Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book Cover: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe
1722, England

One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).

I’m not convinced.

Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.

Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.

There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac
Edmond Rostand
1897, France
Carol Clark, translator

“[…] You’re lacking in invention,
Young man. You could have said so many things.
You could have been aggressive, for example:
‘Good heavens, man, if I’d a nose like that
I’d have it amputated right away!’
Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink?
Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’ Or else descriptive:
‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape… No, not a cape,
It’s a peninsula!’ Inquisitive:
‘Do tell me, what is that long container?
Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’ Twee:
‘How darling of you to have built a perch
For little birds to rest their tiny claws.’
Facetious: ‘When you smoke, do they call “Fire”?
Do people think some chimney is alight?’
Worried: ‘No do be careful, when you walk,
That you don’t overbalance on your face,’
Motherly: “We must make a little parasol
To shade it from the sun.’ Perhaps pedantic:
‘Only the creature, sir, which Aristophanes
Calls Hippocampelephantocamelos
Could carry such a weight of flesh and bond
Below its forehead.’ […]”
(I.IV.313-335)

The image of Cyrano de Bergerac, he of oversized nose and outsized wit, is so familiar as to seem to have seeped into popular culture, yet I found that I really knew very little of the actual play or man. I was surprised, first, to find that the play was not a comedy as it first appeared, or at least not purely comedy. For there is tragedy here. But second, I was surprised to learn that most of the characters, Cyrano included, were based on real people (though the plot is not).

First performed in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac is set in the mid-1600s, the era of the Musketeers, d’Artagnan and Cardinal Richelieu, and it is every bit as swashbuckling as one of Alexandre Dumas’s adventures. The main crux of the action revolves around Roxane, the beautiful and intelligent cousin of Cyrano. She is loved of three men: Cyrano, his fellow cadet Christian de Neuvillette, and the nefarious Comte de Guiche. Roxane, oblivious of Cyrano’s feelings, but drawn to Christian’s good looks requests that her cousin look out for the young cadet. Out of love for Roxane, Cyrano complies, even to the point of becoming Christian’s voice in wooing Roxane, both figuratively, in letters, and literally, in the balcony scene.

Fast paced and witty, Cyrano seems an incredibly big play, and not just in its outsized personalities. The cast is large and the scene descriptions provided by Rostand—a theater, a bakery, a square, a battlefield, and a convent—are so minutely detailed as to seem impossible on a mere stage, and surely meant for a reader rather than a stage director.

What makes Cyrano so relatable, though, is the self-doubt, the feelings of inadequacy that the main rivals, Cyrano and Christian share. Though in theory, they should be rivals, the two become masks for each other, presenting to Roxane the “face” each thinks she most wishes to see (or hear). In so many arenas–duels of sword or wit, especially–Cyrano is more than confident, but he lacks self-confidence in one key area: that anyone should care for someone with his looks. Christian, on the other hand, though with the looks Cyrano lacks, knows himself to be lacking in the intelligent speech that Roxane desires. Thus, each uses the other to cover what they see as their own inadequacies. While such deceptions are more likely the realm of the stage than reality, the underlying view of self, the low self-esteem, even if in only one field, is universally felt, and only adds to the poignancy of the play’s final scenes.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
US, 1943

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Garnder. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climatically.

Chapter 39

I didn’t need to know that Betty Smith started her 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a memoir before fictionalizing it to feel that this scene late in the novel between protagonist Francie Nolan and her 8th grade English teacher was drawn from Smith’s own life. It has the ring of a bitter personal experience, and the novel itself becomes the refutation, bringing vividly to life characters and neighborhood that Miss Garnder considers “sordid” but told in a manner and style that while not shirking from the difficulties of poverty and alcoholism in early 20th century Brooklyn, still manages a certain gentleness in the telling.

I suspect this is because the novel is from Francie’s point of view. It opens when she is 11 and moves back in forth in time, from when her parents are dating to when she is grown and leaving home. And while an adult Francie may recognize just how tough life was for the child, and for her mother, to the child of 11, rounding up scrap for the junk man to earn a few pennies for candy, everything in life is still an adventure to be discovered. She will grow to recognize that the world does not always see her life as she does–where she sees how loving and talented her father is, the world sees him as a good-for-nothing drunk; where her aunt is condemned for her “fast” ways, she sees a woman capable of great kindness and motherly love. This contrasting of views and Francie’s growing awareness of how others see her and her family contribute to what feels a very realistic portrait of a second-generation Irish-American family.

In her Hudson Review essay, “The Hungry Artist: Rereading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (helpfully pointed out by Amateur Reader(Tom)), Joyce Zonana posits that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn hasn’t received more scholarly notice in part because it deals with female hungers (literal and metaphorical), but I can’t help but wonder if the gentleness I feel reading it is a contributing factor. Although we know–depending on the quality of our imaginations and emphathies, can perhaps even feel–that the Nolans are poor, that they are starving, the visceralness of this reality is tempered by its coating, sandwiched between genuine loving moments between family members, games Katie Nolan makes up to distract her children from their hunger, and nostalgia-tinged descriptions of neighborhood customs and events. This all contributes to the realism and honesty of the novel, but without turning it into an “issue” novel that might get more press.

By turns moving or amusing, lighthearted or heartbreaking, innocent or dark, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a heavily plotted novel, though many things occur. It is a bildungsroman and a series of vignettes that make up a life. That Francie’s life will turn out better than her parents we can but hope, with her mother and grandmother, though we can never be assured. The events in her life and those of her neighbors and relatives make it only too plain that only one wrong turn–a poor decision or an unlucky stroke–can make everything wrong. On the other hand, the opportunities made available to Francie and her brother Neeley thanks to their mother’s insistence on their education–which in the 1910s means even just graduating from grammar school (8th grade), make clear that the possibilities are so much more open to the young generation than their parents or grandparents ever had. It is a vision of the American Dream, not that the child will be the leader of the land, but that the will–and can–do better than the parent.

It did feel as if the ending was a bit rushed. Perhaps this is reflective of life–Francie notes when she turns twelve, that all of a sudden things like Christmas, that once seemed so far away now really do seem to be just around the corner. But it felt more as if as Francie grew older Smith could no longer find much of interest–the adventures of imagining and childhood are behind–and felt the need to quickly wrap up a somewhat lengthy book. This is a minor quibble, though, in what was otherwise an excellent start to my reading year.

This title qualifies as a book by a woman for Back to the Classics 2022.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Stephen Mitchell, 2006
Akkadian, c. 1700-1000 BCE

Humbaba said, “Gilgamesh have mercy
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life, I will be your slave,
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.”

Enkidu said, “Dear friend, don’t listen
to anything that the monster says.
Kill him before you become confused.”
(Book V)

There is a scene near the center of the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem Gilgamesh that strikes me. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his closest friend, are in the midst of the Cedar Forest. Aided by Shamash, the sun god, they have the monster Humbaba at their mercy. Humbaba is a guardian, charged by the god Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest. He is fierce, frightening. Enkidu, stout of heart and fighter though he is, fears him. Even Gilgamesh, who decreed that they must kill Humbaba to “drive out evil from the world”—or perhaps merely for the fame—grows afraid once within Humbaba’s presence. But this doesn’t stop the epic’s protagonists. They subdue Humbaba. The monster now pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh seems to hesitate. Perhaps the victory is enough. But Enkidu, initially opposed to the journey to the Cedar Forest and the killing of Humbaba, eggs the king on. So the monster is slain, the trees are cut down. It is not clear from the poem if all of the trees are cut down, or just some. Are they to be shipped to Uruk for construction, or is this merely a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s might?

It is a turning point of the poem. Leading up to these events, we have been introduced to the protagonists and have seen them set off on their early adventures. But now we watch them make a decision: to kill, to destroy. Coupled with the next episode (when they kill the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar as punishment for Gilgamesh’s refusal to become her husband) we have reached the apotheosis of Gilgamesh’s arrogance. The gods will decide that someone must pay the price for these crimes against the gods, against their favored monsters. And so Enkidu must die.

Coming at this from a twenty-first century lens of conservation and stewardship, it is hard not to read Gilgamesh’s arrogance and destruction here as emblematic of the arrogance and destruction of humankind. It suggests to me to the question: who is the real monster: Gilgamesh or Humbaba? We aren’t given enough context to know. A twenty-first century reading is likely completely off base, but it speaks to the power of this ancient epic, that even with the passing of millennia, still it resonates.

One of the oldest surviving pieces of literature we know, Gilgamesh is perhaps most familiar to many Western readers for the story related in the latter half of the poem (Book IX) that greatly resembles the flood story found in the Biblical book of Genesis. But the epic is mostly Gilgamesh’s story and his personality dominates. Enkidu–wild man of nature–has been sent by the gods to relieve the citizens of Uruk of the tyranny of a king who “Takes the son from his father and crushes him,/takes the girl from her mother and uses her,” (Book I) and to the extent that Gilgamesh is distracted from his city and his people, this is successful. But Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s balance, does nothing to subdue Gilgamesh’s ego. It is only Enkidu’s death–the price paid for slaughtering Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven–that knocks Gilgamesh back. Yet still he rages: now he is forced to face mortality but still he seeks to subvert it, searching out the only known man to have defeated death and been granted immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.

It is a short poem (at least what survives), but still manages to pack in what feels like a lot, not only of the adventures of Gilgamesh, but the journey he takes in learning to accept that he too will die, no matter how great he is or his city or his feats. The death of Enkidu brings this to the fore but it still takes Gilgamesh additional wanderings and ultimately, failings, before he can accept mortality for himself. Gilgamesh’s pride in his own abilities is humbled, not by another, but by the ravages of time. And yet, at the end he still brags, showing off his city, the great city of Uruk. It is if he knows that thousands of years later we will still read of him and his exploits.

I have now read two English versions of Gilgamesh, the first a prose version by N.K. Sandars (1972 revision) and the second a poetic version by Stephen Mitchell (2004, the version quoted here). I found the poetic version to my preference, though I do not agree with all of Mitchell’s liberties with the text. True, given the nature of the original—fragmentary and difficult for all but the most specialized scholars to read—any edition for the lay reader will require additions and clarification to make sense of it. Mitchell helpfully includes notes on his changes (indeed, his notes and Introduction combined are longer than the poem), but I question why he rearranged sections of the poem. And I would prefer that he hadn’t removed some of the repetitions, which he felt would be off-putting to the contemporary reader. Perhaps. But to me the circularity, the word-for-word repetitions of complete passages, gives a sense not just of what the original may have been like, but of a literature that is in fact not Western. On the other hand, he produced a very readable text that maintained a poetic from and kept the same divisions (largely) of the originals, while Sandars’s version turns it to prose chapters that break in different locations than the clay tablets on which it was originally found.

I read Gilgamesh as part of my Classics Club project list and for Back to the Classics, Translation category.

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
Stephen Heyman
US, 2020

I imagine someone has already done this, perhaps as a personal reading challenge or a college literature course, but you could make a decent reading project of expat-writers living in Interwar France, the “Lost Generation” writers. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Stein. Ford. A 1920s-30s project.

For most today that list wouldn’t include a writer then among the most famous but largely forgotten today, his early writing deemed too old fashioned, his later novels derivative. Look Louis Bromfield up on JSTOR and the most current references are to agricultural or environmental articles. Indeed, unless you are from a particular area of north-east-central Ohio, are reading your way through the Pulitzer winners, or have an interest in the history of small scale and organic farming, you’ve probably never had reason to hear the name Louis Bromfield. A far cry from his lifetime: best-selling novelist, friend of celebrities, political activist. To quote Deirdre Bair’s cover blurb, “If Stephen Heyman had written Louis Bromfield’s life as a novel, readers would have found the tale too tall to believe.”

And it’s true. I found Heyman’s biography fascinating, unputdownable, almost novelistic in structure. Although the overall arc is chronological, a strict chronology is forsaken in favor of theming each chapter: “Foreign Soil” about the expats in Paris; “Hothouse,” about Bromfield’s Senlis garden, or “Germination” about the early years for Bromfield’s farm. I found it fitting to the telling. Bromfield’s persona and the times in which he lived also made for a memorable slice of literary and agricultural history. He may have gained fame as a novelist, but it is his passion for the land, and his early activity in soil conservation and sustainable farming that continues to resonate today.

An Ohio native son, Bromfield’s early life was unremarkable: born in Mansfield in 1896, he fell in love with farming from an early age, in spite of his mother’s dreams of his becoming a great writer. He chose instead to attend Cornell to study agriculture–though only for one semester–, before attempting unsuccessfully to save the family farm. A stint at Columbia (studying journalism) followed before he enlisted in the army during World War I. So far, so normal. But his mother’s dreams were kept alive: he moved to New York, worked as a journalist, married, and started writing novels. The novel writing funded he next ventures: a move to Paris, then later the countryside in Senlis, where he created his gardens, which would become famed across France, as were his Sunday parties. The gardens even drew the attention of Edith Wharton, who would become friends with Bromfield, as they bonded over their roses. However, she avoided the garden-parties of the younger generation. The Senlis garden also provided Bromfield an opportunity to learn from and observe the local gardeners, tilling the same soil that had been used and reused over the centuries to grow their own little crop of vegetables. Bromfield was  only too aware of the ways in which many American farmers had failed their own soil, turning it from fertile to barren through poor practices, as was at that very moment becoming clear with the appearance of the Midwestern Dust Bowl.

The idyllic interwar period could not last and Bromfield saw the clouds gathering. In contrast with many Americans of his time, he knew that isolationism was untenable; war was inevitable. At the same time, he was anxious to try out his new ideas, to return to the farms of his youth. The family made their return to Ohio, eventually buying a farm south of Mansfield, that Bromfield would christen “Malabar,” a farm that would become well-known through his books and as the wedding-site for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, both friends of Bromfield’s. It was at Malabar that he would live out the remainder of his years, tilling the Ohio soil and experimenting, always experimenting with ways to improve the soil, improve yields, while at the same time avoiding potential pitfalls: seventeen years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bromfield was speaking out against DDT. He knew the importance of yield to a farmer’s livelihood, but he could also see the dangers of monoculture and unvetted chemical solutions. His writing at the time largely turned to memoirs and meditations on farming, and in them, as well as at speaking engagements, Bromfield preached conservation and stewardship.

After his death in 1956, Bromfield’s farm was turned over to a conservation organization and eventually turned into a State Park. His literary reputation already in decline among critics,  eventually his books would be largely forgotten by the reading public as well, outside of the “farm books” which remain influential among farming-environmentalists such as Wendell Berry.

He seems to have been a complex man. Passionate about his farm, yet short-sighted and controlling enough that he drove his younger daughters away: they and their husbands would found their own farms elsewhere. His very liberal politics of the 1920s and 30s would give way to conservative politics during the Second World War when he grew angry over the Roosevelt administration’s failures (in his eyes) to account for farmers in their war policies–he wanted draft exemptions for farmers and for the factories to continue to turn out at least a moderate amount of farm equipment and parts, concerned that to do otherwise would threaten the food resources of a country at war. He was a conservationist and environmentalist who loved the soil, but was not a pure “organic” farmer in today’s sense, choosing a more moderate path that would ensure both yields and soil health.

Having read The Planter of Modern Life, I’m more determined than ever to read some of Bromfield’s novels (and maybe some of his agricultural work). Although it appears that they are largely out of print in paper editions, I was fortunate to be able to pick up copies of two of his better known novels The Farm (a favorite of the last President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, apparently) and The Rains Came several years back at a regional bookstore. The biography focuses more on the gardens and farming than the novels, but what little it says of the novels intrigues me, The Farm as a semi-autobiographical story, and The Rains Came as a novel set in India about which at least some Indians spoke approvingly: Indian poet Krishnalal Shridharani is quoted, “You know how sensitive we Indians are to all forms of ‘imperialism,’ literary or otherwise,” he said, calling the book “the first ‘real’ novel on India by a non-Indian.” Yet another layer to the story of a life most interesting.