Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Cover Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
Despite its modest size and appearance, Gilead is a big book. Despite its apparent simplicity, it is full of wisdom. It is a tender love story and a paean to creation equal to anything found in the Old Testament. If you were somehow able to shake this book so that all the words associated with joy and happiness and beauty were made to fall out, there would be considerable white space remaining.
Not that Gilead is all sweetness and light. There is a goodly amount of sorrow to be found in these pages. The book is kind of built on sorrow, in fact. Reverend John Ames is growing old and knows that his end is near. He has experienced an unexpected love late in his life, from which a son has been given to him, and what we read as a work of fiction is a letter to his son, explaining his life. This is done not out of cowardice but because his son is only seven and he knows he won’t be around to tell him his story once his son is old enough to understand and appreciate what he is hearing.
In order for us to understand and appreciate what Reverend Ames says, it is necessary to take our collective foot off the accelerator and take our time savoring the images that Ames (Robinson) lays out for our enjoyment and edification. Here’s an example:

The mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago as I was walking up to church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she was a little disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

“The prose of Gilead acts with unusual power to evoke in its readers the capacity for experiencing the moment, to hold the moment steadily in mind before it loses its immediacy and vanishes into time.” [The Living Moment, p. 100]

One of the things that troubles me about organized religion is that it always looks beyond our earthly existence to what is to come in the next life. For Evangelicals, the life of Jesus is just a prelude to his death (and resurrection), never mind that his life and teachings are enough to absorb any theologian. When they deal with life at all it is sordid, full of temptation and sin. Of course they all talk about forgiveness and redemption but the overall thrust of contemporary Christianity is that life is an insignificant footnote in a much greater work yet to be discovered.
Reverend Ames is clearly an exception. He doesn’t deny that life is transitory but he attaches a great deal of importance to the significance on the things of this world: the beauty, the the sorrow, the joy, the pain, and above all, the love. He has laid the groundwork for a new kind of theology, almost zen-like, which admits to not understanding the life to come but is careful to look for clues in the world around us.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens his eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what waits us, but is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that mean the world to us. In eternity this will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

“The state of consciousness sometimes achieved by John Ames lets existence be, experiences it as possessing the philosophical category of Being, the experience of which is the core of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. That verb, Being, a gerund, is going nowhere, is doing nothing beyond itself, but simply and intransitively is.
“Ames understands the psychological fact that impatience and irritation, so familiar to most of us, are obstacles to seeing the world in this way; indeed they are versions of the sin of anger, one of the seven ‘deadly’ sins, and as such prevent us from seeing the truth of the world as it really is, having a mysterious weight and importance, which leads to the wonder that there is this, rather than nothing at all.”

Cited: The Living Moment: Modernism in a Broken World, by Jeffrey Hurt.

Civil War, Holy War

The Kansas Nebraska Act (1856) was the death knell for the Whig political party, which had striven to maintain a political middle ground as the Democracy (Democratic Party) came to be increasingly dominated by southerners or those sympathetic to slaveholders and nativists and anti-Catholic political parties like the American Party (the Know-Nothings) which had been ascendent in the North for nearly a decade.

“The Kansas-Nebraska Act, like the toppling of the July monarchy in France, provoked a revolution of unintended consequences. The sectional response to the act destroyed what remained of the Second American Party System, splintering it into a kaleidoscope of parties and fusion groups so confusing that the Congressional Globe, the publication charged with matching lawmakers with their party affiliations, gave up the task following the 1854 congressional elections.” [America Aflame, p. 100]

The Republican Party rose, phoenix-like from the ashes of the political dissolution that grew out of the tensions between slave-holding states and those determined to avert the further spread of slavery. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly gave up his Whig affiliation after events in Kansas left him “ready to fuse with anyone who would unite with him to oppose the slave power.” [America Aflame, p. 120]

Idealism, thinly disguised as religion, brought tensions between North and South to a boiling point. When Charles Sumner was assaulted by Preston Brooks of South Carolina—beaten senseless with a cane on the floor of the Senate after giving a scathing attack on South Carolina, a state wallowing in the “shameful imbecility from slavery,” Brooks claimed that his admirers were begging for fragments of his cane “as sacred relicts.” [The Rise of American Democracy, p. 691]. After John Brown was hung for crimes against the Union in the wake of the debacle at Harper’s Ferry, Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau eulogized “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an Angel of Light.” [“A Plea for Captain John Brown”]

Harriett Beecher Stowe, the daughter and sister of two of the most famous ministers of the first half of the 19th century, brought a different type of religious zeal to her abolitionist work. Her Puritan background and the religious principles she had grown up with made her into an avenging angel:

“The heroic element was strong in me, having come down by ordinary generation from a long line of Puritan ancestry, and just now it made me long to do something, I know not what: to fight for my country, or to make some declaration on my own account.”[Mightier than the Sword,” p.5] In the end she may have wielded the mightier sword. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin did what [William Lloyd] Garrison and other activists failed to do: it replaced the venal religion with a new, abolitionist religion anchored in vibrantly portrayed human experiences and shared emotions. Many reviewers singled out the novel’s religious impact. One wrote that it “spread the gospel of Jesus Christ” and provided “a very perfect antidote to the infidelity which has been generated in other ranks of the Anti-slavery reform.” [ibid, p. 42]

President-elect Abraham Lincoln was not an overtly religious person. His law partner Billy Herndon felt that Lincoln had rejected dogmatic Christianity in favor of Transcendentalism (which Herndon favored). Herndon also avowed that on the subject of religion the author whose views most nearly represented Mr. Lincoln was Theodore Parker.

“Most Transcendentalists went beyond even the broad theology of their Unitarian upbringing. Some ceased to be Christian in any sense, but Parker kept to his pulpit because he contrasted the ideal Jesus with all the provisional expressions of that ideal in biblical texts or church doctrines. Thus Parker drew his all-important theological-political analogy: as Jesus is the Bible (the ideal to the limited reality), so is the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution…” [Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 108]

“Although he often struggled with his faith, Lincoln believed in the guiding hand of Providence even if he could not discern its meaning or existence. Explaining the intent of the Founding Fathers toward slavery…Lincoln noted that in their “enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into this world to be…imbruted by its fellows.” It is arguable whether this was an accurate account of the framers’ intentions, but Lincoln believed it. Historians debate whether Lincoln was a religious man. He was. His religion was America, and that faith ran very deep.” [America Aflame, p.103]

  • America Aflame: How the Civil War created a Nation, by David Goldfield
  • The Rise of American democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, by Sean Wilentz
  • Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, by David S. Reynolds
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America, by Gary Wills

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, II: Westward expansion

Columbia leads settlers westward, an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new era.

When we think of social justice in a society who do we look to for guidance if not our churches? As Pope Paul VI said “If you want peace, work for justice.” Churches in antebellum America, though, were poor exemplars of social justice. The early republic was dominated by Protestant religions and, as we have seen, Protestants were angered by the influx of immigrants, mainly Catholic, coming into the country. In one incident which took place in Massachusetts in 1831, a Protestant mob burned an Ursuline convent and school.

“The advance of the Roman Catholic Church in the form of more than a million immigrants [from Ireland and Germany] menaced both individual liberty and the republican experiment. Slaveholders as despotic as the Roman hierarchy, threatened to pollute the golden west with their black bondsmen and obstruct the national government with their selfish priorities. Alien cultures and nations intruded on the edges of settlement—Native Americans and Mexicans foremost—thwarting the national destiny. These were the fears of White Protestant Americans, especially in the North.” [America Aflame, p. 4]

Protestant Americans felt that theirs was a distinctive national destiny ordained by God and nowhere was this exemplified more than in the rapid expansion westward that took place in the mid-1800’s. John Adams, who was a Unitarian, set the tone for this in the 18th Century: “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a great scene and design in providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” [Notes for “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” 1765]

John L. O’Sullivan, a journalist, had a name for this sense of providential munificence: “our manifest destiny to overspread and to posses the whole of the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” [John O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (July /August 18450: 6]

These ideas had been floating around for almost as long as the Union itself, “[b]ut not until the 1840’s did the United States consider itself as an exemplar of faith and liberty—what Thomas Jefferson called “a standing monument and example”—and more to an active role. An evangelical religion spawned an evangelical democracy.” [America Aflame, p. 34]

Under Polk Administration the United States incorporated California, Oregon, and New Mexico into the Union (Polk’s predecessor, John Tyler, signed the annexation of Texas into law at the end of his presidency). Kansas and Nebraska made a fractious entry into the Union during the presidency of Franklin Pierce. Thomas Jefferson had predicted that Western expansion would bring about the demise of slavery, but with the addition of Texas and Kansas as slave states the issue was as divisive as ever. While ministers prevaricated and politicians equivocated, the nation edged closer to the precipice. It was about this time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print, first as a serialization in the National Era in 1852 and then as a book in 1854. “She understood well the compulsion of those who voted for slavery as a concession to the salvation of the Union (as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had done on the Missouri Compromise). Her counter point was that the fate of the nation depended not on temporizing but on repenting and expiating the sin of slavery.

”A day of grace is yet held out to us,” she wrote encouragingly. “Both the North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian Church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this union to be saved, but by repentance, justice and mercy; for not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean than the stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!” [Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, Norton edition, 1994, p. 388]

Source: America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, by David Goldfield, NY: Bloomsbury Press [2011]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an exploring social justice (part 1)

Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852 cover

I had a young woman, a girl really, ask me last week to help her find a book about “social justice.” It was for an assignment at school. At first I was stymied. “Social Justice?” The only authors I could think of immediately were Hannah Arendt and Ursula LeGuin; neither would be in the ken or grasp of the young Middle School student standing in front of my desk. Then I thought of our recent visit Appalachian Homecoming program featuring Helen Matthews Lewis [Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia], and I talked to the young lady a little about Helen’s work among coal mining families in Appalachia. She was interested but I didn’t think it interested her enough to make that the focus of her project. Then I had an inspiration. “Have you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I asked her. She had not, but she had heard the book discussed in her classwork involving the Civil War last year, and she was very interested in reading the book.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin may not be the “Great American Novel” (if such a book even exists), but it is one of the most influential books written in America and I would be hard pressed to think of any title that dealt so resolutely and artfully with the theme of social justice. To understand this it is necessary to examine what social justice was like in the mid-19th century; to do that we have to consider what society was like in America in the mid-19th century.

By 1850, the United States had grown from 13 to 35 states; from an initial population of roughly two and half millions (plus 500,00 slaves) to a population of a little over 23 million, including a half million free “colored” and over three million slaves. For the first time, the Census Bureau reported on the Nativity of the Population and Place of Birth of the Native Population. The percentage of foreign born in 1850 was 9.7 (not including slaves). The vast majority was from Western Europe.

“After 1845 the number of new immigrants skyrocketed, fed by immigrants propelled from their homes by political unrest and agricultural disaster, and attracted to the United States by cheap steerage fares and a booming economy. The new immigrant wave of the 1840’s and 1850’s—nearly 3 million new arrivals between 1845 and 1854, represented the greatest proportional arrival in American history—was also markedly poorer and more Catholic than previous streams of newcomers. Roughly two in five of the newcomers came from famine-ravaged Ireland, and nearly as many came from distressed, heavily Catholic regions of Germany.”

The thriving working-class community of Five Points lives again in this recreation of Paradise Square circa 1860

The country did not greet these new arrivals with open arms. Since the bulk of these immigrants settled in the North (by 1855 the majority of New York City’s population was foreign-born), the reaction was concentrated there. Parties like the Order of the United Americans and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner filled a political vacuum left by the demise of the Whig Party. The secretive, fraternal nature of these nativist organizations led to the tag “Know-Nothing” to describe the group’s activities (as in, “I know nothing”), and thus became the Party’s sobriquet. These groups comprised mainly of white, middle-aged men “pined for a supposedly pristine pre-immigrant past.” (Sound familiar?)

“But the Know-Nothing’s original mission to redeem the nation’s politics advanced a deeper antidemocratic animus as well.

”If democracy implies universal suffrage, or the right of all men to take part in the control of the State, without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of the man,” OUA founder Thomas Whitney proclaimed, “I am no Democrat.”

Of course being native born did not guarantee equal rights under the law as the Cherokee, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Miamis, Potawatomis, Kickapoos, and other Native American tribes learned during the period of removals. And it does not even begin to acknowledge the 800 pound gorilla in the room: slavery.


[Source: The Rise of American Democracy : Jefferson to Lincoln / Sean Wilentz]

What’s so great about Tom Sawyer?

When I first learned that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the selection for our local Big Read program this spring, my initial reaction was “why?” Actually, what I said was “no one over the age of twelve should have to read that book.” But then, being a librarian—one whose responsibilities include Readers Advisory—I relented and decided that I should at least read it before I passed judgment on it in that way. Because I don’t remember having ever read it; I have read a number of Twain’s books and stories and I am an admirer of him as a writer and a humorist. But I felt that if one were to select a Mark Twain book for reading and discussion, why not go with the undisputed classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

Twain himself described the book as “a book for boys, pure and simple.” It was also a big money-maker for him, revitalizing his dwindling fortune with what amounted to a Tom Sawyer franchise: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer, Detective. Tom Sawyer was also the vehicle that introduced the world to Huckleberry Finn:

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. The book was made by Mr. Mark Twain and he told the truth mostly.”

OK, so it’s a boy’s book. But this is a boy’s book country. Look at some of the great heroes of American literature: Jay Gatsby, Jake Barnes (or just about any Hemingway protagonist), Holden Caulfield. Unlike Holden Caulfield, though, Tom does have redeeming qualities and is even capable of heroism. He takes a lickin’ covering up for Becky Thatcher’s indiscretion and manages to save her life. His testimony at the murder trial of Muff Porter allows for an innocent man to go free and sets in motion the confrontation between Tom and the real murderer, Injun’ Joe, in the episode in the cave. He does, however, “sell out” in the end and is reduced to playing second fiddle in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, revealing a change in the author’s attitude to his young alter-ego.

Tom larks his way through the book, coming up with one stunt after another to make himself the center of attention. Twain indulges his “Bad Boy” along the way but switches his allegiance once Tom gains respectability.

“It is only at the very end of the book that the tone toward Tom becomes noticeably negative and we feel the presence of some new attitude. What we feel, of course, is the birth of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the change in attitude toward Tom, is intimately connected with the discovery of Huck Finn. It is only very late in Tom Sawyer, when Huck is separated from Tom by the necessities of the plot, that the possibilities of his character are discovered. It is only when Huck is discovered as a voice, and a mask, and a point of view, one that will define Tom Sawyer differently and crystallize the perceptions about him which dominate the end of the book. What is wrong with the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it is the beginning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Huckleberry Finn is a quite different book and in it Tom sawyer is a quite different character.”

[“The Sanctioned Rebel,” by Judith Fetterley. Studies in the Novel, vol. 3, no. 3, Fall 1971. Copyright 1971 by North Texas State University.]

Tom Sawyer

isn’t he supposed to finish the job before he gets the nice, shiney apple?

Treasure of Sierra Madre

Humphry Bogart and Tim Holt

Being greedy can be fun!

Most of us are familiar with the movie version, a certified classic and one of a number of terrific collaborations between John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Huston and his father Walter, who played the old prospector Howard, were both awarded Oscars. Bogart lost out to Lawrence Olivier.

Few people have any idea of the identity of the author of the book was on which the movie was based. His identity has been called“one of the greatest literary mysteries of the twentieth century.” (Eat your heart out J.D. Salinger) According to one biography (or “anti-autobiography”), B. Travern “took great effort throughout his life to avoid any cult of personality or role of fame. Travern was only a name, one of many he used in his life: Otto Feige, Ret Marut, Torsvan….” Reportedly, when John Huston contacted Travern in Mexico City to seek his collaboration on the film, a man named Hal Croves, who purported to be his agent, arrived on the set. Huston was convinced the man was Travern himself, but Travern, who was denied citizenship in the U.S. in part because of his Socialist leanings, had every reason to keep his identity secret, especially given the anti-capitalist subtext of the novel.

“But whatever the truth of his identity, [his] books continue to be enjoyed and to inspire—a rare case of literary expression being of equal quality to its radical political content. To judge him only in literary terms is to miss the point; nevertheless, unlike much literature attempting to convey a political ‘message’, Travern is a pleasure to read. B. Travern was a great storyteller and also—that great rarity—a great political novelist.”

The story is straight-forward. Two down and out Americans wind up in a cheap Mexican hostel where the residents are being beguiled by the prospecting success stories of Howard (Walter Huston. Link to the monologue on YouTube here.) Howard sets the tone for what is to come when he declares that the lust for gold is the undoing of anyone who falls under its spell. The character of Howard has been described as crazy by some critics, but his rambling stories are a link to the novel’s underlying message: the lure of gold blinds men to everything, including the real treasure that lies before them, the beauty and complexity of the indigenous cultures which inconveniently occupy the land where the gold lies. In the case of the Sierra Madre he indigenous people are the Tarámuri, but you could just as easily substitute the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, English settlers and Native American culture, western expansion and Native American culture, or anyplace else a native culture has been wiped out in the name of “civilization” and “progress,” and the outcome would be much the same.

Travern is often heavy-handed with this message; the tribesmen have a tendency to harangue the foolish gringos over their intemperate love for gold and constant hurrying, which make them little more than mouthpieces for the author’s message. But the sublime irony of what befalls the three prospectors is what distinguishes this story. After hacking their way through the wilds of the Sierra Madre and finally locating a rich seam of gold high up in the mountains, the two Americans succumb to the fever and to paranoia about their stakes. The old prospector Howard is taken in by a nearby village as a shaman, while Dobbs and Curtin engage in a deadly cat and mouse game that nearly costs Curtin his life. Dobbs gets away with the loot but he is waylaid by outlaws as he draws near civilization. The outlaws, those of the “We don’t need no steenking badge” renown, murder Dobbs and discard the gold dust which they think is ballast to increase the weight of the moldy skins the prospectors are carrying to add to their cover as trappers (not prospectors).

“What lies beneath this basic plot is what makes Treasure so revolutionary, even subversive. In addition to its suspense, he novel has something else that most Westerns lack: a subtext that scathingly rebukes capitalism and greed. In the standard romantic Western, striking gold is the best thing that can happen to a character; the payoff at the end of a long journey. In Traven’s work, it’s the worst imaginable outcome.”


  • Quotation attributed to Paul Theroux
  • The Anti-biography of B. Travern, by Red Marriot. Accessed on
  • “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” by Ethan Trex, mental_floss magazine, Nov-Dec, 2011
  • In the Sierra Madre, by Jeff Biggers. Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2006

Double Dealing: Stevenson, Poe and the Doppelgänger

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an example of a literary convention that was very popular in the 19th Century, books that featured doubles or dopplegängers. Dostoyevsky used this device in “Notes From the Underground”, his “supreme projection of a split personality who is enchanted by human abysses.” [Neider, xix] Speaking of Stevenson, Neider says: “He had read much of Poe, including Poe’s brief but extremely perceptive, incisive, and sensitive story, “The Imp of the Perverse,” which prefigured Dostoevsky’s efforts to illuminate the self-destructive, perverse side of man’s nature.”
If anyone was an authority on self-destructive behavior, it was Edgar Allen Poe. In writing “The Imp of the Perverse,” it is almost as if he had created his own epithet. Here is how Peter Akroyd, who wrote an excellent concise biography of Poe, called Poe: A Life Cut Short summed it up

To do what is forbidden—to do that which goes against all our instincts of self-love and self preservation, therein lies the power of the imp. Never to stay long in any employment; to be drawn to young women who were dying; to quarrel continuously with friends; to drink excessively, even when told that the indulgence would kill him. Therein lies the imp.”

Because Poe lived so close to the core of his own being, because he never allowed the wounds in his life to heal, but would scratch angrily at them until they reopened, because he had no illusions of his own shortcomings (which meant he had no illusions about those of others either), he had an intrinsic understanding of how false the mask is that “normal” people present to society. In “Gulliver’s Travels: The Critical Response” (below) editor Christopher Fox cautioned against identifying the author too closely with his fictitious character. It is tempting to psychoanalyze an author, especially one with baggage like Swift or Poe. Unlike Swift, though, Poe’s behavior, taken in conjunction with his writing, does lend itself to that type of interpretation. And Poe himself left a number of tantalizing clues to make the connection even more apparent.

If Poe wrote his epithet when he published “Imp” he more or less outlined the process of self-immolation in “William Wilson”. Consider the opening quotation:

“What say of it? what say (of) CONSCIENCE grim,
That spectre in my path?

and the epigraph:

“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

The story of William Wilson, like the story of Jekyll/Hyde, shows what happens not only when a person recognizes their own evil, but is defeated by that evil. It is almost impossible, not to look at this in psychological terms.

Inspired, perhaps, by an awareness of his own tendancy to labor against himself—or through despair and alcohol abuse—to “become someone else,” Poe began to use doubling patterns extensively in his stories’ imagery and, on occasion, to use doubles as characters. With “William Wilson” Poe contributed what has become the key text in the tradition of dopplegänger literature…”

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (I)


Like such mythopoetic figures as Frankenstein, Dracula, and, even, Alice (“in Wonderland”), Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde has become, in the century following the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella, what might be called an autonomous creation. That is, people who have never read the novella—people who do not in fact “read” at all—know by way of popular culture who Jekyll-Hyde is. (Though they are apt to speak of him, not altogether accurately, as two disparate beings: Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde.) A character out of prose fiction, Jekyll-Hyde seems nonetheless autogenetic in the way that vampires and werewolves and (more benignly) fairies seem autogenetic: surely he has always existed in the collective imagination, or, like Jack the Ripper, in actual history? (As “Dracula” is both the specific creation of the novelist Bram Stoker and a nightmare figure out of middle European history.) It is ironic that, in being so effaced, Robert Louis Stevenson has become immortalized by way of his private fantasy—which came to him, by his own testimony, unbidden, in a dream.

Joyce Carol Oates
Novels for Students, v.11

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1886. It has remained popular over the years, but in recent years it is perhaps most appreciated for its camp value. In the 19th Century, though, it had an unmistakable moral overtone that was not lost on readers or critics.
Here is what Henry James said about it: “It has the stamp of a really imaginative production, that we may take it in different ways; but I suppose it would generally be called the most serious of the author’s tales. It deals with the relation of the baser parts of man to his nobler, of the capacity for evil that exists in the most generous natures; and it expresses these things in a fable which is a wonderfully happy invention.”
“There is a genuine feeling for the perpetual moral question, a fresh sense of the difficulty of being good and the brutishness of being bad; but what there is above all is a singular ability in holding the interest. I confess that that, to my sense, is the most edifying thing in the short, rapid, concentrated story, which is really a masterpiece of concision.”
One aspect of the tale is a fascination with and horror of not just evil, but of the unknown quantity that makes up the human psyche, the iceberg, so to speak, that suggests unfathomable depths. In his introduction to The Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Neider states that Stevenson had read a paper in a French scientific journal on the subconscious which made a deep impression on him. There is also an unmistakable suggestion that beneath the thin veneer of civilization lies chaos which our animal natures are all too keen to bring to the surface.

This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life. And this again, that that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.

Published in 1886, this clearly presaged Joseph Conrad’s evocation in “The Heart of Darkness” twenty years later: “The horror, the horror!”

Source: The Complete Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Charles Neider, Doubleday —Co., c. 1969

Gulliver’s Travels: the critical response

Gulliver on the analyst's couch

Gulliver on the analyst's couch

As is the case with most literary works, critics of Gulliver’s Travels represent a broad spectrum. There are Feminist critics, Marxist critics, Psycho-analytic, Deconstructionists, New Historians, and probably other types of criticisms that I’m not even aware of. One edition of Gulliver’s Travels [Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, edited by Christopher Fox], lists nine pages of critical works and additional commentary by some of the exponents of the different critical responses to Gulliver’s Travels that take up more pages than the work itself. Not to diminish in any way the pioneering work of Dr. Benjamin Karpman (“Neurotic Traits of Jonathan Swift as Revealed by Gulliver’s Travels…), I tend to agree with Norman O. Brown when he says, “If the duty of criticism is to judge him insane, criticism should be turned over to the psychoanalysts…” [The Excremental Vision"] When in doubt, read the work for yourself and see what you think.

In a letter written to his friend Alexander pope in 1725, Swift wrote: “the chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.” The reception the book received after it was published and the critical attention it has received in the succeeding centuries demonstrate that Swift succeeded in his intentions. The book was an overnight sensation when it was published in 1726 and it became one of the most popular books published in the 18th Century. Swift’s fellow “Scriblerian’ John Gay wrote from London “About ten days ago a Book was publish’d here of the Travels of one Gulliver, which hath been the conversation of the whole town ever since….from the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet-council to the Nursery.” [Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, edited by Christopher Fox, p. 21]

But Swift’s critics were swift (no pun intended) to seize upon the book’s apparent misanthropy and misogyny. Even friends and supporters, like fellow Scriblerian Dr. Arbuthnot, were taken aback by Swift’s seemingly splenetic attacks against English society, especially in Book IV. If GT is read as a travelogue then these criticisms are probably valid. It could not be more different in this regard from the other great 18th Century travel adventure, Robinson Crusoe. But as a satire, or a parody, or a work of fiction, or even science fiction, it is open to any number of interpretations. As Christopher Fox has argued, “In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift is as much outside the text as we are. What is present is a fictional self, a persona, in this case Lemuel Gulliver, who like other literary characters inhabits his own world, independent of the author. That world is the text. That text is in an autonomous world of its own, a ‘complex structure, with its own unity and set of internal relations….’[Fox, p. 289]

It is also the product of a world and a worldview that most modern readers are probably not at all familiar with. When Gulliver crosses the channel between Lilliput and Blefuscu and comes back with a large number of the latter kingdom’ naval fleet in tow, he refuses to capture the remainder of the fleet, saying that he “would never be an Instrument of bringing a free and brave People into Slavery.” We may need to be reminded that Swift was a cleric in Ireland when he wrote GT and that Ireland was treated then, and for some time after his death, as a vassal state by the British, in much the same way that the Emperor wanted to reduce Blefuscu to a “Province” governed by a Viceroy.

Many critics have remarked on Gulliver’s lack of discernment as a world traveler who has, in his own words, read “the best Authors, ancient and modern.” He prides himself on his abilities as a mathematician and a linguist, and tries (in vain) to attain the lofty heights of reasonable discourse achieved by the Houyhnhnms. In this case he was very much a product of his age. When we discussed Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Curiosities , we mentioned the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution and how people’s view of the world, the way they looked at it and thought about it, were radically changed (not necessarily for the better). Scientific discourse was suddenly obsessed with observable detail, facts, and evidence. There was also a premium placed on reason, which followed from this obsession and from the writings of Emmanuel Kant and john Locke. This in itself was not a bad thing. Locke’s writings also influenced the framers of the American Constitution. But too much of anything, no matter how virtuous, can be harmful, and one way of looking at Gulliver’s travels is as a description of these tendencies being taken to their logical—or illogical—conclusions. This is something that science fiction does all the time. And it is this characteristic, along with the use of satire and parody, which distinguishes this book.

Gulliver’s Travels I

Gulliver's first voyage

Gulliver's first voyage

All of us are familiar with Gulliver’s Travels, whether we’ve read the book or not. It has become a cultural icon, a fixture and, by just about any definition a classic.

Gulliver’s Travels meets two simple working definitions of a classic: it speaks powerfully and significantly to each generation; it never yields its full meaning.†

We may have seen the movie (it has been adapted about twenty times as movies and television programs, most recently this past holiday season with a new treatment by Director Rob Letterman whose previous blockbuster was Monsters Vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space), or used terms like “Lilliputian” or “Yahoo,” and think we know all there is to know about Gulliver’s Travels. Actually reading the book, then, comes as kind of a shock. It’s not the cute little travel adventure we expected, and it’s definitely not a childrens book, although children did read it and I suppose they still do, most likely in the form of a graphic Novel.*

The early pages of Gulliver’s Travels demand an unusually attentive reading. For example, on the very first page are…carefully chosen details that suggest accurate and honest reporting.
These and other details dispose us to suspend immediately any possibility about this obviously true voyage of this undoubtedly honest “man” who is about to take a trip to Lilliput.

When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, there were people who thought it described actual places. There are a couple of reasons why. One has to do with Swift’s use of the frame device where Gulliver tells the stories of his travels after his return. This illusion of reality is enforced by the opening letter from Gulliver to his cousin, Sympson, who is responsible for publishing the book and the fact that the book was not originally published under Swift’s name at all. Swift also employs a realist narrative style with much attention to detail, which Daniel Defoe used to great effect in Robinson Crusoe published in the preceding decade. But Swift’s work turns into a parody of travel writing. His use of detail is over the top, bordering on the absurd [like the description of the storm and the nautical maneuvers used to avoid it at the beginning of Book II].

This underscores the satire that swift is busy laying on with a trowel throughout the book: “I hope, the gentle reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like Particulars, which however insignificant they may appear to groveling, vulgar minds, yet will certainly help a Philosopher to enlarge his Thoughts and Imaginations, and apply them to the benefit of public life, which was my sole design in presenting this and other accounts of my Travels to the World…”

When we consider that the “particulars” Gulliver refers to in this passage have to do with answering the demands of nature—something he dwells on repeatedly and in crapulous detail throughout the book— we sense the irony in his stated purpose, which is to “help a Philosopher to enlarge his Thoughts and imaginations…”

citations from Jonathan Swift, by Robert Hunting, Boston: Twayne Publishers, a division of G.K. Hall and Co. 1967
* My 1947 edition of Gulliver’s Travels has a passing resemblance to a Graphic novel with its quirky Luis Quintana line drawings