But wait, it’s not Wednesday! In honor of World Poetry Day, I thought I’d do my Whitman Wednesday a day early. It’s been a while, so to refresh your memory, we are currently trekking through Book II of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Book II is a 19 verse poem, so I thought we’d take it a verse at a time. (See verse one here).
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.
How curious! how real!
Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.
See revolving the globe,
The ancestor-continents away group’d together,
The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus
See, vast trackless spaces,
As in a dream they change, they swiftly fill,
Countless masses debouch upon them,
They are now cover’d with the foremost people, arts, institutions, known.
See, projected through time,
For me an audience interminable.
With firm and regular step they wend, they never stop,
Successions of men, Americanos, a hundred millions,
One generation playing its part and passing on,
Another generation playing its part and passing on in its turn,
With faces turn’d sideways or backward towards me to listen,
With eyes retrospective towards me.
Whitman sees life as a succession of people, each one playing his/her part and then moving on. Their eyes are all looking back to hear Whitman speaking. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Whitman stanza, so I had forgotten how pompous he can be at times – he is so confident, at least in his writings, that he is going to be read and listened to for generations. But in a way, the absolute confidence that life moves on one generation after another, but that these generations will all share something in common (a love for Whitman, maybe?), is reassuring to me in today’s political climate.
As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.
A Brief Summary: Wang Lung is a poor farmer who has dreams of a better life. In the beginning of the book, he lives in a small two room mud hut with his elderly father. The book opens on his wedding day, where he has finally been able to purchase a slave, O-lan, from the wealthiest family in town, to bring home as a wife. Together, Wang Lung and O-lan toil to build a life together. We follow Wang Lung’s rise to fortune, lands, and wives. As Wang Lung slowly amasses land and fortunes, he slowly becomes the same kind of corrupt landowner that he grew up hating. Meanwhile, China is undergoing the turbulence of famines and revolutions – the Xinhai Revolution.
Setting: Anhui, China
Time Period: 1911-ish
A Fun Fact: Not sure if this fact is “fun” but Anna May Wong was denied the role as the leading lady in the film adaptation because she was “too Chinese.” Instead, the role went to American/German actress Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.
Review: The legacy of this book is pretty controversial. Writer Celeste Ng has written a pretty scathing essay on all the reasons why she hates this book.
I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it’s presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows kung fu.
I agree with Ng in a lot of ways. If I am being generous, I would say that maybe in the 1930s, this book was seen as revolutionary or insightful on life in a foreign country. I think that like Oliver La Farge and Julia Peterkin, the authors’ hearts are in the right place. Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent a good part of her life actually living in China (about 42 years.) She was even awarded the Nobel Prize for “her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”
But, like Scarlet Sister Mary, I don’t think this book really stands the test of time. It’s important to keep in mind, that at the time this book came out, there were still miscegenation laws in America, so that a Chinese actress could not kiss a White actor on screen. So of course it’s logical for 1930s-America to accept at face-value that Buck is an expert on China. While I didn’t find her writing as ridiculous as Peterson’s, the tone of the book seemed very judgmental. She writes like an anthropologist observing uncultured heathens in their natural environment.
But the writing and story itself, if we examine it strictly from plot and character development, are quite compelling. Wang Lung is a pretty fully fleshed out person; he’s flawed, selfish, ambitious, and hard working. The story of a man’s rise from rags to riches is common and crosses cultural identities. I would honestly have been more interested if Buck wrote more about life as a missionary in China, and I would have perhaps found her observations more compelling in a different medium (memoir? essays?). I’m sure she’s written other books, but it does irk me, as a Chinese-American, that Pearl S. Buck’s name is so synonymous with Chinese fiction.
My only other criticism is that by the end of the book, Buck has beaten the metaphor of “good earth” to death. She is obsessed with the idea of land as provider, the Good Earth. There are better books to read about farmers, about the Chinese revolution, and about how people can become corrupt or greedy as they become wealthier.
“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself – clothes upon the body of his son.”
The importance of diversity and representation is that no single book becomes the defining book of a culture or nation. I’ve probably said this a million times, but I think what we need to do is read widely, so that we can see a cross-section of a time or culture. I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to Chinese culture, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend any single book as an introduction to Chinese culture (or any culture).
- The Good Earth Movie (1937) Trailer
- Four Stories on What It Means to be Chinese in America
- Explore the Pulitzer Project
- Next up is The Store by Thomas Sigismund Stribling. I have still skipped Years of Grace, but please let me know if you have a copy I can borrow!
“Every life, when you look back on it, reduces itself to a few moments. The moments are what stay with us.” – Robert Seethaler
Andreas Egger’s life may seem small to the passing observer, fitting neatly within A Whole Life, a slim 160-paged novella. (Just compare this to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was a sprawling 720-pages. Although, I haven’t read that one yet!) But do not be fooled, it takes quite a bit of skill for Viennese-born author Robert Seethaler to distill Egger’s life into a few defining moments: dropping a bowl of cereal one morning, being draped over a cow saddle to be spanked by an unloving uncle, building a small fence along the edge of his property. These small moments culminate into a beautifully observed life. There are some important big moments too, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you.
What struck me the most about this book is that the setting almost doesn’t matter. When World War II begins, Eggers leaves his village in the Austrian Alps to enlist in the army. Not because he feels patriotic or passionate, but because it is what everyone else is doing. It didn’t even occur to me that Eggers would be fighting for the Nazis until Seethaler writes, “He… was relieved when he soon saw the familiar red of the swastikas glimmering towards him.” (“Humane Nazis” seem to be popping up in my reading a lot this year, something I’m still wrestling with, and I’ll be telling you about Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night soon.)
As I read A Whole Life, I was immediately reminded of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a connection, as I later found out, a lot of people have made. They are both novellas, both containing some surreally beautiful moments – an entire mountain lit up in candles for a wedding proposal, a pack of wolves running and howling in the middle of the night with a little wolf girl. I wouldn’t say these are anything like magical realism, but instead, the writers have a way with creating images that haunt you long after you’ve finished reading. The setting and time period for both books could easily be swapped and you wouldn’t even notice – one is cutting trees to make room for a transcontinental railroad while the other is cutting trees to make room for alpine cable cars. Nazi or American Patriot, the writers have both created very realistic and human portraits of a lifetime within 160+ pages.
I would recommend this book to you if you liked Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. I see a similar line of style, plot, and technique running through all of these books. Have you read these before? Do you agree?
Happy New Year, friends! (Even though we are already halfway through January – how is that possible?) I have been in the midsts of a busy tax season & new semester at school, so things have been hectic, to say the least. But I have been reading a lot and still have so many things I want to think about with you, so I thought the easiest way to ease back into writing regularly is with a Whitman Wednesday post. Today, we start on Book II of Leaves of Grass. The first poem here, “Starting from Paumanok” is really long, 19 pieces, so here’s just the first part.
Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born, Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother, After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements, Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas, Or a soldier camp'd or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner in California, Or rude in my home in Dakota's woods, my diet meat, my drink from the spring, Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess, Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy, Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of mighty Niagara, Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and strong-breasted bull, Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow, my amaze, Having studied the mocking-bird's tones and the flight of the mountain-hawk, And heard at dawn the unrivall'd one, the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars, Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.
Do you remember discovering where Whitman was born? (He lived in Long Island, if you forgot!) Here, I think he’s venturing out of his fish-shaped home (do you think Long Island looks like a little fish attached to New York State?) and he’s discovering the rest of America, from Manhattan to North Dakota.
I think this is a great poem to think about as I start the new year. I have been in such a rush to meet deadlines at school and work, that I haven’t taken any time to withdraw “to muse and meditate in some deep recess” which is honestly all I want to do every December. I have been reading “White Trash” right now, which is a 400 year history of class in America, so I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what life was like in the 18th and 19th century. I have been questioning whether our current idea of growing up in a log cabin is actually quaint and completely false. But I digress. After an insane 2016, this poem has instilled in me a renewed sense of hope, exploration, and curiosity as we strike up for a New Year.
How about you? What are your New Year resolutions? What are you reading? Please tell me everything since we last spoke.
Hi Friends, we are almost in December, can you believe it? This is the 20th Whitman Wednesday, marking five months of poetry! Today’s poem is “I Hear America Singing.”
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
The more Whitman I read, the more I feel like poetry is a mirror. Poems often reflect their surroundings or the state of the reader more than anything else. It’s hard not to be political these days; it’s hard not to read in between the lines all of the time. It has been especially hard for me to read Whitman, that old patriotic bastard! In this poem, I see a really idealistic and beautiful version of America, the version that I think we all have in our minds. It is a really stark contrast to the news headlines today. I suppose Whitman has an outdated view of America – women do more than sew, sing, and wash these days (thankfully). I’ve been thinking a lot about the “forgotten” white voters who are nostalgic for the past. I hope Whitman’s America is what they are nostalgic for, and not for a pre-abolition, pre-women’s suffrage America. Because doesn’t Whitman’s description seem lovely?
As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!
Also, my friends and I are trying to start a little non-fiction book club to help us get informed and survive for the next four years. If you’re not afraid to get a little political, please let me know if you’d like to read along with us! Hopefully we’ll have some discussions on Goodreads and Facebook, in addition to real life meetings.
A Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences
Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America
Time Period: 1914
A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.
Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.
This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.
I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?
I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.
- Thanks to Goodreads for the brief summary!
- Explore the Pulitzer Project
- Naz at Read Diverse Books posted a whole list of books by Native American authors to be excited about in 2016.
- Buy the book here
- Read more about the jury decision here
- Next up is The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Years of Grace yet.