Friday, February 27, 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
February 25, 2009
Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"
"Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeeed he did some quite sweet things with it...Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one." (Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences")
The above quote is from Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper, where he further relates Cooper's "gift" in the writing of fiction. Twain pretty much criticizes every aspect of the fiction with Cooper, ranging from the use of language to the lack of logic and attention to detail in the work of Fenimore Cooper.
While being perfectly aware of the fact that "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" is definitely not one of the most famous works that Mark Twain is remembered by (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer would probably claim that honor), allow me to say here that this essay is by far without question the most entertaining piece of literary criticism and one of the most enjoyable piece of literature I've read in this quarter. I know that with Huck Finn being the masterpiece of Mark Twain I should probably focus on that instead, but still I could not resist dedicating this journal entry to Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper (I assure you that comments on Huck Finn would appear in my in-class essay).
I often find that with literature written, say, over fifty or sixty years ago, humor intended for that period of time would always be lost when read by the modern reader. Partly this is due to the difference in social and historical context, and partly this is due to the style and the way humor is perceived at that time, but this had always been my general observation (and to some, maybe an ignorant one too). For example, in my other English literature class, we studied the mock-heroics, satires and various pieces written by Pope, Dryden, Johnson, etcetera. Some are intended to produce laughter, but is hard to laugh to nowadays, even with a decent knowledge of the historical background at that time.
I find that Twain's humor, on the other hand, has a certain timelessness in it. I could easily see Twain as a successful lecturer during his time, with his curly hairdo and bushy moustache, and I could easily see him in the modern 20th century as an entertaining stand-up comedian with his brand of humor. The quote above about the broken twig was one of the moments that cracked me up the most, but there were other passage in the essay, such as the one about "Cooper's Indians", the whole shooting contest with the Pathfinder, which sent me literally laughing in my seat. Of course, having never read Cooper, I cannot say that this essay does him justice but still this is undeniably a remarkably humorous approach to the genre of literary criticism. It is impressive how even a reader like me, who never knew Cooper and thus unable to relate to most of the criticism Twain made in his essay, could still laugh along most of the time when reading it. This is one of the moments when I wish I had been born earlier to be in the audience of one of Twain's lectures, just to experience and hear them delivered by Twain in person. The man is truly a funny person in nature. Cooper Indians, indeed!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
"In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: 'Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily's father.' Waythorn flushed. 'Oh-' he stammered unconfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife's reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice's first husband was a brute." (Edith Wharton, "The Other Two")
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Friday, February 13, 2009
Here, the correspondent is reminded of a verse that he read in his childhood, a verse about a soldier of the Legion dying in Algiers. He goes on to say that in a way he never fully understood the meaning of the text or the significance of the dying soldier till that moment when he is in the dingey with the other three men. He realizes then that scenes in the poem is coming alive, and that he is experiencing the stern, mournful, and fine actuality of it. He goes on to express that he was sorry for the dying soldier.
I think it is in the nature of humans to be less aware of the problems and sufferings of others unless they themselves are involved in it. To fully understand the scope of a certain type of suffering, one must experience it to know the full extent of its impact. Similarly in the story, the correspondent cannot relate to the dying soldier until he is stranded in a dingey with three other survivors from a shipwreck. This phenomenon can also be observed in the present society. While people are both concerned about poverty and global warming, the latter arguably gets relatively more attention as most people feel the immediate threat of global warming on them when compared to poverty. Global warming is an issue that directly relates to all people living in the four corners of the earth, while poverty is only limited to those in poor and undeveloped countries. It is unfair to say that people do not care about those who live in extreme poverty, but it could be observed, at least for me personally, that unless a certain problem concerns and affects an individual in a very direct way, he would pay less attention to it.
The later description of the village upon the shore in "The Open Boat" further drives home the point: the people on shore does not understand the problem and experience of the four men in the boat. They watch curiously at the boat in the distance, but fail to note of the fact that these four men are very near the brink of death, and needs rescuing. This may be Crane's way in saying that a problem that may be that of life and death to one might be virtually insignificant to others due to a difference in perspective and position. This made me think of a Chinese saying: "What seems like a gem to one is worthless in the eyes of others." It is interesting to observe the difference of views between people in different positions. The men on the boat are obviously fighting for their lives, and yet the people on the shore (along with those in the omnibus, remarkably similar to that of a touring bus nowadays) might think that the men are just fishing, or fooling around, or simply doesn't need help.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Stephen Crane, "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets"
"Evenings during the week he took her to see plays in which the brain-clutching heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her guardian, who is cruelly after her bonds, by the hero with the beautiful sentiments. The latter spent most of his time out at soak in pale-green snow storms, busy with a nickel-plated revolver, rescuing aged strangers from villains...To Maggie and the rest of the audience this was transcendental realism. Joy always within, and they, like the actor, inevitably without. Viewing it, they hugged themselves in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition." (Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets)
Here, Maggie is taken by Pete to see plays. She, like most of the audience, enjoyed it when the hero came and rescued the heroine, and fought of the villains. Whenever the hero was struggling, the audience responded with cries of encouragement; whenever the villain made his entrance, the audience jeered; and whenever anyone died, the audience mourned. From the text, the play is about a hero rising from poverty to wealth and triumph, in which he forgives his enemy and applauded by the public.
Maggie, as it seems, envisioned herself as the heroine. Was she being too naive? Under her situation, I do not think so. Being a girl raised from poverty in a family that is hardly caring nor loving to her, personally I think it is only natural for her to imagine a better future. The ending, in which both Pete and her mother abandons her, shows the tremendous ability of Stephen Crane to capture the ugliest, yet true side of human nature. Life is not like a play. Crane forces readers to recognize the truth, and I think that is why he is so highly regarded by others in American literature.
I myself think that once in a while, happy things do happen to those that need or deserve it. But in real life, rarely do Prince Charmings ride in with their magnificent steeds to rescue the heroine as they embrace each other in the sunset. And that is also why I think people, both in the past and present, enjoy inspirational plays and movies. People like to imagine themselves as the hero, or as the ones being rescued. They like to entertain the notion, the idea, that their lives would take a turn for the best eventually. They immerse themselves in the "transcendebtal realism". I am not, in any way, criticising them. In fact, I do that myself too. Who wouldn't want to be 007, handsome and attractive, fighting off villains single-handedly and have beautiful women around him? Who wouldn't want to be Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany's, in which Holly Golightly, the woman he loves, eventually accepts his love? It is in the nature of human beings to identify the things that are missing in their lives, the things that they want to have, or the people they want to be, with the characters in movies. I think Maggie, being always dependent on others, is the unfortunate victim of her own romanticism, a bit like Flora in "The Imported Bridegroom". They both got something, or rather, someone, that they think is ideal and suitable for them, when it turns out that their expectations and imaginations could not be realized in real life.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Maria Amparo Ruiz De Burton, "The Squatter and the Don"
"'Speaking about cows, brings us at once to the object of this meeting,'-Don Mariano, still smiling, went on, saying: 'You know that I have lost many, and that it is natural I should wish to save those I have left. To do this, and yet not ask that you give up your claims, I have one or two propositions to make to you. The reason why you have taken up land here is because you want homes. You want to make money. Isn't that the reason? Money! money!'" (Ruiz, The Squatter and the Don Chapter V)
In Chapter V of Ruiz's The Squatter and the Don, Don Marliano attempts to negotiate with the squatters on the issue of land and how it is used. Don is losing a significant portion of cattle to the squatters; they are either killed or stolen by the squatters as no fences surround either the Don's cattle ranch nor the squatter's crop field. Don makes the proposition in that he will provided the squatters with cattle, and tries to persuade them to take up growing fruits, making wine, butter, and milk. The squatters, however, remain skeptical of the practicability of the proposal, promptly refused, and at the end of the chapter Don leaves and persuades them to think about the matter once more.
Throughout history, one can notice that at the center of most conflicts, it will be upon the issue of money. Of course, race still plays a big part, but at the end of the day, it is the money that does the talking. In this chapter, I think Ruiz did more than depicting the conflict at that time over land before the readers' eyes; she is presenting certain sides of human nature, the sides where greed and instincts come in. In this case, as I am not entirely familiar with this section of American history, still I think that what Don proposed is a very good idea, actually, it's a win-win situation for both parties.
I think the portrayal of the skepticism and distrust of the squatters is presented accurately, and although this story was written approximately a century ago, the situation between the don and the squatters could be seen even nowadays. We have countries, both strong and weak, negotiating with each other, trying to get the best possible profit for themselves. Sometime one cannot help but wonder if both parties agree on less and trust and cooperate with each other, the results may be even better. I could not help but think if the squatters agree with the Don's proposal, both them and the Don would have been rich soon enough, and satisfied as well. But then again, this brings us back to the issue of human nature. When it comes to one's own benefit, most of the times one becomes extremely distrustful when working with one another. As much as I would like to see harmony, peace, and cooperation exercised when the interests of two parties, countries or individuals likewise, converge and conflict, I realize that this only exists in a utopian society, and most probably could not be realized.
The story also led me to think upon the issue of sacrifice. Clearly, in an ideal trade, both parties have to get what they want, and should be satisfied by it. But what if it's impossible? What if one party has to suffer in order for a trade to be made? It is this mindset that is lacking now in both the story and the present day society, on top of lack of trust towards others. People are unwilling to sacrifice, or in other words, they want to get at least equal to others in a trade; they want everything to be fair. Ultimately, countries, governments now are struggling for the top position of a pile of bodies. Look, for example, at America's constant war in other countries. Iraq, Vietnam, Panama, Cuba, Mexico, Iran, Persian Gulf, and a lot more. Some say that maybe it's all about opening a McDonald's or selling a coke in the streets of Iraq, to expand the market of American enterprises and also, in the case of certain Middle-East countries, for the oil. It's one thing to read in a story of conflicts between two groups of people on land and money, but it's really quite frightful to see similar parallels now in the society, aggravated and expanded to ten times the scale.