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August 2015

52 Authors: Week 35 - Sydney Taylor

When I wrote the post about Anne Pellowski’s Latch Valley Farm series (the Catholic Little House books), I said that I would write another about a sort of Jewish Little House books. This is it.

When I was about 8 years old, The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor were my favorites. I fell in love with them the moment I first saw them in the library. They were larger than any of the other chapter books (about 9” x 7.5”) and the covers had full-color illustrations both front and back. This was quite unique for the the time--mid '50s. I have a large collection of children’s ex-library books and none of the covers approach the quality of the artwork on these books. And the inside of the books was even better.

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The All-of-a-Kind Family series begins about 25 years later than the Pellowski and Wilder books. It is set in the early 20th century. The woods and creek banks and windswept plains of the Little House books and the beautiful hills and valleys of the Latsch Valley books are far away from the family of this series, who live on the East Side of New York City.

The East Side was not pretty. There was no grass. Grass couldn’t very well grow on slate sidewalks or in cobblestoned gutters. There were no flowers except those one saw in the shops of the few florists. There were no tall trees lining the streets. There were tall gas lampposts instead. There was no running brook in which the children might splash on hot summer days. But there was the East River. Its waters stretched out wide and darkly green, and it smelt of fish, ships, and garbage.

Like many other families, Mama and Papa and their children lived in the crowded tenement house section of the lower East Side of New York City.

To my eight-year-old self, this would have been almost as exotic as a houseboat in China. (I really wanted to live on a houseboat in China.) We lived on a 13 acre corner lot and our house was surrounded on two sides by fields which ended in tree lines and on the third by a row of trees. I had been to downtown Memphis a few times to department stores, but I had no real conception of what an apartment was, and downtown Memphis in the mid '50s was hardly the East Side of New York at the turn of the century.

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Mama and Papa (whose names we don’t know) and their five “steps-and-stairs” daughters (Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie), and finally baby Charlie, are more fortunate than many of the tenement-dwellers on the East Side. Although they have little money to spare, they have a four-room apartment which occupies an entire floor of their building. The reason for their comparative comfort is that Papa has his own business—a junk shop.

The girls love to visit the shop on rainy days and are therefore good friends with the peddlers who do business with Papa: Polack, Joe (a swarthy Italian), Charlie (a young, handsome man whose presence among the peddlers is somewhat of a mystery, and Picklenose.

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Poor old Picklenose! His face would have been most ordinary had he not been blessed with such an enormous object in the middle of it. It was a bulbous nose, and not only did it glow red, but on its top grew a pickle-shaped wart which had given him his name.

There is also joy to be found sometimes in searching through other people’s cast offs, for instance, the unwanted books from a rich young man’s collection. There’s a book called Dolls That You Love with stories about the dolls on one side and paper dolls on the facing page (Oh, how I loved paper dolls), and a complete set of Dickens! I probably didn’t appreciate the Dickens at the time.

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There is nothing especially exciting or adventurous about the stories told in these books. They are made up of the small, everyday events in the life of a happy family. The parents are loving and wise, which seems a clichė, but they are, of course, the best kind of parents to have. The children have their disagreements, but they take care of each other. The family isn’t always happy. Sometimes there is severe illness, disobedience that pains both parent and child, young men leaving for war, and a single mother dies. All-in-all though, the stories are happy ones.

My very favorite chapter is called, “Who Cares If It’s Bedtime.” The two youngest girls, Charlotte and Gertie, having used their spending money (a penny a day) to buy some candy and a bag of broken crackers, smuggle their treats into their bed to be enjoyed when they are supposed to be sleeping.

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The room was in darkness save for the gas light which shone from the kitchen through the opened bedroom door. Lucky for them! One look at their guilty faces, and Mama would have known that something was up. But Mama suspected nothing...Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said good night to all and went out, shutting the bedroom door behind her

The fun could begin at last! Charlotte directed because the game was hers.

“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.” They bit off the heads and chewed away contentedly.

“Now the feet.” That was hard. The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.

“Let’s gobble the rest up altogether.” That was a good order. They gobbled away.

Charlotte continued. “A cracker now.” They fished about in the dark. “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”

They each took a small bite. “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said. “What’s yours?”

“Mine’s a ginger. We have to nibble along the side of the piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I say stop.”

And the games go on for another page and a half. It was the greatest desire of my life to have a bag full of broken, different-flavored crackers (Who knew there were different-flavored crackers?!) and taste them one by one with a little sister in our bed at night. Not my little sister, of course. My little sister was pretty much a nuisance and it was bad enough to have to share my room with her, much less my bed. I wanted a little sister named Gertie. My mother’s name was Gertie and I’d never before known that a child could have that name. I was glad, though, that I wasn’t a child with that name.

The very best part of these books, though, was the description of the Jewish feasts. There was one about the solemn celebration of Passover, and one about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when you had to fast all day—really fast and ask God to forgive you for your sins. I wanted to light the menorah for the Festival of Lights. I wanted to dress up for Purim and go from door to door singing,

Today is Purim
Tomorrow no more,
Give me a penny
And show me the door.

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But most of all, I wanted my father to build a Succah for us to live in during the Feast of Booths.

Sydney Taylor was born Sarah Brenner in 1904 in New York City. Her parents and older sister, Ella, immigrated to the United States in 1900, and the All-of-a-Kind Family books were the stories of her family. Ms. Taylor was the middle daughter. There are five books in the series: All-of-a-Kind Family, More All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, and Ella All-of-a-Kind Family. The first three were written in the 1950s and the latter two in the 1970s. It may not surprise you to find out that the first three are the best. Naturally, I didn’t read the last two when I was young because they weren’t written, and it was only when I was reading the books to my children that I came across them. Sadly, I really didn’t like the last one very much at all.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

Good Words for the Anglican Ordinariate Mass

I can't remember how I happened across this piece, but it describes very well what I consider most important and most appealing about the Ordinariate Mass, and also what I had hoped might come of it: that it would have broad appeal outside the Ordinariate, and perhaps in time be part of the liturgical renewal that...well, I don't want to beat that horse, but suffice to say it fell short of its promise. 

Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be happening. The writer thinks the Ordinariate liturgy could "draw thousands of Anglicans to convert to Catholicism, and provide a haven for Catholics desiring more traditional liturgy."

That sounds very plausible, but it doesn't look that way. The Ordinariate is not exactly thriving, though it is surviving. Conversions from Anglicanism are few; as someone said, "That pond seems to be fished out." And the number of Catholics who are interested doesn't seem to be very great. I think the Ordinariate came thirty years too late. If, instead of the very limited Pastoral Provision of 1980, there had been something like the Ordinariate, it might have been more successful. 

My own little group is barely surviving. That's partly due to external circumstances, but in any case we are actually fewer now than we were in the first year. But the article I linked to makes me want to carry on. As long as it's alive, there is the possibility that it will bear more fruit in time. 

52 Authors: Week 34 - G.K. Chesterton

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” said Gilbert Keith Chesterton and that gives me the strength to tackle this post, when a fear of not being able to do it well enough would prevent me from even starting.

From 6-8 August, I attended the American Chesterton Society's (ACS) Conference in San Antonio, Texas (a mere four hour drive from my house!) entitled “A Miscellany of Men.”

I had a blast! There were some people there I had met last year, so it was great to see them again and I met plenty of good people at this conference too.

The talks I particularly liked were:

Chesterton and Orestes Brownson

Chesterton and William Cobbett

Chesterton and Distributism

Chesterton and Oscar Wilde

Chesterton as a Model of Lay Spirituality

I'm giving these titles here in case anyone might be interested in hearing them when they become available to download for just a couple of dollars each from the ACS website (here is the link). Kevin O'Brien gave such a passionate talk on GKC and Orestes Brownson, using illustrations of the struggles in his own life, that we gave him a standing ovation.

The talk on William Cobbett (1763-1835 – basically one century before Chesterton) was very interesting to me, because I had only recently heard of him as one of the early historians to challenge the official Whig History of England. I had just bought Chesterton's biography of Cobbett at the book table and GKC's dedication moved me so much I was in tears:

To all the present-day Cobbetts, wherever they may be, who let neither fortune nor favour stand in the way of their defense of the Truth, in season and out, and its proclamation from the housetops. Take courage: for Truth has already overcome the World.

I nearly didn't bother attending the talk on Chesterton and Distributism, because I felt I'd heard it all before. However, I changed my mind, attended, and am pretty glad I did. It was given by John Medaille (pronounced May-die: he wants a hospital named after him!). The Dismal Science hurts my brain at the best of times and especially at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. Consequently I really didn't understand much, but I picked up enough to realise that this was an important talk. He spoke of needing to explain Distributism as a real alternative to modern economics and to demonstrate it as such he applied its principles to cost accounting. Yes, it was getting more dull by the nano-second. I can't explain it to anyone else, but I think that anyone who is truly interested in Distributism would do very well to listen to this talk when it is put up on the ACS website, and that's why I've included this information here.

Joseph Pierce gave a talk entitled Chesterton and Oscar Wilde. I highly recommend it – again, when it becomes available to download. He mostly speaks of Wilde's lifelong love affair with the Catholic Church and by itself, the list of Decadents who eventually converted to the Faith is worth listening to the talk for. Chesterton was no great fan of Wilde, but he did have this to say:

The time has certainly come when this extraordinary man, Oscar Wilde, may be considered merely as a man of letters. He sometimes pretended that art was more important than morality, but that was mere play-acting. Morality or immorality was more important than art to him and everyone else. But the very cloud of tragedy that rested on his career makes it easier to treat him as a mere artist now. His was a complete life, in that awful sense in which your life and mine are incomplete; since we have not yet paid for our sins. In that sense one might call it a perfect life, as one speaks of a perfect equation; it cancels out. On the one hand we have the healthy horror of the evil; on the other the healthy horror of the punishment. We have it all the more because both sin and punishment were highly civilized; that is, nameless and secret. Some have said that Wilde was sacrificed; let it be enough for us to insist on the literal meaning of the word. Any ox that is really sacrificed is made sacred.


The American Chesterton Society has done great work in keeping the work of Chesterton alive and spreading the good news. Lots of people have converted to the Catholic Faith at least partly because of Chesterton, so it is valuable work. Its website has been nominated for best resources website at Best Catholic Websites. I include their blurb here:

The American Chesterton Society (ACS), founded in 1996, works to promote interest in G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. A convert to the Catholic Church, Chesterton wrote over a hundred books during his lifetime and published over five thousand essays in newspapers and magazines.

One of the most quoted writers in the English language, yet one of the least studied, G.K. Chesterton foresaw and wrote about the issues we struggle with today: social injustice, the culture of death, the decline of the arts, assaults on religion, and attacks on the family and on the dignity of the human person.

One of the talks from last year's conference which I really loved was by David Fagerberg:

Chesterton Is Everywhere

He has a book of the same title and naturally I bought a copy. Here are a couple of GKC quotes from the book, which I only found as I was skimming through it this morning:

Once I found a friend
“Dear me,” I said, “he was made for me.”
But now I find more and more friends
Who seem to have been made for me
And more and yet more made for me,
Is it possible we were all made for each other
all over the world?

(from one of his early notebooks in his youth)

A Man Born on the Earth

Perhaps there has been some mistake
How does he know he has come to the right place?
But when he finds his friends
He knows he has come to the right place.

I often feel that Chesterton really is everywhere. By now I have read quite a few of his books and certainly many quotes. He wrote about so many things that I often think of what he would say, when I'm at home looking after the children, when I'm at the store, when I'm with friends and family and especially when I am online!

I first read Chesterton some time in the nineties, I think. I would have read some of the Fr. Brown stories, but didn't read anything else of his until some time in 2002. For some reason, my husband had bought me a subscription to the St. Austin Review and one edition was devoted to Distributism. This certainly had me interested in finding out more, so I next read more about this topic and also tried to read Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Initially, I didn't have much success, but then I worked out that Chesterton does not write “linearly.” He sort of meanders about, it seems to me. So then I decided just to follow him around and I've been doing that ever since! I re-read Orthodoxy, or parts of it fairly regularly. After these, I read his biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, which I enjoyed. More recently I have read What's Wrong With The World and so far this is one of my favourites. I love reading a chapter or two regularly. (It can be read online at Project Gutenberg.)

From the chapter “The Emancipation of Domesticity”:

The shortest way of summarizing the position is to say that woman stands for the idea of Sanity; that intellectual home to which the mind must return after every excursion on extravagance. The mind that finds its way to wild places is the poet's; but the mind that never finds its way back is the lunatic's. There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still; there must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable. And many of the phenomena which moderns hastily condemn are really parts of this position of the woman as the center and pillar of health. Much of what is called her subservience, and even her pliability, is merely the subservience and pliability of a universal remedy; she varies as medicines vary, with the disease. She has to be an optimist to the morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-lucky husband. She has to prevent the Quixote from being put upon, and the bully from putting upon others. The French King wrote—

"Toujours femme varie Bien fol qui s'y fie,"

but the truth is that woman always varies, and that is exactly why we always trust her. To correct every adventure and extravagance with its antidote in common-sense is not (as the moderns seem to think) to be in the position of a spy or a slave. It is to be in the position of Aristotle or (at the lowest) Herbert Spencer, to be a universal morality, a complete system of thought. The slave flatters; the complete moralist rebukes. It is, in short, to be a Trimmer in the true sense of that honorable term; which for some reason or other is always used in a sense exactly opposite to its own. It seems really to be supposed that a Trimmer means a cowardly person who always goes over to the stronger side. It really means a highly chivalrous person who always goes over to the weaker side; like one who trims a boat by sitting where there are few people seated. Woman is a trimmer; and it is a generous, dangerous and romantic trade.

I don't wish to start a quarrel in the commbox about the role of women in the home v. women in the workforce. I simply include these large passages because they are directly applicable to my own life as a homeschooling mother and I have found much comfort in them when I have really needed it:

To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Finally, Chesterton is on Twitter!

Some of today's quotes from GKC fans on Twitter (August 16th):

“We fight for the right of normal people to define normality”

“There are only two things that can bind men together; a convention and a creed.”

“Morality is always terribly complicated—to a man who has lost all his principles.”

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

“All that talk of not caring for creeds has simply become one fixed, very formal, and slightly hypocritical creed.”

“In the modern world we are rapidly going back to dividing the tolerable and the intolerable merely as the familiar and the unfamiliar.”

“The weakness in the Liberal theory of toleration was this: that its apostles seem to have taken common morals & natural religion for granted.”

"A patriot is always a little sad."


—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.

Stuff I'd Rather Have a Root Canal Than Do

Read Sandra Tsing Loh on Erica Jong, an opportunity presented by a recent issue of The Atlantic. If I'd had any doubt, the blurb on the Contents page would have convinced me: "In her 70s, she's as eager as ever for sex and adventure."

These old people still preaching the sexual revolution are a sad sight. Especially the women. One is less surprised by that sort of foolishness from old men.

52 Authors: Week 33 - Marion Montgomery

Marion Montgomery (1925-2011) authored three novels, three books of poems, and several short stories, a few of which were award winners. He is best known, however, as the author of some 20 or so books of literary and cultural criticism, based on a Thomist reading of philosophy, history and literature. At the root of his critical work is the idea that the “spirit of the age” has manifested itself in poetry and literature as much as it has in political and social matters, and that analysis of literature can thus aid us in the diagnosis of modern ailments with a view towards eventual treatment.

Montgomery taught literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia for over 30 years before his retirement in 1987, after which he continued writing and lecturing. He was born in the same general area of central Georgia as Flannery O’Connor was, in the same year, and they both attended the same graduate program, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He didn’t know her then, however, and was only introduced to her work in the early 1950’s, when a friend recommended one of her stories that had appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. They later became friends and correspondents. In a well-known letter from 1962 O’Connor praised Montgomery’s first novel, The Wandering of Desire: “The Southern writer can out-write anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history. You have more than your share of both and a splendid gift besides.”

Montgomery found out later, after O’Connor’s death, that they had both been reading St. Thomas at the same time, using the same book as a guide -- Anton Pegis’s Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas. Just as for O’Connor Thomas became the touchstone for Montgomery’s reading of history, philosophy and literature, and he was extremely well-read in all three. He is one of those writers who appears to have “read everything,” although Michael Jordan of Hillsdale College believes that this is because Montgomery may have had a photographic memory. Because of this, as well as his discursive style, Montgomery can be quite challenging to read. Fortunately, unlike many contemporary critics, he uses no modern lit-crit jargon, so even when he’s difficult he’s not indecipherable.

Because of his style and his depth (as well as his tendency to write long paragraphs), Montgomery is difficult to quote. He is the precise opposite of an aphorist, and out of the context of the flow of his arguments his paragraphs wouldn’t make a lot of sense. One finds evidence of this in one of the most well-known analyses of Montgomery’s work, the essay “Why Marion Montgomery Has To ‘Ramble’ “by Gerhart Niemeyer. Niemeyer includes a few block quotes from Montgomery’s work in his essay, but the majority of the quotes are smaller ones embedded in the essay’s text itself, used to support Niemeyer’s various points.

Says Niemeyer, the prime matter that Montgomery addresses in all his work is the modern idea of freedom, which allows even the freedom of “the will to atheism,” which involves alienation, the self-separation of the individual from reality. This act, in Montgomery’s words, “issues forth from the deepest regions of the self, where freedom is more than choice, where it is the self recognizing its own existence in the recognition of God or rejecting its own existence in the refusal of God – and thus lapsing into absurdity.” Where other writers have traced this absurdity in politics and culture, “Montgomery traces it in American literature.”

A good example of this approach, which also serves as a summary of his take on Flannery O’Connor, is this excerpt from his little book The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls:

It was mistakenly assumed when the stories first began to appear, and it continues to be, that [O’Connor] writes a very sophisticated kind of local color with sociological implications. But what interests her is the condition of the modern intellectual. That is the issue in this fiction, rather than representations of rural characters whose concrete historical presence misleads “some New York critics.” The pole of grace on the one hand and of the finite gnostic mind on the other establish the intellectual ground within which the fiction’s dramatic tension arcs, sputters into a climax, and then calms to a steady glow when the reality of existence – of being – reasserts itself with persuasive finality. Hence we discover that her protagonists are, in their spiritual state, reflections of the larger, geographically foreign (one might call it New Yorkish) intellectual community where Gnosticism is dominant and from whence it trickles down through Atlanta (Taulkingham), even unto rural Georgia. She says this to be so and says it in plain enough language in her letters and essays. But that her agents are reflections of that larger self-insured gnostic world is signaled as well by the disquiet with which her fiction was and is received in many otherwise sophisticated quarters.

The attempt to declare Haze Motes or The Misfit merely backwoods psychopaths, the sort of unfortunate, deprived creatures on the evening news for whom poverty programs and rehabilitation are designed, is only a momentary stay against confusion, against a shock of self-recognition. Her chosen audience doesn’t remain safe, since the stories keep saying, shouting in an irresistible way, “You can’t be any poorer than dead” – dead spiritually and intellectually.

The constant comparison in Montgomery’s work is thus between those thinkers and writers who reflect “the pole of grace” and those who champion the “finite gnostic mind.” Drawing into the discussion poets, novelists, and philosophers, Montgomery believes that most writers lean towards one or the other, and that this leaning is reflected in their writing. Into this discussion he brings the thoughts of such luminaries as Hawthorne, Poe, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Eliot, the Fugitives, Pound, Maritain, Voegelin, Gabriel Marcel and Walker Percy.

As a starting point for reading Montgomery, I’d recommend the collection of essays titled On Matters Southern, edited by Michael Jordan. For a deeper introduction, one that requires some familiarity with O’Connor’s work, I’d recommend the small, but dense, book I quoted above, The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls, published by Christendom College in 1988.

I’ve read two of the three novels, The Wandering of Desire and Darrell, and though I liked both, I’d have to give the nod to the former. It’s a tragi-comic somewhat Faulknerian story of two families who have fought for generations over a piece of land, it going by hook or crook back and forth between them. As far as his poetry goes, I’ve not read enough of it to comment, other than to say that he has written in both modern and traditional/formal styles, and is seemingly fairly adept at both.

When Montgomery died on Thanksgiving weekend 2011, he was in the midst of writing a book on Hawthorne. Not sure if/when that will ever see daylight, so at present Montgomery’s last published book was 2009’s With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party, a big rich ride through Percy’s fiction and nonfiction. It’s a no-nonsense academic-level work, albeit one with absolutely no critical apparatus: no index, no notes, no bibliography, no table of contents. Just a solid block of 330 pages of text divided into numbered chapters -- huge, challenging, and fun, like an intellectual whitewater rafting trip.


M.M. is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I fear I haven’t quite done him justice here. He’s a writer that for whatever reason I find much easier to talk about than to write about. But if your appetite has been whetted a little I encourage you to give him a go. In my opinion he was one of the most astute and interesting literary and cultural critics of the past thirty or forty years. I’ve come across no one that connects literary and philosophical dots in quite the way that he’s able to, and it is this aspect of his work that I find most stimulating.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Bassic: Televisionary

Ages and ages ago, when downloadable music was a new thing and Napster roamed the net, there was a site which I think was called where mostly unknown or little-known artists could post their music to be downloaded free. I got half a dozen or so tracks from a Swedish electronic musician who called himself Bassic. I think this was my favorite of those. I'm a bit hesitant to post it, and a bit embarrassed, because it might strike people as just sort of cheesy. It's a combination of music, miscellaneous TV dialog, and the sound of a thunderstorm. It seems to be the soundtrack of someone idly flipping through TV channels during a thunderstorm; I want to say an afternoon thunderstorm, because that's what I envision. There is unfortunately one recurring synthesizer pattern that I find kind of annoying, but other than that, it's a pleasant cozy atmosphere.  It sounds best on headphones, where you can get all the TV bits as they fade in and out.

Mockingbird and Watchman

Has anyone read Harper Lee's "new" novel, Go Set A Watchman? Intrigued by the event, I decided to do something I've had in mind for a while to do, which was to read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time since I was a teenager. I think we were assigned it in school, which, if true, is maybe a little surprising, since it was the Deep South in the mid-1960s. Or maybe I just read it on my own. At any rate, I did read it, and liked it. But I hadn't read it since, and had long begun to suspect that it was really not such a great novel, and that its reputation probably rested as much on its place in racial politics as on its literary quality.

My suspicion was probably fortified by Flannery O'Connor:

I think I see what it really is--a child's book. When I was fifteen I would have loved it. Take out the rape and you've got something like Miss Minerva and William Green Hill. I think for a child's book it does all right. 

(from a letter)

So I read it a few weeks ago, and as I suspected it's not a great novel. But it's certainly not junk, either. It's better than I expected, really. And I can see why people love it so much, for reasons that go beyond its message. Fundamentally it's a coming-of-age story, and a very rich and charming one; it's really that more than a lesson about racism, which was what I half-expected, and which it certainly contains. Flannery O'Connor was right, if you note the "fifteen" rather than the "child"--it is what would nowadays be called a Young Adult novel.

But I don't think I'm going to make the effort for Watchman. My wife read it and concurred entirely with the judgment of the editor who turned it down, and/or helped Lee extract and develop what became Mockingbird. According to her it's primarily Scout as a grown woman, looking back in anger at her roots, denouncing her parents, etc. I must say it's not pleasant to think of the delightful Scout turning into just another angry and self-righteous liberal. I was avoiding the reviews, which I always do with a new book that I think I might read, but now that I've pretty well decided not to I'm going to read some of them. I gather most have been negative. Does anyone here have an opinion? 

Oh, and by the way, I'm with those who suspect that Harper Lee did not truly consent to the publication, and that it was orchestrated by people who stood to make a lot of money from it.

52 Authors: Week 32 - Thomas Mann

I have met few people who have read Thomas Mann extensively, and, among those few, fewer still who hold him in as high regard as I do. The problem, therefore, seems to be one mostly of neglect, and only secondarily of poor judgement. My own view is that he ranks with the finest novelists of the twentieth century. 

Mann was born in 1875, in Lübeck, and died in 1955, in Zürich. He lived most of his life in Germany, though for a little over a decade, during and after the Second World War, he resided in the United States. (A few years ago, when at Princeton University, I had the joy of visiting his former home and standing in his library, which was quite a thrill. Presumably anyone could do the same: the house is now the home of the university's Catholic chaplaincy.) He had been forced to flee Germany when the Nazis, of whom he had been a forceful critic, came to power. He continued his critique of Hitler's regime from the safety of America, and, in the post-war years, one of his greatest works resulted from a long meditation on the intersection of Nazism with German history and culture. But more on that below.


Mann with Einstein at Princeton, 1938

Mann was something of a prodigy. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, the work principally cited by the committee was Buddenbrooks, which had been published when he was just 26 years old. This book is in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, and traces the slow decline of a family over the course of several generations. It was an assured and impressive debut, but, if memory serves (for I have read it only once), it only hinted at those qualities which were to distinguish Mann's writing as he matured: his long, delicate sentences, with their networks of balanced and counter-balanced clauses (a reasonable English-language comparison would be with Henry James); the poise and precision of his language, which always gives the reader the sense of being in the company of a man who is thinking, and thinking carefully; his talent for adopting a distinctive narrative voice that lingers in the imagination long after the details of the plot have drifted away; an interest in matters of culture, history, religion, and philosophy; and, perhaps most distinctively, an ability to write stories which, while not exactly allegorical, resonate with multiple levels of meaning, and are therefore richer and more rewarding than a bald description would suggest.

In my opinion Mann's two masterpieces are The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. The former is a sprawling tale about a young man, Hans Castorp, who, suffering from some ill-defined disorder, "takes the cure" in a mountaintop sanitorium for an extended period — so extended, in fact, that the reader begins to suspect not only that he is not recovering, but that the doctors who treat him do not intend his recovery. Castorp is naive, and during his stay he falls under the influence of a number of older intellectuals who introduce him to the contested battlefield of ideas raging over European culture, morality, and history. If that makes it sound didactic, I have failed; it is, I suppose, one of those dreaded "novels of ideas" — a meditation on fin-de-siècle European society, for which the sanitorium itself becomes a proxy — but so beautifully written that it dazzles rather than discourages the reader. And persevere to the end: the last chapter is staggeringly great.

Even better (for I would count it among my favourite novels) is Doctor Faustus, a modernized and novelized telling of the famous legend. In Mann's version, the Faust character is a composer named Adrian Leverkühn (modelled rather obviously on Arnold Schoenberg) who makes a diabolical wager in exchange for a lifetime of artistic brilliance and acclaim. Sticking to the conventions of the realistic novel, Mann's tale can be read as confined safely within an immanent frame — there is no Devil in the waiting room such as visited Ivan Karamazov — but the realm of portent and mystery hovers over Adrian all the same. And, by ingenious use of a framing device, the story of Adrian's life becomes a mirror in which to examine Germany's ill-fated encounter with National Socialism, a deal with the Devil if ever there was one. It's a wonderfully rich book, especially recommended to music lovers, for it contains some of the finest writing about music that you're likely to find.

For the readers of this blog, I would also recommend two other books. Joseph and his Brothers is Mann's longest book — a tetralogy, really — which runs to about 1200 pages in my edition. The story is that of the Biblical Joseph, and I know of no greater novelistic realization of a Biblical story than this one. It is told rather straightforwardly, with evident respect for the subject matter — though, as is often the case with Mann, the reader cannot perhaps entirely shake the worry that there is an understated irony sunk several fathoms deep. The narrative immerses the reader in the historical period, teasing out the religious mindset of the time in an effort to better understand and appreciate the origins of monotheism. Mann himself apparently considered it his greatest work, and the judgement is a defensible one. I am due for a re-read. And the other book is The Holy Sinner. Though it is generally thought to a fairly minor work — certainly it is much shorter than any of the books I have mentioned thus far! — it has an appeal all its own. The story is a re-working of a medieval legend about the early life of Pope Gregory (which one, I am not sure). It is a tale of magic, with elements familiar from medieval romances, and makes no effort, so far as I recall, to transpose the legend into realist terms. The tale is one that had fascinated Mann for years. (In Doctor Faustus Adrian Leverkühn had actually composed an oratorio telling the same story.) I remember that I greatly enjoyed it when I first read it; again, I am due for a re-read.

Mann is also admired for his short stories, especially "Death in Venice". His collected short stories fill a hefty single volume, and there are some jewels in it. I would particularly recommend two of them: "Tonio Kröger" is, in my opinion, his best short story, exploring some of the same themes as "Death in Venice" (especially the contest of Apollo and Dionysius in life and art), but doing it more winsomely and without the unsavoury elements. And I am also very fond of "A Man and his Dog", which is about ... a man and his dog. Dog-lovers will, I predict, get a kick out of Mann's unnervingly precise descriptions of dog antics; cat-lovers will probably hate it.

I should say that I have read Mann only in translation. He has had two principal translators into English. H.T. Lowe-Porter translated the books as they were being published and came to be closely identified with Mann in the English-speaking world; her versions were known to him and I believe he thought them satisfactory. In the last few decades John E. Woods has been producing fresh translations; he has completed most of the books I have recommended here (the exceptions being The Holy Sinner and the short stories). For purposes of comparison, here is Lowe-Porter's version of the first paragraph of The Magic Mountain:

The story of Hans Castorp, which we would here set forth, not on his own account, for in him the reader will make acquaintance with a simple-minded though pleasing young man, but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us highly worth telling — though it must needs be borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, that it is his story, and not every story happens to everybody — this story, we say, belongs to the long ago; is already, so to speak, covered with historic mould.

Catch that? (One wit credited Lowe-Porter with having translated Mann into German.) Here is Woods with the same passage:

The story of Hans Castorp that we intend to tell here not for his own sake (for the reader will come to know him as a perfectly ordinary, if engaging young man), but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us to be very much worth the telling (although in Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody) is a story that took place long ago and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history.

My own preference, not just in this case but in general, is for Woods' translations.


I wish that I knew more about Thomas Mann, the person, but I don't. I believe that he was a rather sad man — if I remember rightly, at least a few members of his family committed suicide — and his intellectual influences, which would include Nietzsche, Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Freud, are not exactly a band of merry men, but from his books I have learned that he was a man committed to serious moral reflection who used the resources of modernist literature to probe the spiritual and intellectual malaise of our times. In that sense, he can be appreciated as something like a secular counterpart to T.S. Eliot. There was nothing of the ideologue in him, and he was a great artist.

In conclusion, Thomas Mann was a wonderful novelist.

—Craig Burrell is not a wonderful novelist, nor any sort of novelist, but if he were he would try to be like Thomas Mann. He blogs (in a manner of speaking) at All Manner of Thing, and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives in Canada.