I FIRST READ Up from Slavery ten years ago and was quickly surprised that it wasn’t required reading for every educator. In his autobiography, Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn. Education is central to his story. He writes, There was never a time in my youth, no matter how dark and discouraging the days might be, when one resolve did not continually remain with me, and that was a determination to secure an education at any cost.
Once the slaves were freed after the Civil War, Washington, his mom, and siblings walked from Franklin County, Virginia, to the salt mines of Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepdad who had found work there. In a rough shanty town of whites and blacks, Washington envied the one young colored boy who read the evening papers aloud to his neighbors. Within a few weeks, Washington taught himself to read the alphabet. Within a few months, the colored people had found their first teacher, a Negro boy from Ohio who was a Civil War veteran. The families all agreed to board him as pay, and he taught children and adults alike. Washington relates, it was a whole race trying to go to school. The oldest Negroes were determined to read the Bible before they died, and every class, even Sunday school, was full of eager learners of every age. Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.
Washington leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn.
Washington’s stepdad found him to be more valuable as a worker and would not release him from his shifts. For months, while he worked at the head of the mine, Washington watched the Negro children walk to and from school. Eventually, he was able to secure lessons at night and eagerly devoured all he could. As time passed and he continued to press his stepfather, Washington finally won. He was allowed to work early, go to day school, work two more hours late afternoon before returning home—all at the age of eleven.
Washington worked as a salt packer, coal miner, and house servant, always attending school in the off hours. By 1872 at the age of sixteen, he traveled for a month to reach Hampton, Virginia, to attend a teacher school for African Americans. He served as the school janitor to support himself and graduated in three years with a certificate to teach in a trade school. The desire to learn was his work ethic. His work ethic was his desire to learn.
As Washington saw his dream to educate others come to fruition, he taught at a local school in Hampton then in a program for Native Americans before agreeing to train Negroes at an agricultural and mechanical school in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute. He writes humbly and fluently of his years there in leadership, even as his national influence grew.
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.
Slave or free, shallow or deep, useless or useful. The distractions of life, the shiny things, are superficial. Yes, we agree. Our country, our people, this humanity, cannot grow until we see past them and move toward seeing each other in every skill or occupation or gifting as God designed us.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway portrays the character of Frederic Henry as a hedonist, a young man who has always been indulged but is trapped by the circumstances of war. He lives each day completing his work and pursuing his pleasures, likely aware that he could be killed at any moment. Henry is surrounded with other characters who act as he does, yet he searches for a greater meaning for his life, almost as if mining for that singular thing of value, hoping for better and fumbling through.
At the beginning of the novel, Hemingway likens Henry to his immoral peers, claiming like Rinaldi that they are “all fire and smoke and nothing inside.” Henry drinks wine with his companions and goes to the whorehouse with the captain. He drinks regularly with his roommate Rinaldi at any time of day and womanizes both at the officer’s whorehouse and in town with the new nurses. Being with women is just a game for him, and he claims that he “did not care what he was getting into.”
Henry is much like Aristotle’s incontinent man who pursues pleasure and does experience momentary regret, but not enough to elicit change. Henry even says to the priest, “we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” Though meager, Henry’s sense of morality, or at the least, his awareness of moral choice, does exist.
A life without faith breeds hopelessness.
Once Henry is wounded though, Hemingway clarifies Henry’s budding perspective. Henry agrees with the priest that the “war disgust” is depressing and acknowledges that he does not know God, only fears Him. So though he admits that God exists and that man is in need, Henry chooses not to rely upon God, but rather upon himself.
Henry’s disposition toward Catherine also changes and matures. Once in the Milan hospital, Henry sees Catherine and knows that he is in love with her. At first in Book I, he had lied to placate her, and she was fully aware of and complicit in his game. But now, it’s as if he accidentally stumbles upon the greater meaning he unconsciously desires—love. Hemingway describes it as being “never lonely and never afraid when we were [are] together.” As Henry recuperates, Catherine continues to visit him, and they spend their nights together. In fact, they live almost exclusive of others and find meaning only in themselves and their relationship. Hemingway’s humanistic view relies solely on their choices, their mutual self-reliance.
What kind of love is this?
At the end of his escape, Henry reasons that all he wants to do in life is “eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” This sentiment, this declaration of need, dominates Henry’s reasoning through the remaining chapters. Henry later states to Count Greffi that the thing he values most is “Someone I love,” and the Count replies that “that is a religious feeling.”
For Henry, being with Catherine is almost transcendental; it becomes his purpose for living, particularly because he deserted the Italian army not only for his survival, but also for hers and the baby’s. In spite of the fact that Henry becomes entirely dependent upon Catherine for his happiness, Hemingway ironically portrays Catherine as a shallow automaton who tirelessly asks Henry how she can please him or make him happy. Even in her final throes of labor she doesn’t want to make trouble. Her character shows no depth, yet Henry remains fervently devoted. Perhaps this obsession is one reason Henry’s path to happiness fails upon Catherine’s death and that of their son.
By Hemingway’s closing commentary, we now know that Frederic Henry is not only a pleasure-seeking humanist, but also a fatalist. Henry blames the world, or vaguely God, for his tragedy: “You never got away with anything.” He’s convinced that the immorality of his nights in Milan led to this negative end. Henry acknowledges what most would term “sin” and attributes these happenings as direct consequences, of reaping what was sown, without a hope of eternity: “You died. You did not know what it was about,” and Catherine too terms her imminent death “a dirty trick.”
This hopelessness is a just denouement for a character who lived a life without faith from the beginning, but the bigger question just might be what Hemingway was illustrating about the generation he lived in.
A man of the theatre . . .
It was a classic when it was first published in 1949, but it remains a classic because it is one-of-a-kind. Marchette Chute’s Life of Shakespeare is absolutely the best biography because of her approach.
Chute essentially crafted the story of Shakespeare’s life from a paper trail, from wherever she could find town records, lease arrangements, tax papers, theatre programs, personal letters, and really anything in print. She creates a holistic picture of the time period in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London while effectively showing the complexity of the London stage.
Chute writes about how Shakespeare’s arrival in London was perfectly timed as the theatres themselves were just blossoming: “William Shakespeare brought great gifts to London, but the city was waiting with gifts of its own to offer him. The root of his genius was his own but it was London that supplied him with favoring weather.”
This is no encyclopedic list of chronologies but the real lives of Shakespeare, James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and others who made up the Chamberlain’s Men. As readers, we learn of Shakespeare’s family, the myriad skills of successful actors, the competitive nature of playwrights and theatre companies, and the dictates and pleasures of theatre-lover Queen Elizabeth and her Master of Revels.
In fact, one of my favorite parts is that Shakespeare apparently was a man of integrity:
. . . he was a relaxed and happy man, almost incapable of taking offense. He did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period, which . . . were particularly numerous in the Elizabethan age, with its delighted talent for invective.” He worked almost twenty years in London without friction or any major offense because he had a “natural good temper and instinctive courtesy.
Perhaps the greatest praise I could give is that Chute is a delight to read. Yes, the sheer number of dates, names, and details could be overwhelming, yet the reader doesn't feel it. With a fluid narrative, Chute has produced a fascinating wealth of research in a most readable form.
*Younger readers will also enjoy her Introduction to Shakespeare and Stories from Shakespeare.
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me.
Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
1. Jane is a character of such growth. I know, I know. Bronte includes much of her own life and experiences in the novel, so maybe Jane isn’t so original after all. It doesn’t matter to me. At age 8, Charlotte Bronte was sent to a horrible school for poor clergymen’s daughters, and her two oldest sisters died of tuberculosis within six months. That was reality, and it also happens to make great drama. How do you survive and continue after that? Well, that’s Jane’s plight and saga to tell, and it absorbs me entirely each time.
2. Jane Eyre is a story of spiritual metamorphosis. From a loveless, relationless childhood where God is wielded as a threat to time spent at a Christian charity orphanage where the gospel of privation and public humiliation are standardized, Jane changes. Her heart may be hardened to Aunt Reed for a time, but through the influence of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, her view of the present and the eternal begins to change. What’s more is that through her budding relationship with Mr. Rochester, Jane’s morality deepens as it is tested. She is tempted to remain at Thornfield as Rochester’s mistress but chooses to flee instead without knowing her future. It’s as if she is reinstated as an orphan. Yet beseeching God first and foremost, Jane sets off and through time and choice is returned to her love, her person, a more righteous character than at her beginning.
3. Gothic drama and mystery are a perfect setting. How I enjoy the mysterious with Gothic flare! From Bronte’s first chapter where Jane is sent to the Red Room in fear of ghosts to the eerie Grace Poole and an insane woman in the attic, Bronte creates a place of doubt where her readers wonder about reality and the supernatural. That dramatic contrast is full-on Gothic style—places and persons of fear contradicting places of light and peace. The practical Jane gets to discover it all and see the truth.
4. Bronte wrote a best seller. It was a success for her, her publisher, and female authors of her time (and ours!). Book critics raved, writing about her “noble purpose,” the story’s freshness, originality, and power. The Liverpool Standard declared, “the writer has evidently studied well the human heart.” Yes, the key characters are dynamic, but then the miraculous happens, so frequently in fact, that I wonder who in the Victorian era could think this story was relatable. Yet it is that improbability that makes the novel likeable. I think of how God rescues us, and I can see why Bronte created a long-lost benevolent uncle with money to spare. Never mind if it isn’t realistic. Our hope surges as we read, and I cheer for Jane because I want the best for her, I want her to love and be loved, and most of all, because Bronte has made her real.
5. A deepening love is one of the hardest to describe because it is active and changing as you read, yet the first infatuation is also real. We are with Rochester in the library as he shares bluntly with Jane. We are with them as they walk the gardens and pause under the great chestnut. The first sign of fascination and love might be shallow, but it must be if that love will ever deepen. What’s more, as the audience, we are more entranced because we know the truth before Jane does. We play the “what if” game with Rochester. Could the wedding actually happen? When it doesn’t, we are crushed for them even though we’re glad the truth is known. Soon after, as Jane prays and hears from God, she must choose a life without love for a time. It’s a desert and a trial. But as she heals physically and emotionally, Jane grows and recognizes her life is empty without the friend who is part of her soul. Yes, St. John offers “love” and companionship of a sort, but her heart knows it would be incomplete. When she hears Rochester’s voice on the moors calling for her, she responds from within, a cry from spirit to spirit. It is then that Jane knows her heart and her readiness to return, to be complete: “Wherever you are is my home” (283). [New York: Penguin Classics, 2006)
reposted from September 2016
I FEEL LIKE I'M ALWAYS READING with plenty more to read, but I don't think I would ever describe myself as a well-read person. I have a feeling I'm not the only one too. I like reading and learning, plain and simple.
So as summer nears its end for me as a teacher, I thought I'd share bits of my summer stack. My stack is incomplete without my Kindle reads, but it's a fair representation. Here are my categories:
FAVORITE LIGHT READS.
SOMEHOW IN KIRA'S DEFORMED STATE, a few of the village leaders saw past her condition and instead saw the covenant gift within her young life. She was fed and given shelter and challenged to complete the mending of the ceremonial robe. The story quickly builds to a climax.
Christ too saw covenant, destiny, in every person. In fact, in some it was so strong when he met them that he renamed them: Simon, fisher of men, you are called Peter. James and John, sons of Zebedee, you shall be called Boanerges, sons of thunder. Zacchaeus wasn’t a despised tax collector to Jesus but a dinner host!
Christ didn’t see any of the sick and diseased and demon-possessed that were brought to him as worthless. He saw them whole before he even performed a miracle. He saw the inside where they were crippled too.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.'
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.'
Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.' --Luke 19:1-10
Zacchaeus caught a glimpse of who he was in Christ’s eyes, and it changed him. No one had to tell him the right thing to do. He no longer saw himself from the outside in, but from the inside out, the way God intended. Zacchaeus came to understand who he was in an entirely different way as does Kira by the end of Gathering Blue.
COMING TO CHRIST IS NO PANACEA, but if C.S. Lewis were to tell us a tale of how pain and doubt were inevitable and unavoidable in a life of belief in God, who would willingly listen? It’s one thing to share personal experience or to preach a lesson, but in fiction, an author and his audience might just be left with a moralizing and probably unlikeable character instead.
Most fiction features at least one appealing character—the one you cheer for, stumble with, return to. Therein lies one of the trickiest elements in Till We Have Faces. Perhaps one of the most exasperating characters of all of Lewis’s novels, Orual is an unlikely blend for a central character. At the beginning of the tale, she is practically an orphaned girl without love or looks, and so we naturally pity her. By the time Psyche is born, it seems that Orual now has a purpose in life. In spite of her abusive father, she can now care for Psyche and be loved in return by Psyche and the Fox. Yet that same thing that brings joy to Orual also brings the most pain, and we begin to dislike Orual as she denies the truth of Psyche’s sincere faith and even the god who revealed himself to her. Orual’s long-term obstinacy and manipulation is offensive to us. We are frustrated by her resistance.
But there are moments of hope. When she ascends the mountain with Bardia, her heart delights in the beauty that surrounds her. In spite of the errand of grief, her heart is responsive. This is not just a sensitivity to nature, but a means by which God can speak to her. As her audience, we too hope that she might know God. Hope might also spur her to pray and ask the gods for their help after her first visit to the Grey Mountain.
Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness.
Yet Orual hears and feels nothing after hours of prayer. When we look at her in those moments, we can see that she is likely manipulating her religion. Orual wants things her own way because she only understands how to do things, to make things happen, in order to get something else. Her prayers are based on herself, not a sincere relationship with God. She selfishly demands an answer, and it must come in the way she chooses. Orual’s wrestling is paralleled in James 1:6-8 (ESV): But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness. With doubt in the way, Orual cannot see or hear the gods.
COWBOYS AND RANCHERS. This might qualify as an unusual topic for me, but sometimes, I reread children’s literature and again am captured by the quality of writing. To truly know me as a reader of all things young, you must know that I read every Louis L’Amour western in my junior high library. I know they aren’t deep books and follow a definite plot pattern, but I loved them. Action, mystery, rescue, the setting sun, the lonely West, a misunderstood man.
In the same vein, Jack Schaefer creates a story that’s even more impactful. From his opening description, Schaefer crafts a deeper character than most for young adult fiction, perhaps because we witness his influence upon an entire family. Shane mysteriously arrives in the Wyoming valley alone on his horse, a character dressed with a “hint of men and manners.” I know, I know. It begins like a cliche. And yes, we soon find out that a few homesteaders are holding out against one greedy rancher. Again, quite predictable, though historically realistic. Yet, here is where the story veers because Schaefer shows us, rather than tells us, who Shane is as he meets and is hired by homesteader Joe Starrett. Shane carries a chill with him yet is careful of his dress. He’s not large yet he’s wiry and powerful. Within the first day of working for Joe, Shane’s presence alone dissuades the local peddler from cheating Joe. Young Bob shares, “You felt without knowing how that each teetering second could bring a burst of indescribable deadliness . . . a strange wildness.” Even with an aloof nature, Shane begins a friendship with Bob, sharing chores and sharing wisdom like “What a man knows isn’t important. It’s what he is that counts.”
But there are moments when the mystery of who Shane is overshadows his behavior. When he shows Bob how to hold and aim a pistol, a fierce moment of memory hits and Shane freezes, his face described as a gash. Bob has to say his name several times to break the hold of the past. Many times Schaefer describes how Bob recognizes there’s more to Shane, yet Bob, and yes the reader, never learn enough. The story unfolds, tensions rise, and the homesteaders must choose to fight the manipulative mob boss of a rancher. More than once, Bob must watch Shane fight to right a wrong. He sees, and we see, “the flowing brute beauty of line and power in action” as Shane overpowers the rancher’s men. By story’s end, we want more. Schaefer has furrowed our curiosity to a point where we love Shane as much as Bob and his family do, yet we all remain caught in the unknown of who he is and who he was.
". . . TO BE IGNORANT OF CHRISTIANITY was to be ignorant of the underpinnings of our own worldview."
Maybe it’s because Klavan credits Wilkie Collins’ and The Woman in White (one of my personal favorites) for spurring him to jump wholeheartedly into the suspense genre or that Hitchcock was his Homer. Maybe it’s because Klavan deems his wife Ellen the first great good thing that happened to him. Simply put, this is no moralizing pulpit-pounder. I’m not sure there is a typical autobiography, but Klavan’s life is no cliche of rags to riches or a Damascus road vision, just the claim of a driven writer of decades.
Klavan begins with the thought of being American, not a Jewish American, Jew-ish. His family’s religion was full of expectations but not faith, “a godless Judaism.” His Long Island school years could have been ideal, but they weren’t. He escaped through his imagination, “to be what I pretended to be,” and suffered the reality of being the middle child, the one his father picked on.
By escapism, reading, the discovery of innate morality, reasoning, the true love of his wife, even the “prison of my own conceit,” Klavan comes to degrees of belief. He acknowledges that religion did matter: “I thought of it as a living myth.” Years pass as he slowly realizes that Jesus came to him through stories, through the stories of his Christian housekeeper, the gospel of Luke, even Crime and Punishment. This element is one of several that bring about his need for Christ. He most winningly describes how “a story records and transmits the experience of being human. It teaches us what it’s like to be who we are.” And that perhaps is what Klavan captures best—the reality of being human and being capable of choosing Jesus.
The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan
ANNALS OF A QUIET NEIGHBORHOOD
“I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.”—C.S. Lewis
I can’t explain it as well as I’d like, but there’s something to George MacDonald’s preachy style. As a teenager, I read voraciously and whipped through a number of his romances such as The Seaboard Parish (1869) and The Fisherman’s Lady (1875). In each story, a prominent character is in need of a rescue, and in a predictable pattern, MacDonald provided a devout Christian who could guide and lead the needy to Christ. Simple conflicts, happy endings, nice and neat. Yet these are only one type of novel he wrote. The fairy and fable of his early years feature deeper and darker thoughts. Consider Phantastes (1858). Here, young Anodos, meaning pathless in Greek, discovers an atypical fairy world, a place of goodness and darkness. The inexperienced Anodos doesn’t always know who to believe among the world of fairies, trees, and creatures, and most alarmingly, he unearths his own shadow, a being that is himself and yet wholly evil. After many adventures by fable’s end, Anodos reawakens in the real world and finds he has been asleep for twenty-one days. This type of fantasy along with his children’s stories and poems is only one small part of his writings. Having been a Congregational minister for a time and a devout Christian, MacDonald can’t seem to keep himself from sermonizing, let alone moralizing, in his stories.
So recently, I picked up a piece of his I hadn’t read before, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1866). Our story begins with the honest and friendly greeting of Harry Walton, a new vicar in a rural parish harmlessly called Marshmallows. The story is replete with stereotypical characters such as the rich old widow manipulating others through her position, the old geezer working the local grain mill, the young working-class couple separated by a gruff father, and so on. What’s unique is MacDonald’s perspective. Young Walton is ever the narrator and describes what he sees: “Why did I not use to see such people about me before?” (99). He recognizes that he is learning to truly see each parishioner as they are, and his ideals are clear. He is driven (or is it inspired?) to make God real to the people in his charge: “a man must be partaker of the Divine nature; that for a man’s work to be done thoroughly, God must come and do it first himself; that to help men, He must be what He is—man in God, God in man—visibly before their eyes, or to the hearing of their ears. So much I saw” (137). Through Walton’s eyes and ears, we see his encounters and hear his sermons. We see his sincere desires and his need to bring people together, even if he must solve the mysteries of people themselves. He is a winning protagonist, even if pedantic at times.
Personally, I enjoyed hearing the voices of the Victorian age, whether the Spenserian carols at the vicar’s Christmas party or the pulpit pounders straight from MacDonald himself. Unlike other MacDonald novels, Scottish brogue and dialect are hugely absent since our narrator is a cultured man. All the easier for his audience to enjoy the style and theology that is MacDonald’s.
It’s available in several volumes now as a reprint or digitized for public use at projectgutenberg.com.