Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Glory Road by Bruce Catton

Is it permissible to scribble brief notes about a book I haven't quite finished yet, but that is overdue at the library? A few things strike me:

I doubt there can ever again be American historians of the Civil War working at the same level as men like Bruce Catton or his Southern counterpart, Shelby Foote. They were both of exactly the right generation to have grown up with boyhood memories of actual veterans' stories, told by old men in small towns at the turn of the twentieth century, and to be able to publish in the 1950s, just when the centennial of the war was coming. I am sure all this permeated their scholarship and it brought still more alive, for them and for us their readers, the regimental histories and enlisted men's diaries from which they drew so much detail. The deer bounding out of the forest just before the battle of Chancellorsville commenced, late on a spring evening; horses, wagons, cannon, and mules trampled and sunk in feet of mud on the pointless winter march to Falmouth.

Fredericksburg: thousands of Union soldiers lined up in the town and marched as ordered across a short rise of ground to the stone wall before Marye's Heights, where they were slaughtered by Confederate artillery and rifle fire. It all happened on a day in mid-December, 1862. It is very strange to see it, in the imagination, as a slowly unfolding tableau, and to think that all these men were "his majesty the Baby of some twenty years back," as Tom Wolfe described the pilots involved in the space program's early disasters in The Right Stuff. Thousands of mothers on that day in 1862 could not see the tableau, could not rush forward from kitchen and laundry and pull their very special baby out of the marching mass. They could only hear about it later.

One of the themes of the book: no matter what advantages a nation may have in war, industrial or financial or what have you, it can still lose if it can't match the enemy's passion. This is why the North came close to losing and why no one at the time could relax and assure himself "the South never really had a chance." Yes, the South did. Their soldiers, in Catton's words, were "men of passion."

The bulk of the book is what I think historians call "order-of-battle analysis." Terrain, logistics, strategy, weather, the building of pontoon bridges and the "unlimbering" of guns. The most dull sort of history to read, for most people including me; and yet, it is what the men went through from one day to the next, and it is why battles were won or lost. Anyway this is Catton's strength, once he gets down to it. The opening chapter, in which he introduces half a dozen characters via their tangled relationships with one another and loads it all up with trivial anecdote, reads like something the editor made him do to appease the reader who doesn't like order-of-battle analysis.    

Finally: extraordinary that American men went into woods and farms and mowed one another down, en masse, with cannon and rifle fire only a hundred and fifty years ago. And Gettysburg is yet to come.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Twelfth Night

Difficult, of course. It will require a second reading even to begin to get the plot straight, even though it is "only" a comedy.

The prime difficulty is that for the bulk of the story, we follow "the lighter people," the non-noble characters, as they play three successive tricks on one another: first a steward, Malvolio, finds a forged letter that deceives him into behaving pompously before the countess Olivia, whom he now thinks is in love with him; then the delightful idiot, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is tricked into provoking a near-duel with Count Orsino's young manservant "Cesario" (who is really the disguised girl, Viola); finally Malvolio is hied off to a dungeon and succored and visited as a madman by the rest of the lighter folk, ostensibly because of the behavior encouraged in him by the forged letter.

All this takes up quite a bit of time, and it all taxes the modern reader's understanding because the non-nobles, not only Andrew and Malvolio but Sir Toby Belch, Maria (she forges the letter), and Feste the clown, speak in language much more obscure than that used by their betters. They speak, I venture to guess, like common people of 1600. Their banter is full of lost references to popular songs and jokes, they are forever joshing each other in that pun-infested, can-you-top-this style that Shakespeare loved (Samuel Johnson complained about his "quibbles"), and naturally they use the slang and idiom of the time, some of it bastardized French, some of it simply vocabulary long disused. A "catch" is a song, "Catay" is China. Decipher this, either on the page or in the theater, and by the way I know people who attended a performance of Twelfth Night just this past weekend.

TOBY: "My lady's a Cataian, we are politicians, Malvolio's a Peg-a-Ramsey, and [sings] 'Three merry men are we.' Am not I consanguineous? Am I not of her blood? Tilly-vally, lady. [sings] 'There dwelt a man in Babylon, lady, lady."  (II, iii, 69-72)

There's plenty more, and why does it always seem that the helpful notes at the bottom of a page of Shakespeare never elucidate what is truly bizarre? Your scholarly editor will assure us that "skill-less" means "without knowledge," but will not explain why Viola wants a beard, but "would not have it grow on my chin" (III, i, 45). Good luck to all.

So oddly enough it is the daunting-looking columns of poetry given to Viola, to the Countess Olivia, to Sebastian and to Duke Orsino which seem to swing aside like doors and, actually comprehensible, open up the movement of the play beyond. As an example of this sheer mental refreshment, here is Viola. She has been sent in her male disguise from her master, Orsino, to woo the mourning and cloistered Olivia by proxy.  "What would you?" Olivia asks, amused and attracted by the beardless "Cesario." Viola answers. She would

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia'! ....

At least we understand this as English, or think we do. It sounds very feeling. But we may yet be deceived. This may not be as dreamy and deeply meaningful a speech as changed modern ears are apt to hear. Explanatory notes at the bottom of the page, useful at long last, tell us that the willow is a symbol of grief for unrequited love, so the image of a shack built of willows at someone's door might have been intended as simply enjoyably silly. The same for "calling upon my soul within the house" -- imagine some lovelorn person wandering around literally saying "Upon my soul," as characters did in plays and books until that oath fell out of use. Because we're not used to glowing language (and who ever gets used to Shakespeare in any case?) we may see profundity, and make extracts, where the great man intended pleasant absurdity. 

While the reader is deciphering the lighter people's three successive barroom tricks, the nobility carries on, behind its swinging doors of poetry, with the love story. Its focus is the entrancing disguised girl, Viola. She has been shipwrecked along with her brother, Sebastian, on the coast of Illyria. Separated by the storm, each thinks the other is drowned. Viola dresses as a man, and takes service with the Duke, Orsino; her chief duty is to pursue his romance with the Countess. Olivia rejects him, but falls in love with the new page, "Cesario." For her part, Cesario falls in love with the duke herself.

It remains only for Sebastian to enter the fray, exactly resembling his sister, to astonish everyone and prompt questions, accusations, and confessions of truth and love, and thus launch the action softly down to its denouement, all the while he eyes Olivia himself. Did Shakespeare mean for us to draw any profound lessons from it all? I doubt it; only the fine expression "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them," thrice repeated, suggests a peg upon which a grand theme might hang. And yet the fine expression comes from Maria's forged letter, so possibly it is all in fun, too.

The introduction to Twelfth Night in my 1960s-era volume of Shakespeare says that this is one of the three "Joyous Comedies," the other two being Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Very well, but four hundred years is a long time for one civilization's definition of a joyous comedy to endure. It's a long time specifically for an upper class, courtly definition of joyous comedy to endure -- the joy of the gentleman's belly laugh at the idea of a steward being persuaded a gentlewoman loves him. The joke on Malvolio is about far more than his yellow stockings. I wonder what went on at the theater this weekend; I wonder how any theater company can make a modern audience understand and relish this play. I'm not such a virtuous and democratic killjoy that I can't laugh at Malvolio, but the entire world that bred him and his mockers (and they included everyone, beginning with his fellow servants) has gone, and how are we to resurrect them, even in make believe? For us pale twenty-first century weaklings, it's far easier to understand Viola and Olivia, arguing like soft-voiced birds over personal identity. "I prithee tell me what thou think'st of me"/"That you do think you are not what you are," etc.

OLIVIA: Love sought is good, but given unsought is better.
VIOLA: By innocence I swear, and by my youth,
I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone. ... (III,i,153-157)

Beautiful. The writer of my '60s era introduction also dwells much on the love story, but I think Shakespeare liked his servants and his Belches better here. And just how do we go about properly appreciating that?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Two ghost stories

What makes a ghost frightening? That it is more alive than we are. 

From The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Brad Leithauser (1994), come these two to start a collection. First is Ann Bridge's marvelous "The Buick Saloon," originally published in 1936. An exotic setting -- the foreign Legation in Peking in the 1930s -- a dumpy little diplomatic wife who hears a disembodied female voice speaking French in the back of her chauffeured car; there is little more to be said, because to say too much more would be to reveal too much and spoil it all. Suffice it that Ann Bridge (pen name of Lady Mary Dolling Sanders O'Malley, English diplomat's wife) is, if not the find of a lifetime, at least the find of a good long time, for any appreciative reader. Just listen:

Below her Peking lay spread out -- a city turned by the trees which grow in every courtyard into the semblance of a green wood, out of which rose the immense golden roofs of the Forbidden City; beyond it, far away, the faint mauve line of the Western Hills hung on the sky. 

And then she turns to overlook the old garden in the house by the Tartar wall, where the French voice had once been happy.

In the same anthology we find "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," by Henry James (1868). Certainly he is a grander writer, one of the evidences of which I think is that unobtrusive, but always present, arch-browed humor which seems the mark of a master. But as a ghost story this one is less effective than Ann Bridge's. If ghosts are frightening because they are more alive than we are, then the ghost of this Romance is neither terribly alive nor terribly frightening.

Here we follow two sisters in colonial Massachusetts as they fight, very quietly, over one well-to-do English suitor. When he picks one of them, the other must make the best of it. Rosalind and Perdita were neither very loving nor very hateful toward one another to begin with, so there is no question of a ruined sisterly love or a further embittered hate. When one of them becomes a ghost, it really is all about the clothes. The creepiest moment of the story occurs when they are both still living and polite. The betrothed sister plumbs the depths of the other's jealousy and quietly says, " 'At least grant me a year. In a year I can have a little boy, or even a little girl ....' "

The ghost story genre is a challenging one. A writer has to get the scope and the pace of the visitation(s) just right, or else the delicate souffle of fear, fantasy, and plausibility collapses. It collapses, I think, even for Ann Bridge in her "The Song in the House," contained in a different anthology -- The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Edward Wagenknecht (1947). It's another beautiful story, but, a whole gardenful of bejeweled Elizabethan ghosts, and all in broad daylight? Alas, no.  

Curiously enough, Ann Bridge's papers, thirty boxes of them, are now at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone gave them as a gift in 1975, the year after her death. It seems rather an abrupt document dump. I hope she doesn't haunt the place.