Sep 24, 2008

A Mirror for Witches, by Esther Forbes

Janet Lewis thought highly of the fiction of Esther Forbes, an author best known nowadays for her fine children’s book set in the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain. One of my books for summer reading was Forbes’s A Mirror for Witches, which Lewis recommended to readers in the book Rediscoveries some years back. What did I discover? A very fine novel on the Salem witch trials that should not be forgotten, that might even be highly important. The novel might truly deserve to last – that is, to command our attention as one of the finest novels we have. I believe Lewis might have been right that A Mirror for Witches is deserving of rediscovery.

The book concerns our sense that the events in Salem 300 years ago were incredible and singular. Forbes surely knew that we would be drawn to the story she tells and her manner of telling it simply because most American readers find it bewildering that so many people could have been caught up in the ignorance and mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. (Without question, general incredulity might have diminished in light of the bizarre sex crime scares in the US about 15 years ago.) The novel appears well researched, as evidenced, in part, by its selection for the college textbook, What Happened at Salem? (out of print), which was edited by the fine historian David Levin (once Yvor Winters’s colleague at Stanford). In my considered judgment, the book is exceptionally well written, in a style that is profound, moving, and sharply appropriate to its purpose.

Forbes’s tale concerns the fictional Doll Bilby, a young woman who was adopted by an American-to-be as a small child after seeing her own parents burned alive as witches in France. The man who adopts her, a sympathetic ship’s master, is drawn to Doll’s merrily unruly temperament, which was, Forbes makes clear, shaped by the distress of watching her parents being executed in such a ghastly manner. The intellectual and psychological devastation Doll seems to have suffered, however, does not lead Forbes to a modern take on demon possession. In Doll’s era, mental illness was often seen as evidence of possession by demons, and anyone so controlled must either be in league with them or at least be highly dangerous to everyone else. Forbes portrays Doll as truly possessed; Doll believes it herself. Forbes’s accomplished exposition, written in the style of the 17th century (slightly modernized), evokes both the time and the place and the thoughts and feelings of her characters so powerfully and accurately that we feel as though we have been transported back to colonial times and can thereby more deeply, fully, and sympathetically fathom the colonial mind that brought about the Salem trials. Allow me to quote one important and moving passage of the novel that strikes me as central to its themes. This is part of the scene in which Doll first discerns that she has been in league with demons, whose reality she never doubted, but whose presence she had not yet known fully or clearly:

Now was she no longer alone in this sad world, for her god (that is, Satan) had come to succor her, or had at least sent her a messenger. She asked him which he was, Satan or lesser demon. At the mention of Satan’s name, he bowed his head reverently. He admitted that he was but one of many fallen angels who had left Paradise with the Awful Prince. At first she was cast down, for she had hoped to hear that it was the Prince himself. But she looked again, and marked how handsome a man he was and of what a fine ruddy complexion. She saw how strong were his shoulders, and how arched and strong his chest. She was thankful then that Satan had not seen fit tom send her merely some ancient hag or talking cat, ram, or little green bird, but this stalwart demon. She thought, “He can protect me even from the hate of Mrs. Hannah.” She though, in her utter damnable folly, “He can protect me from the Wrath of God.”

The whole barn fell into the cellar hole. As she looked towards this glowing pit, she thought of that vaster and crueller bonfire in which her soul would burn forever. She thought well to ask him a little concerning those pains which she later must suffer. He laughed at her. There would be, he said, no pain. Those who served Satan faithfully in this world were never burned in Hell. Was not Satan Kind of Hell? Why should he burn those who loved and obeyed him? She was stuffed full of lunatic theology. The only souls that suffered in Hell were such of God’s subjects as had angered Him and yet made no pact of service with Satan....

I could discuss this one wonderfully composed passage at length, for there is much to ponder here, from the author’s voice to the complex meaning of the passage. I quote it just to whet your appetite, though I also want you to see how Forbes delves so deeply into her subject matter that it become a full reality to her readers.

I believe it was this sense of transport that Forbes was trying to achieve. She was not trying to tell us that she believes in demons -- and that we ought to as well. She was trying to fathom what it really felt and feels like to believe in demons so deeply that it could steer people who so believe into unwitting error. By recreating the form, atmosphere, and tone of a seventeenth-century chapbook, in which sinister events are presented as though they are literally true, the 20th-century reader is brought up short, startled with the trueness of other conceptions of life and the world. Reader will take one of several stances on the meaning of the short, violent life of Doll Bilby, "who took a fiend to love." But Forbes wanted something much more, to get us to see that outwardly outlandish beliefs of bygone ages were once really reality, penetrating to every corner of life, deeply influencing, perhaps overmastering, all thought and feeling. I believe that Forbes’s theme can help us in many ways to understand those who are different from us and better comprehend our own past, the essential beliefs of others, and how beliefs shape who we are and what we do. Forbes does no overt moralizing on Doll’s case, though Doll is, of course, condemned. Forbes’s moral is to guide us to a much deeper understanding of human beliefs about the supernatural. The sharply, expertly controlled tone conveys powerful insights into how a young girl could have been be destroyed by ignorance and prejudice that was beyond the full control of those who were ignorant and prejudiced. The story amounts to tragedy. Forbes’s tragic treatment of this theme suggests that, rather than feeling superior to the countless dupes and fools we can prop up from our past, we must look closely and conscientiously at how we are ignorant and prejudiced.

Finally, one of the ideas that lies in the background of the novel, as we see it from our age, was once so deeply believed that it cannot even credibly come into play in the novel. This is the idea that a government has a right and a moral duty to kill those who hold noxious ideas. Forbes could not even explore this theme, so deeply was this view held in the time of the Salem trials. Another novel I have been meaning to recommend as one of my own “rediscoveries” gets to the heart of this matter, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels. Does anyone else know this very fine novel (by an author of children’s books, too)?

Esther Forbes’s A Mirror for Witches is a truly superb American novel, perhaps even great (I will be pondering that issue) that has been long forgotten. Please check it out.

Sep 19, 2008

The "Fray" Puts Us in a Fray

I wrote a response to Ron Rosenbaum's post on Slate (in their so-called "Fray") about the poem Rosenbaum considers the best ever written in English, John Keats's "To Autumn." My response, which merely pointed out some of Winters's judgments on the issue, gave rise to a mild attack on Yvor Winters's critical ideas that was, to be kind, quite poorly reasoned and filled with those common misconceptions of Winters that -- I have no illusions -- will not go away any time soon. I will respond to the attack, but I am hoping that someone who is interested in Winters's theories will chime in. See the posts in the "Fray" appended to the original artricle on Keats at:

My title says "us," but I have no idea whether there is any "us" to speak of. It appears to be "me." But I will soldier on, nonetheless, in the hopes of some day seeing that "us" make itself known or come to pass.

Sep 18, 2008

What Might a Man Dancing in Front of Your Desk Be Doing?

I have been going back through some notes on topics that I meant to get to before I took a summer hiatus from this blog (which doesn’t appear to have bothered anyone in the least). One of the small, lighthearted matters I wanted to draw your attention to, from this past spring, was a cartoon animation at the web site of the New Yorker, which I don’t think is available online any longer. The cartoon started with a guy dancing gaily in front of his boss in a corporate office. The boss says, “Say what’s on your mind, Harris -- the language of dance has always eluded me.” It’s a great line, and it brought to mind one of the central issues of modern literary study and practice, the issue of the final cause of literature. The photo is a shot of one of my sons dancing, rather vigorously, around our living room last winter. I can't remember ewxactly what he was trying to say.

On a narrow plane, the issue of cause nowadays often concerns whether poetry or literature in general have special functions or purposes that are above or beyond any purpose behind non-fiction writing or “communications” of any sort. There have been many critics over the past 50 years and even further back, Gerald Graff called them “anti-realists,” who have gone so far as to say that literature has NOTHING to do with life, but only with itself, a truly absurd conception that won’t go away since Mallarm√©, for one, so successfully foisted it upon his admirers. (Stanley Fish has become one of our more famous anti-realists, as evidenced in his recent book Save the World on Your Own Time, which is being discussed in many places around the web. I might have to discuss Fish’s views some time.) But the cartoon trades on the idea that the arts really do say something, or, in effect, make statements of some kind. Even the metaphorical use of the word “language” in this way shows that the postmodern critics haven’t yet stripped literature of every shred of hope of realist importance or efficacy. It was Yvor Winters’s belief that literature’s final cause was to make statements, to communicate, even propositionally (God forbid!), and one that plays a central role in his criticism.

The cartoon also trades on another notion as well, that there is something very distinctive about what dance or painting or poetry or other arts communicate. I sense that the feeling is that, like the “language of dance,” the language of poetry is so different from “ordinary” language, written or spoken, and so important as well, that what can be said through the “language” of literature can be done in no other way (Winters believed it could be done in NO better way than poetry, a position I find a little extreme). Harris must speak to the boss through dance, because ONLY dance can say what he needs to say. Yvor Winters believed that poetry and literature are crucially different from or higher than ordinary uses of language.

But poetry and literature, at their core, were for Winters, simply, ways to make statements about life. He hinted on occasion that the notion that poetry was extremely different or even wholly other could be highly damaging to literature and forced many writers and critics down roads that they have gotten lost on. Winters’s rather pedestrian view, a matter of common sense all in all, is that literature, specifically poetry, is a form of communication, akin to all forms of language. Put simply, writers are trying to say something to us, to communicate, about the world we live in. This implies, I believe, that literature and poetry have the same purpose and share the nature of any kind of writing or speaking: memos, letters, news, reports, speeches, lectures, essays, monographs, works of journalism or history or social science. What are the dangers in regarding literature as a nearly wholly different mode of expression or import, something more like dance than a lecture? That is a matter for reflection. Any comments?

Sep 9, 2008

A Writer Declares Which Is "The Greatest Poem"

Ron Rosenbaum came out in "Slate" this past Friday with his judgment that John Keats's ode "To Autumn" is the single greatest poem in the English language. He asks readers to submit their opinions on the greatest poem at the end of the piece, which can be found at:

I offered a comment on Rosenbaum's piece "Slate"'s so-called "Fray", in which readers can comment upon the site's essays. Yvor Winters, as I point out, was at one period in our literary history often and sternly chastized for choosing the greatest poems or writings in any language, but it seems that the practice has now achieved some sort of sanction. Still, Rosenbaum is a journalist, not a scholar or a leading literary critic; so it might be that he feels freer to offer opinions on such matters.

Anyone got an opinion on "To Autumn"? The poem was rated, by the way, as the third greatest poem in William Harmon's Columbia anthology of the greatest poems -- based on frequency of appearance in other anthologies. (Keats's manuscript is pictured here.) I certainly do not consider it to be among the greats of English poetry. Nor did Yvor Winters, though Winters did write, late in his career, that the poem has certain felicities that should not be overlooked. In fact, in Forms of Discovery, the only consideration of Keats in his published career, he wrote that it was Keats's most fully realized and coherent poem, though he also wrote that it is not a "serious" poem, however that might be taken. I explained in my comment on "Slate"'s Fray that Winters, as well as I can tell, would have judged Ben Jonson's "To Heaven" or George Herbert's "Church Monuments" as the greatest poems in English. At his web site, John Fraser has devoted a long essay to Herbert's poem, which suggests his very high opinion of it. Fraser, also, selected "To Autumn" for his important quasi-Wintersian New Book of Verse, a decision he does not defend. I presume that he thought Winters's comment in FD partly justified the selection. Also, I wrote on "Slate" that he probably would have thought that Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" the greatest poem of modern times, though I am less certain on Winters's judgment on that. Any opinions on what Winters would have thought on this score, on the greatest poem of, say, the past two centuries?

Further, any opinions from Wintersians or people interested in Winters on what is the greatest poem in the language? Rosenbaum invites his readers to write two-line blurbs on why their greatest poem is the greatest. That sounds like fun. Maybe I'll try to come up with some blurbs for the Winters greats. On a British web site and at some years back, I offered my judgment that Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit" is the greatest poem in English. Naturally, few on the British site had even heard of Winters or the poem, and few gave me any credit for the judgment. Any reactions to my judgment?

In connection with Wallace Stevens's later poetry, Donald Stanford discussed "To Autumn" in his great crtitical work from the 1980s, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry. Stanford seems to have had a moderately good opinion of the Keats poem, though he does write that it lacks in "ideational content," which is a crucial issue in the Wintersian classical conception of literature. Indeed, in my view as well, the Keats poem is a rather simple, bland affair that offers rather little to the mind or the emotions. Rosenbaum does nothing to convince me that it is the greatest poem with his blurbing on the matter.

The idea of considering blurbing as an literary art form, the main theme of Rosenbaum's short "Slate" piece, I will leave for later consideration. I right now don't wish to get myself all upset about the inane ideas that trundle in through the web door so often nowadays.