. But that’s a mistake, in my view, because when reading literature, HOW something is said is just as important as WHAT is said. Style in fiction is more than just decoration. Indeed, relishing a great writer’s style is one of the finest pleasures of reading, since it is through a writer’s style that we are brought into direct communication with that writer’s mind and personality, with his or her unique way of seeing the world. Even more, through great style, readers are set awash in a distinctive kind of beauty that flows from the sound and sense of language well-handled.

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Blown About by Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

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

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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Dorothea’s Brook in Middlemarch: Moral Streams and Ripples

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

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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Metaphor and More. How to Read Poems Step 6

This close-up of a quizzical cow in a meadow brings to mind the old joke: "What's a metaphor? A place to keep cows in." NOT!

What’s a Metaphor? Hint: It’s not a place to keep cows in.

What is a Metaphor?

Did you hear this old joke about metaphors when you were a kid? “What’s a metaphor? A place to keep the cows in!” It probably seemed funnier back when kids actually knew what metaphors, AND meadows, were. Right now, I’m not going to talk about the fading of “meadow” from the modern American vocabulary, but I will ask this: Do you know what a metaphor is for? Knowing just a little about how metaphors and some other important figures of speech function can help you understand and enjoy a poem more deeply.

A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are apparently not much alike. For instance, if I say that Sue’s coffee tastes like Starbucks coffee, I am not making a metaphor; I am just making a literal comparison between two things that are already largely alike. But if I offer you “some of this molasses Sue calls coffee,” I am speaking figuratively, making a metaphor.  In sober reality, coffee and molasses are very dissimilar, but Sue’s coffee makes me think of molasses for some reason, maybe because it is thick and sludgy, or over-sweet. In this metaphor, the coffee is the “tenor,” or topic of the metaphor, the object or idea I want to make a point about. Molasses is the “vehicle,” the thing I am using to convey my rather insulting ideas about Sue’s coffee.

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The Large and Skeptical Mind of Emily Dickinson

Picture of Space Galaxies and Stars--Emily Dickinson's mind is unbounded.

Ranging the Cosmos: The Large and Questing Mind of Emily Dickinson

A Mind Unbounded

For most of her adult life, Emily Dickinson stayed within the bounds of her family home and garden, but her poetry declares that her mind knew no boundaries. Her compact poems may begin with humble domestic details, but suddenly expand into questioning life, the universe, and our human position on a cosmic scale. We could look at many of her nearly 1800 verses to find examples, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites, both well-known but both widely misunderstood: “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Feeling brave enough to visit the edge of a cosmic existential void? Then click and read the poems, and we’ll take a closer look.

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“Is it Paris?” Literal and Figurative Language: How to Read Poetry Step 5

Long view of Eiffel Tower on a sunny day, from the end of Trocadero Fountain takes in some of the city. A student thought Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" country might be here.

Where is Yeats’s “country” in “Sailing to Byzantium”? Is it Paris?

“Sailing to Byzantium”: Where, or What, is Yeats’s  Country?

Black and white profile photo of older man with a mustache, with his chin resting on his hands.

A man in the winter of life.

My freshman Literature and Composition class was discussing Yeats’s strange, beautiful, and very intellectual poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” (Click here to read it first.)  We were just starting on the first stanza, tackling these lines:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

There is a lot of life-filled imagery packed into these lines—lovers, waterfalls full of fish and trees full of birds—as well as a huge serving of abstract language (see Step 4) that covers absolutely everything alive: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” But where are we? I asked my class, “What is the country that is not for old men? What does Yeats mean here?”

No one would speak for a few beats. Clearly they had no clue. Then suddenly a daring young woman in the back row looked up with a light in her eye: “I’m not sure—but is it Paris?”

There were some problems with her theory, but how could I explain? They do say that Paris is for lovers, so perhaps Paris might qualify as a place where Yeats would think that “old men” are not comfortable. But are there salmon? I have read that salmon are making a comeback in the Seine river, though I’m not sure whether they can be glimpsed swimming along the Left Bank.

But the mistake this student made in her interpretation was not simply choosing the wrong geographical location. She was failing to distinguish between literal and figurative language. To understand poetry, or indeed, any text, readers have to distinguish between words that mean exactly what the dictionary would say they mean, and language that means something very different from what it literally says. Continue reading

Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: the Allegory that Wasn’t

Book plate from an 1849 book on American History shows crowd of Pilgrims looking humorously self-satisfied. Like Hawthorne's view, this artist's view of Pilgrims was not entirely positive.

Pilgrim figures as imagined in 1849. Like Hawthorne, this artist did not see the Pilgrims as entirely positive.*

1917 Photo of Street in Salem, Massachusetts, suggesting what the town might have looked like in Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown's day. Photo shows treelined street with New England 2-story style houses on left of the street. Black and White.

1917 Photo of Street in Salem, Massachusetts, suggesting what the town might have looked like in Goodman Brown’s day.*

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be mentioned. You may want to read the story first, if you haven’t already: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835.

Everyone who’s ever had a class on this story knows that Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegory, right? In an allegory, everything in the story stands for something else. Onto every character and many of the objects, we can pin a definite alternate meaning, an idea or a type of person or moral rule. In Hawthorne’s allegory, readers can enjoy picking out how Goodman Brown represents an ordinary, naïve young man, a newlywed who has always believed what adults have told him was true. His wife Faith represents his Puritan religious faith–of course,  since her name is “Faith” after all, and she wears those innocent pink ribbons in her hair.

The mysterious man Brown meets in the forest must be the Devil, even though he resembles Brown’s grandfather, because he carries a staff that seems to morph into a snake. Brown’s journey into the dark pathless wood at midnight to meet this man must represent the temptation to engage in some unspecified evil behavior. When Brown discovers that his innocent wife is in the evil forest too, he completely loses his faith/Faith and turns to the dark side. He discovers in the process that everyone he has ever known, even revered family and religious leaders, has already joined up with the devil. This rude awakening to the evil that is present in every person sours him completely on humanity. He lives henceforth a misanthropic and sour judgmental man.

What is the Moral of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”?

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood

Nathaniel Hawthorne portrait by Charles Osgood*

Simple  allegories, like Aesop’s fables, have a moral, or a clear meaning. What,then, is the moral of this one?  Maybe the moral is: don’t flirt with the dark side or you might get in so deep you can’t get out. OR maybe the moral is kind of the opposite: we all have foibles, so just accept people as they are and don’t be so judgmental. Which one is it?

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