American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

False Construction (found poem)

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From Noah Webster’s Grammatical Institute of the English Language … Part Second. Containing a Plain and Comprehensive Grammar (1800):

False Construction

That 1 pens want mending. That 2 books are torn.
These 3 is a fine day. That 4 will make excellent scholars.
These 5 lad will be an honor to his friends. This 6 ladies
behave with modesty.

1 these. 2 those. 3 this. 4 those. 5 this. 6 these.

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm

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The Missing Years

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The FARMERS Almanac, for the Year of our Lord 1800; BEING ONE OF THE CENTURIAL YEARS, NOT BISEXTILE (click on image to see the text)

I’m preparing a syllabus for nineteenth-century American lit, one of several new reading-intensive surveys in my department, bridges between the lower-division methodology requirements (poetics, narratology, theory) and the upper-division seminars, and so I’m working with the Norton anthology for the first time in many years. To be more specific, I’m working with the shorter eighth edition, which I adopted in part because the students could use it again for a sister course, if I’m assigned one, in part because it makes a sturdy reference work. The full-length Norton is now a five-volume monster, and since I can’t imagine a circumstance in which a student would need to acquire all five, the shorter it was. I also adopted A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, so whatever else transpires next semester, the students will at least yield the benefit of a small library — those who don’t dump their texts for cash at the end. Can I say it? I hate that dump, and in so many ways: I hate that students want to be rid of what they study. I also hate that the campus bookstore abets their desire, pawnshop fashion. Most of all, I hate that the books get sold again, no matter how shoddy their condition, Can you learn from a book with wrinkled cover and dog-eared pages, plastered with stickers, marked by highlighter? Of course. But not with the same sense of clarity and purpose, not with the same joy as brought by a new text. A clean copy is like clean clothing; its newness becomes our own.

Anyway, I’ve been looking at the anthology again, struck as I ever was by the book’s lacunae but in a new way. Sure, the old gaps are there too: missing authors, disappearing genres, underrepresented groups. That sort of gap is inevitable, even in a five-volume monster, and I’ve nothing new to say about it in any case. What caught my attention this time was a gap in time. Do such lacunae matter in the same way? Are they equally regrettable? Does it pose a problem when periods of time are skipped over, whole decades scanted?

It took me a while to see that there were such lacunae. Though the book is organized historically, the primary division is by author, arranged in order of birth date. The sequence of works is more haphazard, even within the individual author selections. With Poe, for instance, born 1809, the poetry comes before the prose, which means that “The Raven” (1845) precedes “Ligeia” (1838). Both, however, come after Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” (1866), owing to the fact that Whittier, born 1807, comes before Poe. Sequencing is also made difficult by publication history. Red Jacket’s “Reply to the Missionary Jacob Cram” was delivered as a speech in 1805 and first printed in 1809, but taken in the Norton from an 1841 biography, The Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-go-ye-wat-ha. (The speech, by the way, is not slotted by author, which would place it nearly 200 pages later, but in a short thematic section, “Native Americans: Contact and Conflict.” There are a few other thematic sections, and some of them also contain work by authors with their own sections. Jefferson, for example, appears in the section with Red Jacket, then under his own name, and then in a section titled “Slavery, Race, and the Making of American Literature.” This too makes a knot of chronology since the sequence of Jefferson texts does not go from early to late.)

The historical structure of the book is not limited to author birth dates. The nineteenth century is encompassed by three sections: 1790-1820, 1820-1865, and 1865-1914. Not surprisingly, the long careers of individual authors transgress those boundaries, especially the one marked by the end of the Civil War. The postbellum section begins with Twain, but many of the earlier figures were still alive and still publishing when he first made his mark (the infamous Whittier birthday address speaks to that). What the book presents is a notion of historical progression, one that occasionally depends on a depleted sense of period. Whitman as a contemporary of Douglass and Melville he appears between the two men paints one picture. Another would emerge if his “Song of Myself,” which the Norton gives in the 1881 version, appeared between “Daisy Miller” (1878) and Huck Finn (1884).

If the 1865 border is ever transgressed, the 1820 border is just the opposite: scarcely approached from either side. The situation is of course somewhat different in the five-volume monster, but the shorter edition yields nary a work from 1800 to 1820, and things don’t really pick up until the 1830s. Oddly, the most distinguished of the exceptions on the early side, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), is credited to the later: Washington Irving is the first figure in the 1820-1865 section, a fine example of how narrative supersedes chronology. Irving aside, the first two decades are a real hole. There’s a poem by Freneau, “On the Religion of Nature” (1815), and Red Jacket’s speech falls here. There’s also a Tecumseh speech printed in 1823, but credited to “1811 or 1812.” Scarcely a portrait of the period.

The 1820s do better, marginally, complementing the 1800-1820 selections with a somewhat larger number of texts: a chapter from The Last of The Mohicans (1826) balances even with “Rip Van Winkle”; Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfall” (both 1821) double the one poem by Freneau; and there are more Native American texts in the later decade, chiefly related to Cherokee history. One might also count Jefferson, though his Autobiography (1821) is given for its account of “The Declaration of Independence” (and appears with the offerings from 1790-1820). There is also an excerpt, a very brief one, from David Walker’s Appeal (1829). It’s not much, but more than what we get for the two decades before.

There’s one other meager period in the Norton’s nineteenth century: the 1870s. The meagerness here is strange given the figures active at the time. There are two poems from the decade: Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1872) and Frances Harper’s “Learning to Read” (1872), and there are also two stories: “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1870) and “Daisy Miller.” Not so much a gap in the narrative as a pause.

And what does it all mean? That’s what I’m sorting out, in my head, as I prepare for next semester, putting together my own story of the century. Mine too will have holes, but probably not the same ones.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 28, 2014 at 9:59 am


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Usher1dI came upon a curious fact by accident: E. E. Cummings had a hand in a silent-film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” His name doesn’t appear in the credits, at least not in the versions that stream online, but his involvement is certainly evident in the film’s beautiful use of language. This begins with the opening sequence, in which Poe’s text crashes round, kaleidoscope fashion (evoking, of course, the crashing down of the Usher mansion). There are also three crucial words later in the film (beat, crack, scream), broken down into their constituent letters, captions dancing the meanings of the scenes they explain. The Cummings involvement also makes sense given the prominent roles of two friends: James Sibley Watson, Jr., editor of The Dial, and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde, with whom Cummings maintained a vigorous correspondence. Sibley directed the film; Hildegarde starred as Madeleine Usher.

Usher3But why is the Cummings-Poe connection so obscure? That’s one of the things I found curious. The Cummings-Harriet Beecher Stowe connection has received at least some attention. He created a ballet of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1935); it was never produced, but the text appears in a book of his plays. “Usher” (1928) has fallen through the cracks. There’s no mention of the film in Cummings scholarship, and no mention of Cummings in The Poe Cinema. Yet his share in the film’s creation is mentioned several times online, most notably on the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (link). There, a brief clip is paired with extensive notes; those notes led me in turn to a fine essay by Lisa Cartwright, which likewise mentions Cummings. That essay, it’s true, draws on unpublished letters in private hands, but it isn’t clear that those letters disclosed his involvement. How then did it become known? And why isn’t it better known?

Usher9The full film is available for download at (link) and streams from several other sites. A scant 13 minutes long, it is emphatically an art film, visually indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but with an aspect that looks forward to Kenneth Anger. Do I mean by this anything other than that the film invests its silliness with ritual significance? Poe too invested the silly with significance, but for Poe ritual wasn’t the point. Still, the film is true to Poe, in its way, caring more for effect than explanation. The film is weird.

Usher5The NFPF notes that Watson’s Dial “published groundbreaking reappraisals of Edgar Allan Poe.” I would like to read those. I like, in any casem how the film pays tribute to Poe the writer, not by making him a character in his own stories already a familiar tactic when this film was made but by figuring books as part of the story’s Gothic architecture, a source of its horror.

Usher1mSo much more to say, but not enough time. Perhaps in a few days.

Note: the online versions of the film have varied soundtracks and I haven’t sampled them sufficiently to give a ranking. This YouTube version (link) has an organ accompaniment that evokes tradition; no musician is credited. The score at (link), by Lee Rosevere, is more fifties B-movie, which feels right too.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 27, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Pinky Ring

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HWL-GrahamsFound this steel engraving of Longfellow today in Graham’s Magazine (vol. 22, no. 5 [May 1843]); it accompanied an unsigned essay on the poet. Longfellow didn’t think much of it  to say the least. In a letter to Samuel Ward, he complained:

Why did you let Griswold have that head of me by Franquinet, to engrave for Graham’s Magazine? Do you know what the engraver has made of it? Why, the most atrocious libel imaginable; a very vulgar individual, looking very drunk and very cunning! An unredeemed blackguard air hovers over the whole. Now, when I think that forty thousand copies of this thing this tasteless caricature are to be printed and distributed through the country as my “counterfeit (very counterfeit) presentment,” I am in an indescribable agony. I solemnly protest against this whole proceeding, and shall write Graham this very day to prevent the publication.”

Obviously, his protest didn’t go very far, though it may explain the note of apology with which the essay ended:

The likeness which accompanies this, we are sorry to say, is not a very good one. Though correct, perhaps, in the general outline, Mr. Franquinet has failed to give that refined and poetical expression of his original which attracts the regard of every one who sees him in person.

HWL-Grahams2Be all that as it may, there is one delightful aspect to the image: the realization it brings that Longfellow wore a pinky ring! Who knew? I’m not sure why, but it delights me.

These lines from “Morituri Salutamus” (1875) seem appropriate:

In mediaeval Rome, I know not where,
There stood an image with its arm in air,
And on its lifted finger, shining clear,
A golden ring with the device, “Strike here!”
Greatly the people wondered, though none guessed
The meaning that these words but half expressed,
Until a learned clerk, who at noonday
With downcast eyes was passing on his way,
Paused, and observed the spot, and marked it well,
Whereon the shadow of the finger fell;
And, coming back at midnight, delved, and found
A secret stairway leading underground.

The pinky ring intrigues me, but I won’t delve any further. In Longfellow’s poem, the curious clerk is soon struck dead!

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm


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1856 daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (image by way of the Thoreau Society)

Hawthorne found Thoreau “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”; while Alfred Munroe, a schoolmate, in later years recalled, “He seemed to have no fun in him.” But seeming only went so far; Mary Hosmer Brown: “During his father’s illness his devotion was such that Mrs. Thoreau in recalling it said, ‘If it hadn’t been for my husband’s illness, I should never have known what a tender heart Henry had.'” This perhaps explains Elizabeth Hoar’s remark, recorded by Emerson: “I love Henry, but do not like him.” Not contradicted by Whitman but turned at an angle: “I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid.”

(Some choice bits from The Quotable Thoreau.)

Poems of Places 13

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From Poems of Places, vol. 4, England and Wales (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Plynlimmon, Wales]

Though not Welsh himself, Michael Drayton (1563–1631) has eleven poems out of the 74 that Longfellow chose for the Wales portion of his anthology, more than any other poet, all of these extracted from Poly-Olbion, a poetic geography of England and Wales. Written in Alexandrian couplets, Poly-Olbion is divided into thirty “Songs,” each “illustrated,” as the work puts it, by copious notes from John Selden (Pope preferred these notes to the poetry). It takes up three volumes in Drayton’s collected works (full text here: vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3).

completeworksofm01dray_0033Longfellow does not identify these selections as extracts, but it speaks well to his editorial abilities that the fact is not immediately obvious. The fragments work as poems in their own right, at least in the context of Longfellow’s anthology. For those who are curious, the eleven are listed below, with links for comparison’s sake  to anthology and original source:

Anglesea (Mona) (Poly-Olbion, The Ninth Song)

Caerleon-upon-Usk (Poly-Olbion, The Fourth Song)

The River Clwyd (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

The River Conway (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

Ewias (Poly-Olbion, The Fourth Song)

Milford Haven (Poly-Olbion, The Fifth Song)

Plynlimmon (Poly-Olbion, The Sixth Song)

Rivers of Wales (Poly-Olbion, The Ninth Song)

St. David’s (Poly-Olbion, The Fifth Song)

Teg-Engle (Poly-Olbion, The Tenth Song)

The River Tivy (Poly-Olbion, The Sixth Song)

In choosing one for presentation, I was drawn to the verses for Plynlimon (spelled “Plynillimon” by Drayton), for the recollection it yields of Melville’s Pierre. One of that novel’s more celebrated portions is a lecture delivered by “Plotinus Plinlimmon.” Melville’s allusion to the mountain in Wales is hard to ignore given the overall significance of stone in his novel (most obviously in the title and dedication, but not there alone). I have a faint suspicion that he in fact had Drayton’s Plynlimon in mind: the title of the lecture is “Chronometricals and Horologicals“; Poly-Olbion is subtitled “A Chorographicall Description.”

completeworksofm01dray_0037Longfellow’s extract runs to seventeen lines. It begins with the second half of a couplet, but the lack of rhyme for that line is not so noticeable given the off-rhymes that follow. The full rhyme at the end is more important, since it gives a satisfying sense of closure. The fifth line is the subject of one of Selden’s illustrations.

PLYNILLIMON’S high praise no longer, Muse, defer.
What once the Druids told, how great those floods should be
That here (most mighty hill) derive themselves from thee.
The bards with fury rapt, the British youth among,
Unto the charming harp thy future honor song
In brave and lofty strains; that in excess of joy,
The beldam and the girl, the grandsire and the boy,
With shouts and yearning cries, the troubled air did load
(As when with crowned cups unto the Elian god
Those priests his orgies held; or when the old world saw
Full Phoebe’s face eclipsed, and thinking her to daw.
Whom they supposed fallen in some inchanted swound,
Of beaten tinkling brass still plied her with the sound),
That all the Cambrian hills, which high’st their heads do bear
With most obsequious shows of low subjected fear,
Should to thy greatness stoop: and all the brooks that be
Do homage to those floods that issued out of thee.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 3, 2014 at 8:08 pm

from an Imaginary Conversation

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for Dan Bouchard

Walter Savage Landor: It has been my fortune to love, in general, those men most who have thought most differently from me, on subjects wherein others pardon no discordance. In my opinion, I have no more right to be angry with a man whose reason has followed up a process different from what mine has, and is satisfied with the result, than with one who was gone to Venice while I am at Florence, and who writes to me that he likes the place, and that, although he said once he should settle elsewhere, he shall reside in that city.

W. C. Fields: Get away from me you little bastard! For two cents — or even one — I’d kick in your teeth.

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 25, 2013 at 10:02 am


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