Literature: July 2003 Archives

The Gaffs of NPR--Hawthorne


The Gaffs of NPR--Hawthorne

On All Things Considered this morning a report on Hawthorne via a discussion of the book Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa, there were at least two problems with their coverage. (And this has nothing to do with liberal bias or otherwise.) At one point the interviewer says, "Who would have known that Hawthorne could be funny?" Well, only anyone who had given his books and short stories a moment of consideration outside what they read in their tenth-grade English classes. There are uproarious passages in both The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Admittedly they are dry, almost acerbic, but these passages are unremittingly funny.

The second faux pas from the editor of the work who says, "Julian Hawthorne became a writer. Nobody remembers that these days." Implying that this knowledge was confined to the rarified world of Hawthorne Scholars. Given that I had only begun to appreciate Hawthorne five or six years ago (apart from isolated pieces like "Young Goodman Brown" and "Rapacinni's Daughter"), I hardly qualify as a scholar, and yet I knew this "rarified" piece of knowledge. In addition I suppose that few know that his daughter founded a Catholic Religious group dedicated to tending to those with cancer and that his son-in-law was a reprobate rouè who made his money from chronicling the details of his illustrious stepfather's life.

Anyway, I think it is the perpetuation of the stereotype of a unapproachable and humorless writer that bothers me so. Hawthorne is neither. A true appreciation of his prose and a careful reading of the stories and novels shows a delightful, wry, shimmering humor always there just beneath the surface. People need to stop perpetuating myths--so here is my small contribution toward controlling the rampant proliferation of misinformation about Hawthorne's writing.

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Tolstoy and Dostoievski and Joyce

I am reading Paul Elie's book The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor and so am suffering from a convergence of the twain. In both places, I am bombarded with Tolstoy and Dostoievski and their great contributions toward understanding and incorporating religion into one's life. In Elie's book, Dorothy Day is typified as a person caught between the two Russian visions; Walker Percy is discussed as a person who read Dostoievski and discussed it with good friend Shelby Foote throughout his lifetime. In Yancey's book the two are credited in some part with helping him come to a reasonable vision of faith.

I don't understand. I have enjoyed what I have read of Tolstoy--War and Peace and selected short stories and shorter novels. I have not enjoyed anything I have read of Dostoievski--his novels read more like ponderous treatises of dubious philosophical and theological points to me. Crime and Punishment reads likes proto-anti-Neitzsheism and the less said of The Brothers Karamazov the better. Now, I know these belong to the western canon, and I know that they are considered important works (speaking of Dostoievski) and were I still inclined to the theory that there are certain things I "should" read, I would try to work my way through these ponderous tomes. But thankfully, I have of recent date been relieved of the anxiety of having to read what I do not enjoy and what does not speak to me. I no longer buy the argument that one must read certain things to be either educated or "in-the-know." I've also come to the realization that life is too short to indulge those who do not retain my interest for long.

However, I am curious as to what exactly anyone gets out of these. I welcome comments from those who enjoy Dostoevski (Tolstoy to a lesser extent, as I'm already favorably disposed toward his work--rather unfavorably disposed toward his life and treatment of family). I'm sure many will tell me all the wonders I am missing, and perhaps I will be persuaded to take a look.

On the other hand, I tend to think I'm more like Merton whose formative influence was James Joyce. James Joyce, despite his life and his difficulties with the Church, is possibly my very favorite writer. I often am puzzled by those who don't "get" Ulysses. It is no more difficult than a great many other books the same people read, and yet the magic I perceive eludes them entirely. I have reread Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake countless times with endless enjoyment at the sly humor and the inventiveness of the writer, and strangely, it was Joyce (and my professor Coilin Owens), in part, who led me into the Catholic Church--perhaps more about that later.

I could wax rhapsodic about the virtues and wonders of the prose of Joyce, but I suspect that I would hear a gallery of yawns or sharp cries and reminders that his masterwork was once on the Index of Forbidden Books (as silly a notion as ever crossed a narrow mind.)

Anyway, I've stirred up enough fuss with this little note, I'm certain. Please let me know what you think. I'd love to hear more about ostensibly non-spiritual writers who have lead people to a greater appreciation of the value of faith. (These include novelists such as Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, Frederick Buechner, Flannery O'Connor--you get the idea.)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from July 2003.

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