Category Archives: literature

Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.


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Filed under Europe, Iran, language, literature, migration, North America, philosophy, publishing, religion, scholarship

Reassessing Ferdinand and Isabella’s Legacy

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2181-2234:

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was called by Prescott ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals’ of Spain. Generations of Spaniards, contrasting their own times with those of the Catholic Kings, would look back upon them as the golden age of Castile. The conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, and the triumphant emergence of Spain on to the European political stage lent unparalleled lustre to the new State created by the Union of the Crowns, and set the seal of success on the political, religious, and economic reforms of the royal couple.

Against the conventional picture of a glorious spring-time under Ferdinand and Isabella, too soon to be turned to winter by the folly of their successors, there must, however, be set some of the less happy features of their reign. They had united two Crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples. They had destroyed the political power of the great nobility, but left its economic and social influence untouched. They had reorganized the Castilian economy, but at the price of reinforcing the system of latifundios and the predominance of grazing over tillage. They had introduced into Castile certain Aragonese economic institutions, monopolistic in spirit, while failing to bring the Castilian and Aragonese economies any closer together. They had restored order in Castile, but in the process had overthrown the fragile barriers that stood in the way of absolutism. They had reformed the Church, but set up the Inquisition. And they had expelled one of the most dynamic and resourceful sections of the community – the Jews. All this must darken a picture that is often painted excessively bright.

Yet nothing can alter the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain; that in their reign it acquired both an international existence and – under the impulse given by the creative exuberance of the Castilians and the organizing capacity of the Aragonese – the beginnings of a corporate identity. Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy an institutional form. The Castilians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new State forward; and it was this dynamism which gave the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella its distinguishing character. The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.

The Court was the natural center of Castile’s cultural life; and since Spain still had no fixed capital it was a Court on the move, bringing new ideas and influences from one town to another as it travelled round the country. Since Isabella enjoyed a European reputation for her patronage of learning, she was able to attract to the Court distinguished foreign scholars like the Milanese Pietro Martire, the director of the palace school. Frequented by foreign scholars and by Spaniards who had returned from studying in Italy, the Court thus became an outpost of the new humanism, which was now beginning to establish itself in Spain.

One of the devotees of the new learning was Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), who returned home from Italy in 1473 – the year in which printing was introduced into Spain. Nebrija, who held the post of historiographer royal, was a grammarian and lexicographer, and an editor of classical texts in the best humanist tradition. But his interests, like those of many humanists, extended also to the vernacular, and he published in 1492 a Castilian grammar – the first grammar to be compiled of a modern European language. ‘What is it for?’ asked Isabella when it was presented to her. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the Bishop of Avila on Nebrija’s behalf, ‘language is the perfect instrument of empire.’

The Bishop’s reply was prophetic. One of the secrets of Castilian domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century was to be found in the triumph of its language and culture over that of other parts of the peninsula and empire. The cultural and linguistic success of the Castilians was no doubt facilitated by the decline of Catalan culture in the sixteenth century, as it was also facilitated by the advantageous position of Castilian as the language of Court and bureaucracy. But, in the last analysis, Castile’s cultural predominance derived from the innate vitality of its literature and language at the end of the fifteenth century. The language of the greatest work produced in the Castile of the Catholic Kings, the Celestina of the converso Fernando de Rojas, is at once vigorous, flexible, and authoritative: a language that was indeed ‘the perfect instrument of empire’.

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Filed under economics, education, language, literature, migration, religion, scholarship, Spain

Late Demise of Classical Chinese in Vietnam

From A Story of Vietnam, by Truong Buu Lam (Outskirts, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2744-2761:

The cultural changes of the period under study [1900-1925] are dominated by one phenomenon: the replacement of classical Chinese by quoc ngu [国語 national language] as the official national writing system of Vietnam. The French, already from the beginning of their administration of Vietnam, had encouraged the use of that script to replace the Chinese characters. In their view, that was the most effective way to wean the Vietnamese from China’s multi-millenary cultural influence. Little did they anticipate that the Vietnamese were going to use the quoc ngu to mobilize the country against them.

It was, however, only toward the beginning of the 1920s that the Vietnamese warmed up to it and used it readily in their every day activities. In the early years of the twentieth century, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh still wrote all their works in classical Chinese. Even in 1924, in Paris, Phan Chau Trinh composed his many letters asking the French minister of Colonies to allow him to go home in the purest style of classical Chinese. The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc [東京義塾 Eastern Capital Free School, named for Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Tokyo Gijuku (later Keio)] published their classic material in Chinese. The proclamation of the Thai Nguyen mutiny was written in Chinese. Classical Chinese survived at least to the middle of the century for two reasons. The last Confucian examinations were held only in 1918 in Hue, and the royal court of Annam will continue to use Chinese in its official documents until 1945, naturally with a great deal of translations into quoc ngu and French, for, to my knowledge, the last Vietnamese emperor had an exclusively French education.

Although sponsored by the French Security Services, the magazine Nam Phong [南風 South Wind] contributed in an important measure to the vernacularization and to the enrichment of the national script. To some extent, Nam Phong did almost exactly what the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc dreamt of doing a decade earlier. It translated a vast variety of books or articles in philosophy, in natural and human sciences written mostly in French into quoc ngu. Thus, it introduced foreign cultures and sciences to the Vietnamese people while encouraging them to use a medium which is scientific and rich enough to express their ideas. From the 1920s, newspapers, publishing houses mushroomed and put out an impressive number of books in literature, poetry, sociology, political, social, and natural sciences, all written in the national script. A definite break with the Chinese or nom tradition has been imperceptibly effected and new generations will only deal with the alphabetical writing system.

Here are some examples of Vietnamese renditions of Classical Chinese.

Tien hoc le, hau hoc van
(先学理後学文 xian xue li, hou xue wen)
‘First learn rites, then learn culture’

Thien Tu Van (千字文) ‘Thousand Character Classic
Tam Tu Kinh (三字经) ‘Three Character Classic

Four Books and Five Classics (of Confucius)
Đại Học (大學 Dà Xué) Great Learning
Trung Dung (中庸 Zhōng Yóng) Doctrine of the Mean
Luận Ngữ (論語 Lùn Yǔ) Analects
Mạnh Tử (孟子 Mèng Zǐ) Mencius

Kinh Thi (詩經 Shī Jīng) Classic of Poetry
Kinh Thư (書經 Shū Jīng) Classic of History
Kinh Lễ (禮記 Lǐ Jì) Book of Rites
Kinh Dịch (易經 Yì Jīng) Classic of Changes
Xuân Thu (春秋 Chūnqiū) Spring and Autumn Annals


Filed under China, democracy, education, France, language, literature, nationalism, Vietnam

Edo-period Sinophilia & Hollandophilia

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 13-14:

There is yet another reason why Edo-period culture has not been properly appreciated: the influence of Chinese culture has not yet been properly understood. During the Edo period Chinese culture was highly venerated. Its deep and lasting influence was important, not just for Japanese Confucianism and Confucian scholarship, but for a whole range of other pursuits as well. The effect of Chinese poetry and literature, or of Ming and Qing dynasty art and scholarship, can hardly be overestimated. For example, the book Tianxia yitong zhi (Records of All the World) greatly influenced the fudoki (gazetteers) produced throughout Japan. This volume was published as Dai Min ittō-shi (Records of the Ming Dynasty) at the beginning of the Genroku era (1688–1704) by a warrior from the Wakayama domain. Similarly, the volumes Gai yu congkao (Gaiyō sōkō in Japanese) by ZhaoYi (1727–1814) were also profoundly influential. The respect for things Chinese lasted until the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), but thereafter the fact that Chinese culture had once been of great importance faded from memory.

Similarly, “Dutch learning” (that is, Western learning, rangaku) was also highly important during the Edo period. Over one hundred times throughout the Edo period, the chief of the Dutch settlement at Dejima in Nagasaki came to Edo to receive an audience and present gifts to the shogun. For some twenty or thirty days during the spring, the chief and his retinue stayed at the Nagasaki-ya, a lodge at Hongoku-chō. From around the middle of the Edo period, a number of cultured individuals made use of these few weeks to engage in unfettered cultural exchange widi the Dutch. Japanese were strictly forbidden to enter the Dutch outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki, but within Edo much free activity was possible. After the Meiji Restoration, however, the diplomatic relations maintained by the Tokugawa bakufu with the Dutch were overshadowed by the Meiji government’s policy of strengthening ties with England, France, Germany, and the United States. In turn, much that concerned rangaku was forgotten. Although cultural exchange with the Dutch was once of great significance, its conditions and historical role have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. Such examples show that Edo-period culture demands reevaluation. The type of historical perspective suggested here should begin to make a correct appraisal possible.

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Filed under China, Japan, literature, Netherlands, scholarship

The Strength of Edo-period Culture

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 8-9:

The strength of Edo-period culture is not to be found in extant artifacts of the era. Rather, its strength lies chiefly in its spectacular breadth and diversity. This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural forms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryū (seventeen-syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayū, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations (kō) and toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally to indulge in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered the development of a highly refined handicraft industry. Never before had there been such an extraordinary variety of hand-made cultural artifacts in Japan.

Even in remote areas in the countryside or on distant, isolated islands, inhabitants cultivated rare varieties of flowers and trees and marketed unusual rocks or curiosities. As Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842) noted in his Akiyama kikō (Autumn Mountain Travelogue, 1831), people in every corner of the land were busy manufacturing local specialties. Such articles were being produced, one by one, by thirty million people. By the late Edo period this activity had stimulated an unprecedented development of the transportation network. Mountain roads, waterways, and sea routes were extended in all directions to every nook and cranny of the country. Indeed, the construction of footpaths during the late Edo period can be seen as a kind of symbol of this golden age of handicraft culture.

No doubt, Japan today boasts a high level of culture. But the price has been high as well: severe environmental pollution and the wholesale destruction of nature. Until the end of the Edo period, red-crested cranes could still be seen soaring through the skies over the city; swans and geese flocked to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. Foxes and badgers were found everywhere, and cuckoos (hototogisu) flourished in such numbers that their song was considered a nuisance. Even during the late Meiji period the water of the Sumida River was clean enough to be used for brewing tea while boating. Human activity imparted only minimal damage to nature. Viewed in this way, Edo-period culture seems almost ideal.

Certain elements of the Edo-period cultural heritage were vulgar, no doubt, but a more comprehensive view of the period reveals an almost infinite number of admirable qualities. Nevertheless, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, governmental policies of modernization and westernization dictated a wholesale rejection of the preceding feudal era. Even the best elements of Edo-period culture were deemed outdated and vulgar and were thought to require prompt and thorough extirpation. That the true value of Edo-period culture could not yet be properly assessed had much to do with the lack of any inquiry into its origins and actual conditions. Recent research, however, has shown that Edo-period culture was outstanding in its own way and not at all inferior to the culture of earlier or later periods.

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Filed under art, Japan, language, literature, music, scholarship, travel

Herta Müller on Securitate Spies and Friends

On 31 August 2008, before the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, published an excerpt from Herta Müller‘s latest novel, “Everything I Own I Carry With Me” (“Atemschaukel”). Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt that captures the ambiguities of close friendships in police states, at least judging from our own experience in Romania in 1983-84.

The three years at the tractor factory Tehnometal where I was a translator are missing [from my Securitate file]. I translated the manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. For two years I sat with four bookkeepers in the office. They worked out the wages of the workers, I turned the pages of my fat technical dictionaries. I didn’t understand the first thing about hydraulic or non-hydraulic presses, levers or gauges. When the dictionary offered three, four, or even seven terms, I went out onto the factory floor and asked the workers. They told me the correct Romanian word without any knowledge of German – they knew their machines. In the third year a “protocol office” was established. The company director moved me there to work alongside two newly employed translators, one from French, the other from English. One was the wife of a university professor who, even in my student days, was said to be a Securitate informant. The other was the daughter-in-law of the second most senior secret service officer in town. Only those two had the key to the file cupboard. When foreign professionals visited, I had to leave the office. Then, apparently, I was to be put through two recruitment tests with the secret police officer Stana, to be made suitable for the office. After my second refusal, his goodbye was: “You’ll be sorry, we’ll drown you in the river.”

One morning when I turned up for work, my dictionaries were lying on the floor outside the office door. My place had been taken by an engineer, and I was no longer allowed into the office. I couldn’t go home, they would have sacked me there and then. Now I had no table, no chair. For two days, I defiantly sat my eight hours with the dictionaries on a concrete staircase that joined the ground and first floors, trying to translate so that no one could say I wasn’t working. The office staff walked past me in silence. My friend Jenny, an engineer, knew about what was happening to me. Every day on our way home I explained it to her in detail. She came to me in the lunch break and sat down on the stairs. We ate together as we had done before in my office. Over the loudspeaker in the yard we could always hear the workers’ choruses about the happiness of the people. She ate and cried for me, I didn’t. I had to be strong.

On the third day I installed myself at Jenny’s desk, she cleared a corner for me. On the fourth day too. It was a large office. On the fifth morning she was waiting for me outside the door. “I am no longer allowed to let you in the office. Just think, my colleagues say you are a spy. ” “How’s that possible,” I asked. “But you know where we’re living,” she reasoned. I took my dictionaries and sat down on the stairs again. This time I cried too. When I went out onto the factory floor to ask about a word, the workers whistled after me and shouted: “Informer”. It was a witches’ cauldron. How many spies were there in Jenny’s office and on the shop floor. They were acting on instructions. There were orders from above to attack me, the slander was meant to force me to resign. At the beginning of these turbulent times my father died. I no longer had a grip on things, I had to reassure myself that I really existed in the world, and began to write down the story of my – these writings formed the basis of the short stories in “Nadirs”.

The fact that I was now considered a spy because I had refused to become one was worse than the attempt to recruit me and the death threat. I was being slandered by precisely the people that I was protecting by refusing to spy on them. Jenny and a handful of colleagues could see the games that were being played with me. But those who knew me less well could not. How could I have explained to them what was going on, how could I have proved the opposite. It was completely impossible, as the Securitate knew only too well, and that is exactly why they did it to me. They knew, too, that such perfidy would be far more destructive than any blackmail. You can even get used to death threats. They are part and parcel of this one life we have. You can defy anxiety to the depths of your soul. But slander steals your soul. You just feel surrounded by horror.

How long this situation lasted, I no longer know. It seemed endless to me. It was probably just weeks. Finally, I was sacked….

My file at least answered one painful question. A year after my departure from Romania, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassment in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I was sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and the additional visas for France and Greece, I confronted her directly: “You don’t get a passport like that for nothing, what did you do to get it?” Her answer: “The secret service has sent me, and I was desperate to see you again.” Jenny had cancer – she is long dead now. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the outset, her friendship just part of the job. After her return, I see from the file, she delivered a detailed description of the flat and of our habits, as “SURSA (source) SANDA”.

But in a bugging protocol from 21 December, 1984, a note in the margin, next to Jenny’s name, reads: “We must identify JENI, apparently there is great trust between them.” This friendship, which meant so much to me, was ruined by her visit to Berlin, a terminally ill cancer patient lured into betrayal after chemotherapy. The copied key made it clear that Jenny had fulfilled her task behind our backs. I had to ask her to leave our Berlin flat at once. I had to chase my closest friend out in order to protect myself and Richard Wagner from her assignment. This tangle of love and betrayal was unavoidable. A thousand times I have turned her visit over in my mind, mourned our friendship, discovering to my disbelief that after my emigration, Jenny had a relationship with a Securitate officer. Today I am glad, for the file shows that our intimacy had grown naturally and had not been arranged by the secret service, and that Jenny didn’t spy on me until after my emigration. You become grateful for small mercies, trawling through all the poison for a part that isn’t contaminated, however small. That my file proves that the feelings between us were real, almost makes me happy now.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Filed under Germany, language, literature, Romania

Scott Meredith Manuscript Rejection Letter, 1952

My maternal grandmother received the following 4-page, single-spaced, detailed rejection letter in response to a novel-length manuscript she submitted between short stints of teaching in various rural schools in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia during the 1950s after abandoning her husband, who was 27 years older than her. She got her teaching certificate in 1915, after attending Harrisonburg State Normal and Industrial School, then did further coursework at Radford College (1915-18). From 1919 to 1951, she married and raised 4 children, my mother being her youngest. She wanted to be a writer, but only really succeeded at publishing short devotional pieces for magazines like The Upper Room, which never paid a living wage. So she taught school. Perhaps I’ll post more about her teaching career later on, since my wife is a teacher, my daughter is now a teacher, and I’ve been offering this free, online extension course (no grades!) in Obscure History Studies since 2003.

Literary Agency

580 Fifth Avenue
New York 36, N. Y.
PLaza 7-8795-6
Cable Address: Scottmere

April 24, 1952

Mrs. Janie S. Clay [not her real surname—J.],
Jones Spring
West Virginia

Dear Mrs. Clay,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read your novel, THE DOORMAT. Your previous writing experience has contributed to the formulation of a first rate style, end this is even more noticeable here than it was in your short story. It proves that you can keep your standards up to as high a mark in a long piece as in a short one–a sure proof of your basic writing ability. Your style has a clarity and straightforwardness that would be an asset to any writer, and you have a remarkable talent for colorful description. Narration, dialogue, and action are all handled with the ease and confidence of a born story-teller. Also, you have a grasp of character and situation that stands as a solid achievement in any appraisal of the whole work. However, all these qualities on the credit side of the ledger are not quite enough to make your novel marketable. In addition, it should have a strong, closely-knit plot, which moves along to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Since THE DOORMAT falls short in this respect. I am forced to return the manuscript to you as unsalable.

Plotting is definitely your weak point. and I will therefore devote the greater part of my report to an analysis of your story-structure. in the hope that it will help you when you begin work on your next story. You are already acquainted with the plot skeleton–lead character, central problem, complications, crisis, and solution–and I will again take it as a useful device for pointing out the structural flaws in your story, showing just why and how it fails to engage the reader’s interest.

In a novel, the familiar pattern is there even as it is in short stories. Of course. the “bones” of the skeleton won’t be immediately visible if you only give the work a casual glance, because there is always a great deal of “flesh” on them, in the way of dialogue, description, etc.;–in short, all the many striking and beautiful things that a talented writer can do with words. The pattern is there, but much expanded so that it covers a wider territory. A novel has plenty of room for development of character, sketching in background, and making the story full and rounded in all its parts; also, there is space for many exciting actions, many persons, and many problems. Nevertheless, one central problem or theme must predominate over all the others; they must stand in some relation to it, and it must give them their place and relevance in the narrative. The novel thus presents the author with an opportunity to examine one idea or problem in all its ramifications, and with a consequent chance for great variety and richness of subject matter. But the variety must be ordered and regulated by some strong line of narrative; it cannot exist in its own right, but must contribute to some oentral problem, issue, or impression, the nature of which is both clear end urgent in the reader’s mind. The reader must have an active and vital interest in the outcome of the whole story rather than a casual interest in its diverse parts. But he cannot do this if the problem doesn’t grip him from the very start, and your novel fails to meet this demand. You felt this, of course, for you mention it in your letter. It hits the nail on the head to note that the story lacks problem and suspense. The skill with which you write is not enough to compensate, and the problem remains too weak to support the plot structure which depends upon it. As a lead charaoter gives the story a point of view, so does the problem give it a purpose. I suspect that your sense of purpose in writing the book has been too-general a one to serve as a gathering-point for a strong narrative. David finally attains kind of character suggested by the title, but this is not the drama that holds the center of the stage most of the time.

But first, before we come to grips with the problem–or problems–let’s have a look at your lead character, Lucy Turner. She is a young girl, seventeen years of age, returning home from college because of her mother’s illness. This is a bit young for a lead, because the reader is more likely to identify with an adult facing adult problems. But you overcome this handicap by presenting Lucy at precisely the point of assuming the duties of an adult, and your further development of her character is both just and consistent. She, and your other characters, do have a liveness and naturalness in all ways that makes them attractive: you need have no fear on that point. However, she is not an exciting character, and her problems–central and otherwise–do not grip the reader’s imagination. Interest in the love between David and Lucy is aroused early, and remains the predominant theme of the narrative. The heroine at first has much to worry her though, what with her mother’s illness and her father’s drinking. Both these are out of the way before long, end something else pops up, a small example of the color question. One thing I want to emphasize here is that all these small early problems are just that–small! Yet they serve to take away interest in the Lucy-David relation, which operates independently of them. In other words, you have not used the materials of the narrative to develop anything; the events remain separate entities, and do not add up to any total impression. The story does not seem to be going anywhere, and is rather accounting for the day to day existence of Lucy, her family, and her friends. The problem of getting the young people together is there, but is not a pressing one. The reader thus has nothing to sustain his interest, nothing to hang on to. Minor problems are raised and dropped, sometimes solved, sometimes forgotten, and the question of what is going to happen between David and Lucy is apparently one that can be postponed indefinitely. As Lucy herself realizes, she can do little but wait and hope for David’s love: she cannot chase him. The fact that she cannot take a more active part in solving her problem automatically deprives her problem of reader interest. The possibility of an active solution has to be there: she cannot merely wait until the time and the circumstances come and grab her. Thus the problem at the heart of the story fails in its essential function of arousing and sustaining reader interest. What about the other problems?

Of the smaller ones, perhaps the most interesting is the race-relations theme. The new Baptist preacher, old Mr. Allen, goes out to preach before a colored congregation–a thing unheard-of in this part of the country. But this only looks as if it is going to be a problem, and it never develops into anything. There is talk, people gossip, there are objections in private conversations, but the controversy never comes into the open, and the threats soon vanish as if nothing had ever happened. The theme returns again in the last chapter, but it is no more than a promise of better things and more help for the colored people. The issue never comes to a head, and the problem fails to become pressing and vital. Mind you, there are a great many fine and telling points made by the wayside: your characters are always dropping wise and witty comments here and there, as for instance Mr. Allen’s reason explaining why so many Negroes are Baptists; and another good one that I remember is when some one observes that the Primitive Baptists are so narrow they can sleep five in a bed! These are right in tone, and this kind of color goes a long way towards making your book a pleasure to read. But of course, no amount of this kind of thing can make up for the lack of problem and plot.

The other major issue in the book is David’s attitude to the ministerial service, and this is the source of your title. But this, too, lacks vitality. The fact that he is not your lead character deprives it of a certain amount of interest for the reader. It does not come vigorously into the open until the fifteenth chapter (p. 148), then goes underground again, to be finally resolved only by the ministrations and good advice of Jim Peterson. I realize that it is not quite the same thing in its later form, but it is still the problem of how to serve adequately. The solution is brought about by a minor character, which is also a weak point, since reader’s like to see a character get out of his jam through his own exertions and by his own ingenuity.

As for the complications to the central problem, most of them are provided by David, who finds that he cannot play the part Lucy would have him play. They are separated by the circumstance of his having to go off to college while she stays at home and teaches school. But the reader will feel that the problem of getting David to marry Lucy is not really pressing enough to worry about. You give her other interests that will keep her from taking his loss too hard. This is already evident by Chapter Twelve in which Lucy is made unhappy by David’s distance at the service. What happens here is that the religious interest overshadows the personal angle, and she seems so happy in the primary joy of religion that the reader will feel this is bound to be ample compensation no matter what becomes of her relation to David. Her thoughts about him at the baptizing are merely passing notions when compared to her pleasure she takes in the proceedings. It is all too obvious that if worst comes to worst, the problem of David’s reluctance and distance will not sweep her completely off her feet. This is a paradox at the very heart of your story, because the reader understands from the start that this is precisely what Christianity is supposed to do: we almost presume it when we see it in a story. This is bound to take away suspense, no matter how you try to get around it. David is at college for three years, then goes off to the war. Soon after he returns, he marries enother girl, leaving Lucy heartbroken. The loss makes her doubt, turns her listless, and almost changes her character. However, she is brought back to herself by Elizabeth’s efforts, and by the end of Chapter Twenty-two has attained inner peace and happiness. But this, of course, she could not do by herself; again, the minor character makes all the difference in the world, and moves the story in the direction you want it to go.

At this point, there is a gap in time, and the next chapter takes up three and a half years later with a remarkable accident that sets the stage for the reunion between David and Lucy: the reader hears that David has killed his wife in a tragic hunting accident, and is almost crazed with grief. This, however, is not quite fair, even as the background of a solution. Coincidence should not play a part in the construction of a story, especially insofar as complication and solution are concerned. Stories can start from a coincidence, but it is not proper to make them end there. Chance and accident can solve any problem, and should therefore not be used. The reader doesn’t want to find that the lead character is being brought to his goal by means of luck. Of course, the problem was solved when the accident took place, and reopens the possibility of David and Lucy coming together again. The accident raises another problem–getting David back into the world of men–which is solved by his summer with Jim Peterson (mentioned earlier). Gradually, you bring the lovers together, until they finally decide to get married. It was the natural thing to do, seeing that his wife was dead. But the story moves exceptionally slowly in this part, because the obstacles to their marriage no longer exist, and it is only a matter of time. You have a tender love scene between them at the time of the proposal, but it cannot seem to bring the narrative to life. (There is a slip of names, by the way on p. 242, when Lucy becomes “Mary”; guess you got excited!) The story still carries on for two more chapters, showing something of Lucy’s and David’s life together after they are married, but this does not do more than settle a few minor difficulties raised in the past and give a promise of a useful future for the two main characters. Both have learned exactly how to serve, and they are able to help each other in the work. I’m afraid the everyday-ness of much of the rest of the story is even more apparent here, and that the reader’s interest cannot possibly be sustained.

I’m sure you can see by now why I am unable to recommend a revision of your novel. Its flaws are structural, and are too basic to be “patched up.” The weakness of central problem and solution are insurmountable obstacles inherent in the whole work. However, I think you do have the talent to write a salable novel–and one with a real message–if you put a bit more thought into your plotting. By all means keep up the good work! Best wishes.


/s/Scott Meredith


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