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I like lists as much as the next person. They’re fun to corroborate or argue with, letting our own personal prejudices run free (any list that slams Philip Roth or John Updike is a list I will probably frame and hang on a wall if I was the kind of guy who (a) framed things; (b) had a hammer ; (c) knew where the hammer was that I’m pretty sure we bought when we bought the house because I thought, “I’m probably going to be hammering all the time!”; (d) hung framed things from a hammered nail in a wall) while also providing the extra reach with which to pat our own backs.

My argument, though, is with this constant competition for the Great American Novel.

This is a terrible game to play. It feels, to me, as if the assumption is: there’s just one American story to tell and once we’ve identified it we can finally be DONE, you guys. That’s often how we treat women and minorities in the arts: once a slot is filled, whether it’s a woman-centric television show or a show with a minority family, Those With the Power in entertainment tend to not want to pursue other voices from those communities (but God forbid we don’t examine MINUTELY the inner lives of men of a certain age and the challenges they face in a world that they helped shape but boy were they not expecting to see two guys getting married! “How many shows do we have starring gruff white men in their 50s?” “We just had to fire Alec Baldwin.” “Then double the number of shows and send him a muffin basket.”). Instead, their response is, “No thanks! We’ve got [“Girls,” or “Sex in the City,” or “The Cosby Show” which, by the way, was 20+ years ago and “Scandal” is a terrific TV series with a strong black female lead but when’s the last time you saw a Cherokee family settle in to all-you-can-eat breadsticks and salad at the local Olive Garden? This has been Consciousness Raising with Mike Bevel, and I’d like to turn the floor over to some of our spoken-word poets before we break for some gluten-free vegan desserts in the Let’s Just Shoot Ourselves in the Face Hall here at the Unitarian church]!”

Where was I?

Oh, yeah: the Great American Novel. Stop looking for it. There are a great number of great American novels and the only thing they all have in common is none of them have the words “Rabbit” or “Portnoy” in the title. Another trap these lists sometimes fall into is the Overachieving Olympics, where the Great American Novel isn’t so much Great, but Hard — and I’m not being lazy and I’m not suggesting I don’t like a challenge because I sat through a performance of a capella choral arts atonal music so how dare you. But I feel like if you’re a novel that’s going to strive to be the Great American Novel, then you have to be a novel that speaks to a great portion of Americans and I’m sorry, “The Ambassadors,” by Henry James, you are too interested in yourself (which, ironically, is how most Americans navigate the world: being too interested in themselves and super-sizing things) and don’t pay back the close attention that a Great American Novel should if I even believed in the Great American Novel, which I don’t, so why are we even HAVING this conversation?

I guess the point is — and I do have one — read good novels not because they tell great American stories but because they tell great Human stories and while we all may not share a neighborhood or a cholesterol count, we share humanity; and art — specifically novels in this meandering argument and god bless you if you made it this far — is a safe place to explore what makes us human and why it matters.


Here are various translations of Matthew 11:12:

King James: And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

The New International Version: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,[a] and violent people have been raiding it.

Douay-Rheims: And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

FlanneryThe Douay-Rheims is the edition O’Connor owned, and it’s that translation that inspired her title. (I had hoped to find some amazing hidden meaning behind her use of Douay-Rheims. Instead, it’s probably just a case of, “That’s the Bible that was in her house at the time.” I’m like this with books in translation: I like my War & Peace translated by Constance Garnett, thankyouverymuch.)

All three translations agree on the opening. But it’s what happens to the kingdom of heaven where we see the difference: “take it by force,” “raiding it,” or “bear it away.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the two other translations say, though: Flannery O’Connor was inspired by the Douay-Rheims translation. For her, the violent bear it away.

Whether you agree with Flannery O’Connor’s worldview or not: in the universe of The Violent Bear it Away, Bishop gets a happy ending. He’s baptized. I love every one one of you who bristles and recoils and wants to run from a philosophy that treats drowning as a sacred right. Flannery O’Connor is not the writer for you.

In the world of the novel, Rayber represents Evil. He’s not the rapist; he’s not the voice of the Devil. But he’s Evil because he wants to interfere with the divine work of the prophet. (And in the world of the novel, the Tarwaters are prophets.) Secular humanism that seeks to replace God’s hands with… well, whatever is in Rayber’s hands: that’s not going to work. That Bishop has Down’s syndrome is a blessing in the world of this book because he can’t be corrupted by the teacher. He’s a perfect vessel for baptising.

It’s easy to mistake O’Connor as simply a Southern Gothic writer, with her cast of grotesques. And I think that might be how she was able to hobnob with so many intellectuals. As the Marquise de Merteuil says (paraphrased) in Les Liaisons dangereuses: Most intellectuals are intensely stupid. They missed O’Connor’s message: that the works of God are mysterious and violent and even if it costs your life, it’s the absolute smallest price one can pay for redemption and salvation and revelation. It’s rare to reach the end of any piece by O’Connor and not have the main character dead, murdered, maimed, or utterly transformed in the most painful of ways. Faith for O’Connor is an absolute, totalizing force. One has it or one doesn’t, and the transition from one state of belief to another often comes as a violent shock to the person experiencing it.

The point was made in the discussion that Flannery O’Connor was a terrific writer, but a poor communicator. I’ve given that a lot of thought in the days that have gone by and I’m not sure I entirely agree. A mistake we might make in reading is assuming that this must all be metaphor; but there’s little metaphoric about the novel: The Tarwaters are prophets. God exists and is a violent force to be reckoned with. She communicates that all the way through. She wants us to know that the Tarwaters are connected to God. But, if you are repulsed by the novel, it’s more than likely because you can’t identify with a world in which prophets exist. (This is not a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just a Thing.)

Knowing what O’Connor is saying isn’t the same as approving. And you can get to the end of the novel, and you can think all of your thoughts and come to a discussion and think some new thoughts and still fight with the book afterwards. She’s saying uncomfortable, noxious things for a lot of readers. But O’Connor’s method of salvation isn’t love in the way we think of it — images of Jesus hugging children and hymns about caring — it’s an older, darker kind of love. It’s the kind of love God demanded from Abraham when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

If you can bear to read through the novel again — and many of you probably can’t — read it as if every thing is true and has happened. That’s not going to make the novel easier to read. It’s going to make it harder to handle. But you’ll be reading the novel the way O’Connor intended. She is not interested in ambiguity. She’s not playing a game with the reader where it might be this or it might be that. She rarely hides behind metaphor. We bring that ourselves, I think.

And, for something COMPLETELY different, I’ll end with this poem by A.A. Milne:

Elizabeth Ann
Said to her Nan:
“Please will you tell me how God began?
Somebody must have made Him. So
Who could it be, ‘cos I want to know?”
And Nurse said, “Well!”
And Ann said, “Well?
I know you know, and I wish you’d tell.”
And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,
“Now then, darling, it’s time for bed.”

Elizabeth Ann
Had a wonderful plan:
She would run round the world till she found a man
Who knew exactly how God began.

She got up early, she dressed, and ran
Trying to find an Important Man.
She ran to London and knocked at the door
Of the Lord High Doodleum’s coach-and-four.
“Please, sir (if there’s anyone in),
However-and-ever did God begin?”

But out of the window, large and red,
Came the Lord High Coachman’s face instead.
And the Lord High Coachman laughed and said:
“Well, what put that in your quaint little head?”

Elizabeth Ann went home again
And took from the ottoman Jennifer Jane.
“Jenniferjane,” said Elizabeth Ann,
“Tell me at once how God began.”
And Jane, who didn’t much care for speaking,
Replied in her usual way by squeaking.

What did it mean? Well, to be quite candid,
I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.
Elizabeth Ann said softly, “Oh!
Thank you Jennifer. Now I know.”

Claire Tomalin and I got off on the wrong foot while I was reading her biography of Thomas Hardy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Tomalin had fallen a little in love with Hap — and I mean, come on; what’s not to love, what with his being the meanest writer in the English language and the awful way he treated both of his wives? — and that her enamoration was getting between me and the truth about Hardy. (That truth being: “He’s the worst.”)

Here’s a quick example. On page 307 of the paperback of Thomas Hardy, we get a luncheon anecdote. Henry Newbolt and the poet W.B. Yeats were at the Hardys’. Hardy was deep in questioning Newbolt about his thoughts on Italian architecture; Emma, Hardy’s wife, was regaling Yeats with “much curious information about the two very fine cats” (that’s from an account left by Newbolt, quoted in Tomalin’s book), proving once and for all the Emma Hardy is my Spirit Animal because what I, too, have is a lot of curious information about my two very fine cats.


I’ll continue quoting from Newbolt’s account: “At last Hardy rose from his seat and looked towards his wife: she made no movement, and he walked to the door. She was still silent and unmoved: he invited her to leave us for a few minutes, for a ceremony which in accordance with his wishes was to be performed without witnesses. [Editor’s note: ?!?] She at once remonstrated, and Yeats and I begged that she should not be asked to leave use. But Hardy insisted and she made no further appeal but gathered up her cats and her train with perfect simplicity and left the room.”

A bit of background: Hardy has been a jerk to his wife Emma for most of the latter part of their marriage and for most of Tomalin’s biography — to the point where he’s actively flirting with other women because why not. I give you this bit of background because I’m hoping you’ll feel the sting of this commentary by Tomalin as much as I did:

“Emma must have exasperated Hardy beyond endurance for him to have treated her as he did on that occasion, in the presence of two eminent visitors. What was worse was that her presence made him so uneasy that all his considerable charm took flight, and he appeared nervous and uneasy with his gusts as well as cold and unkind to his wife.”

See: it’s all Emma’s fault. Because that’s how Tomalin rolls. It couldn’t be that Hardy’s an asshole and even if he were an asshole, like now, like in that anecdote — it’s only because Emma made him into one by just existing in the room, talking of cats with Yeats.



(Oh! And! Emma left some diaries behind, after she died — she predeceased Hardy — and they were pretty critical of Hardy as a human being. Here’s Tomalin on that scenario: “Meanwhile Hardy had found Emma’s diaries, with their angry and contemptuous accounts of his behaviour. Sensibly enough [Editor’s note: whoo boy] he decided they were largely the product of a mind subject to delusions [Editor’s note: !!!] and refused to allow them to spoil his renewed vision of her as the love of his life.” [313]. After Emma’s death, Hardy had a renaissance of love for her that’s pretty weird and controlling — especially since he actively moons over his dead wife in front of his living new wife because, as I mentioned earlier: THE WORST.)

Claire Tomalin and I still aren’t right with each other, especially once I moved on to her biography of Charles Dickens that came out late last year. For starters, she made a weird error about a debt that Dickens’s father, John, owed. John took out a loan of £200 to be paid back at £26 per annum for life. As in: until John Dickens died. As in: there was no point where John Dickens would be able to cross that off his [interrupting right now to say that those wonderful cats of mine I was mentioning up top? Totally in a fight to the death in the library where the fat one keeps condescendingly tapping the tiny orange one on the head and I’m sorry you’re not here to see this since (a) it’s awesome; and (b) it would mean I wouldn’t have to type all this out, we could just complain about Claire Tomalin in person like civilized and mature adults] to-do list. Only Tomalin says, “it should have taken a little more than eight years [to pay back]” and then, I forgot to mention, John Dickens wasn’t able to keep up with the payments on the loan so his brother-in-law, Thomas Barrow, ended up paying the loan off. So it’s even weirder when Tomalin writes, “but his financial incompetence was such that he was still paying it off thirty years later.” Only that can’t be true for a number of reasons, not least of which: the loan had already been paid off by Thomas Barrow. And then also, if John Dickens had been able to keep up with the original terms of the loan (and, by the way: what idiot agrees to loan terms like that? John Dickens, that’s who) then of course he would have still been paying the loan back thirty years later.

And then she weirdly mischaracterizes the relationship between Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell as sort of a wacky, not-as-sexy Moonlighting thing when really it was sort of a wacky, not-as-sexy boy-did-they-hate-each-other thing. (Dickens once wrote in a letter, “If I was Mr Gaskell oh how I would choke her!”)

Oh AND then there’s this that my friend Catherine sent me from the Irish Times: What the Dickens? Why biographers don’t always tell the whole story.

Turns out, Tomalin may have been taken in by a hoax — something she only realized after the bio was printed. The now-known-to-be-bunk story is: Dickens and Dostoevsky met in 1862, had a heart-to-heart where Dickens poured out a LOT of heavy stuff about himself to a Russian stranger, and Dostoevsky wrote about it. Tomalin quotes this (fake) Dostoevskian passage at length in her biography from a translation she came across but never thought, “Hm. I wonder what this looks like in Russian?” Because if she had, she would have learned that there does not appear to be an original of this conversation at all. From the article:

“She initially found the account of the meeting “electrifying” but began to have doubts after her biography was published. Then she and her husband, the writer Michael Frayn, looked for the original source of the account, not the translation she had relied on. She could find nothing to back up the English account, and other biographers who used the translation also admitted that they were unable to verify its source.”

Oh Claire Tomalin. You’re simply the worst.

If you read any biography of Dickens, one of the first things you’ll notice is that Catherine, his wife, spends almost their entire marriage pregnant. The other thing that’s great is reading all the kind of bitchy letters Dickens writes to his men friends, expressing bewilderment at all the babies in the house — sort of a shrug and a “How’d this happen?” which maybe isn’t so weird since Dickens worked a lot with prostitutes and they’re pretty good at keeping the show going without interruption, if you know what I’m saying.Good morning.

Anyway, Catherine is always pregnant, and it starts pretty much immediately, because she and Dickens were married 2 April 1836 (which corresponded with John Forster’s birthday, who was Dickens’s bff, and with whom Dickens insisted on celebrating with a birthday/anniversary sort of set-up because Dickens really gets romance. And women. And birth control.) and their first child, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, is born pretty much nine months later, on 6 January 1837.

The Culliford comes from Dickens’s maternal grandmother, Mary Culliford. The Boz (with a long o, by the way, to rhyme it with nose) is a little more complicated. And we’re off to Chicago.

There’s a Chicago Herald article from 1895 — 25 years after Dickens’s death — that’s about a grudge that Chicago had against Dickens. Chicago had had its feelings hurt in 1867 when Dickens refused to visit on his second American tour.

Dickens visited America twice in his life, once in 1842 with Catherine where he hoped to convince American publishers to stop stealing his stuff (they didn’t) and where he was also appalled by slavery and completely disgusted by the spat tobacco stains everywhere; and a second time, in 1867, without Catherine, in order to give a lot of readings, attend a lot of dinners, and to promise the American people that he would never denounce America again. (They still stole from him.)

At the time of his second reading, Dickens’s youngest brother, Augustus, was living in Chicago with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Augustus’s actual wife was still back in England; however, Augustus had left her after she went blind. Dickens, who had left his wife because she had gotten fat (okay, okay, there’s more to it than that; but that’s a story for another time), was mortified by his brother’s behavior and cut off all contact with him. (Quick postscript on the women in Augustus Dickens’s life: Bertha, the woman he ran away to America with, may or may not have committed suicide two years after Augustus’s death in 1866. Her end story is a little Lily Bart-ian: she definitely overdosed on morphine; it’s not clear if it was on purpose or not. When news of her death reached England, the London News printed an obituary, referring to Bertha as Charles Dickens’s sister-in-law. Dickens wasn’t having it: “Sir– I am required to discharge a painful act of duty imposed upon me by your insertion in your paper of Saturday of a paragraph from the New York Times respecting the death, at Chicago, of ‘Mrs. Augustus N. Dickens, widow of the brother of Charles Dickens, the celebrated English novelist.’ The widow of my late brother, in that paragraph referred to, was never at Chicago; she is a lady now living, and resident in London; she is a frequent guest at my house, and I am one of the trustees under her marriage settlement. My temporary absence in Ireland has delayed for some days my troubling you with the request that you will have the goodness to publish this correction. I am, &c., CHARLES DICKENS”)

Back to the Chicago Herald article from 1895. The article is titled “Dickens’s Wayward Brother | Cause of the Novelist’s Seemingly Heartless Conduct. | Why the Pet of His Young Manhood Came to This Country and Prevented Him from Visiting Chicago.” This whole time, Chicago had been trying to figure out what was so wrong with it that Charles Dickens wouldn’t deign to stop by for a visit. “It’s as if he thinks being Hog Butcher of the World is a bad thing,” Chicago seemed to be thinking. And finally, someone at the Chicago Herald, 28 years later, felt they had put it all together. They had Cracked the Case, so to speak. (A quick moment or two, if you’ll let me, back on that headline. I love the ambiguity, where one isn’t certain if the headline writer means that Dickens’s treatment of his brother/brother’s fake wife was heartless, or if Dickens’s refusal to come to Chicago is what’s heartless.)

Dickens himself had claimed that Chicago was just too far away to visit. But the author of that 1895 article thought that was a specious claim. He went to Baltimore! the writer says. He went to Philadelphia! Dickens also had this to say about not visiting Chicago: “The worst of it is everybody one advises with has a monomania regarding Chicago. ‘Good heavens, Sir,” said one great Philadelphia authority to me this morning, ‘if you don’t read in Chicago the people will go into fits!’ ‘Well,’ I answered, ‘I would rather they went into fits than I did.'”

Why would Dickens go into fits at all, the Chicago Herald writer wondered. And then, it all came clear. It was Augustus.

Of course, Augustus had been dead a year when Dickens came back to America in 1867. But Dickens was serious about this “out of my life” business with Augustus, and, so the Chicago Herald writer supposed, that must be why Dickens wouldn’t come to Chicago. It was not Chicago’s fault at all! Chicago had done nothing wrong! Chicago was merely collateral damage!

And now, finally, to the whole reason I mentioned the Chicago Herald article in the first place. This quote:

“Charles Dickens’s reasons for remaining away from Chicago also involves the real origin of his nom de plume ‘Boz.’ ‘This was the nickname,’ [John] Forster writes [Forster, as I mentioned above, was Dickens’s best friend and later, his first biographer], ‘of a pet child, his youngest brother, Augustus, whom, in honor of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ he had dubbed Moses, which, being facetiously through the nose became Boses, and, being shortened, became Boz.'”

Dickens used the pen name ‘Boz’ for most of his early writings, collected into Sketches by Boz. Pickwick, too, was attributed to Boz. One reason Dickens went with a pen name: in his early years as a writer, he was trying to make a career as a serious political journalist, and he was worried that the Sketches and Pickwick might detract from his credibility.

Oh, and now back to Charles Culliford Boz Dickens — the prime motivation behind this missive: that’s where the Boz in his last name comes from. He would have been 175 years young today. He tried several times to make it as a business man, but never quite had what it took. He finally settled into being the son of Charles Dickens, publishing Dickens’s Dictionary of London and Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, and Dickens’s Dictionary of Paris in 1882.

July 2018
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