April and Poetry–Sara Teasdale

April is poetry month, a festival more honored by schools and publishers than by the general public. This year, our April is filled with fear of the coronavirus pandemic, and with questions about what the future holds. Poetry may seem like a frivolous escape, but if we ignore it, we may be missing one element of comfort that would help us get through these stressful days.

Poetry can help us see the world with fresh eyes and remember the sights that will be with us all our lives rather than the jangled thoughts of today. As we walk through today’s deserted streets, the words of Sara Teasdale, who wrote almost 100 years ago, can help us to see April with fresh eyes:

The roofs are shining from the rain,
     The sparrows twitter as they fly,
  And with a windy April grace
     The little clouds go by. (April)

Sara Teasdale was an American poet who had a gift for seeing the world through fresh eyes. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1884 and was home schooled for much of her childhood. She devoted herself to reading and started writing poetry as a teenager. After she went to high school, she became one of a group of women who published The Potter’s Wheel, a literary journal in St. Louis and contributed poems and essays to the journal.

Sara Teasdale as a child

During that time, she traveled frequently to Chicago where she met many writers and artists including Vachel Lindsay, a young poet famous for his attempt to revive the tradition of oral poetry. Lindsay and Teasdale apparently fell in love, but Lindsay did not have enough money to support a wife. Teasdale eventually married another admirer, Ernst Filsinger, a prosperous businessman.  

After her marriage in 1914 Teasdale continued to write and her third collection of poetry River to the Sea, published in 1916 became a bestseller and earned her a Pulitzer Prize. She and her husband moved to New York City where they became part of a circle of writers and artists.

Teasdale’s poetry is lyrical and filled with images of the world around us. Many of her poems have been published in children’s anthologies, but they have an enduring appeal for adults too. They are the kind of poems that often pop into your mind during walks in the country.

I stood beside a hill
Smooth with new-laid snow
A single star looked out
From the cold evening glow.   (February Twilight)

Sara Teasdale’s life did not continue as happily as her poetry did. She divorced her husband in 1929, her health deteriorated, and she became an invalid. She restarted her friendship with Vachel Lindsay, but he too had fallen on hard times and eventually killed himself.

Sara Teasdale herself committed suicide in 1933 at the age of 48. Her poetry collections live on in most libraries and much of her work can be found on the Gutenberg Project site. It is well worth reading and rereading. It is impossible to know why her life came to such a tragic end, but her poetry still brings joy to the reader. Many of her poems will linger in your mind for years, perhaps especially this one, which seems a fitting elegy for her short life.

WHEN I am dead and over me bright April
     Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
  Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
     I shall not care.

  I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
     When rain bends down the bough,
  And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
     Than you are now.

(All of the poems quoted above are available in many digital formats on the
Gutenberg Project website. http://www.gutenberg.org

Revisiting Past Horrors–Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

These days it is difficult to hear any news or hold any conversation that doesn’t mention the coronavirus pandemic. Most of us are struggling to understand how this disaster moved into our lives and whether we will ever return to normal life. Americans haven’t seen anything like this for a hundred years when the country was struck by the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Now that schools and universities have shut their doors, libraries have closed, and classes have moved online, perhaps it’s time to talk about a writer who described the feeling of that early epidemic for generations of readers—Katherine Anne Porter. 

Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider captures perfectly the disoriented feeling of a woman facing the painful hazards of war-torn world being jolted by yet another attack from an unimaginable and unthinking enemy. The scene is set when Miranda, a young journalist as Porter herself was, first wakes up on an ordinary wartime morning: 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep. (Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (p. 281). Library of America. Kindle Edition.) 

As the story moves on, Porter takes us through the vivid, chilling experience of suffering from the flu and having your life taken over by doctors and nurses. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. But who was Porter and how did she develop this gift of capturing the reality of an experience that many people live through, but few can describe? 

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Porter in Texas in 1890. Her mother died when Callie was two years old and her father took the children to live with their grandmother, who died when Callie was eleven. After losing so much, Callie left home at sixteen to marry an abusive husband—not a very good start in life. After a divorce in her mid-twenties and a long hospitalization with tuberculosis, Porter decided to become a writer.  

Porter started as a journalist and eventually moved to New York City where she met many other writers and artists. She continued to write journalism and short stories for the rest of her life, as well as working as a journalist in Mexico, Europe and the United States. During the years between 1930 and 1960, she wrote highly praised literary stories and essays, Her only novel, Ship of Foolsthe story of a long sea voyage in 1931, was published in 1962 and became a best-seller as well as being made into a movie.  

Some writers lead fascinating lives that are reflected in their works, but Katherine Anne Porter’s biography does not cast light on her stories. The power of her descriptions and the reality of her characters seem to spring from an inner knowledge that had little to do with the actual events of her life. We can know her best by reading her stories and her novel. They continue to be as vivid and alive as they were when first published and illuminate our own experiences as good fiction ought to do. All of her works are easily available in most libraries and many bookstores.  

Surviving the Virus

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives.  We work at home and count on digital connections with relatives and friends. It is scary not to be able to walk to a coffee shop and mingle comfortably with strangers or friends. And it is disturbing to go to a grocery store only to find shelves empty of our favorite comfort foods.  

But if we tear ourselves away from the endless flow of news, we can find a few unexpected pleasures.  Rather than paying attention to current news, it is better by far to stick to the books that take us away from our immediate surroundings. My library, the San Francisco Public Library, has closed all branches, but it has a large collection of ebooks and audiobooks that can be downloaded directly to our living rooms. Every day I can download several mysteries and browse through them at my leisure to decide whether to spend the evening with Maisie Dobbs or V.I. Warshawski or any of my other favorite detectives. It’s not the same as browsing along the shelves in the library, but it gives me almost the same thrill of discovering new adventures and new characters to take my mind off viruses and politics. And one bonus of borrowing digital books from the library is there is no need to return them. Each one magically disappears from my Kindle when my borrowing time is over. 

Of course, you don’t have to confine your reading to mystery stories. You can organize an impromptu reading group and discuss books with friends.  I’ve heard of people who have decided to read and discuss War and Peace during breaks from their work at home. That sounds a bit over-ambitious to me. I’d prefer to read and talk about a shorter classic. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome would work. I’m sure every public library in the country has copies of those. And they offer lots of ideas to talk about with friends. 

This digital life offers surprises that turn old pleasures into new ones. For years I’ve gone to concerts, sometimes in great concert halls, sometimes in university auditoriums, but I have always had a seat far in the back of the hall or in the balcony. Now I’ve discovered the special joy of watching a concert streamed online. Amazon Prime, of all places, offers a variety of choices from Bach to Mozart and dozens of other composers. The music is the same as in a concert hall, but the extraordinary photography makes an amazing difference to me. I can watch a close-up of elderly hands hovering over the piano keys or see the glances between two musicians as they coordinate their entrance into a piece. Watching them gives me a new appreciation of what it must feel like to be part of a musical group, something I have never been privileged to experience before. 

During this mandatory shelter-in-place life we are allowed to go outdoors for a walk in the fresh air. I am lucky to live only a few blocks from the beach and have always enjoyed watching the ocean as it moves relentlessly along the shore. No matter what comes along in life, the repetitive motion of the tides reassures us that nothing lasts forever. As the tide ebbs out, leaving stretches of beach marked only by seaweed, plastic bottles, and perhaps a few quivering jellyfish, we can be sure that in six hours and thirteen minutes the high tide will be back.  The world goes on and so will we.   

Ocean beach

Zora Neale Hurston—speaking for the unheard

What determines whether an artist’s work will be remembered? No one seems to have the answer to that. Some books drop from sight a few months after publication, others disappear for a while and then resurface when times change. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1937, but that was only the beginning of a long story. The fate of the book has become so mingled with the life and death of its author, that it is difficult to know which is the major cause of its longevity—the book or the intriguing life of its author.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities in America and Hurston’s father became mayor. After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father quickly remarried, and family tensions led Hurston to leave home before she finished high school. She studied at Howard University, but later moved to New York where she attended Barnard College and began writing fiction. She also studied with the anthropologist Frans Boaz as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The recent book Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King recounts how Hurston became interested in studying and recording the language and culture of African Americans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is enriched by Hurston’s background in both literature and anthropology. The narrator, Janie, tells the story her life in the rhythmic dialect of Southern Florida. She recounts how her grandmother pushed her into an early marriage with an older man, how she left that unsatisfactory marriage in order to find a better life only to discover that her new husband wanted her to be simply a passive ornament for his life. The book springs to life in its later sections after Janie is freed from her second marriage by the death of her husband. Hurston’s vivid prose make the final section of the book both dramatic and satisfying as Janie’s search for happiness reaches its conclusion.

Even though Their Eyes Were Watching God is now regarded as a classic novel of the 20th century, it did not receive an overwhelming success from critics when it was published.  In his review, Richard Wright wrote: Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears …  Other reviews were more appreciative, including this from the New York Times : …from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible. (Both of these reviews are available on the Bookmarks website.)

Like all important novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, will give you plenty to think about. The story of how Nora Zeale Hurston and her books were rediscovered after years of obscurity is as fascinating as the book itself. My suggestion would be to read the novel first and then go on to investigate more about the author. Gods of the Upper Air is one good starting point, but there are other sources to explore. You will find yourself on a fascinating journey.

An Imperfect Suffragist–Jane Grey Swisshelm

Looking back from our perch a hundred years after American women got the right to vote, it’s easy to wonder why it took so long. Allowing women to vote did not cause an upheaval in politics. Neither the fears of frivolous “petticoat rule” nor the hopes for a new, uncorruptible electorate proved true. The political parties continued to nominate men and push for positions that were pretty much the same as the ones they had supported for generations.

Jane Grey Swisshelm

Some women had predicted a new, more just society would be brought about by giving women more rights. Lucy Stone, an early suffragist, wrote “I believe that the influence of women will save the country before every other power”. Things did not work out that way.  Learning more about the women who worked on suffrage helps us understand the mixed motives and beliefs that shaped events.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was one strong believer in women’s right to vote who expected far less of women than Lucy Stone did. Swisshelm thought women were not ready to enter the main arena of politics. She suggested that they earn the vote slowly by proving they were capable of exercising the right wisely in a local setting. “Women should not weaken their cause,” she wrote, “by impracticable demands. Make no claim which could not be won in a reasonable time. Take one step at a time…and advance carefully.”

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in 1815 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father and sister died when Jane was eight years old and she grew up in poverty as her mother struggled to support the family. When she was 20 years old, Jane married and moved to Kentucky with her new husband. Here she first encountered slavery and was horrified by the cruelty she saw around her. She was especially outraged by a neighboring slaveowner who impregnated his female slave and then sold his children into slavery.

Jane’s response to what she saw in Kentucky was to write articles for the local press. As the popularity of her articles grew, she decided to start her own paper, but soon discovered some of the disadvantages of being a woman in the business world. The editor for whom she had been writing immediately asked whether her husband approved of Jane working. Then he said she would have to work in the office with him. The idea of working with a man in an office was scandalous, but the editor was a careful gentleman.  They worked in the same office together for ten years, but whenever Jane was there, he drew up the shutters so the room could be seen from the street; and he never offered to walk her home or anyplace else unless he was accompanied by his wife. Jane played her role by deliberately not dressing fashionably and trying to play down her attractiveness. The first copy of her paper Pittsburg Saturday Visiter (She deliberately used an old-fashioned spelling of the word.) was printed on Jan. 20, 1848. It soon gained many readers and Jane moved on to bigger things.

Many of Swisshelm’s articles were about abolition and the struggle over the Fugitive Slave Law. She wrote to Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers in the country. He hired her to go to Washington and write dispatches for his paper, so she became the first woman to sit in the reporter’s gallery of the United States House of Representatives.

As Swisshelm’s work as a journalist continued, she became a force in anti-slavery circles as well as a part of the women’s rights movement. She was strongly interested in women’s economic rights, an interest brought about in part because her husband claimed that he had a right to the property she inherited from her mother. The couple divorced in 1857 and Jane moved to Minnesota with her daughter to pursue newspaper work. Working in St. Cloud, she campaigned against a local politician, Sylvanus Lowry, who owned slaves despite the fact that Minnesota was a free state. Eventually the quarrel became so bitter that Lowry raised a group of followers who burned her newspaper office and destroyed her business.

Swisshelm was always a strong supporter of freedom for slaves and justice for free Blacks, but her feelings for other groups were not so strong. She did not believe that Indians native to Minnesota had any right to the territory and deplored the fact that they resisted the incursion of settlers. When the Dakota Indian War broke out in 1862, she was appalled at the slaughter of several hundred settlers by the Indian “savages” as she called them. The Indians had been promised money for the land they gave for settlement, but Swisshelm saw no reason why they should be paid. She called for the extermination of all Indians who resisted the incursions of white settlers and she travelled to Washington D.C. to urge Lincoln to punish the Indians more. In recent years many Minnesotans have called for the removal of all monuments and tributes to Swisshelm because of this blot on her record.

Dakota War 1862

Swisshelm’s trip to Washington led her to volunteer as a nurse during the War and she served until the war ended and she got a government post. Afterward she started a newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but when she printed articles critical of the new president, Andrew Johnson, she lost her job and her newspaper.  

So what should we think of Jane Grey Swisshelm? She was undoubtedly a reformer who supported many good causes, especially abolition and women’s rights. But she was also a cantankerous voice against other good causes, opposing rights for Native Americans, and quarrelling with other suffragists over how women should gain their rights. Much of what we know about Swisshelm is found in the autobiography she published in 1881 called Half a Century. It has recently been republished and is available as a free Kindle book on Amazon. If you read the book it will introduce you to a strong, brave, but maddening woman who argued and fought her way through many of the most troublesome issues of the 19th century. Women’s suffrage, like many reforms, was finally won not by heroic angels, but by a mix of women with strengths and weaknesses that both helped and hindered their cause.

Showing Us a Different World–Nadine Gordimer

Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.  

Nadine Gordimer

July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.

Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:

Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.  

Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.

Nadine Gordimer died in 2014. 

Votes for Women Booklet

Today I am announcing a new way for you to use some of the ideas you’ve read about on Teacupsandtyrants.com over the past several years. Some of my readers have mentioned that they like to go back to earlier posts to find titles and authors of books I’ve mentioned. Some have used the blog as a source of ideas for books to read with their reading groups.

As a help for anyone who wants to read on a particular theme, or to suggest one to a reading group, I’ve decided to pull together a few booklets of suggestions. The first themed booklet is now up on my blog home page (on the right at the top). The booklet is a pdf file (leaders voting rights.pdf) that you can download and print or use online. Titled Waging War for Women it is designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. As I write in my introduction:

2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. It is time to look back at the lives of six of the most outspoken and radical women who brought us this victory. The women’s lives span the years from the beginning of the country until the early 20th century; the group includes white women and African Americans, immigrants and American born; some were Quakers, one an atheist, others followed various religions. What distinguishes them is that they all fought actively to make life better for women. They refused to be silent. They rejected the limited role given to women. It took more than one lifetime to win the vote, but they never gave up the fight. Meet the warriors:

  • Lucretia Mott
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Ernestine Rose
  • Victoria Woodhull
  • Ida B. Wells
  • Alice Paul

I hope you and your friends will enjoy reading these introductions and the books that are mentioned. In months to come I hope to post other booklets on other themes growing out of the ideas presented in teacupsandtyrants.com

A Woman Unafraid of War–Florentia Sale

Throughout history, women have seldom started wars, but it is surprising how many women have played important roles when wars come to them. Florentia Sale, for example, was a Victorian-era woman whose journal helped the British to navigate a tricky situation in Afghanistan in 1842. After that war ended, the journal became a bestselling book and it remains today an enduring record of a brave and clever woman.

Lady Florentia Sale

Florentia Sale was born in Madras, India, in 1790. into a family of British civil servants.  Like many British civil servant and army families of the time, her father  and his family spent very little time in England. At the age of 19, Florentia married a British army officer, Sir Robert Sale. Most of the rest of her life was spent in farthest reaches of the British empire. All of her ten children were born abroad and spent most of their lives outside of England. Florentia was already a grandmother when her life was changed by one of England’s most unnecessary wars—the first Anglo-Afghan War.

The British entered the Afghan War because they were afraid Russia might be planning to invade India through Afghanistan, although the Russians had no such plan. Both British and Russian leaders apparently misunderstood which ruler the Afghan people would accept, or perhaps they didn’t care, but each country pushed support for its own choice. The British Army and the British East India Company, which fought beside them, invaded Afghanistan. As usual, the armed forces were accompanied by many women and children. When the British moved into Kabul, the citizens rose against them. On November 2, 1842, Lady Sale describes in her journal “This morning early, all was in commotion in Kabul. The shops were plundered and the people all fighting.” The British decided to retreat. 

A large number of hostages, most of them women or children, were taken by the Afghans to ensure that the British would leave. Lady Sale was one of them. This group was to be marched to Kandahar. The march was long and slow and it started during a cold Afghan winter. Conditions were not comfortable, but Florentia made the best of them. The group walked for several days with only a few stops and no access to the clothes and supplies they had packed for themselves. When they finally were reunited with their belongings, Florentia describes how good it felt. “We luxuriated in dressing, although we had no clothes but those on our backs; but we enjoyed washing our faces very much, having had but one opportunity of doing so since we left Cabul. It was rather a painful process, as the cold and glare of the sun on the snow had three times peeled my face, from which the skin came off in strips.

Wars moved slowly in those days and various envoys from the British came and went from the Afghan camp, although they could do nothing to free the hostages. But Lady Sale was able to send letters including pages of her journal to her husband, to let him know where the hostages were and how they were being treated. Parts of her journal were published in London newspapers so even as she was living through the hostage crisis, she became famous. Dubbed the ‘soldier’s wife par excellence’ by The Times, Lady Sale was also known as ‘the Grenadier in Petticoats’ by her husband’s fellow officers.

Throughout her long ordeal, Lady Sale stood up for her rights and for the well-being of her fellow hostages. When the Afghans and the British forces were negotiating the terms of ransom for the hostage women and children, Lady Sale protested “against being implicated in any proceedings in which I have no vote.”

Cold weather was not the only difficulty the women had to overcome. Many of the younger women were wives of British officers and during their nine-month-long ordeal, four babies were born to add to the list of hostages. None of this seemed to bother the indominable women who coped with weather, childbirth and earthquakes without losing hope.

Even as she observed the war and bargained with soldiers, Florentia continued to pay attention to the beauty of the countryside. In April she wrote “I saw plenty of amaryllis in bloom; as also of the Persian iris (the orris of the druggists), which quite scented the air with a perfume resembling that of mingled violets and wall-flowers.”

After nine long months, the hostages were released. Nothing had been gained by the war. In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir about this disastrous war. He wrote that it was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.

If you would like to read more, you can find Florentia’s journal on Amazon and in some libraries. Sale, Florentia. Lady Sale’s Afghanistan: an Indomitable Victorian Lady’s Account of the Retreat from Kabul During the First Afghan War.

Revisiting Favorite Books–May Sarton

Now that Christmas and the other gift-giving holidays are over, it is time to look back on the gifts we received and savor them. For me, this was a very book-heavy year. One of the books I received was a collection of essays and reviews by Ursula Le Guin called Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books (2016). The essays cover a wide range and reintroduced me to several writers I had read in past years but had not revisited. To start the year off, I decided to go back to some writers I remember enjoying years ago. One was May Sarton, a favorite of earlier years, who has faded from public notice since her death in 1995. She is well worth revisiting.

May Sarton

Reading Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) now is like revisiting another world. I felt as though I was watching an old movie; cigarettes are lit every few pages, people drink cocktails before meals and wine at dinner while wives uncomplainingly cook and serve meals to preoccupied academic husbands. At Harvard, where this story takes place, students revere their professors, male students humbly call for the female students at their dormitory doors, and the suicide of a literary scholar is front-page news across the country.

But behind the propriety of this quiet life, political issues are as divisive as they are today. The time is the late 1940s and the scholars are deeply involved in the postwar struggles between Russia and the West. Sarton mentions the tremendous shock to American intellectuals caused by the suspicious death of Jan Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia. His death—which could have been either suicide or murder—led to Czechoslovakia’s fall into Russian-style communism. The disillusionment of American liberals at the country’s fall from democracy is a potent force in this story.

Jan Masaryk

A dramatic clash at a quiet meeting of the local Civil Liberties Union signals the beginning of a painful confrontation between the close-knit group at Harvard. Edward Cavan, a professor of American literature, refuses to sign a letter certifying that all the leaders of the group are free of Communist taint. His refusal leads to arguments and threatens long-standing friendships. When Cavan commits suicide, his friends and students try to discover why they could not understand his pain and were unable to help him.

Most of the story is told through conversations between friends of Cavan and his sister who comes from California to arrange his funeral. The contrast between academia and the world of successful medical doctors appears very sharp. How much does family background and childhood experiences influence Cavan’s political ideas and personal decisions? Every reader will have to decide individually. Sarton includes a postscript chapter covering the day five years after the suicide when unforeseen political changes shed new light on the feelings of Cavan’s old friends and the direction of the country.

Faithful Are the Wounds is more relevant than ever in these times of clashing political loyalties. Reading about a different but equally bitter historical period in our country helps us to understand what is going on now. Sarton wrote a story that many readers will think about long after the reading is finished.  

…Sliding into the Twenties

As 2019 fades away into the past, surely the best news about what has been accomplished this year is the story of Greta Thunberg and her crusade to make people aware of the climate crisis. Thunberg sailed across the North Atlantic to speak to world leaders about those changes and how they will affect young people. Government leaders listened politely, young people mounted parades and protests, but almost no government or individual did anything to confront the crisis. Young people heard her voice, but the older people who control the world seem to be deaf to it.

Greta Thunberg

If world leaders could not hear the protests of young people, they might at least look across the world to see some of the reasons for the protests. Australia has been suffering from massive wildfires and days of record-breaking high temperatures. Antarctica is losing ice at triple the rate of only five years ago. Whether it is heat or cold that you worry about, both are growing more extreme. The thousands of people who have been displaced by changes in the climate will swell to millions. And those people will keep moving as their homelands become unlivable.

Wildfires in Australia 2019

Meanwhile, two yellow-haired men, one in Britain and one in America swell up and bellow at the world to stop turning and retreat backward. Denying climate change and the global changes it will bring, they long to return to a patchwork of tiny national states huddled behind flimsy walls. Like King Canute ordering the ocean to stop its incoming tides, the forces of change won’t listen or care. Bob Dylan was right when he told us half a century ago, “the times, they are a-changing”.

But there are still signs of hope in the world. We still have young people like Greta Thunberg and her followers. And we still have the voices of writers who remind us of our shared humanity. Two books that I’ve read in the last month are especially hopeful. One is Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey, and the other is Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena. Both of them are meditative works that tell of journeys—the kind of journeys that writers and artists have been taking for centuries. Where would we be without individuals who can share their thoughts with us?  

In Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith tells us about a trip across the country from California to New York and back again. She travels through dreams and reality, as she thinks about friends who are dying and people both living and dead who are still part of her life.

A Month in Siena also tells of a journey. Hisham Matar goes to Siena to look at paintings and at the city. His trip comes after other trips he has made to his native Libya attempting to discover what happened to his father, a political activist who disappeared into prison years ago. Both the centuries-old paintings he absorbs and the people he meets in the city make it possible for him to connect with the world he lives in and shares with us.

Both Smith and Matar give us a humane view of how people can meet one another and share feelings and ideas. Perhaps the best news we can find as 2019 ends and the new decade begins, is that books and art survive. Perhaps they will help us all to confront the inevitable changes coming as the century grows older.