Sunday, May 19, 2024

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!


—Emily Dickinson

Saturday, May 18, 2024

A Clarification on Randomness and Determinism

On some of my posts, I've referred to evolutionary and other processes as random. It is possible that that is correct in a strict sense, but in keeping with my general view of determinism using Robert Sapolsky's model for biological processes, I think that some further explanation is in order. A problem arises because we may not always be able to explain the exact events that cause specific speciation. On a basic Darwinian level of explanation, we can now see how Homo sapiens outcompeted other Homo species. Since we may never know exactly how this was inevitable, and, given the nature of the language that we use to describe biological processes, "random" is probably an acceptable term for describing that evolutionary event. However, if you look at this process through the lens of physics, randomness may apply only to subatomic particles that have no effect on macro biological processes. It is possible that we may never be able to understand exactly why there was never any chance that we would not come into existence.

I think that, because of our cognitive limitations, evolution may always appear directionless, i.e., undetermined. So, going forward, it may be necessary for scientists to discuss evolutionary events with explicit warnings regarding human cognitive limitations in their understanding of complex biological processes over long periods of time. Because of this development, my use of the term "random" may apply primarily to subatomic events. In reference to biological and evolutionary events, "random" may simply mean that we lack the capacity to describe them deterministically. So, when I say "random," that may just mean "we have no way of knowing."

This is a fairly significant distinction. Our languages themselves came about as evolutionary adaptations, so the context for their applicability is somewhat limited and is primarily related to the survival of our ancestors. As I've said, there was no evolutionary advantage to understanding some of the fundamentals of the universe. It is possible that this is one area in which AI may eventually surpass human cognition.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Biographicology

I've been reading biographies for a while now and thought I'd write a little about their inconsistencies. On average, I still think that a good biography is likely to be better than a good memoir, mainly because biographers usually attempt to impose some standard of objectivity on their work, whereas memoirists may tend to distort facts either through a lack of knowledge or intentional deception. To some extent, biographers can become academic specialists who follow disciplined procedures for discussing the details of a person's life. In contrast, a memoirist may set the bar much lower, literally writing off the top of his or her head without resorting to fact-checking or exploring alternate explanations. In my case, I may occasionally prefer a well-written memoir to a poorly written biography, mainly for aesthetic reasons, but generally I think that a biography, if it isn't hagiographic, is more likely to be accurate and complete.

While the bar may be set very low for memoirs, it may also be quite low for biographies. In both cases, the expectations of the publisher can place an upper limit on quality. If a book is a bestseller, readers like me are likely to find it deficient. For example, I don't think I'll ever read a book by or about Prince Harry or Britney Spears. Most of the ones I read aren't popular at all. For example, the one I just read on Carson McCullers, which I thought was good, was nowhere near becoming a bestseller. I should also mention that reviews are often poor indicators of the quality of a book. A review tends to have more to do with the group an author is associated with and the group the reviewer is associated with, and objectivity and thoroughness are often secondary requirements. Also, the time constraints for writing a review often result in inadequate analyses. I saw some awful reviews of Determined, by Robert Sapolsky, which I think were based on out-group rejection of Sapolsky's worldview, though I think Sapolsky is on the right track. Reviews are rarely taken seriously, so the standards are generally quite low for their credibility.

As my biographical reading increases, I am on the lookout for the strengths and weaknesses of the biographer and particularly which biases a biographer may harbor. For example, while I enjoyed Maurice Cranston's biography of Rousseau, because he writes well, I think that he adored Rousseau and refrained from critiquing his behavior adequately. For me, there was an inadequate analysis of Rousseau's social interactions, and I gradually pieced together a better picture by reading separately about Mme. de Warens, Diderot, Thérèse Levasseur, Sophie d'Houdetot and Voltaire. This isn't entirely Cranston's fault, because he was by nature conservative and wrote before psychological characteristics appeared regularly in biographies. I think that biographies have generally become more psychologically nuanced only in the last few years. For example, the standard biography for George Eliot for many years, by Gordon Haight, which was published in 1968, is pretty awful compared to some of the more recent ones.

I am also beginning to notice more subtle prejudices in biographers that aren't always readily apparent. I read Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk, when it was originally published in 1990. It is a favorable portrayal, and because I was a Wittgenstein fan at the time, I liked it. In the intervening years, my opinion of Wittgenstein has generally declined, and, from a biographical perspective, that biography completely misses the boat in terms of psychological analysis. More recently, I read Monk's two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. While I think that Monk generally gave more credit to Russell for his work in mathematical logic than he actually deserved, he was merciless in his revelations about Russell's personal life. It would be difficult to think positively about Russell after reading those books. From what I've read since then, Monk does not appear to be what I would consider neutral on Wittgenstein and Russell. In Monk's account of Wittgenstein, he is an eccentric genius and the greatest philosopher of his century. Russell, on the other hand, is presented as a forerunner to Alan Turing, whose works led to modern computers. It may be that Turing was integral to the development of modern computers, but I don't think that Monk established a convincing connection between Turing and Russell. The feeling I had after reading the Russell biography was that he was really creepy and made no significant intellectual contributions. Separately, I now think that Monk got Wittgenstein wrong, and, because he favored Wittgenstein, that biography is sanitized. After Russell and Wittgenstein broke permanently in the 1920's, Wittgenstein developed a cult following in Cambridge and Russell left academia almost entirely. I have recently been trying to piece together why Wittgenstein became so popular. It would appear that many philosophers, later including Monk, came to dislike "scientism." While Russell had no scientific credentials, he was firmly on the science bandwagon. I now think that Wittgenstein appealed to some students because he was open to mysticism, religion and the arts far more than the analytic philosophers then popular in England and Vienna.

In Monk's biography of Russell, the word "schizophrenia" comes up repeatedly. Monk shows the progression of schizophrenia in five generations of Russell's family. In contrast, I think that the Wittgenstein biography barely scratches the surface on his personality. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wittgenstein was almost definitely on the autism spectrum. He did manage to attract a few followers (also with ASD?), but many people disliked him. Freeman Dyson thought poorly of him, and he frequently alienated people. Wittgenstein's sexuality isn't really cleared up by Monk either. While I don't follow current philosophical discourse, I think that Wittgenstein has probably disappeared into academic obscurity. The same happened to Russell, but, in his case, Monk goes to great trouble to document it. I can't really blame Monk for having prejudices – they are a fact of life – but it is still worth pointing out how they can skew biographical works. It is also worth noting that the Wittgenstein biography was Monk's first – a labor of love – but, by the time he got around to Russell, he was a professional biographer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Are Private Universities Corporate Proxies?

Dating back to the 1960's, I've always had difficulty understanding campus protest. I mean that not in the sense of not understanding the concerns of the protesters, which are usually readily apparent, but in the sense of the logic of campus protest itself. My cognitive dissonance usually occurs more with private colleges and universities than with public ones. In the U.S., public universities are readily funded by state governments, and most of their students are residents of those particular states, so there is a discernible connection between the protestors and the local political process. Since this is supposed to be a democratic country, it makes more sense that protesters would express political views at a government-administered institution than at a private one. Of course, not all protests are political in nature, and I suppose that non-political protests can make sense anywhere.

The strange thing to me is that, for example, if a student at a private university disagrees with U.S. funding of the Israeli military that results in the killing and displacement of thousands of innocent Gaza civilians, there is an established process for addressing that concern: they could contact their congressional representative or senator or protest outside Congress. Their university has little or no connection to the relevant government proceedings, and its students do not necessarily have any say in university policies. Moreover, private universities are not funded by taxpayers, and the processes by which they fund themselves are not necessarily democratic. One might argue that private colleges and universities are "communities" that can build their own consensus through internal discussion or protest, but that view doesn't have legal footing: students are not true stakeholders and ultimately have no authority in how their private college or university is administered.

The situation with the Vietnam War was quite different from the Hamas-Israel War, because the U.S. itself was the aggressor. In that instance, general political objection to the war seemed reasonable. These days, college and university protests often call for the ending of purchase of stocks of the companies that are located in the country of the principal offenders. For example, colleges and universities were discouraged from buying South African stocks during apartheid and, more recently, the stocks of large oil companies that contribute to global warming. Now the protesters are calling for the divestment of Israeli stocks. While, theoretically, that can be construed as a suitable disincentive for Israel to continue the war, I don't consider that methodology appropriate for a couple of reasons. 

First, in the case of private colleges and universities, investment choices are beyond the purview of their students. The students are essentially customers. Their college or university may be around for hundreds of years, and its administrators have to figure out how to fund it well after the current students have departed. The protesting students can be seen as behaving like the customers of a traditional delicatessen who collectively march in and demand that the owners immediately change the menu to include only vegan and gluten-free items. The fact is that the customers don't own the store, and if they dislike the menu, no one is forcing them to buy food there. Also, more subtly, private colleges and universities in the U.S. are actually participating in the capitalist ecosystem of the country. In order to ensure the health of their institution, it is in their interest to produce graduates who go on to become wealthy and leave them bequests in their wills. The small colleges that didn't follow that model are dropping like flies now. I find it hard to take seriously the "values" of most private colleges and universities. Even when there are stated educational goals, their importance is purely symbolic when you consider the actual tasks required to sustain a private college or university over time. Most of them are devoted to the development of future donors purely as a matter of survival. That is why they coddle their alumni. The richer their alumni, the better.

Second, as a personal matter, I dislike the divestment argument because it trivializes the underlying conceptual framework of what is actually occurring. In this instance, I would rather hear a discussion of the errors made by Netanyahu and the long-term consequences of his behavior. The news media are missing in action as usual and aren't advocating a specific actionable plan. The protestors also seem to be sleepwalking through history and are unable to provide a coherent description of the situation. What, exactly, is the explanatory value of the word "hate"? With better journalism and more effective protest, the Gaza conflict might already have ended. Moreover, the current crisis has been brewing for decades, with the underlying problems festering for many years.

One of my corollaries here is that student protestors seem to be in denial of the fact that they and their universities inhabit a corporation-dominated world.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Diary

I did finish reading Burn Book, by Kara Swisher, but I don't think that it merits much discussion. Swisher has covered the tech industry in the U.S. as a journalist since the 1990's, and while the book does contain some autobiographical elements, it primarily describes her career in journalism, and, in particular, her experiences with various tech billionaires over the years. Her assessments seemed relatively accurate to me, given what little I know about them, but this doesn't come across as a profound analysis. For example, she noticed that Mark Zuckerberg has an anxiety disorder, and that he needed the assistance that he got from Sheryl Sandberg, but that was the extent of her commentary. Obviously, Bill Gates is autistic, but she doesn't come out and say it. She liked Steve Jobs mainly because she empathized with his childhood trauma: he had been adopted, and, in her case, her father had died while she was young. She says almost nothing about the way in which Jobs differed from other tech billionaires: he was motivated by aesthetic sensibilities more than technology. For unknown reasons, she never mentions either Steve Wozniak or Paul Allen. Because she worked with Rupert Murdoch, she knows him well and has nothing positive to say about him, as you might expect. She also got to know Elon Musk fairly well, but I didn't find her discussion of him particularly illuminating. What it comes down to is that most of the successful people in the tech industry are highly competitive, ruthless males – the sort of people with whom I wouldn't want to associate. For the most part, she presents herself as a responsible, hard-hitting journalist who also happens to be a lesbian, and who has won respect for her reporting. Obviously, although this is supposed to be a revealing book, neither Swisher nor Simon & Schuster wanted to be sued simultaneously by several billionaires. Without the risk of lawsuits, it could have been much more informative. For what it is, it isn't bad, but you also have to allow for the fact that it was written to be a bestseller – which it is. Swisher is capitalizing on her exposure to the tech billionaires.

On April 19 I visited my old neighborhood again. Dorothy Douglas was outside tending her lawn. She had bruises around her eyes and a bandage over her nose. She said that she fell down in town, hit the sidewalk and broke her nose. Although she still seems energetic, I think she has health problems. She is never talkative, so I didn't stay long. I stopped by the house of Fred and his wife, Darlyn, again. There were more windstorms over the winter, but my new neighborhood wasn't affected much. However, there were extremely high winds in Fred's neighborhood and more wind damage than ever. One of Fred's sheds was blown into the woods. Many trees behind his house were blown over. At my former home next door, the blue spruce in the front yard was blown down, and it looked as if a window had cracked. Fred said that they had roof repairs from wind damage. Along South Munger Street and Quarry Road, several trees were blown over or had their tops blown off. According to Fred, the winds at the nearby airport were over ninety miles per hour.

I am well under way in my preparations for warmer weather. I've created a vegetable bed behind the back porch for tomatoes. The soil looked pretty bad – lots of clay – so I added a layer of gardening soil and compost to the top. I'm having a hard time getting my old tomato seeds to germinate. Usually they come up quickly, but so far I have only one. If at least three more don't come up, I will buy plants from a nursery. A change in seed storage may have caused the problem. My old telescope is set up, and it had an electrical malfunction that now seems to be fixed. The house has several overhangs on the roof that attract birds. There is now a robin nest high up near the top and an eastern phoebe nest above the screen door on the back porch. They could be returning birds, because there was an eastern phoebe nest last year and a robin nest in a shrub next to the house. I'm no longer feeding the birds now, so there aren't as many goldfinches around, but I will be putting up my hummingbird feeder soon. I think I heard one the other day – they can be quite loud. I now regularly feed stale bread pieces to the squirrels, and they seem to like it.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Diary

Spring is here in earnest, and, consequently, I'm going through my annual behavioral changes. The winter was very warm – it barely got down to zero just once – and there was little snow until the very end. I got one foot one day and seven inches a few days later. The new snow blower came with a couple of defects, but overall it is easier to operate than the old one. I've already put it away for the year, and the tractor is ready to go. The yard here is completely different from the one in Middlebury. It was planned and maintained by one person, the woman from whom I bought the property, from 2000 to 2023. It is flat, with well-maintained borders and beds. Since there are more rocks and boulders here than in Middlebury, the perimeter of the yard is a row of rocks, and one large boulder was left in a bed. The flower beds have fruit trees and perennials, which are coming up now. They all have borders and are mulched. Overall, the yard is much easier to maintain than the one in Middlebury, which was not flat and had been haphazardly maintained by various owners since 1800. The owners from 1978 to 1997 had hired a yard service and put in beds, which were not maintained after 1997. When I moved there, the beds and yard were a mess. Here, it only took me a couple of hours to clean up the beds from last year, and the lawn takes half the time to mow as the one in Middlebury. I don't really care about perennials but will at least keep the beds tidy-looking. The previous owner, like many women, was a gardening fanatic. She lived here alone, and apparently that was her main hobby.

I am generally returning to my old routines, which were completely disrupted a year ago. I've planted tomato seeds indoors and will create a small bed for about four plants behind the house. Because the yard was carefully planned, there are no trees near the house, and there is plenty of sunlight, though the temperatures may be a little lower due to the slight elevation increase. I am also planning to create a telescope installation in the yard with my remaining telescope by placing an anchor underneath it to prevent wind damage. The woods surrounding the house limit the field of view somewhat, but overall it isn't much different from the house in Middlebury. The recent eclipse was visible from the yard, but wasn't total.

My hiking activity is curtailed, as it usually is at this time of year. One of the trails that I go on in Pittsford is a wetland along Otter Creek, and it periodically is impassible due to flooding. I still go on trails near Middlebury, such as Belden Falls and the Robert Frost trail in Ripton. The Abbey Pond trail is closed due to storm damage last July. It looks as if there may be more storms this year.

Having now lived in this house for almost a year, it appears that my expenses will be manageable. In Middlebury, I paid $800 per month in rent, which is three times my current property tax. I also paid half the utilities; the utilities here are about half what they were in Middlebury, so there is no change there. Also, though I don't particularly like investing in real estate, the value of the property is going up. So, overall, my financial picture hasn't changed much, other than a decrease in liquid assets.

Predictably, for seasonal reasons, I'm not very excited about reading at the moment, but I will start another book soon. I have no biographies in mind at the moment. Biographies are my favorite reading currently, because they seem to be one of the few ways that one can find out about other people. I think that for most people alive now, they either don't reveal much about themselves or have unremarkable inner lives, or both. The impression I have is that social media tends to trivialize everyone who engages in it. Thus, for example, although I never met Carson McCullers, who qualifies as interesting, I think that my understanding of her is roughly the equivalent of spending about twenty years with someone in real time now.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Housekeeping

On March 20, 2023, I began an involuntary transition in my life, and, since that transition is now complete, I have made some revisions to this blog. Some of my writings since that date were attempts to provide accurate descriptions of what had transpired. I also felt that an explanation was needed for why I suddenly moved from Middlebury to Brandon, because I had made several Middlebury-related posts and generally enjoyed living there. I felt that the behavior of the person who precipitated this sequence of events was so reprehensible that I couldn't simply ignore it. However, the purpose of this blog has never been retribution. Since I am no longer in any contact with that person or any of her friends or relatives, the episode is now over. Therefore, I have deleted several posts and edited a few others. If any of my readers still have an interest in this topic, I would be glad to discuss it privately, but, henceforth, it will no longer be a subject on the blog. I will continue to discuss, from time to time, psychiatric issues, because they are still of great interest to me. But they will no longer be personalized, as they were in the recent past.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: IV

I've finished this book, and did actually find it quite interesting. Ordinarily, I have difficulty relating to the thinking process of those who engage in the arts and am more comfortable with "serious" thinkers, however you define that. Possibly, because McCullers was not that distant from me in time and spent much of her life in Nyack, New York, not that far from where I lived, during the last ten years of her life, I have more socio-cultural connection with her than I do with most writers. I'll just sum up the remainder of the book and make a few comments. 

Bébé had recovered and moved back to Nyack, but died in June, 1955, when McCullers was thirty-eight. At that time, McCullers was working on a stage adaptation of The Square Root of Wonderful with Arnold Saint-Subber, who was gay. They developed a very close relationship, but he eventually moved off the project. That story is autobiographical and contains elements of both McCullers and Reeves, but is was a flop as a play on Broadway in 1957. McCullers' health was poor, and she came under the psychiatric care of Mary Mercer, who lived in Nyack, in 1958, when she was working on the novel Clock Without Hands. By this time, McCullers was becoming a regular at hospitals, and she finally received a medical explanation of her condition. It was thought that a strep throat infection during her childhood had led to rheumatic heart fever, which in turn had caused her strokes. There was no evidence that the strokes had caused brain damage. However, she was partially paralyzed on her left side and received corrective surgery. 

Mary Mercer initially did a Freudian analysis of McCullers, but it doesn't seem to have produced any insights. Nevertheless, McCullers chose to keep records of her psychotherapy sessions for possible future use. Mercer became a very close friend and, as an M.D., gradually took charge of her other medical needs. Since McCullers was becoming more physically disabled, she also became more dependent on her African-American housekeeper, Ida Reeder, who had earlier worked for her mother.

In 1959, Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa, one of McCullers' favorite books, visited the U.S. McCullers had an opportunity to meet her and discovered that Dinesen had specifically wanted to meet her, E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe. She had already met Cummings and McCullers, and Hemingway wasn't available at the time. Since McCullers was acquainted with Monroe, she arranged a lunch at the Nyack house with Dinesen and Monroe, which went well.

In 1961, McCullers finished her first novel since 1946, Clock Without Hands, which became a bestseller and generally received positive reviews. In 1962 and 1963, she worked with Edward Albee on a stage adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café. In 1962, she resumed contact with Mary Tucker, her childhood piano teacher. She was invited to the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the U.K. to speak at a symposium on "Sex in Literature" and flew there in September. In 1966, she met John Huston, who was working on the film adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye. They hit it off very well, and he invited her to his estate in Ireland. She flew there, on a stretcher, in April, 1967, with Ida to assist her.

At this stage, McCullers was almost a complete invalid. She had undergone several surgeries, including a radical mastectomy, and was scheduled for a leg amputation. After she returned home, she had a massive stroke on her right side on August 15 and died on September 29 at the age of fifty. 

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a happy story, but, actually, McCullers was very happy most of the time. She was quite strong-willed and often got what she wanted. While she could become a major drain on people, she was able to develop a few of the close, intense relationships that she craved. There were elements of selfishness in this, but this particular biography doesn't emphasize that fact. Possibly, her early dynamics with Bébé set the stage for the rest of her life. She was a first child who remained in the limelight, and her siblings could never compete with her. Furthermore, Bébé may have projected her own aspirations onto her, influencing her decision to pursue a life in the arts. She never developed close relationships with her siblings, and there were elements of manipulation throughout her adult life. One of her closest friends, Tennessee Williams, went to great lengths assisting her but remained cautious, because he knew that she could be a bottomless pit of neediness. It seems that her primary desire as an adult may have been to develop a close relationship with an older female – like Bébé – and be bathed in uncritical love. Ironically, men seem to have been more cooperative than women. Reeves and Tennessee supported her more than all of the women except Mary Mercer, who helped her partly in her role as a doctor when she was an invalid. McCullers usually made a good first impression, but many seem to have been able to sense her intense neediness. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal made catty jokes about her behind her back. 

Some of the negatives about McCullers' life don't seem to be her fault. If strep throat as a child led to her illnesses as an adult, she can't be blamed for that. However, a case could be made that she took little responsibility for her health as an adult. The effects of smoking and drinking were not well understood in those days, but generally she seems to have done whatever she preferred regardless. It probably would have been difficult for her to break out of that lifestyle, because her family had a long history of alcoholism. She also would have been better off if she had never developed a relationship with Reeves. Despite his charm, he seems to have been psychologically problematic. He was confused about his sexuality, drank too much and took drugs. He was never able to make viable career decisions and stick with them. Possibly he suffered from PTSD. Not much information is provided about his family background, but it is probably not a coincidence that both of his brothers and his sister also committed suicide. I feel some sympathy for Reeves, because, in certain respects, he was McCullers' principal psychological support during much of her life, and she does not obviously seem to have reciprocated or felt any responsibility for his early demise.

Overall, I found McCullers to be intelligent and creative, and that her life was quite dramatic. Given her background, I think that she was relatively knowledgeable about literature and classical music. She also had fairly good taste, with some qualifications. Where I find her disappointing is that she didn't seem to have much interest in increasing her understanding of the world. For example, when she traveled to Europe she didn't explore the local cultures. Often she would just stay in a hotel room or with literary acquaintances. I don't know if she ever went to a museum. She seemed to focus almost exclusively on vocational activities and making new friends. So I'm ending up with a slightly disappointed, Sapolskyesque feeling: stuff happens.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life: III

After her 1947 strokes, McCullers increasingly required assistance from others to go about her daily life. She was partially paralyzed on her left side and needed a cane to walk. Thereafter, she was unable to do much physical work and needed someone to help her bathe. She, Reeves and her sister, Rita, all recognized that they had an alcohol problem, and Reeves and Rita joined AA. McCullers didn't join and pretended to decrease her alcohol intake but actually didn't. When in Nyack, her mother generally took care of her. Reeves got another job and an apartment in Greenwich Village, with a walk-up that was too demanding for her. She continued to develop crushes on women and became interested in Jane Bowles, the wife of Paul Bowles, the better-known of the two.

In 1949, McCullers, with encouragement from Tennessee, participated in a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding, which became a Broadway hit in 1950. She also became pregnant in 1949 and had a medical abortion. The success of her play and the publication of The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories boosted her literary reputation and income. She became attracted to Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, who was a few years older than her. Their writings had nothing in common, but she knew that Bowen had affairs with women. When she visited Bowen in Ireland later in 1950, nothing came of it, and she left for Paris, where she met Reeves. Bowen did have affairs with women but apparently was not attracted to McCullers. I was surprised to learn that later she probably had an affair with Eudora Welty, who was not generally known to engage in such things.

In Paris, McCullers and Reeves drank too much and decided to get more involved with AA. Later in 1950, McCullers met Marty Mann, who had been instrumental in the formation of AA. She was also a lesbian and had a brief affair with McCullers. McCullers at this point was circulating in the highest literary circles and met the English poet, Edith Sitwell, at a party at Tennessee's apartment on East 58th Street in New York City.

In 1951, though Reeves was still drinking too much, he and McCullers traveled to London. Tennessee thought that McCullers needed psychiatric help and found her a psychoanalyst, Kathryn Cohen. Just to show the kind of people that McCullers associated with, here is Dearborn's description of Cohen:

Kathryn was an elegant woman with an interesting past, just the sort who drew Carson. Born in New York City in 1905, before the age of forty she was a successful actress and a performer with the Ziegfeld Follies. She married Dennis Cohen in the late 1930's, and when war broke out, she enrolled at Cambridge to study medicine, graduating with a degree in genetics. Regardless, she became a psychoanalyst with St. George's Hospital, an eminent teaching hospital then located in Hyde Park. She often had affairs with women. The writer Patricia Highsmith was most recently her lover, and Cresset Press [operated by her husband] went on to become the British publisher of Highsmith's psychological thrillers.

Cohen and McCullers did bond. McCullers became a patient at St. George's Hospital, and later was moved to a home in Sussex. But by the end of October, 1951, McCullers abandoned her treatment and moved to the Ritz Hotel in London. Her treatment was a failure according to Cohen. McCullers returned to Nyack.

In January, 1952, McCullers and Reeves sailed to Italy. In May, they drove to Paris. They ended up buying a house in Bachivillers, a small town an hour away. They liked the house, and McCullers loved gardening – especially growing tomatoes. However, she returned briefly to the U.S. because Bébé had had an accident. At that point, McCullers owned the Nyack house and Bébé moved back to Georgia. Shortly after this, McCullers was offered the job of working on a screenplay for a film directed by Vittorio De Sica and produced by David O. Selznick in Rome. She returned to Rome and worked on the screenplay, but Selznick didn't like it and she was fired.

The Diary of Anne Frank was published in the U.S. in 1950, and in 1952 McCullers was approached with an opportunity to write a stage adaptation. She met Anne's father, Otto Frank, in France, and they hit it off well. However, because of her slow work and other factors beyond her control, the play was eventually given to someone else. At her house in Bachivillers, her relationship with Reeves grew worse. He spent most of the time away in Paris. One day early in 1953, he took her out to a cherry tree in their orchard and proposed that they hang themselves together with the ropes that he had provided. She wasn't interested. In July, he proposed a double suicide again, and she immediately flew back to the U.S. by herself, without packing. On November 18, Reeves committed suicide in Paris, with an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. At that time, McCullers was living in Nyack, and she expressed little reaction to Reeves's death. She spent time with friends in Charleston, South Carolina and then resumed her Yaddo routine.

On my next post I'll wrap up my commentary on this book. It is not pleasant to read, but I do think that it is quite informative. Besides the tragic aspects of McCullers' life, I am finding the discussion of the sexuality of McCullers and her friends surprising. It seems that within the literary milieu of the time, homosexuality was quite common. In the past, I had heard about the men – Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, etc. – but little or nothing about the women. Even today, if you look up Eudora Welty, who has been dead for years, on Wikipedia, there is no reference to that aspect of her relationship with Elizabeth Bowen. Possibly this difference between men and women was that the women felt that they had to hide their behavior in order to avoid damaging their careers. This is why I prefer reading biographies to Wikipedia entries. Many of the descriptions of people that you read in Wikipedia articles are not much better than cleaned-up résumés written by the person discussed. Another question that arises for me is the nature of female sexuality. Obviously McCullers and many of the women in her life had a fluid sense of their sexuality. Terms such as "LGBTQ" may address some of the ambiguity, but, judging from the past, many people were able to get along fine without them. To use McCullers as an example, she may have been "LBQ." How useful is that information?

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life II

McCullers had a poor health history while growing up, and this continued for the remainder of her life. Generally, she had lung problems, and it seems that she had rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease. In 1941, while visiting her family in Columbus, she apparently had a stroke. At that time, Reflections in a Golden Eye was published, and reviewers generally didn't like it much. She recovered and returned to New York, where she met David Diamond, a composer, and took to him immediately. However, Diamond was gay and was actually attracted to Reeves; apparently Diamond and Reeves slept together one night. Shortly after this, McCullers began to attend the Yaddo artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. Reeves was working elsewhere and began cashing checks addressed to McCullers without telling her. This went on for quite a while and eventually caused her to divorce him. At Yaddo, McCullers socialized wildly and decided that she loved Katherine Anne Porter. Unfortunately, Porter was homophobic and completely rejected her, preferring to spend her time with Eudora Welty, who was also there. After this, she traveled to Columbus to write. In 1942 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and decided to return to Yaddo. In December, she learned that Annemarie Schwarzenbach had died in Switzerland following a bicycle accident, and, predictably, this was extremely upsetting to her. In January, 1943, she moved back to the Brooklyn house. In June, she returned to Yaddo. The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in Harper's Bazaar in August. Reeves joined the Army again and became a lieutenant, serving in Europe; via letters, he attempted to win her back.

On August 1, McCullers' father, Lamar, Sr., who had been in poor health – probably due to alcoholism – died, presumably by suicide. He was fifty-five. At this point, Bébé decided to move closer to McCullers and her other daughter, Rita, who had become an editor at Mademoiselle. In time, she bought a Victorian house in Nyack, New York, north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River. Nyack was a slightly trendy location for various people in the arts then. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Reeves returned, injured, from Europe. He attempted to start a new career, and he and McCullers decided to remarry. They lived part-time in the Nyack house. In January, 1946, The Member of the Wedding was published in Harper's Bazaar. It received poor reviews, most notable from Edmund Wilson, the leading literary critic at the time, in the New Yorker. This was devastating to McCullers, and she didn't publish another novel for fifteen years. She made friends with fellow Southerners Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and vacationed with Tennessee and his boyfriend on Nantucket. In November, 1946, McCullers and Reeves went on an extended trip to France.

In France, they lived luxuriously, and they also traveled to Rome. They had many connections, and McCullers' books were already popular in France. Their social conduct was appalling on some occasions. Besides both of them drinking excessively, Reeves had sex with a daughter of one of their friends. He was also thought to be taking drugs. McCullers had her second stroke in the summer of 1947. Later, she had a kidney infection and a third stroke. They flew back to the U.S. on November 30, and McCullers received medical treatment.

To a reader of this book, McCullers' life following the publication of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter seems to be a disaster-in-progress. In just seven years, she became dissolute, and Reeves was even worse. At this point, I'm not sure how much of this is the result of their psychiatric conditions, how much of it is the result of their inexperience and lack of preparation, and how much of it is the result of a complex literary environment during and after World War II. I think that this was a difficult period for people in the arts to navigate, though others, such as Tennessee Williams, seem to have managed well. It all goes downhill from here for McCullers, but I still like the Southern elements of her fiction, because, even with their limitations, there is a genuine interpersonal warmth between characters that doesn't generally occur elsewhere in American fiction. That was a long time ago, and warmth between characters now seems to be a thing of the past.

I should have two more posts on this book.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Carson McCullers: A Life I

I've started this new biography by Mary V. Dearborn. On the whole, Carson McCullers is not an ideal subject for me, because I'm not terribly excited to read more of her works. However, I do think that she was one of the best American writers of fiction, and if her health had been better and she had lived more than just fifty years, she may have produced more good fiction. For me, this book is turning out to be a further study in the history of American literary fiction. Her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940, when she was twenty-three. That year, she moved to Greenwich Village, and, therefore, McCullers' life intersects with other people I've discussed. Around that time, Carl and Alice Zuckmayer were fleeing Europe with the commencement of World War II, and then, after the war, people like Anatole Broyard and Denise Levertov moved to Greenwich Village. As of 1940, several European literary people were already in New York City. McCullers' life is also an early example of young people descending on New York City in order to become writers, and some of the same patterns are still in place. So far, I am finding Dearborn's writing to be quite good, because she specifically addresses the psychological questions that occur to me, unlike most of the biographers I've been reading.

McCullers, née Lula Carson Smith, was born into a middle-class family in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Her father was a jeweler, and she had a younger brother and sister. Her mother, who went by the name Bébé, had an interest in the arts, and although their income was modest, her house in some ways resembled a salon. The family also habitually engaged in drinking, which later became one of McCullers' habits. Bébé identified artistic talent in McCullers, who dropped her first name at an early age, and encouraged her to play music. While she was growing up, McCullers generally dressed like a male, though, as far as I've read, she does not seem to have had transgender feelings and was more likely a lesbian. Her behavior during her youth seems to have been primarily asexual. She did turn out to be quite musically talented and considered becoming a composer or a concert pianist. For four years, she received high-quality lessons from Mary Tucker, an extremely proficient teacher who was the wife of an officer at nearby Fort Benning. They attended a Rachmaninoff concert while he was touring in Georgia, and there was talk of McCullers going to the Julliard School on a full scholarship. Then, suddenly, Tucker's husband was transferred to Maryland. McCullers, who had been extremely close to Mary, felt betrayed and began saying that she wanted to be a writer, not a pianist. There is some speculation about the nature of McCullers and Mary's relationship.

While she was growing up, McCullers was an average student and took no interest in the local schools. After she finished high school at the age of seventeen in 1934, she made several solo trips to New York City, and she enrolled in creating writing classes at Columbia, and, later, at New York University. On one of her returns home, she met, through a mutual friend, James Reeves McCullers, Jr., called "Reeves," who was four years older than her and a soldier stationed at Fort Benning. He was a charming and intelligent person who was also interested in the arts, and they developed a strong relationship based on their discussions, though physical attraction did not occur immediately. They married in 1937, when she was twenty and he had been discharged from the army. They moved a few times with Reeves's jobs, and when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published, they moved to Greenwich Village.

The novel was an instant hit, and McCullers immediately drew the attention of the American literary community. George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar took an interest in her and soon put her in touch with Erika and Klaus Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. W.H. Auden and Erika Mann were gay, and they had married in order to permit her to escape Germany. Through Erika, McCullers met Annemarie Schwarzenbach, the daughter of a wealthy Swiss businessman, who was a lesbian and dressed like a man. McCullers was instantly smitten with her. That year, both McCullers and Eudora Welty were invited to Bread Loaf, at Middlebury College, and Welty disliked McCullers, perhaps because of her drinking habits. They were also in competition with each other as Southern writers. McCullers met W.H. Auden there. After Bread Loaf, Davis organized a project in which several writers would live together in a rental house in Brooklyn. Before long, McCullers was living there with Davis, Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten and Richard Wright. They lived in separate rooms but ate communally and paid rent. The idea was that they could do their work there, and Reeves was generally left out, staying in the Greenwich Village apartment.

As far as I've read, McCullers has had an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with Schwarzenbach, who then attempts suicide; the latter has psychiatric issues, along with a morphine addiction, and she is hospitalized. As Schwarzenbach points out to McCullers, she is not sophisticated enough to be part of her group. She is nearly ten years older than McCullers, and their backgrounds are completely different. I agree with this assessment, and so does Dearborn. I am not looking forward to the remainder of the book, because it already reminds me of Katherine Mansfield, who was about twenty-nine years older than McCullers and went through a similar experience when she moved to London and attempted to become a writer. For all of Bébé's motherly intentions, she could not have known what McCullers would get into with her artistic encouragement.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Diary

I'm getting off to a very slow start for reading this March and hope to pick up my pace a little. I have a new biography of Carson McCullers and will also be getting a new book on the tech industry by Kara Swisher. I'm not sure how much I'll like the McCullers biography. I enjoyed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter but haven't read anything else my her. The biography, so far, is better-written than the Thoreau biography that I recently discussed. I had given up on American fiction but did try several other female writers, including Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. McCullers, I think, was somewhat more interesting than this group. I heard Kara Swisher in a radio interview today, and she recounted how tech CEOs behaved submissively around Donald Trump. This confirms what I've thought for some time: they're great at being tech billionaires, but not necessarily at lots of other things. In my view, they are little different from previous generations of ultra-rich people and primarily like being rich. Once they become rich, they instinctively become risk-averse and focus on maintaining or increasing their personal wealth. From their point of view, they have little to gain by speaking out against Trump, for several reasons. A Trump presidency is a guarantee of government chaos, and for large corporations that means that regulations won't become more cumbersome and corporate taxes will remain low. It also means that income taxes for wealthy people will remain relatively low, and there won't be a wealth tax. In certain respects, they are spineless and cowardly, because, even though they know that Trump is a stupid, potentially dangerous buffoon, they think it's not their responsibility to deal with him. They are well aware that they already have billions of dollars, and they can spend that on gigantic luxury Armageddon bunkers and yachts in competition with each other. In some of their minds, space colonization is a great idea: life on earth may already be in a death spiral, so why waste money on it? The point is that, like all humans, the range of their skills is limited. In their little capitalist bubble, they have always been "the smartest guy in the room," and they would like to keep things that way. No doubt, their feeble mammalian brains would be exposed for what they were if they attempted to move out of their comfort zone.

Last night, for a change of pace, I attended a concert of Voces8, an English a cappella group, at Middlebury College. Their performance was definitely world-class, but their repertoire included a few crowd-pleasers that didn't appeal to me. I liked their Monteverdi madrigals, and their rendition of the classic Miserere Mei, Deus, by Gregorio Allegri, was excellent. Also relevant to me, some years ago I learned that just seeing and hearing English people has a calming effect on me. Although I've now lived in the U.S. for sixty-seven years, my brain is still English and thinks that I'm surrounded by heathens. The concert was sold out, and most of the audience consisted of sixty-year-old-plus Middlebury faculty. I've come to find their chatter a little tiresome after twelve years here. Another irritant for me is always the acoustics in Robison Hall. After having been to Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia a few times, Robison Hall sounds no better than a high school gymnasium. The sound is always muddy no matter where you sit.

I am gradually de-Middleburying myself, because I increasingly feel a reduced connection to the town. I've dropped my subscription to the Addison County Independent and have subscribed to the Brandon Reporter. Brandon is in Rutland County, and I now spend nearly all of my time here. Although I may check in occasionally on my former Middlebury neighbors, to some extent I no longer want to spend much time there. Addison County is much wealthier per capita than Rutland County, largely because of the college, and I generally find that wealthy people are boring and like to show off. I'm not sure how much I have in common with the people in Brandon, but they don't seem to get on my nerves as much.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

This biography of Edward O. Wilson, by Richard Rhodes, was published in 2021, just before Wilson died at the age of ninety-two. I was reluctant to read it initially, because it is short and was probably timed to coincide with Wilson's death. The book itself does supply an adequate account of Wilson's life and sums up his work reasonably well. However, since I have already read seven of Wilson's books, this one didn't add much to my knowledge. Because Wilson was one of the most significant biologists to follow Charles Darwin, I think that a more complete biography may appear within the next few decades.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Neither of his parents attended college, but his father had reasonably good jobs as an auditor of rural electrification programs and as an accountant. His assignments required periodic moves. One of the major shortcomings of this book is that Wilson grew up in what I think was a highly dysfunctional household, and this fact isn't specifically examined. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was seven. That year, he had an accident in which his fishing bait struck his right eye and damaged it. The wound wasn't treated properly at the time, and he later became blind in that eye. This was significant, because he was already spending time outdoors observing small objects such as ants.

From an early age, Wilson was exceptionally industrious. After his parents divorced, he stayed with his father, who remarried. His mother moved away and also remarried. He became an Eagle Scout. Because of his father's moves, he attended several different schools, and he skipped a year. His birth parents supplied financial support for college, though they were not wealthy. At the University of Alabama, he completed both bachelor's and master's degrees in four years and then went to graduate school. Eventually he transferred to Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D. At Harvard, the atmosphere was highly competitive, but he received a teaching position there and stayed for the remainder of his career. One of his colleagues was James Watson, author of The Double Helix and co-discoverer of DNA, who was dismissive of field biologists like Wilson. Wilson was initially somewhat dismissive of genetics, which he called "reductionist." However, he became more interested in genetics when William Hamilton published his theory of kin selection. 

Wilson's research interests changed over time, which you can see in the titles of his main books: The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; On Human Nature; The Ants; The Diversity of Life; Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge; The Social Conquest of Earth; and Half-Earth

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, became extremely controversial in 1975, when it was published. It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which prompted a group called the Sociobiology Study Group to submit a letter of protest titled "Against Sociobiology." That group included two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. They were ideologically Marxists and became a model for later politically-correct groups that automatically reject theories that present deterministic models for human behavior, which they immediately link to racism and eugenics. In 1978, at a symposium, when Wilson was about to speak, protesters interrupted, and one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head. Wilson was not psychologically prepared to be the victim of protests such as this, and he disliked this period in his career. I think that Wilson did tend to favor deterministic models, which, after all, is what scientists generally do, and, coming from the South, may have internalized some racial stereotypes, but the protest against him was unfair, because he certainly had no racist agenda and was shocked by this treatment. This was probably a cautionary lesson to later biologists who chose to adopt deterministic models – Robert Sapolsky, for instance – and may explain some of the obliqueness of their writings. In my view, the New York Review of Books permanently tarnished its intellectual reputation by publishing a purely ideological criticism of Wilson that made life difficult for him for several years, even when his ideas were clearly more tenable than those presented by his critics.

Wilson later had run-ins with Richard Dawkins, after Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins, following the arguments of William Hamilton, advocated a position in which evolution is driven by the multiplication of genes rather than organisms or species. From his work on ants and his observations of humans, Wilson advocated eusociality as a driving force in evolution. It is not entirely clear who won this argument – they may both be wrong – but eusociality is not currently seen as a suitable explanation for evolution in general. First of all, there are very few eusocial species, and one would expect far more of them if that were a driving force. However, it is clear that the eusocial characteristics of ants permitted them to become dominant species. Similarly, it is clear that human cooperation permitted humans to survive when all of the other Homo species perished. Also, humans are the only primates that are flourishing now. I think that the "grand theory" model in science has become obsolete. To a certain extent, it is the result of pointless competition among scientists: everone wants to be the next Darwin or the next Einstein. I think that recent scientific findings indicate that, while the physical world may behave according to a set of rules, those rules, if they exist, are probably too complex for human understanding. Every language that we use, including mathematics, exists as a product of human evolution, and is ultimately not suited to answering fundamental questions about the nature of reality. Language is best suited to activities such as exchanging information, finding food, escaping enemies, building bridges and engaging in cooperation. In order to survive as a species, you don't have to understand the universe. Furthermore, even if we wanted to, recent findings indicate that humans are not fundamentally rational.

The main thing that I think is missing from this book is a meaningful discussion of Wilson's personal life. His father served in World War I, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was forty-eight. This sounded familiar to me, because my father served in World War II, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was fifty. This behavior is now routinely referred to as PTSD, yet Rhodes has nothing to say about it. Near the end of the book, he recounts interviews that Wilson had with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Wilson said that he enjoyed being alone very much, and, more tellingly I think, said:

I want to feel that I'm in control, that I cannot be driven out of it, that I cannot be stopped, that I will be well regarded for being in it, and that entails control, and control means ambition. It means constantly extending one's reach, renewing, extending, innovating.

I don't have enough information to say this with much certainty, but it seems possible that Wilson's unstable childhood caused him to compulsively seek control for the rest of his life.  Rhodes says almost nothing about Wilson's adult personal life. It sounds as if Wilson did not pursue women at all until he arrived at Harvard. Once there, he seems to have dated only one woman, Irene Kelley, who did not have a college degree and worked in the Harvard admissions office. They married in 1955. She did not have any children, and they adopted a daughter, Catherine, about whom Rhodes says almost nothing. Irene died shortly before Wilson in 2021. So, to a certain extent, this book is opaque regarding Wilson's inner life.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Diary

I've started reading a biography of E.O. Wilson, who died in 2021. It is short, and I'll probably comment on it on my next post. But it is far from my ideal biography, because it only touches on his personal life and devotes a lot of space to academic rivalries. Those are generally trivial, but in this case I occasionally had some awareness of them when they occurred, and I generally rooted for him, because his outlook was always similar to mine. Not long before he died, he said, in a video, "Oh, to be eighty again!"  As time passes, it becomes more and more difficult for me to find a book that I actually want to read. I long ago reached a point where I felt forced to continue on books that I didn't like much. But some of the biographies that I did read turned out to be better than I expected once I got into them. For example, even though I found certain aspects of Bertrand Russell's life repugnant, the two volumes provided an interesting account of life for educated English people spanning from the late Victorian period up to 1970. Russell overlapped with Bloomsbury, D.H. Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Beatrice Webb, Katherine Mansfield and Albert Einstein, so you can build up a vivid picture of complex social environments. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau was linked to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the extent that he embodied romanticism, while he also had scientific interests similar to those of Alfred Russel Wallace, G.H. Lewes and Charles Darwin. Thoreau's acquaintance with Ralph Waldo Emerson connected him to George Eliot. 

The weather here became warm for a while, and what little snow there was melted. It has become colder again and there is snow on the ground. I read that the circulation of the Gulf Stream is changing, and it is possible that the Northeast and Northern Europe could become colder at some point. The sea level may also rise on the East Coast. I wouldn't mind if it got colder here. Unfortunately, there would still be global warming, which would probably affect the Southern Hemisphere more than the Northern Hemisphere. I have been going on hikes mainly for exercise and am not enjoying the scenery as much at this time of year. My computer screen is in a window facing the bird feeder, so I keep track of the birds. It took the longest time for the goldfinches to build up their numbers. Their strategy seems to be to come at the same time, which protects individuals from predators (safety in numbers). They also behave aggressively toward other species. The juncos originally fed at the feeder, but now they usually stay on the ground. I am still keeping my eye out for other wildlife. There are also rabbits here, which I didn't mention. The other night I saw a large bobcat walking past the house. Of course, I also have birds that don't feed at the feeder: bluebirds, blue jays, robins, crows, red-tailed hawks and barred owls. And other species are probably not visible because they are back in the woods.

At night I usually try to watch part of a movie. I haven't found much recently, but occasionally there is something good that I come across on The Criterion Channel. I seem to be becoming further and further removed from the contemporary U.S. For the most part, I don't care about what younger people like. When I had Facebook and Twitter accounts, I cancelled them almost immediately. I have no interest in Instagram or Tik Tok. Someone recently tried to get me to join Nextdoor: I didn't. I don't mind the fact that the average age in Vermont is one of the highest, because I have difficulty relating to Millennials and Gen Z. Online I read The Guardian and 3 Quarks Daily, which I think appeal to older people (Yes, even S. Abbas Raza is getting old!).

I haven't recently been doing any stargazing or genealogical research, and my main hobby is currently this blog. As blogs go, it still isn't very popular. That doesn't bother me, because its purpose isn't to change the world or acquire income. From looking at the data available to me, a typical "reader" clicks a link somewhere and then spends a few seconds here. When I have several posts on a book that I'm reading, they usually only look at one. And the majority of them have no interest in discussion. For example, "The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed" has now been viewed 4,330 times, and no one has made a comment. It seems that this is currently the default behavior of people who routinely browse on the internet. At the moment, for unknown reasons, that post is popular in the Philippines!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

What I Dislike About the United States

I take my car to Burlington once a year for service, and this year, while I was up there, I was reminded of one of the things that has always made me feel un-American. During the pandemic, the showroom had almost no cars, and the parking lot was practically empty. This year, the showroom was completely filled with SUVs, and the parking lot was also full, mainly with SUVs. After my family moved to the U.S. in 1957, my father usually bought large American cars. One of the first ones was an enormous Chevrolet, but then he bought the first Mini Cooper, which was called the Austin Cooper S. I drove it a couple of times before I got my driver's license. Later, he bought an enormous Ford Galaxie.  The Mini Cooper was sort of imprinted on me, and I've always bought small cars since. The main thing that I like about them is that they are fun to drive. My current car is a Volkswagen GTI Autobahn, and it is by far the best-handling and fastest car that I've ever driven. I love it, even though VW is not the most reliable brand. 

When I moved to the Midwest in 1973 after college, I had a cheap, used Fiat 124 station wagon, which fit everything that I needed to take, but was not sporty and eventually rusted out. None of my cars since then have been American, though one was a Ford that had been built in Germany. At that time, most of the American-made cars were still large. There were token small cars such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega, but they were poorly made and never popular. That was the period during which Japanese car manufacturers began to cut deeply into U.S. market share. On the roads, there were still mainly large American sedans and station wagons. Cadillacs and Lincolns were still popular, but some of the luxury European models also gained market share. In the 1980's, the minivan became very popular, but that has gradually lost market share to SUVs and is no longer in much demand. What I've noticed is that Americans have never liked small cars, and it was only during periods of gasoline shortages or very high gasoline prices that Americans as a group bought many of them. Today, with the availability of hybrid SUVs and various electric models, there is very little demand in the U.S. for small cars.

The reason why I have described this is that I think that it is a basic example of how the American psyche works. There is no meaningful civic education here, and people generally resent government interventions that limit their options. Corporations here are also less regulated than they are in many European countries, and they directly or indirectly keep things that way by spending money to influence election outcomes. Then, through advertising, they are expert at influencing consumer choices. Since Americans, on average, are not very discriminating, they are putty in the hands of corporate marketers. While this has been apparent for at least eighty years, it is actually getting worse now, because the internet is the most intrusive corporate tool that has ever been invented. Although it can be seen as a helpful consumer tool, besides the advantage that it provides to corporations, it is also a tool for enemy states and criminals. For example, a few people have become quite wealthy by taking advantage of the "stolen election" meme. 

Here is a fairly simplified way of expressing the above, which is easy to understand:
1. Corporations inhibit government intervention.
2. Corporations establish standards of normalcy that influence consumer purchase decisions.
The ubiquitous presence of certain products, such as SUVs and pickup trucks, also places pressures on consumers who prefer not to deviate from social norms. For example, if all of your neighbors have an SUV or a pickup truck, or both, why don't you? 
3. Over a long period of time, consumer preferences tend to comply with corporate marketing goals.

Besides the above points, Americans seem to have adopted a passive attitude vis-à-vis their responsibilities as members of American and world societies. Levels of apathy toward climate change and foreign wars remain relatively high, which is significant when you consider the long-term consequences for everyone. Of particular note, climate change denial has been led by the oil industry. 

Generally, I am used to American consumerism, though I still dislike it. But I am always interested in ideas, and, because of the conformity among Americans, I find little opportunity to express them here. Some of the people I've discussed on this blog also disliked the mindless conformity that characterizes the U.S. Czeslaw Milosz moved back to Poland as soon as he could; he was here for the benefit of his family and would have preferred to live in Paris. D.H. Lawrence specifically criticized the competitive economic mindset of Americans. Bertrand Russell needed the money that he earned from lecturing here but stopped coming as soon as he could afford not to. In more recent years, many European intellectuals have moved here for the money (academics don't get paid much). The one time that I spoke to Tony Judt, the historian, who had moved from England, he said that he had been wary regarding where to live in the country, and he had dismissed most of the U.S. To him, the U.S. was mainly anti-intellectual. He ended up at New York University.

In addition to the above, I must mention that even more sinister levels of perversity are emerging now in American society. Rather than rehashing previous statements that I've made, I'll just say that a well-known, established criminal with no moral compass and no competence in governing is currently the strongest candidate in the 2024 presidential race. Ironically, this man, an ostensible populist, is actually the tool of less-conspicuous corporate interests. It's all about money.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Diary

I am more or less caught up on everything that needed to be done regarding the house. The upstairs toilet didn't flush properly, and I replaced it myself. The new toilet works very well and even dislodged a clog in the drainage pipe, making the floor shake. We haven't had much snow, but the new snow blower works very well. The well filtration system for the house hadn't been touched in twenty-three years, and I had it replaced. The water was too acidic, a bit hard and contained iron oxide, and it's better now. 

It took a while for the birds to find the feeder. The numbers have gradually risen since the first snow. I now have about the same distribution of species as in Middlebury: goldfinches, chickadees, tufted titmice, juncos, nuthatches, cardinals, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers. There are mourning doves in the neighborhood, but they haven't found it yet. Since this a heavily-wooded area, there seem to be more woodpeckers. And there are lots of squirrels. Another difference is that ruffed grouse walk around the yard. I've also seen deer and a fox. The coyotes occasionally have a good group howl at night.

There are advantages to living in the woods. As I mentioned, it's cooler during the summer. The trees also reduce the wind: the wind chimes are quieter. The house isn't as buffeted as much by the wind and is less dusty inside. Also, the roof is much lower and less likely to be damaged by high winds. On the negative side, a forest fire could destroy the house. However, current climate models indicate that this area will be wetter in the future. There was a lot of flooding in Vermont last summer, but it didn't adversely affect this neighborhood. Even if there were a very bad storm, I could always walk to town.

Since it's sunny again and there isn't much snow on the ground, I went for a walk in Pittsford yesterday. I'm not getting as much exercise as earlier. This is the deceptive time of year for Vermont weather: it looks as if spring is about to arrive, and then it gets much colder and snows some more. It doesn't really warm up until May.

My social life hasn't improved much, and nothing is happening on the dating front at the moment. I think that there are plenty of suitable women out there, but most of them are nowhere near here, and I'm not desperate enough to move. Even if I wanted to move, I've spent over $500,000 in cash over the last two years and would prefer to stay put and increase my financial assets. And then new relationships are always problematic. I noticed in the poem in my last post that the young woman who wrote it is more interested in happiness than in loyalty. That is a fairly common sentiment among the women I've known. And experiencing that from the male side again is not something that I'm enthusiastic about. Starting with biological differences, men and women follow different models, of which they are not necessarily aware. When you add differences in socialization, such as ethnicity, places lived, age group and social class, the total differences can be enormous. In my experience, I was the only one interested in sorting out these kinds of things, and the relationships eventually failed: the women had no curiosity about these matters, even though they were quite relevant to their adult identities. I think that there have always been anti-male narratives among women and anti-female narratives among men, and they're both getting worse. It is becoming easier to imagine a future in which people have android companions calibrated for compatibility. Furthermore, technological advancements could render traditional human reproduction obsolete. It is possible that, if men become unnecessary for human reproduction, the two sexes will cease interaction. Also, as I've mentioned before, the members of advanced civilizations may simply choose not to reproduce. On a more positive note, I think that it is still fairly easy to pair up with someone of the opposite sex. It's just a little more complicated after people have had substantial life experiences.

This is about all that I have to say at the moment. I may start reading a short book soon. And, unfortunately, I'm still paying attention to the 2024 presidential election. To me, it looks as if Trump is on the way out. His unpleasant personality is conspicuous in his trials, more Republicans are criticizing him, and people are generally getting tired of him. Even if he continues to run and wins the nomination, Biden is more likely to win, unless he is incapacitated by a medical emergency such as a heart attack. It also helps Biden that the economy is recovering and could be strong by November.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Marriage

Of alluvial fields I dreamt.
The idea of marriage:
the great barrier reef with
coral bleached and dying.
Evidence of resilience,
they say, absent a catastrophic
event. Whatever it takes, I've
decided, I don't want
my maternal line to die in me.
I wear my mother's dress.
I watch my body shapeshift.
This face, which hasn't aged
in years, is sunspotted.
I am no movie star. I shrink
from my mother's beauty.
She was, above all else,
good. Her lupus her reward.
Or maybe I am her reward.
I know I'll never be grateful
enough. Between this man
and this man, my eggs are
losing count. Inside your domicile,
how am I to feel alive?
Once again, we face extinction.
The libraries not on fire, but
under dust. I don't believe
in loyalty above happiness.
I dive and dive under
the turbulence. One day, too,
my bones will empty. White blood
cells will mutiny. Do you run
headlong down the hill
into disaster? In the park,
a swarm of gnats insists
on clustering. Insects
claim the interior. The flies
touching my face, again,
again, again, and again.


—Cathy Linh Che

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life V

Thoreau's desire to meet and become well-acquainted with a Native American was fulfilled when he hired Joseph Polis as a guide for an 1857 trip in Maine. He was mainly impressed by Polis's ability to travel effortlessly in the wilds, and he subsequently wrote a portrait of him. That year also included the beginning of an economic depression, referred to as the Panic of 1857, which lasted for several years, and the Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court, which denied citizenship to all blacks. Thoreau also met John Brown and later became highly politicized at the time of Brown's execution following Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, which was then part of Virginia. In 1859, Thoreau's father died, and he became the head of the family. The same year, Thoreau was appointed to the Harvard Committee for Examination in Natural History, which was led by Asa Gray, a prominent botanist; this was perhaps Thoreau's only scientific position; they conducted examinations of Harvard botany students.

Because of Asa Gray's friendship with Charles Darwin, he received an early copy of On the Origin of Species in 1860. He shared it with his friends, and Thoreau became one of the first Americans to read it. They had animated discussions about it at Harvard, and, of course, Louis Agassiz completely rejected it, because he thought that "all natural species were separately created by God, unchanged through eternity." That year, Thoreau also delivered a lecture titled "The Succession of Forest Trees." This was published in newspapers by Horace Greeley and became the most popular publication by Thoreau in his lifetime. In May, 1861, Thoreau went on a trip to Minnesota and returned via Canada. In Minnesota he met Native Americans. After he arrived back in Concord in July, his tuberculosis worsened, and he died on May 6, 1862 at the age of forty-four.

My lack of enthusiasm for this book continued right up to the end. One aspect of this, as I mentioned, is Walls's writing style. Although she has the appropriate academic credentials, she projects a Thoreau-fan-club aura that tends to result in an absence of critical appraisal. That can work to a certain extent, because Thoreau doesn't really fit the model of a major thinker, and, describing him the way that she does, it becomes clear that he was informed by the environment in which he lived, which can alternatively be seen as the subject of the book. So, even if Thoreau wasn't that great, you get a highly detailed picture of the culture in Concord during the mid-1800's. Unfortunately, I'm not a cultural historian.

As for Thoreau himself, I don't currently find him particularly interesting. That is because I am not impressed by his ideas. I think that is partly his fault, because he spread himself too thin. He delved haphazardly into so many subjects that failure was almost guaranteed. His interest in Native Americans could theoretically have been developed into an early anthropological study, but it wasn't. His interest in the regional effects of farming on local ecosystems could have been developed into land management science, but it wasn't. I also think that his political writings tend to be naïve and uninformed. Then, although he delved into Buddhism and Hinduism, he did not seem to make a real departure from New England Puritanism, because Transcendentalism seems merely to be a variant of that. I think that Thoreau's scattershot way of choosing subjects was the result of his family background and the time and place in which he lived. He had no model in his household for choosing a career and pursuing it with a college education. Furthermore, Harvard at the time was nothing like a modern research university and was similar to Oxford and Cambridge, which were also still functioning like theological seminaries. Charles Darwin himself could easily have ended up as a clergyman, because he did not distinguish himself academically at Cambridge. So, although Thoreau seems to have been talented, he lacked a career plan and ended up spreading himself too thin. As a writer, he didn't have a practical strategy for developing a wide readership. In other respects, he held many of the prejudices of his time; for example, he thought that women were stupid: technically, he was a sexist. Then, as a writer, I don't particularly like his style, which seems archaic to me. Overall, I think that Thoreau fits best within the context of later developments such as the civil disobedience protest strategy and the interest in nature-friendly lifestyles, but I don't think that he provided any definitive writings on those or other subjects. It is possible that, had he remained in good health for another twenty years, he may have produced something more closely resembling a magnum opus than Walden.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life IV

I am not finding this book very rewarding but am plugging away and will finish up on my next post. The atmosphere in Concord changed when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. This federal law required citizens in Massachusetts and elsewhere to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves to their owners, and the Thoreaus became more active in helping with the transportation of escaped slaves to Canada. Walls believes that the law was a precipitating factor behind the Civil War, which began in 1861.

Thoreau continued to make various trips, on which he took notes and often later produced essays for publication. His book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers didn't sell well, and many copies were returned to him. This left him with a large debt, since he had paid for the printing himself. He was also prepared to write and publish about his trips to Cape Cod and Canada. He spent a lot of time fine-tuning Walden, and it was published in 1854. At that point, he went on a lecture tour. There was more interest in Walden than in his previous book, but it was not a great publishing success during his lifetime. In May, 1855, he was slowed down by tuberculosis symptoms, but recovered somewhat.

On a daily basis, Thoreau liked to walk around and observe plants and animals and note changes from one season to the next. Over the years, he had various male friends who walked with him occasionally. Walls is drawing from Thoreau's journals, which don't seem to contain much information on what, if anything, they discussed. So, to the reader, these seem like minor, anecdotal passages. At times it sounds almost like "Provisions were getting low in the house, and Henry's mother asked him to go to the butcher and purchase some bacon." However, Thoreau was on the fringes of major intellectual life and the publishing industry, and through Emerson and Harvard, he got to know Louis Agassiz, the biologist and geologist, Horace Greeley, the publisher, and Walt Whitman, the poet. As I mentioned earlier, Agassiz was one of the last major scientists to remain a creationist. Greeley encouraged Thoreau to write short pieces in order to establish his reputation, but he never did. And, though Thoreau found Whitman to be a little crazy, he liked some of his poems.

Through his eclectic interests, Thoreau read The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's first book. This reminded me of Alfred Russel Wallace, who was five years younger than Thoreau and read some of the same books as him. Wallace is probably a better comparison than G.H. Lewes, because Lewes started out in the literary world and switched to science, whereas Wallace did not go through a literary period, and, reading the same books as Thoreau, he actually went on specimen-collecting trips in the Amazon and the Malay Peninsula. Wallace is also similar to Thoreau in that they both did surveying. What strikes me is that Thoreau did not have as much of a scientific curiosity as Wallace, who theoretically could have beaten Darwin to the press on natural selection.

Facts such as these help me compare Thoreau's intellectual environment to that of Lewes, Wallace and Darwin. Although, at that time, scientific standards were still generally low everywhere, London was an intellectual center that included many scientists, whereas, in the U.S., most of the science was associated with commerce and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, English and German romanticism had generally peaked, perhaps with remnants in England such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement. Thomas Malthus, an early influence on Darwin, began publishing in 1798, and there was no American equivalent. To a modern reader like me, Thoreau and Emerson seem to be riding out the last days of romanticism, still singing paeans to Nature after Europe had moved on. The continued American interest in religion also contrasts with Europe, which was already becoming secular by then. Thoreau and his contemporaries were wrestling with the moral implications of slavery well after it had been abolished in the U.K. I think that this may help explain why Thoreau didn't become very popular in the U.S. until the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960's and 1970's revived some of the issues that he had written about earlier. It took a long time for the hippies to come along and take note of Thoreau's ideas, which weren't that popular while he was alive.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life III

The famous incident in which Thoreau was arrested for not paying his poll tax occurred in 1846. This was not a planned act of civil disobedience at the time, and he was briefly sent to jail. Later that year, he took a long trip to see Mt. Katahdin in Maine. By then, he was constantly writing notes on his daily experiences. In late 1847, he permanently moved out of the Walden cabin and stayed at Emerson's house, helping Emerson's wife, Lidian, while Emerson was away on an extended trip to Europe. Although he had a draft of Walden, he wanted to publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which documented a trip that he had taken with John before his death. Since no one was interested in publishing it, he had it printed at his own expense. At this point, Thoreau became a lecturer, and there were wildly varying reactions to his lectures. Some people found them laughable, while others liked them. When Emerson returned home from Europe in 1848, Thoreau moved out permanently and lived with his family again. The pencil business had ups and downs, and Thoreau also worked as a surveyor and a civil engineer. He continued to read widely, and was taken by Charles Lyell's work on geology. He also enthusiastically read Alexander von Humboldt, who influenced many of the naturalists at the time. It seems that a small rift developed between Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau had a broad knowledge by then and was probably one of the first Americans who became familiar with Buddhism. Although Walls has not explored this angle so far, I think that Buddhism probably didn't sit well with Emerson, because his goal had been to make Thoreau an acolyte of Transcendentalism. As Thoreau developed his own ideas, they probably diverged from what Emerson had in mind. Also, it seems unlikely that Emerson took much interest in natural history.

Because of Thoreau's intense journal-keeping and Walls's dutiful reporting on it, the book continues to proceed very slowly. It doesn't help that Thoreau usually walked everywhere to save money and was constantly noting what he saw in his journal. As a thinker, Thoreau seems to have been very detail-oriented, like an engineer, but he was not a big thinker in the sense that he only concerned himself with his immediate environment. He showed no interest in astronomy. Although the name "Rousseau" does not come up in this book, Thoreau seems to have internalized the idea of the "noble savage." He seemed to want to encounter one in an idealized wilderness, but usually only came across a drunken Indian once in a while. In this vein, he also wanted to commune with nature. He was definitely a person of his time, and you can safely compare him to G.H. Lewes, who was also born in 1817. Lewes started out with drama and fiction but gradually worked his way to natural science. However, Lewes spent most of his adult life in London in intellectual circles, whereas Thoreau lived on the outskirts of Boston. Thus, Thoreau was subject to New England's obsessions with religious ideas, while Lewes was not. Interestingly, George Eliot, who was two years younger than Thoreau, was quite religious while growing up. She actually met Emerson while he was on the trip mentioned above, and was impressed by him while she was still living at home with her father. Later, in London, where Lewes encouraged her to adopt a more scientific outlook, she wrote a glowing review of Walden.

Walls dutifully speculates on Thoreau's sexuality but does not arrive at a clear answer. Although he sent poems to Ellen Sewell and proposed to her, he seemed to have been more interested in men generally. It seems possible that his physical characteristics, low social status and social awkwardness may have set him on a path that did not lead to romance. He was short, with small shoulders, and generally did not make a good impression when people met him. To many, including Emerson, he was a bit of a hick. He had none of the polish that one would expect from a Harvard graduate, then or now.

All this fuss about religion in New England reminds me of my first exposure to it when my family moved to the U.S. Coming from England in 1957, we had never heard of religious fanaticism before, and though, technically, we were Episcopalian, no one in the family was particularly religious. Thus, my take on religion while I was growing up wasn't very American. The house where we first lived was within walking distance of Split Rock, and I went there before I95 was built. Split Rock is a large boulder with a split in the middle and has been linked to the scalping of Anne Hutchinson and several of her children by the Siwanoy Indians in 1643. Hutchinson, who grew up in England, had been banished from Massachusetts by the Puritans because of her religious beliefs, and possibly, in modern terms, because of sexism. One of our neighbors, a girl in my class, was actually a descendant of Anne Hutchinson. So I started out with an image that was almost the opposite of the "noble savage," and the beliefs of people like Anne Hutchinson remained a mystery to me. To this day, the mythologized American past that was popular during Thoreau's lifetime has never influenced me much. Thoreau, I think, had an early sense of the losses caused by economic progress and the destruction of the environment, and he seems to have instinctively disliked the bourgeois life, though that concept didn't exist then. In some ways, he presaged Rachel Carson and modern environmentalists. However, he was also subject to American folklore, which, at the time, presented a naïve image of Native Americans. While Cormac McCarthy is excessive at the opposite extreme, the U.S. does in fact have a violent and unsavory past.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life II

This biography is quite dense in detail and is moving along very slowly. There was a certain brotherly rivalry between John and Henry, and John was generally better-liked, because of his outgoing nature. Walls does finally acknowledge that Henry was an introvert. The rivalry culminated in both of them proposing marriage to the same woman, Ellen Sewell, and both being rejected. Her father was a Unitarian minister who disapproved of Transcendentalists. Though Henry and John's school was initially a success, after John became ill, Henry couldn't manage it by himself, and the school closed in 1841. At that point, Emerson offered Thoreau the opportunity to move in with his family and do odd jobs while also participating in literary activities. Emerson had recently started the literary publication, the Dial, and Thoreau was one of its first contributors. It didn't exactly take off in popularity, but it provided a focus for the literary community in Concord growing around Emerson. It must be said that Emerson played a major role in Thoreau's life, because he made Concord a literary center and drew in people whom Thoreau otherwise may never have met. He also had literary connections in England and elsewhere in the U.S. Moreover, he took a personal interest in Thoreau's literary development and helped him on numerous occasions. Through Emerson, Thoreau came to know Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. Thoreau also spent time in New York City while working as a tutor for Emerson's brother's son on Staten Island. He made the literary rounds while there and even made the acquaintance of Henry James, Sr. Emerson had advised James, Sr. that "once he got past Thoreau's 'village pedantry & tediousness of facts,' he would find 'a profound mind and a person of true magnanimity.'" At the time, Henry James, Jr., the author, was a baby. However, Thoreau was unable to establish any suitable literary footholds in New York, and, disliking the crowds, he soon returned to Concord.

In 1842, John accidentally cut himself while sharpening a razor. He contracted tetanus and died within a few days. Somehow, Henry developed lockjaw symptoms, but they subsided. Soon after, the Emersons also had a disaster when their son, Waldo, Jr. died of scarlet fever. Thoreau's health never seems to have been good, and he later developed narcolepsy. Walls thinks that the narcolepsy may have been a symptom of latent tuberculosis. It is important to keep in mind the primitive state of medicine when reading about earlier generations. But then, future generations may be saying the same thing about us in 180 years. Walls also mentions an enormous blunder that Thoreau made in April, 1844. He was out camping with a friend under very dry conditions and accidentally started a wildfire, which consumed many acres and did about $2000 worth of damage, which was a fortune in those days. To be fair, wildfires were common at that time.

By the mid-1840's, the character of Concord had changed considerably. A train line came through, rendering Concord a suburb of Boston. There was also a large influx of Irish immigrants, some of whom lived in shacks in Concord. In 1845, Thoreau reached an agreement with Emerson that he would build a writer's cabin on Emerson's property near Walden Pond, and he began constructing it himself. Thoreau was quite handy and still worked as a day laborer in order to generate some income. The cabin, as described so far, sounds very basic and would not be considered a habitable dwelling today.

To indicate how slowly this book is moving, though I'm now 200 pages into it, Thoreau is just 27, hasn't married or held a steady job, and is just starting out at Walden Pond. I can understand why this was important to him, because it was the first time in his life that he could truly be alone, i.e., not inhabit a house that was continuously occupied by others. I don't think of writing as a job or a career, but think that in order to write well, you do need silence and minimal distraction. So I sympathize with Thoreau, and his goal was probably not much different from Virginia Woolf's in A Room of One's Own.

Even so, at this point, I am building up a certain cognitive dissonance regarding Thoreau's self-presentation and the way that he is seen by later generations. One aspect of this, of which many people are cognizant, is that Walden was hardly a remote cabin in the woods. In the neighborhood were the train line, farmers, Irish settlers and emancipated slaves, though some shacks were abandoned by then. Emerson's and Thoreau's families lived nearby, and Thoreau's social life was not affected. Another aspect is the portrayal of Thoreau as a major thinker. It seems to me that, although Thoreau does to some extent represent an original voice, it can also be argued that most of his ideas were derivative of the particular milieu in which he lived. I am reserving judgment on these and other matters, and for now I'll just mention one area of concern. I think that some of Thoreau's ideas can be considered precursors to modern right-wing politics. A "small government" may have worked adequately in 1845, but in 2024 the U.S. population is about 20 times larger. Moreover, the government services available to Americans have skyrocketed. Thoreau is also well known for his support of civil disobedience, which was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In an ideal world, that may not be a bad idea, but, with modern political developments, acts similar to civil disobedience are now being undertaken by far-right groups, which seem to prefer dictatorships to democracies. If you remove the violence from right-wing protest, it is not much different from civil disobedience.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Henry David Thoreau: A Life I

This book, by Laura Dassow Walls, seems to be considered the best biography of Thoreau, and I'm giving it a try. I've already read biographies of the people who interest me the most, and Thoreau is near the top of my second-tier list. I read Walden; or, Life in the Woods a long time ago and barely remember it. For someone who went to college in 1968 in the U.S., it was de rigeur, though I didn't get around to reading it until later. At that time, I identified with Thoreau's interest in nature and his support of individualism, but not particularly with his political ideas or his implicit Transcendentalism. Looking back, the sit-ins that students had during the 1960's still seem a little ridiculous to me, particularly those led by upper-middle-class white baby boomers at expensive liberal arts colleges. And then I've never had any interest in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was Thoreau's mentor. I liked Thoreau's scientific bent, but now find that he has been surpassed by others, such as E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, in both writing style and scientific knowledge. This isn't necessarily Thoreau's fault, because he was eight years younger than Charles Darwin and died less than three years after On the Origin of Species was published.

I am starting to consider myself a New Englander now, because I like Vermont and have lived here for twelve years. I like the Puritan work ethic and practicality of Vermonters, but not necessarily the characteristics of all New Englanders. Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Boston, and there are a couple of things that I dislike about Boston. Unfortunately, the Tea Party message from there has gradually evolved from a statement against oppression by the British to a statement in support of unfettered greed, which may soon permit an unscrupulous liar to become the first dictator in American history. The other thing, which I think that Thoreau noticed, was that Boston was probably one of the first American cities to develop a smug, self-satisfied middle class. Bertrand Russell couldn't stand it when he visited there. As Ray Monk says, "From the very beginning Russell was contemptuous of America in general, and Boston in particular, and especially so of the pompous Bostonian dignitaries by whom he was fêted." Likewise, after Thoreau had spent time in Boston, he could never wait to return to Concord.

One of my interests in reading this book is to get a broader view of New England culture from the early to mid-1800's. The Industrial Revolution was occurring then, and society was in a state of flux. I looked at this a little for Middlebury, where the area never really industrialized, and many people simply moved west. The populations in the coastal regions grew much larger, and a smaller percentage of the people moved away.

Thoreau was born into a modest Concord family on July 12, 1817. His father, a descendant of French Huguenots, had artistic sensibilities, and his mother was an early advocate of social justice. The anti-slavery movement was taking off in New England while Thoreau was growing up. Eventually, Thoreau's father, John, started a pencil business. Most of the pencils had been made in England, and there were few American sources. In those days, a pencil was far more necessary than it is today. Thoreau was more studious than his older brother, John, and eventually went to Harvard. At that time, there were seventy or fewer students each year, and most of the curriculum was antiquated, consisting mainly of Latin and Greek. Fortunately for Thoreau, he was good at languages, and he started out well, but his standing fell by the time he graduated. He also learned other languages and mathematics. He graduated in 1837 and returned to Concord. Initially, he got a job as a teacher but quit almost immediately, it is suggested, because he disliked the corporal punishment that was required. For a time, he stayed with his family and helped with the pencil business. He also developed a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was seventeen years older and lived in Concord. As far as I've read, he and his brother, John, have started their own progressive grammar school in Concord.

Walls, the author of this book, so far seems to be doing a competent job. Maybe because it actually reflects the cultural environment in Concord at the time, the book has a slightly folksy feel to it, almost verging on the treacly at times. This stands out to me, because none of the European biographies that I've read showed any sign of that. I also have my usual complaint about the lack of psychological nuance. Much of Thoreau's behavior seems to be driven by introversion, but Walls has had nothing to say about that. I will continue posting on the book until I finish it.