Literature

55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

_________

Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

_________

Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

_________

Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

Advertisements

Author Quotes: Science, Religion, and Vonnegut’s Disrespect


PROTEIN
_________
“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

“Who was?” I asked.

“Dr. Hoenikker – the old man.”

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t show up.”

“So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

“Oh, we got one. Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said. She didn’t see anything funny in that. She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her. She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.

“He said, the trouble with the world was …”
She had to stop and think.

“The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly,

“that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”
“He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned.

“Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

“I missed that,” I murmured.

“I saw that,” said Sandra.

“About two days ago.”

“That’s right,” said the bartender.

“What is the secret of life?” I asked.

“I forget,” said Sandra.

“Protein,” the bartender declared.

“They found out something about protein.”

“Yeah,” said Sandra,

“that’s it.”

 

– Kurt Vonnegut, chapter 11 of Cat’s Cradle, titled “Protein.”

_________

I recently reviewed Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on the blog, and everyone shouted loudly that I must read Cat’s Cradle, which I am happily diverting from my 55 List to indulge. As I mentioned before, Vonnegut gets us comfortable, speaks to us disarmingly and then makes a silly character of all of our presumptions and standards. He says, “look, I can show you the epitome of our social normalcy, and I can damn everything about these religions and this science and this culture. It’s all rotten.”

That’s what I like about this tiny chapter. It makes a perfectly poignant, stand-alone social commentary on how easily we can assume that science can replace religion, which can replace engagement. Apparently if we understand the “how”, we need not understand the “why”.

Religion is, by definition, systematization and lifestyle adherence to a standardized philosophy. It often gives us answers which have been pre-reasoned for us. We are asked to simply concede their apparent truth. Science often attempts to walk a similar line, replacing the “here’s why” with a “here’s how.” Just because something is presented to us systematically does not invalidate it, but there is always paradox and apparent holes.

Vonnegut’s constant hostility toward these forms seems to come almost solely from his perspective on their complete lack of moral sustenance. Surviving WWII, his confidence in the integrity of most social institutions was utterly destroyed. He is able to look at Christianity and democracy and science through the lenses of Hiroshima and genocide, and his arguments are pretty convincing. Humanity is implicit in evil, Vonnegut is a grinning rebel against responsible parties, and his claim is that your religion and your scientific discoveries are worthless without moral bearings to reel them in.

Do you object?

 

_________

Further reading

What Christians Can Learn From An Atheist

Masanobu Fukuoka And The Philosophy Behind The Science

Wendell Berry On Paths V. Roads

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

55 Classics Review #7 – The Giver by Lois Lowry


I expected to enjoy The Giver more than I did. Then I enjoy it more than I suspected I had.

Almost everyone else read this book in like 5th grade. I missed it. My impression has long been that most people hold a relatively positive memory of the book, so I have been looking forward to it for some time. All I really knew is that it was set in some type of dystopia; I always get excited to start a classic title whose plot is relatively unknown to me.

Although I wasn’t too discouraged, I was immediately put off by the writing style Lowry employs. I tend to have trouble reading dystopian stories because of their sterility and Lowry’s style felt more sterile than her fiction environments. It was easy and interesting reading though, so I had little trouble continuing. She really does a good job of keeping you guessing on a lot of the details of the future world she creates and of making you begin to wonder whether the characters will ever even grow discontent with the world they have been given. I caught myself nervously wondering if perhaps she was actually promoting this world when I reached the halfway point in the text and still no one was revolted by the strictly-governed world at hand. Then, in the blink of an eye, the book became a roller coaster of emotions, rebellion, and deep, impactful character decisions.

Eventually, I realized that Lowry had tricked me with her disturbingly sterile writing style. I expected her characters to revolt immediately. She made me understand them in their original state for so long that I was afraid I would be asked to approve of their world. She also forced me to approach the very old questions of death, war, beauty, art, and human relationships from an altogether new direction. I think about these issues constantly, yet I found myself looking at them from a different vantage point. I asked myself “If art and war require one another, would it be better to forgo both or accept both?”

Without giving away the plot, I will say that the end of the book is both jarringly abrupt and quite open to interpretation. I turned the page expecting the text to continue and read THE END. Then I flipped back again. Then I wet my fingers and tried to separate the pages. No, that’s just the way it ends. And it’s actually a great and important way to end the book.

I thought I would enjoy The Giver as a thoughtful and youthful read, but it turned out to be a bit trickier. As I read on, frustrated at every turn, I looked back and realized that all the things I didn’t enjoy made immense sense in retrospect.

Although it’s hard to find another category for it, I would argue that The Giver is not a dystopian story in the classic sense. Most dystopias are strife-filled quasi-allegories meant to highlight the extreme errors available to humanity if there is not a healthy political and technological balance. The Giver makes its new, relation-less world look, well, okay. Once we can begrudgingly agree to this, it asks us if okay is something we can settle for.

Then we wrestle.

55 Classics Review #6 – On Stories And Other Essays On Literature by C.S. Lewis


When it comes to popular spiritual epigrams, C. S. Lewis has G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and maybe Jesus himself beat in terms of popular quotability. It seems impossible to browse any social media outlet without coming across a line from Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. That is what intrigues me the most about Lewis. A huge quanitity of the most enlightening statements he ever made came from the mouths of characters in fiction, rather than from any articles of non-fiction.

On Stories is therefore one of the greatest resources for getting behind this veil. In it we discover bits of the frame of mind capable of creating such original and timeless stories that seamlessly imply his deepest ideas about being human.

The book is a simple collection of essays, author dedications, op-ed pieces, and even a transcript of a conversation between Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss about the nature and value of science fiction as a genre. Many of the articles were never published, some merely scraps, unedited and unfinished.

On Stories cover a lot of ground, seeing Lewis address concepts and wrestle with idea which many of his popular quoters might find questionable or reproachable. He expresses interest in seeing good science fiction proposing a third gender, proposed that children’s literature shouldn’t shy away from being frightening, and emphatically endorses a lot of literature which some people might prefer to be banned. Overall, you are getting a much more rounded picture of the author’s ideas than you ever can from any piece or body of fiction.

The themes that come through most clearly are his strong opinions about fantasy and science fiction being absolutely valuable endeavors for both children and adults and his general rebuttals against the overwhelming academic ideas on literature from his day. He proves himself extremely well-read in everything from the classics (no surprise here as he was a world-class medievalist) to the science fiction paperbacks which were just gaining a huge foothold. He holds firmly that each has its own place of legitimate value to the reader.

One of my personal favorites was A Reply To Professor Haldane. A posthumously discovered response to the multiple, brutal assaults on his intellect by a professor of theoretical biology, this essay is at once precisely factual and sterile of any character assassinations. A discovered rough draft like this only highlights the immensity of logical preparation he puts into his ideas. He explains himself theoretically and through example while completely tearing down his opponent’s ideas without ridiculing the man. Indeed, it is easy to feel that Lewis has no emotional response to those who continually abused his character. Like Chesterton, one cannot help but admire his ability to let accusations roll off his back while taking the ideas involved quite seriously.

Overall, I highly suggest this title to any Lewis fan or general fan of science fiction and fantasy. If you’ve ever felt frustrated at those who don’t get why fairy tales or space travel stories are legitimate, you will find a friend in Lewis. I would also highly recommend this book if you’re interested in reading the more obscure works that have influenced modern fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi writing. Lewis is constantly referring to what he considered the classics of these genres.

Though you may not always agree with his conclusions on the issues he tackles, it is hard to fault the man for lack of thorough contemplation or sincerity in wrestling with all forms of literature.

_____________

I’ll leave you with this delightful transcribed dialogue between Lewis and Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss.

 

“Lewis: Would you describe Abbott’s Flatland as science-fiction? There’s so little effort to bring it into any sensuous–well, you couldn’t do it, and it remains an intellectual theorem. Are you looking for an ashtray? Use the carpet.

Amis: I was looking for the Scotch, actually.

Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

 

Related Reading

————

C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic

C.S. Lewis On How Words Die

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien On Our Connection To The Land

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”


Over at The Classic’s Club they like to publish a “Monthly Meme”, a monthly blogging prompt question for the member to participate in. This months question is

“What is your favorite ‘classic’ literary period and why?”

I’ll provide my answer and ask you guys to feel free to do the same!

If you’ve been reading this blog then you know that I like to play fast and loose with terms like “classic”. Maurice Sendak is classic, Orson Scott Card is classic, Neil Gaiman is classic. In the same way I’m gonna bend the rules in defining my idea of a “literary period” as well. I ask for immense grace on the part of the reader.

I’m not really a fan of any one particular genre or period in which great work has been done; my tastes span just about every style from every time period. However, if I had to choose one time period as being great for the arts, I would choose 1914 to 1945. That is to say, the time frame from the beginning of The Great War to the end of World War II.

It is a hard truth to swallow, but war encourages good art. War encouraged better politics, better philosophy, better religion, and better culture. Are these worth the price? They probably never could be, but for some reason we need war to sharpen our ideas into feasible, real-world scenarios. I use the word “need” here not as an absolute belief but based on cyclical, historic evidence.

War takes the extreme ideals of young men and forces upon them (and everyone else) the costs and consequences of those ideas. Throughout history cultures have come to radical political and philosophical conclusions and have seen them tested in action through various political upheavals. A world-wide war has the unique sobering effect of drastically changing and solidifying the most earnest opinions at the very heart of every man. The World Wars and the time between them were an era of intense and costly trial and error, a time when every man and women, whether identified now as aggressor, defender, or victim, was drastically solidified in a frame of mind that would haunt or direct the remainder of his or her earthly experience. Grandiose philosophical and political ideals would eventually be pulverized into crippling fear, stunning bravery, blinding hatred, and inspiring forgiveness and understanding. All of the destruction wreaked resulted very clearly in artistic revolutions of all kinds.

Concerning World War I, I think literarally of D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and T.S. Eliot among dozens of others. These are not necessarily known for war literature, but war imposed itself upon and transformed all in their craft. I consider C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, destined to be friends as both fought through some of the most bloody and unsurvivable experiences of The Great War. Both lost most of their dearest friends, and even their more whimsical works are depicted with the sobriety of a man who has wrestled with war first-hand.

I consider the upheaved, unsettled time between the wars and the seemingly unavoidable onset of the Second World War. Another generation of men and women are rocked to their very cores, including Lee, Capote, Salinger, Vonnegut, Wouk, Mailer, and Lois Lowry among an entire generation in transition. Most rebelled against society at large, unable to cope with the unforeseen impacts that continue to ripple through culture today.

I especially think of the story of Ernest Hemmingway, already a revered author and now a war correspondent, meeting for drinks with a then-undiscovered J.D. Salinger, in a little house near the frontline in the midst of WWII. Young Salinger had carried a rough draft of the first six chapters of what would become The Catcher In The Rye stuffed in his jacket since before he landed on the beaches on D-Day and he had somehow found time to write and submit short stories to magazines from on the frontline. He had already built up a bit of a reputation with Hemmingway, and they spent a hearty evening together, drinking wine through the cold winter night and discussing the quality of Salinger’s work and literature in general. Before dawn they separated once more, and from what we know had very little interaction thereafter. Eventually, the elder would turn into a severe alcoholic before committing suicide, while the younger would seek solace in mystic religion and half a century of extreme reclusion.

While it can feel trite to explore the literary implications of the most destructive periods in world history, our art has more to say than anything else when we look to see how the minds of men are molded by these terrors. The lives of these artists, perhaps more so than their art at times, display the coping of humanity with unspeakable confusion. Some we find doubly moored to the foundations they already claimed, other finding some source of respite in the aftermath. So many others we find spiraling without answer, creating in the constant wake of the thousand-yard stare.

Is Life A Narrative And Does It Matter?


Last night I read a new article on a great blog I follow called The Bully Pulpit. The blog is mainly philosophical in bent with large doses of political thought and heaps of great quotes from thinkers throughout the ages. If you enjoy the Author Quotes section here you would probably like The Bully Pulpit.

I really find just about everything ol’ J.R. says over there to be fascinating and last night’s post didn’t disappoint. The post is titled “Is A Human Life A Narrative?” and it basically quotes a couple of authors on their thoroughly-devised philosophies of how life is distinctly not a narrative. They point out that life is simply a collection of random events to which human beings naturally assign a plot. J.R. seemed to readily agree with their logic.

The post has stirred up a lot of contemplation in me and I can tell it gets to others as well in an almost surprising way. Even though most people don’t frequently consider their own narrative or effective story-processing skills, it can prove quite unnerving to contemplate one’s own world as invalid or, worse, an illusion. As this simple blog can attest, I have made myself a student of story and creative inspiration. I have devoted a great deal to these concepts and even read some good books on the science behind the natural human behavior of narrative-based risk-weighing and decision-making (I highly suggest Wired For Story if you are a writer. While it is not a science text, it is a very light read on narrative design that builds upon scientific research into how we process information.) I would not say, however, that I have given an adequate amount of significant thought to the question of whether life is actually in fact a story. It seems that most of us interested in recognizing this axiom are already determined to validate and love on it.

I think it is easy for anyone to agree that, yes, the tuna sandwich I ate for lunch last Tuesday plays little to no role in my preconceived life narrative. While every little experience may be a grain of sand upon a scale which changes our attitudes over time, we would not include 90% of the actual content of our lives in a memoir. The things we do recognize as valuable are usually pivotal because they are sensationalized in our memories and because they are a cumulative representation, a turning point of events we would recognize as changing chapters or entire narratives from before and after said key memory. Regardless of these facts, the much larger and less theoretical question immediately becomes “should human beings continue to process information as narrative and do we even have a choice?”

I personally would argue that we have no choice in the narrative framework and that this is really a very good thing. Narrative is important. It gives life meaning. While “meaning” is a highly subjective concept, I still find it very hard to even conceptualize any sense of purpose outside of a larger set of implications termed as a narrative. It is also the starting point for processing concepts like relationship, responsibility, time, and cause-and-effect. Narrative as a cognitive tool is not invalidated by that fact that every detail of a life may not be an aspect of a consecutive narrative or by the fact that we cannot adequately process it. Many people use their narratives to successfully navigate life decision making, while many are deluded to make horrify decisions. It is not the narrative process that is at fault, it is the narratives themselves which are prone to great flaws.

This question on our minds also leads into a spider’s web of intricately related and equally daunting questions of fate, time and space, creative inspiration, and relationships.

If narrative-based cognitive processing is invalid, what are we to make of the repeated interactions between beings and/or objects?
Can we measure relationships in the scientific process without believing that we have a starting relationship, an added variable relationship, and an alter resulting relationship?
Can two human beings develop beyond strangers without a joint narrative?
Can we build an idea upon one formerly supposed without calling it a narrative?
How can you read and follow the (supposed) logic I’ve put forth in this article if not by some form of following a narrative?

So many good questions included here, I would love to hear your thoughts, further questions, and rebuttals!

The Classics Club


This morning I stumbled upon a wonderful blog called The Classics Club. Its exactly what I never knew I was searching for!

The premise of the club is a simple one. To join, one must simply submit a list of at least 50 titles that you personally consider classic in some way and commit to attempting to read and review all of them within a time frame of hire own choosing, up to five years. I eagerly spent some of my morning and afternoon building my own classics list.

A Few Notes Concerning My Selections

• I chose a very broad spectrum of titles because I am interested in a broad spectrum of fiction. I am aware that many, nay most, are probably not classics or only exist as classics in a certain subculture.

• They are in the order I came up with them, so I will not be reading them in this or any other particular order.

• I chose a number of children’s titles because I love children’s literature more now than when I was a kid.

• The spirit of the club is to read new titles, so I have only allowed myself step or three re-reads. I chose them mostly because they are lesser known titles and I was eager to re-read them to review them.

• Most of these are either titles I own and have not read or titles I started once and got side-tracked from finishing.  I thought this seemed like a great opportunity to officially pursue them more diligently.

• The list is mainly novels and chapter books, with a smattering of short story collections, picture books, essays, and curated diaries.

• I intend to use the maximum allotment of five years, finishing the list by 2/22/2019.

The List (55 titles)

– The Plague by Albert Camus

– The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

– Watership Downs by Richard Adams

– Letters To An American Lady by C.S. Lewis

– On Stories by C.S. Lewis

– The Worm of Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

– The Giver by Lois Lowry

– Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

– The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

_______

– Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

– Phantastes by George MacDonald

– The Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

– The Silmarilion by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

– Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

– A Room With A View by E. M. Forster

– Redwall by Brian Jacques

– Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

– Poems of John Keats by John Keats

________

– Brothers and Friends : The Diaries of Major Warren Lewis by Warren Lewis

– The Third Man by Graham Greene

– The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

– The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

– Peril At End House by Agatha Christie

– Bring It To The Table: On Farming And Food by Wendell Berry

– The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

– Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

– War In Heaven by Charles Williams

– The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth by H. G. Wells

_____________

– Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

– Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

– The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

– At The Back Of The North Wing by George MacDonald

– Jeeves In The Offering by P. G. Wodehouse

– Heavy Weather by P. G. Wodehouse

– Middlemarch by George Eliot

– The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

– Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

– The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

__________

– On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

– A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

– An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

– The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

– The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

– King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

– The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

– Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

– In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

__________

– Runaway by Alice Munro

– The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan

– I Sing The Body Electric by Ray Bradbury

– Walden by Henry David Thoreau

– My First Summer In The Sierras by John Muir

_______

As a somewhat saddening side-note, I realized while curating this list that I finished reading every Sherlock Holmes novel years ago. While there are only four novel-length Holmes stories, I was surprised to realize that I had finished all of them years ago. I’m certain that I haven’t read all the short stories yet, but it was a strange sensation to realize that I had long since finished these and even forgotten that I had completed every one of them.

Anyway, I am excited to get any feedback as I start! If you have any personal thoughts, experiences, or opinions on any or all of these titles, I would love to hear them. I need all the advice I can get!

The Town Lies Awake Together


I spent most of June through late September taking the air in South America that year. It was the only time in history that I could see news from home in newspapers I could get ahold of in Havana. I always joke that it was a sign I am never meant to escape the gossips of Harkins.

In late August, my friend Chris tells me, the hive was absolutely swarming with activity that, without a context, would have been accountable only as madness. The sweltering heat of the muggy late summer was at complete odds with the bustle and near elation that comes upon a small town anticipating the start of a murder trial.

He said that Arlington Pew looked as disturbingly put together as he ever had, both in demeanor and attire. There has been a long running gag among the local fellas and the better renditions of it involve a fire breaking out in the middle of the night and neighbors rousing Arlington Pew only to find him answering the door fully pressed, dressed, and eager to entertain anyone in distress. I’d bet most every man ’round town has chuckled at that at some point in the past, only on account of it probably being close to the truth. I would also guess that many, like myself, felt a little close at the collar thinking about that joke retrospectively.

It’s true that Pew was not much of a pal to any fella and, for the most part, he seemed more eager for women’s or mixed company. I don’t know that anyone would have believed he had an enemy in the world, though most could only shake there heads to themselves if they considered him long enough.

Well, the way Chris tells it is as good as any I could gather from the reporter’s accounts I read, and the murmur and hum at the outset must have been audible three streets over, if anyone had stayed that far away to hear it.

They say it took Judge Hewlett more than a few wraps of his formidable gavel to get the crowds shuffled into some sort of order, and then there were the additional guards brought in who were still trying to get the doors closed and the halls outside reasonably emptied.

Murders always seem to fascinate men. Sometimes it seems from boredom with living they find excitement in considering those who are no longer doing it and the people who made their decisions for them. Sometimes it seems the grizzly nature of a murder keeps people interested. Other times perhaps the sheer weight of the hate or malice hanging upon the perpetrator is the draw.

In this case, I hold firmly that it was none of these. It was the first murder in Logan County in twelve years, and the first in Harkins in nearly six decades. It was not boredom or grotesqueness or a sheerly violent heart that drew the majority of the local crowds to the house of fair weights to hear the proceedings. It was, I believe, that every local man and woman wanted to ask Arlington Pew a simple question.

“Why? Why, mister Pew, did you decide to kill the boy Harry Clark in the middle of the ladies shoes department in broad daylight? Why did you kill a broke, young optimist when you were always so irritatingly polite and cordial to every difficult customer that regularly took the time to tread all over you?” No one had dared voice it, yet everyone needed to know.

“Order!” or something along those official lines Judge Hewlett called for; his additional guard made sure that he got what he wanted.

“How do you plead?” was the natural progression of these things.

“Not guilty, you’re Honor.” Slowly rising and slowly speaking, the thin man with thin arms had thin fingers splayed out with their ten tips across the oak tabletop.  His confidence bordered on elegance. The people of Harkins were awed.

“We plead not guilty on account of such immense emotional distress as to lead my client Mr. Pew’s into a temporary and recurring insanity. We intended to provide documented evidence of a recurring psychological condition rendering my client without his normal capacity for reason.” Mr. big-name-throughout-the-southern-states, Mr. happy-to-take-the-courtroom-as-his-own-playground, Mr. Timothy Grauers, lanky defendant in the most sensational cases, appeared only too pleased to have the judge cut him off here and remind him that his widely-reputed eloquence aught not take him off into various directions ahead of prescribed schedule.

“Ah-hem!” Mr. Pew, who had fallen completely out of most of the present minds as merely a blurry, peripheral speck at the far end of Mr. Grauers’s table, suddenly came sharply back into focus. The room deadened.

“I think we can wrap this up quite succinctly. I must say my wardrobe and hygiene have suffered greatly in the hands of the jail house facilities these past few days and I feel it my duty therefore to clear this whole business up immediately. The boy was shot, unfortunately, because of the sweat.”

Every ear remained at full attention.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Pew?” Even Judge Hewlett was unusually cordial in his puzzlement. “The sweat?”

“The sweat, your honor, yes. The sweat. It is common, albeit very unbecoming for some people to perspire in this season of the year. Some of you, due to your line of work or hygiene have greater tendencies than others. While I can accommodate this unfortunate tendency in its necessary place, I believe we can all agree that our illustrious McCavinaugh’s, the crowning jewel of this town’s society, is no place to come in such a state, let alone the ladies department. The disruption for the lady patrons, and Miss Trideux especially, was beyond consolation. The necessary action became apparent. It is a case of self-defense, your Honor. It is a case of defense of the class that is the ‘Lady.'”

Silence continued. The people looked to the judge like children, their eyes pleading for his authority to somehow make sense of this. His brow was furrowed, lip bitten in an almost nervous tell that none ever had or likely ever will see in his courtroom again. He stared deeply into the left rear or the ceiling for some minutes.

“Court is adjourned until tomorrow morning at ten am.” He finally muttered over a weak-wristed gavel knock.

The people filed out silently and orderly, as oppositely composed from their entrance as if they had been choreographed into a funeral procession. Barely a whisper rose. The defense council sat strewn out along the oak table glancing longways and in annoyance at his subject, who sat with folded hands and gazing up high above the judge’s stand. A halo was the only thing missing from the tailored picture of serenity.

Although I always promise him that I believe him wholeheartedly, Chris still swears hard at every retelling that not a soul spoke a word as the crowds dispersed across the lawn and the town square. He says he didn’t really hear many people speaking much in public for almost a week after that day, and when they did start back up he never heard anyone mention the trial again. It continued on in the same courtroom, with the same judge, jury, law men, and guards, but the crowd was gone. Only a handful of non-local gawkers and a myriad of significantly less-cramped newspaper men attended the ensuing battle, which was far shorter and less extravagant than Mr. Grauers intended. Both the local papers stopped covering the story before the case really took off, even though most of the big nationals ran a little front page blurb when the verdict came out. The insanity plea held up too easily for Mr. Grauers’ taste so that he was barely even necessary, and twenty years at Mooreston Sanitarium was the prescribed medication for Arlington Pew. I have heard rumor that his health has greatly deteriorated there and his doctors do not expected much in terms of his mental reform or life expectancy.

I learned quickly upon my return not to make mention of the events that transpired in my absence with just about anyone but Chris. McCavinaugh’s found a far less enthusiastic shoe salesman and apart from that the town tries its hardest to feel no change, to not accept the events of that August.

Occasionally I will have some writer friend from the city stop over in town and, from the comfort and safety of a cloud of pipe smoke in the den, Chris and I will recount for them the incident in the context of its local rejection. It is always hard to decide which is more complicated.

When I lie awake in the night, as I often do, I wonder if the whole town lies awake together, penitent and tormented by the immense secret which the whole world knows. We ride out the darkness to another dawn’s promise, another rest from the question.

– M. Landers, March 2014