PS 1633 A5 Manifest with a Dewey Decimal Number

With a little searching, I was able to get this book on eBay for $6. It is a discontinued library book from the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst NY via Betterworld Books. It’s a small book, 81 pages, the kind a person might carry in his/her pocket. It’s letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson (who seems to have called himself Waldo so now we know where Waldo is) to one of his friends. No where have I learned to whom these letters were written other than it was a person 9 years younger than Emerson. There’s clearly a lot of affection and respect and sometimes humor.

As I read I wondered what I’d do if I’d ever gotten a letter like these from anyone. These are just ordinary letters but 19th century language, and the kind of education it assumes, is really NOT like today.

He writes about some writers that I like, too, like Thomas Carlyle, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Longfellow but the big difference I that to Emerson these were living breathing people. That’s not to say that their words don’t still live and breathe, but there’s a difference between someone you might share a meal with and someone whose book you pick up a hundred or more years later and appreciate. One thing that made me really want to talk to him was when he said he’d received Goethe’s and Schiller’s Letters and wasn’t impressed. I like that book a lot, and I really wanted to ask Emerson “Why not?” Then I thought, “Dude, these are letters between a couple of friends. What is there to like or dislike?” I couldn’t find Emerson for comment so I let it go.

He didn’t like Philadelphia — he wanted more intellectual stimulation there, expected more, and was disappointed. Here’s his humor:

“Very fair and pleasant people, but thus far, no originals. If the world was all Philadelphia, although the poultry and dairy market would be admirable, I fear suicide would exceedingly prevail.” He softens it, a bit, saying, “I must thank the Quaker City, however, for a new conviction, that this whim called friendship was the highest thought in what Eden or Olympus it first occurred.”

It made me think of W. C. Fields famed epitaph (“I’d rather be in Philadelphia”) that never made it to his tombstone. Here’s a cool article about that…

There were other things — he thinks more highly of poetry than of painting; doesn’t see a lot of difference between spots on a wall and a painting, an idea possibly derived from Leonardo who said something about that, too, that a rock or spots on a wall would look like a landscape. I don’t know — I think that’s just because humans are pattern recognition animals as a matter of survival. We’re going to see “something” in everything because we suck as animals and are hunters. We’re instinctively going to look for prey or predators and places to hide. For people who like to label things, it’s called pareidolia.

I know that one reason I love nature is because it doesn’t look “like” anything. It IS everything. No problems discerning what’s what out there except recognizing animals, oncoming storms, birds. It’s nice in this world where words are used to obfuscate reality.

Here are some lovely things I pulled out of the book and wanted to share.

“In this country we need whatever is generous and beautiful in character more than ever because of the general mediocrity of thought produced by the arts of gain.” Emerson in Letters to a Friend. 1839 (things don’t change, I guess…)

“…if I trust myself in the woods or in a boat upon the pond, nature makes a Bramin of me presently: eternal necessity, eternal compensation, unfathomable power, unbroken silence — this is her creed. Peace, she saith to me, and purity and absolute abandonment — these penances expiate all sin…” Emerson was reading the Vedas. Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1839

“…we are optimists when the sun shines.” Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1841

“I have long ago found that we belong to our life, not that it belongs to us…Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1849

“I saw Longfellow at Lowell’s two days ago, and he declared that his faith in clubs was firm. ‘I will very gladly,’ he said, ‘meet with Ward and you and Lowell and three or four others, and dine together.’ Lowell remarked, ‘Well, if he agrees to dinner, though he refuses supper, we will continue the dinner till next morning!’.” Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1850 (They were discussing a club, The Anthology Club, which had existed a long time; Emerson’s father had been a member)

I wasn’t looking for this book when I pulled out this catalog card. It was in a pile to use for writing down call numbers for people using the computerized search system that replaced the card catalog at the San Diego State University Library. I have held onto it unintentionally since I don’t know, 2000? Whenever that change-over happened. Finding it, I decided to find the book. I’m glad I found it now. In 2000 I wouldn’t have appreciated it half as much. It feels like a small gift from another time.

For the backstory and chapter one of this post, go here.

Luck or Virtue?

Luck is an underestimated power in our daily universe. I remember the first time I had to think seriously about the power of luck. I was at the home of my thesis advisor and we were talking about my future. Since he was a literature guy and I am a literature guy (Huh?) and both of us had a strong interest in popular literature of an era vs. the official lexicon of literature studies, we were talking about Horatio Alger novels.

“The lesson everyone takes from them is hard work and determination lead to success,” said Dr. Richardson, “but every one of Alger’s heroes was lucky. And none of them aspired very high. In every single one of those stories the Alger hero meets a person who helps him. Luck. Of course, he’s always a good guy bringing in the point that virtue will be rewarded, but it’s not rewarded by luck. In real life, virtue might never be rewarded at all, and luck is luck. It’s not hard work and virtue in Alger’s books. It’s luck. You need some luck, Martha.”

My Horatio Alger novel. 🙂 The featured photo is the title page…

I thought at the time that I WAS lucky. Dr. Richardson was my thesis advisor. Wow!

I think the occasion was that I had actually, finally, finished my thesis to his and my satisfaction. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was pondering law school and business school. There were no teaching jobs in Denver at that point. I was working full time at the University of Denver law school assisting the directors of development and alumni relations — fund-raising. I was doing PR writing, and I liked it. I was a volunteer teacher at a literacy program. It was all pretty good, but…

I’d essentially been thrown out of grad school. When most of my peers were given a third year, paid, with a Teaching Assistantship to write their thesis without the pressure of finding a job, I wasn’t. “We don’t think you’re quite the thing,” was the message of the department head who told me I’d let the Department down. I had been given a full ride and a teaching assistantship, but no more. Why? Because I hadn’t “performed” up to expectation. It wasn’t fair, but it wasn’t wrong. I might not have been the stellar student, but I wasn’t the worst. Along with grad school I had to end a marriage to an abusive husband. And, what’s more, I’d served as President of the Arts and Sciences Graduate Student council and organized an event that made money for the college. I had some small features. I was a popular teacher. My thesis was 100% original research. “We’ll let you remain a part of the department for year,” said the department head, “just in case you actually DO write a a thesis.” A year later when I brought him my finished thesis to sign off, he had no negative comments except a typo on some page.

“I didn’t think you could do it,” he said. What a fucker. I got mine, though. I didn’t have the money to have two extra (the university paid for one to put in the university library) copies of my thesis printed — one for the department library and one for me. I had one printed for the department and I stole it. 🙂

Still, there is really something different about me, and I have no idea what it is.

The problem with luck is we don’t always know when we’re having it. Looking back over my life I can see some of the moments when luck stepped in — and often it was preceded by misfortune. This is a common feature of luck, I think, leading to the saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Medieval people were all about luck, and that might be one of their charms for me. The Wheel of Fortune acknowledges that we just don’t have that much individual power over our lives, and it’s how we face the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that gives us a place in Heaven. I don’t know about Heaven, but how we approach the ups and downs of life certainly affects our happiness in the here and now.

“Heading out for the territory…”

My dogs are clingy, especially when I’m on the phone. In that circumstance, Teddy sits beside me and leans against my chest and Bear puts herself across my legs, basically sitting on my lap. I don’t know what it is about the phone, but that’s what they do. I’m clingy (to them) too, especially after this year. As I think ahead to possibly traveling out of this valley (why?) I imagine returning to my practice of boarding the dogs while I’m gone. I don’t know about that. Covid has intensified our interdependence. I’ve learned I could live in a remote mountain cabin for months with only my dogs, the internet and my studio for company. I’ve also learned I kind of like that life.

As I’ve been drawing these pictures — some are kind of “old-westy” — I’ve thought about my ancestors who did the whole American thing of “heading out for the territory ahead of the rest.” I don’t know much about the early ones — well, the VERY early ones, 11th century, I know about THEM — but some of them were really OUT THERE on their own in a wild country. A lot of people didn’t venture out that way, but every generation of my family (once out of Europe) DID venture out.

I’ve often wondered what propelled them and considered the possibility that there might be a solitude gene and maybe a wanderer gene. Back in grad school, when I HAD to read them, I found I liked James Fenimore Coopers books, collectively The Leatherstocking Tales. In one of them — and I don’t remember which one — Natty Bumpo (protagonist) explains to someone why he keeps moving westward. He said something to the effect that he prepares the way for settlers and all the attributes of human civilization and comfort, but he, himself, feels uncomfortable in civilization and has to move on.

Of course, Huckleberry Finn makes the ultimate statement on that. Saying, at the end of his adventure (this isn’t a perfect quote) “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

I kind of get that. On jaunts out of the San Luis Valley I’ve felt — thought and said aloud! — “Every other place is bullshit. Why am I leaving?” Back in the day when I was only dimly thinking of retiring I thought it would be to a little town in Montana between Billings and Red Lodge — Roberts or Bridger. This is more-or-less what I did but in Colorado, with longer winter days and more sunshine.

There’s the mythos in our culture of the “rugged individual,” and I know a lot of the so-called vigilantes and survivalists of our time see themselves that way, so I’ll stop here. Besides, Bear has just come in from some serious guarding (young woman walking her golden retriever on the sidewalk) and is clinging to my leg. I have to go pick up my groceries. I get my second Covid shot tomorrow and, not knowing how it’s going to affect me, I decided to get chores out of the way just in case. Facebook informed me yesterday that the last time I went into a grocery store was March 17, 2020. On that adventure I procured two pounds of Swiss Gruyere. It’s almost worth venturing in again, but chances of finding it again out here in the back-of-beyond are slim to none. That’s the price of “heading out for the territory,” I guess. 😉

Elsie Dinsmore’s Father’s Nose

Men in 19th century novels were described differently from the way men are described today. Often they had an “aquiline” nose, another one of those words I don’t remember running into anywhere else until this morning on the RagTag Daily Prompt. I remember reading it in Elsie Dinsmore books, 19th century moral lesson novels for girls by Martha Finley. Eight year old Elsie lived in the South, belongs to a wealthy, slave-owning family, and had many, many, many lessons to learn from everyone, but mostly from her strict father, Horace, who, as I recall, had an aquiline nose.

Elsie, though a little girl, is a very devout Christian and this causes a terrible fight between her and her father, but, ultimately, as God works in mysterious ways, after Elsie suffers incredibly, her father comes around and becomes a Christian himself. The books go on through Elsie’s childhood to her life as a grandmother.

I got the first one as a gift from my mom. It was a paperback reprint. She and her sisters had LOVED Elsie Dinsmore in their childhood out there on the high plains of Montana. More interesting than Elsie Dinsmore were my mom’s stories of hiding in the hayloft with an Elsie Dinsmore book.

I have an old copy from 1887. I bought it out of nostalgia. At a certain point when I was a kid, I realized I didn’t like these books not because they are propaganda — children’s books are usually propaganda and, even as a kid, I expected to learn lessons from books — but because there is just something sinister about them. You can judge. In this scene, Lulu, Elsie’s headstrong little daughter, has displeased her father. This is what she gets for it…

Kind of normal for these books. Elsie’s father stopped talking to HER for several months. If I had a little girl, I probably would not have shared Elsie Dinsmore. I wonder what I would have given her to read on those sunny days when she wanted to hide in the equivalent of a Southern California hayloft with a book. I don’t know.

The featured photo is the cover of my Elsie book. It’s embossed pansies, but they are hard to see. Still, the book is 140 years old…

Other Lives and Other Times

I used to come across the word of the day, “moue,” pretty often back when I was reading Victorian fiction. I never looked it up. I guess, even as a kid reading Little Women, I understood its meaning in a general sense. It seemed to happen to the faces of the female characters when they didn’t get their way. In Little Women Amy was alway “pulling a moue” when she didn’t get her way. Of course Beth, the good sister, NEVER “pulled a moue” though she had more to endure than the other three sisters. It was an object lesson in putting a brave face on things. The message came through pretty clearly that it was far more noble (and therefore better) to be like Beth than to be like Amy.

I like Victorian fiction or maybe, more accurately, 19th century fiction. I’m not sure that we’ve ever done better in English than the novels of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. This was also era in which American fiction began to blossom and that, right there, is pretty amazing. Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and a plethora (since I’m writing about literature just like an English teacher) of female (they were called that back in the day) writers whose names have been forgotten but whose books were read more than those by male writers. Whatever the natal genitalia of the writers, the 19th century gave us great stories with three-dimensional characters involving themselves in realistic and complicated situations.

Wow. I remember feeling bereft the day I finished the last of the Thomas Hardy novels from the library at the University of Colorado. At that very time I was working on my senior paper which was about Sarah Josepha Hale and Godey’s Lady’s Book, a project that later evolved into my thesis.

In the process of writing my thesis I learned that when we look at history we don’t see very much. We see less of the iceberg than did the captain and crew of the Titanic.

My first encounter with Mrs. Hale or the 19th century happened when I was a little girl, so little that when I sat on a sofa my legs still stuck out straight in front of me. My dad had acquired a book at the University of Denver library book sale and he brought it home for me. It was A Poet’s Offering one of the coffee table books of the 19th century, a compilation of poetry organized according to topic.

Of course I couldn’t read it, but I could look at the beautiful engravings.

Immediately inside the embossed cardboard cover was an engraving of the woman who’d sponsored the compilation, Sarah Josepha Hale.

I have imagined the book being given as a Christmas gift back in 1850 and sitting on a velvet or lace covered table, thumbed through on rainy days and used as a reference in times when a certain thought, a certain poetic line, could turn around the course of a day. Most of the names in this book would be unfamiliar to people alive today, but they were famous in their time. Women were always “Mrs. Whoever” unless they were unmarried and then, chances are, they wrote under a nom de plume.

I gave the book my dad gave me to a Chinese professor from the University of Chengdu. I have a partial copy here that I scored on Etsy some time ago. He was struggling to compile a poetic lexicon of English and that’s essentially what A Poet’s Offering is. We knew each other in Denver the year after I had returned from China. He was a sweet, intelligent, kind and sincere man who’d been redeemed from the shit he’d endured in the Cultural Revolution and put at the head of an English department, then, miracle of miracles (to him) sent to America to study.