Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the premise that I would review it.   My copy is an Advance Reader’s Edition, and changes will be made in the final version, including an index and more illustrations.

The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” has had a great number of books written about him.  However, most of them are general biographies of his entire life, or focus on his two most active periods, being Commander in Chief of the American revolutionary forces, and being the United States of America’s first president.  This book covers the period between those two, when Washington was trying to retire to his day job as a farm owner and landlord.

As one might expect, Washington being away in the war for eight years had done Mount Vernon no favors, and there was much to set right.  In addition, land that he owned in the west was either mismanaged or infested with squatters.  For these personal reasons, and because he feared that the newly settled lands might pull away from the new republic unless there were good communication routes, Washington sponsored building a navigable waterway up the Potomac River.

Unfortunately for George, it quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation weren’t a sufficient framework to run the new country on.  The Continental Congress couldn’t pay its bills, including the back pay of the Revolutionary Army, because the individual states didn’t want to give them any money.  And the Articles didn’t allow them to force payment.  (Kind of like how certain countries are perennially behind on their dues to the United Nations in the modern day.)

Bad money policy led to hyperinflation in some states, while too strict a money squeeze in Massachusetts led to Shays’ Rebellion when debtors could not get relief.

So a convention was called to fix some of the problems with the government–only to have it taken over by those who felt a wholesale overhaul and a new constitution was the only way to go forward.  Washington was reluctantly called forward to chair the convention and give it the public gravitas it needed to be taken seriously.

The convention adopted a strict rule of secrecy as to its proceedings, and Mr. Washington took this very seriously, not writing any of the details in his diary or personal letters.  As he seldom spoke on the floor, what was going through his head, and what backroom conversations Washington might have been having are mostly unknown to us.

Still, the convention came up with an innovative three-part federal government with checks and balances built in.  Not everyone liked all the compromises made, but as a process for amendment was included, it was sent to the states, who mostly voted for ratification.

The problem for Washington at that point was that the new Constitution called for a strong central executive, the President.  And there was just one man the Federalists trusted to be the first, Washington himself.  So he spent the first Presidential campaign not running for office, but desperately trying to get on with his personal life before it was wrested away by his country again.

There’s an epilogue which briefly covers the Presidential years and Washington’s later life.  There is a long endnotes section and several black and white illustrations.

Mind you, this story isn’t all good news.  George Washington, like everyone else, had his flaws.  The most pressing one is that he was a slaveowner, one of the biggest in Virginia.   He seems to have been ambivalent on the subject of slavery, regretting its “necessity” but always finding it economically unfeasible to do without buying more slaves, and only making good on his promise to free his personal slaves in his will…with the actual freedom to be after Martha Washington’s death.

For more on one particular slave of the Washingtons, see this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oney_Judge .

However, it seems likely that his slaveholding helped the Southern states accept the Constitution and the idea of a President more willingly than they otherwise would have.  And Washington’s patriotism and sense of civic duty were strong influences on the early shape of the United States government.

As with other biographies that only cover a limited time span, students will want to supplement this volume with a more general biography.  I’d recommend this book for high schoolers on up, as the subject matter is a bit dry for most younger readers’ tastes.

And to round out this post, let;s have a look at the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

Movie Review: Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Ronin)

Movie Review: Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Ronin) (1962)

As mentioned in my previous reviews of book and comic book versions, the tale of the forty-seven ronin is one of Japan’s great stories, based on true events.  Briefly, in 1701, Lord Kira provokes Lord Asano into breaking the rules of the Shogun’s court, a crime that can only be expiated by ritual suicide.  Asano’s samurai followers are immediately made ronin (masterless), and forbidden to avenge their master’s honor.

Chushingura

Several of the ronin decide to defy the shogunate decree, but Lord Kira is well aware of the danger, and his powerful relatives have supplied him with bodyguards to protect against retaliation.  Oishi, leader of the ronin, comes up with a plan to put Kira off his guard, but it will take over a year to complete…

The 1962 film version is in color, and big-budget by Japanese standards.   The early part of the story goes more into Lord Kira’s motivations; while he has a high rank, his holdings are small and impoverished.  Asano is prosperous thanks partially due to his province’s salt farms.  Kira tried to convince Asano to provide salt farming advice, but Asano refused on the grounds that the secret of their success was a proprietary family process.

In addition, Kira is fully invested in the quid pro quo method of doing business in the shogunate.  You give expensive gifts to people or do them favors, and in exchange they do things for you.   Lord Kira is guided by his principles of greed and lust, money and women are the most important things in his life.  At one point, he even hints that his wife should offer herself to the Shogun to earn him political favor.  (She is clearly not impressed.)

By contrast,  Lord Asano hates the bribery system and the corruption it engenders, and points out that laws have been passed against such behavior, that he intends to follow.  While he is aware that he needs Lord Kira to instruct him in court etiquette lest he offend the Emperor’s envoys, Asano refuses to compromise his principles, even though this angers Kira.

You might compare it to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the conflict between Jimmy Stewart’s young, idealistic senator and the corrupt senior senator.

After Asano’s death, the story turns to the ronin, and how each of them copes with issues of honor, sacrifice and their conflicting emotions.  Meanwhile, Kira shows cowardice and openly mocks the traditional samurai virtues.

This is a long movie, clocking in at just under three and a half hours.  Thankfully, there’s a clearly marked stopping point between “Blossoms” and “Snow” that home viewers can use as a good time for intermission.  While the pacing is deliberate, there are no wasted moments.

This movie has a strong cast, the most familiar to Western audiences is probably Toshiro Mifune, who has an extended cameo as one ronin’s drinking buddy.  He seems to have been added just for the box office; compare to how Keanu Reeves was written to take over the whole film in the 2013 version.

Content warnings:  Although none of the suicides in the film is shown directly on camera, the plotline does revolve around the use of suicide as a way of maintaining or redeeming one’s honor, and several people die in combat, particularly in the climatic battle.  (One old woman is also accidentally killed in a subplot.)

Lord Kira peeps at a woman’s bare back and creepily embraces one of his maidservants, he’s clearly forcing himself on them by his own admission.  Oishi does a convincing job of pretending to enjoy himself in the red light district.  No on-screen sex or nudity, though.  Oh, and several men are seen in period-appropriate skimpy loincloths, going about their work.

Overall, this is a classic film and well worth looking up.  See my review of a comic book version here: http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/  and a literary version here: http://www.skjam.com/2013/07/02/book-review-the-47-ronin/

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