A Mary McCarthy Revival and The Oasis

Thank God for Mary McCarthy,  I thought when I picked up The Oasis. I had just spent a week wallowing from dawn till arctic dusk in page-turning novels by Daphne du Maurier, Alice Adams, and Alison Lurie. (Perfect February reading.)  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my binge, but McCarthy’s tough prose proved a tonic.

Hasn’t McCarthy been underrated, even derided in recent years?  I can only think that her novels, with the exception of The Group (1963), went out of style because she was so intellectually tough.  The leftist McCarthy was idealistic, controversial, and outspoken:  the critic and essayist Philip Rahv threatened to sue her for libel after she satirized him in her novel, The Oasis, and Lillian Hellman did sue her after McCarthy said on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980 that Hellman was a dishonest writer.  (And Hellman was dishonest, in that her brilliant memoirs were at least partially fictionalized.)

I have long been a fan of McCarthy, who seems to me the quintessential American woman writer, neglected because of her very intellect and originality, not because of her lack thereof.  The revival of her work by Library of America, which recently published McCarthy’s complete fiction in two volumes, is inspired and timely. What would she make of 2018?

My two favorite books by McCarthy are A Charmed Life, a  satiric novel which focuses on several characters in an artists’ colony in a New England village, and Birds of America, a hilarious skewering of American innocence and hypocrisy through the eyes of a radical college student on his junior year abroad at the Sorbonne  in the 1960s. (I wrote about these two  here and  here. )

All right, I can’t read my favorites all the time.   I recently hunkered down with McCarthy’s little-known novella, The Oasis (1949).  Here, she satirizes a group of intellectuals who decide to start a community in the mountains, where they will live communally (albeit in separate quarters) without electricity and will grow their own food.  They arrogantly call their community Utopia.  And of course they intend not to fail in the grand manner of Fruitlands, the commune founded by Bronson Alcott and satirized in Louisa’s Transcendental Wild Oats,  and other Utopian experiments.

The community is divided into two groups, the Purists and the Realists.  And the subject of dissension at the meetings is too often Joe Lockman, a sentimental Babbitt-like salesman who irritates nearly everyone in every scene.  Mac, the leader of the Purists, is furious at the idea of admitting bumbling Joe to Utopia.

“He is the antithesis of everything we stand for,” shouted MacDougal MacDermott, the editor of a libertarian magazine, the night Joe’s name was proposed to the Utopian council. “My God, aren’t we going to have any standards? ….  my God, the man is uncivilized.  Don’t you believe in anything?  This fellow is a yahoo.”

But then Mac decides accepts Joe.  And, in retrospect, this overly-scrupulous admission is a mistake.

Will Taub, the leader of the Realists, does not share the Purists’ ideals.  He joins Utopia mostly because he wants to see it fall, as do his friends.  “In practice, of course Taub and his friends conceded to anyone (this automatically excluded fascists and communists) the liberty of behaving as ineffectually as he wished.  But the right of a human being to think that he could resist history, environment, class structure, psychic conditioning was something they denied him with all the ferocity of their own pent-up natures and disappointed hopes.”

On the first morning at Utopia,  Joe  awakens everyone with gun shots. (He is doing target practice.)     And the stove, which he was fiddling with before he got out his gun, explodes and burns off the bangs and eyebrows of Katy, who is  in charge of breakfast that day.  Katy had proposed Joe’s name–and now they are stuck with him.

Community meetings go nowhere–political action seems too difficult when there are only 50 residents–and even the brochures they discuss don’t get written.  (They did, however, get things done back in the city.)  But they do somehow manage to grow their own food.  And it is on a beautiful morning when they plan to pick strawberries and have a picnic that they find intruders in the meadow  picking their berries.

Katy is  by far my favorite character.  She marched right out  and asked the intruders to leave.  They yelled obscenities at her.  And after the intruders are scared off by two Utopian men with a threat of violence (and with Joe’s gun), Taub and Katy have a discussion. Taub tries to get Katy to admit force was needed.

“You conceive the problem incorrectly,” she declared… “If the problem is to get rid of the berry pickers, it follows that force is the answer–to that extent, you are right….But…supposing there is no problem, but simply an event:  the berry-pickers are in the meadow; the sun is in the sky.  If you do not wish to eject them, there is no problem, there is only an occurrence.”

In this  dense 80-page novella, it is a relief to have Katy,  a real Utopian, who knows the community won’t last but has great sympathy for their vision.  She is able to redefine the problem  (if they listen to her).

And that, it seems to me, is what McCarthy does.

Our Winter of the Aeneid: The Underworld and Twin Gates in Book VI

Book VI is the center of the Aeneid.  Aeneas has completed the journey to Italy, but has not yet fought a war to establish a place for the Trojan refugees.  Aeneas must descend into the underworld–the world of the dead–before he can acquire the knowledge to live in Italy.  Or does he?  Why does he return through the ivory gate–the gate of false dreams–rather than the horn gate–the gate of true dreams?  This extremely philosophical and mystical book raises many questions.

It is divided into three parts: Aeneas’ arrival at Cumae and preparations for the descent (1-263); the journey through the underworld to Elysium (264-678); and the interview with Anchises about the nature of life beyond the grave and the vision of greatness of Rome’s future through a pageant of Roman heroes (679-end).

In Book VI Aeneas is entranced by two ecphrases and two gates.

Are they dreams?  Are they real?

In English literature, we take for granted many of the conventions of classical literature, among them characterization, plot, speeches, similes, metaphors, imagery, and symbols.  We do not, however, commonly talk about ecphrasis.  Ecphrasis is a Greek word simply meaning description, and is used in poetry to describe an artifact or work of art in such a way that it makes a meaningful comment on the text, or illumines it in some way.  Virgil looked to the brilliant ecphrases in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for inspiration:  Homer’s most famous ecphrasis occurs in Book 18 of the Iliad, a delineation of the engravings on Achilles’ shield, made by the god Haephaestus for Achilles. Virgil would also have been familiar with the ecphrasis in some lesser known ancient poetry, Apollonious’  The Argonautica, which describes details on Jason’s cloak.  And Catullus in Poem 64 describes the detail on a coverlet.  Ecphrasis is an epic convention, and of course Virgil has crafted many beautiful, vivid ecphrases in The Aeneid.

Aeneas lands at Cumae in Italy, the site of the temple of the Sibyl, Apollo’s priestess and oracle.  The mention of Cumae would have evoked recognition, due to Augustus’ recent restoration of the temple.

On the doors of the temple are Daedalus’ (mythic) engravings; the Sibyl immediately tells Aeneas not to linger.  Why?  Is it too dream-like?  Is the underworld more real?

Non hoc ista sibi tempus spectacula poscit. (37)

“This time does not demand those sights you are gazing on.”  (This is not the time for sighteseeing.)

Daedalus’ engravings of the labyrinth, the death of Minos’ son, and the Minotaur are an ecphrasis,  such as we saw in Book I.  There Aeneas was overcome by depictions of the Trojan War on the walls of the temple of Juno, but here we do not feel that emotion.  Here the engravings are more remote, mysterious, and we also see the absence of a portrayal by Daedalus of his son Icarus’s death. Some believe that this absence of the son in the engravings is a kind of reversal of the absence of Aeneas in Anchises’s underworld:  Daedalus’s son is dead, presumably in the underworld; Aeneas’ father Anchises is dead, in the underworld.

After prayers, sacrifices, and the funeral proceedings for Misenus, who has died seemingly at random, reminding us of the brevity of life, is the mystery of what Aeneas is about to undergo, a visit to death and return.  Aeneas breaks off the golden bough, a symbol of life and death.  He needs the bough to enter the underworld.  And it immediately grows back on the tree.

Part 2:  The Journey

Virgil has drawn on material from the 11th book of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ visit to the underworld.  He also refers to Plato (the Phaedo, the Republic, etc.), Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, and even Aristophanes’ comic riffs on heroes in the Underworld, The Frogs.

He meets three ghosts:  Palinurus, a Trojan helmsman who was swept overboard by the god Sleep near the end of the journey to Italy and cannot cross the Styx–Aeneas feels guilty; Dido, who will not speak to him and glides away, despite Aeneas’s begging for forgiveness; and Deiphobus, a Trojan hero, Helen’s second Trojan husband after Paris’ death, who was killed by her bloody betrayal to Menelaus.  Aeneas is sorrowful and desolate, but he cannot change things. This is especially brought home to him by Dido, who now coldly rejects him just as he rejected her.

3. The Revelation

David Ferry’s translation

The last section is connected with the glory of the future.  After passing the hell of Tartarus and arriving at the heaven of the Elysian fields, Aeneas and the Sibyl meet some Trojan heroes, warriors, and singers who are pursuing the occupations they followed in life.  But Anchises is entertaining himself by counting the descendants of the Roman race.  And this is the second ecphrasis in Book VI.

Anchises describes to Aeneas a veritable pageant of Roman heroes who will reward Aeneas’s journey to Italy.  Among the Roman heroes are Romulus, the Roman kings, Cato, the Gracchi, Augustus, Caesar, Pompey, and Marcellus.

Anchises’ magnificent visual art-ecphrasis of the future restores Aeneas’ courage.  He now understand that there is a purpose to the journey and to the war he must fight in Italy to win a place for the Trojans.

But there are two gates out of the underworld, the horn gate, the gate of true dreams, and the ivory gate, the gate of false dreams.  Aeneas and the Sibyl return to Cumae through the ivory gate–the gate of false dreams.  Perhaps the dreams of an empirical future will not after all repay Aeneas’s loss of his personal life.

Virgil describes the two gates (literal English translation below the Latin):

Sunt geminae Somni portae, quarum altera fertur
cornea, qua ueris facilis datur exitus umbris,
altera candenti perfecta nitens elephanto,              
sed falsa ad caelum mittunt insomnia Manes.
his ibi tum natum Anchises unaque Sibyllam
prosequitur dictis portaque emittit eburna…

“There are twin gates, of which one is said to be horn, by which an easy exit is given to true shades, and the other is made shining of white ivory,  but Hades sends false dreams through this gate to our world.  Anchises, having finished speaking  escorted his son and the Sibyl and sent them out by the ivory gate.” (My literal translation.)

The Earth Abideth by George Dell

What lover of fiction hasn’t tried his or her hand at a novel? It often ends up in a desk drawer, a plastic storage bin from WalMart, or the trash.

George Dell’s The Earth Abideth gathered its share of dust. The 1938 manuscript was rescued from oblivion in the 1980s and submitted to Ohio University Press by the then 85-year-old author’s daughter-in-law. The phenomenal success of Helen Hoover Santmyer’s … And Ladies of the Club made Bertie Dell of Galena, Ohio, think the time might be ripe for The Earth Abideth.

Though not quite the new Main Street suggested by William W. Allen in the foreword, The Earth Abideth is delightful, if plain, fare in its own right. This well-researched story of the struggles of a 19th-century farm family is deeply touching and conveys the harsh realities of the period.

Dell traces the fortunes of Thomas and Kate Linthorne, who elope in 1866 and settle on a farm in Fairfield County. The Linthornes stand out from their superstitious neighbors, who are as preoccupied with witchcraft, hexes, and ghosts as with agriculture. The first hundred pages seem occasionally digressive, working harder to establish a sense of period than to portray Thomas and Kate as compelling characters. Thomas plows and attends a Christmas shooting contest; Kate churns butter, makes lace doilies, and goes to church; four children are born in rapid succession. Not all of the anecdotes add up, but as the children grow older the story begins to roll.

The oldest son, Hocking, falls in love with a loose, slatternly, promiscuous girl. When Hocking elopes, Thomas cuts him off financially. Times grow so hard for Hocking that his schoolteacher sister, Charlotte, smuggles him quilts and money. Later, when their mother opposes Charlotte’s choice of a husband, Charlotte, too, elopes.

Lots of heartache over the children lies ahead, though the farm prospers. The youngest daughter converts to Catholicism, and the brightest child, Grover, turns his talents to theft.

One of the worst tragedies results from Thomas’s affair with a neighbor, Lucile. Years later, when the community learns that Thomas is the father of Lucile’s daughter, Lucile runs away and Thomas and Kate must care for the child.

The novel is saved from potboiler status by Dell’s quiet craftsmanship. Sometimes economical to the point of harshness, his style is deliberately shaped to duplicate the rhythms of Thomas’s clipped speech. The story unfolds pageant-like, sweeping the years with simple, telling details that make us care about the Linthornes and their lost way of life.

By the end of the novel, Dell has established a sure voice and a memorable character in Thomas. Life appears thus to Thomas at 71: “The world was new to him, a brawling, jumbled, discordant jangle of hatreds and fears through which men hurried breathlessly to their deaths. Only the hills were the same, the hills and the sweet smell of the loam as the share furrowed it.”

It’s almost worth the journey to arrive at such a passage. Dell’s work will appeal to history buffs and readers with a taste for leisurely, old-fashioned novels.

Book Banning! & Is Everyone a Critic?


“What would Obama think?”  I wondered the other day.

I had just read that officials in the public schools in Duluth, Minnesota, have banned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the English curriculum.  (They have not yet decided what books will replace them.)  Although these two classics are among the most “challenged” and banned American books, I do not associate Minnesota with book-banning.

Twain’s satiric masterpiece, the humorous, poignant story of a friendship between a runaway boy and a runaway slave, is one of my favorite books. I do not consider it racist, despite Huck’s ignorant use of the “n” word.  I do think the dialect may be too difficult for today’s students.  And if they don’t understand, they will not read, nor will they listen to teachers’ explanations of the historical context and impact of Twain’s satire.


On the other hand, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is an easy read, appropriate for all ages, and clearly delineates the lawyer Atticus Finch’s fight against injustice in a town in Alabama during the Depression.  What can the objection be?

Did you know Obama cited To Kill a Mockingbird in his farewell speech on Jan. 10, 2017?  He held up Atticus as a role model.

He said,

If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Obama cites “To Kill a Mockingbird” in  his farewell speech

IS EVERYONE A CRITIC?  I very much enjoyed the “Secrets of the Book Critics” feature at Book Marks (Feb. 14).  It took the form of a short interview with Alexis Burling, a writer, book reviewer, and critic.  She said the two books she would love to have reviewed when they were  first published are War and Peace and The Golden Notebook.  I  love, love, love War and Peace and The Golden Notebook. She’s definitely a F.O.B  (Friend of my Blog) now, whether she wants to be or not.

On the other hand, she expressed the crankiness typical of critics in the post-print age. When asked about misconceptions of critics and criticism, she said,

How about the idea that everyone can be a book critic? That all it takes to write a worthwhile review is just a quick read of a book and then a dribbling out of your off-the-cuff opinion? Anyone who contributes to this column can tell you that reviewing a book is definitely not an easy, zippy process. There’s research involved—reading an author’s past work(s) to put the current book in context, maybe reading an interview or two to see where the author was coming from when he/she wrote the book, plus keeping on top of what else has been or is being published about the subject. Then there’s the taking notes while reading (well, I do that) and the working and reworking of sentences and paragraphs that hopefully come together into a cohesive and un-stuffy package that will do the book justice. Maybe it sounds a bit like I’m tooting the collective book-critic horn, but as with any profession, the job requires training, humility, and lots of practice.

I don’t quite agree with her here.  My first editor told me, “Any intelligent person can review a book,” and I stand by him.  It is true that some intelligent people write better reviews than others, but give them a copy of Strunk and White and they will grow (or pare down).  There are people who think they can do as well as you can, but you just smile and ask them if they’ve read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Vergil and that will shut them right up.

I read all kinds of reviews:  The New York Times,  Goodreads, blogs.  Each medium has much to offer, but from my point of view a traditional book review works best.

Mind you, I don’t write traditional book reviews here. Well, not very often. But yes, I see bloggers as being closest in intention to reviewers/critics, if not in execution.

I’d ask for your input, but I’m on a social media break. Call it Lent.

Sheila Kaye-Smith on George Eliot

I am psychic.  You don’t believe me? You should.

At my mother’s funeral, which was attended by warring factions, the priest swung the censer and it broke. The assistant had trouble picking it up:  it was hot.   I knew this was the work of my mother’s ghost: she was upset by the strife. The family members  were stationed on different sides of the aisle, some glaring in the shade; with a few exceptions, they were rude at the cemetery.  They were furious about the will –how they hated to share!–just as in Middlemarch and War in Peace.  I was the only one who noticed my mother’s ghost, but certainly some must have felt it.

I am also psychic in the choosing of books, which are often startlingly related to each other.   For instance, I recently reread Adam Bede and mentioned here that I read it as a child.  And then I picked up All the Books of My Life, by Sheila Kaye-Smith, and lo and behold! she writes about Adam Bede, which she had been forbidden by her mother to read until she was 21.  She knows it would have appealed to her as a child.

George Eliot was better suited to the heaviness of my mind [than Dickens], but grown-up intervention had robbed me of the very book that would have suited me best.  The characters and the story are better adapted than in many of the others to a young reader’s perceptions, the comedy is unobtrusive and the tragedy obvious.  Instead I read Silas Marner and found it completely uninteresting.

Nothing was banned at my house, but I had a similar experience with Eliot .    At my grandmother’s house, I read Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, but could not understand Eliot’s other books.  Adam Bede is such a vibrant novel, actually one of her best.  I liked the drama, and the preacher Dinah’s standing by the shallow, beautiful  Hetty, an unmarried pregnant girl accused of infanticide who is not sympathetic until she runs away, trying to find the father of her child.  Dinah stands by her in prison and brings out Hetty’s good qualities.

Kaye-Smith would have liked Adam Bede, but had problems with Middlemarch as a 16-year-old

I followed The Mill on the Floss with Middlemarch, a book which of course I ought not to have read till much later…. The slow careful building up of the characters of Dorothea and Casaubon never amounted to anything I could understand or appreciate….  Indeed I knew that I was bored and felt disappointed with myself for being so…

I, too, found Middlemarch a slog as a teenager.  It was only later, in my twenties, that I appreciated it.  But for all the perfections of Middlemarch, may I admit that I still prefer Adam Bede?

By the way, you can read my posts on Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels The End of the House of Alard and Joanna Godden here and here.

Danielle Steel & the Missing Book Reviews

I have been literally “under the weather”:  with single-digit temperatures, I don’t feel like going out.  Finally it warmed up a bit, so I bundled up in sweaters, parka, and boots and walked to the library.  I longed to sit in a comfortable chair by the (electric) fire and read The New York Times Book Review.

But it didn’t turn out like that.

First, I had a long conversation with the “Robotic Librarian” at the check-out desk:   she is probably not a librarian, but she is robotic.  She told me I should renew my overdue DVDs.   I said that I had renewed them twice (the library’s limit) and my husband had returned them.  She said again, “You should renew them.” I explained again we had returned them.  Finally I asked,  “Are you saying you want to renew them?”  She said, “No, they’ve been returned.”

Then I headed towards the books and reading room. Nothing is where it should be.  Here, the Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant is shelved in the SF section.   Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries is in the mystery section.   And The New York Times Book Review,  which used to be  between The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, has disappeared in Library Hell.

The worst problem for me at this library is the five-year-weeding policy. Yup.  I am sure there are good librarians who cheat on the policy and preserve books, but Europas,  NYRB books, and Library of America editions have been known to bite the dust.  I have little chance of finding anything I will read.  Today  I looked for Pulitzer Prize winner Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates.  Nope, they don’t have it. How about Judith Rossner’s Emmeline, recently reissued by Persephone? Nope. Anything by the great Hortense Calisher? No, of course not.

Do you want to know what they have?  Three bookcases of Danielle Steel.

By the way, The New York Times and The Washington Post now review Steel’s books.   Oimoi!  Talk about dropping standards.

The Brilliance of George Eliot: Why Not Read Adam Bede?

Is George Eliot still read?  I don’t mean Middlemarch:  yes, we all read Middlemarch.  But  are her other novels read as voraciously as they used to be?  My grandmother kept Eliot’s books in the glass-fronted bookcase next to the fireplace.  I’d take them out and read bits of them on rainy afternoons.  Perhaps they were Book-of-the-Month selections; she also subscribed to the Literary Guild.  Her preferences were for Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss.  Honestly, those are the only two I remember reading. Perhaps they were the only ones I could understand.

Recently I’ve been rereading Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859).  Beautiful, fluid writing, and Eliot wrote about the rural poor from her unique point of view as the daughter of a carpenter. The novel, set in 1799, was partly a homage to her father, upon whose character Adam Bede was based, partly to her aunt Elizabeth, an itinerant Methodist preacher before her marriage, who is portrayed as Dinah Morris, also a Wesleyan preacher.

Not all are as noble as Adam and Dinah.  The anti-heroine, Hetty Sorrel, the beautiful, vain, unintelligent niece of a farmer, is seduced by Arthur, the squire’s nephew.  Later, she agrees to marry Adam, but she is pregnant and ashamed, so flees before the wedding, trying in vain to find Arthur. Eventually Hetty is  imprisoned for infanticide.  Who stands by her?  Her cousin, Dinah.

The plot was inspired by a story Eliot’s aunt’s told: as a preacher, she had spent a night praying in the cell of a woman condemned to be hanged  for killing her child.   In Adam Bede, Eliot weaves the story of this persecuted and prosecuted 18-year-old  silly girl into the web of intricate inter-class relationships between rich and poor, judges and peasants, men and women, clergymen and women preachers, and, perhaps most important, women and women.  All are threatened by Hetty’s condition and lack of remorse.  When it comes down to it, women immediately understand what has happened to Hetty, and are usually more sympathetic.   Arthur is to blame.  Adam, too, understands it.

Eliot is not only a realist who wrote lifelike country characters, but her dialect is also pitch-perfect, i.e., convincing and comprehensible.  And Eliot is so intellectual that there are a dizzying number of references to other novels in Adam Bede.  And the name Hetty is rich in associations:  we think of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, who is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter for adultery and for not naming the father of her illegitimate child.  Hetty also recalls Esther in Bleak House,  the lovely, graceful, illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock.  Lady Dedlock runs away to save her husband and Esther from being hurt by her secrets. And her long ,terrible journey is not unlike Hetty’s, while Esther and Inspector Bucket search high and low.    And let us not forget Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, the story of a pregnant orphaned seamstress who manages to make a life for herself.

So did you pass on your love of Eliot to your progeny, or progeny’s progeny?  No?  They only read Y.A. books about faerie and vampires and elven kings?

“They’re always on the phones. They take pictures all day and post them.”

“Take a picture of her reading George Eliot”

“Oh, that’s such a cute idea. Why do I think she’d hate it?”

“As usual I’m glad I didn’t breed.”

“If she would read Adam Bede, I would give her $200.”

” I would give her $300.”

“It’s a bribe!”

“It’s the only thing you haven’t tried.”

You have a perfectly nice-looking goddaughter, but unfortunately she is coming down from coke and is either running up and down the halls in rehab or  crying in the shower.  And then at the end of this pricey day in psych day care she comes home with ceramic figurines and laughs hyserically.  And then she runs around the block.

“Why is this dwarf orange?”

“I try to get out of crafts–but then they call me uncooperative..  So I painted it orange.”

I say Bye and go home to finish Adam Bede.