The Classics Spin #9: “Cannery Row”

Back in March I won the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for The Classics Spin #9. And I mistakenly thought the completion date was May 15. In fact, it was May 5. Not that it really matters, since I’m a bit late either way. But I did finally finish reading the book on the plane flight to Europe.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
Original publication date: 1945
Rpt. New York: Penguin, 2002
ISBN 978–1–101–65979–3

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chopped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

This opening paragraph introduces readers to Cannery Row, where, when the “cannery whistles scream … men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.” But at day’s end, after these workers “straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town … Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns.”

The book’s narrator asks, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” He decides that the way to write this book is “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

And so, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row tells the story of this place through the intertwining stories of its inhabitants. Set during the Great Depression, the book portrays a time when work was hard and life was even harder.

The main characters include Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated; Lee Chong, a local Chinese grocer; Mack, the leader of a group of unemployed men; and Dora, owner of the local brothel. The book acknowledges the characters’ many faults—drunkenness, malingering, craftiness—while at the same time portraying their good qualities—kindness, charity, friendship. After all, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” are the same as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Rereading “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink

caddie woodlawnBrink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
Original publication date: 1935
rpt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
eISBN 978–1–4424–6858–0

Part of the charm of rereading, as an adult, books that I read as a child is understanding and appreciating how I must have reacted to the books back then. I didn’t remember much about Caddie Woodlawn when I put it on my Classics Club reading list except that I enjoyed it. Now I see why.

Carol Ryrie Brink based the book, and the character of Caddie, on her grandmother’s stories about her own childhood. The book opens in 1864 with a description of 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn, “as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin.” Caddie and her sister Mary had both been frail and sickly when the family first came to Wisconsin from Boston seven years earlier. After Mary died, Mr. Woodlawn told his wife, “I want you to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don’t keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying.” So Caddie was allowed to run free with her brothers, Tom and Warren, all over the area surrounding their farm.

Their adventures would have appealed to me because, as a young child, I also spent much of my time exploring the world around me in a small, rural New England town. I didn’t have siblings to accompany me, but some of my happiest memories are of sitting in the crotch of an apple tree below my house during apple blossom time and watching the bees buzz among the flowers. I also often tried to catch field mice in the unmown meadow with a coffee can, but I never succeeded. My parents had a troubled marriage, and I learned to take refuge outdoors.

Another feature of this book that would have appealed to me was the strong family life it portrays. I did not share that experience with Caddie’s family, and throughout my childhood I was drawn to books and television shows that offered alternate visions of what family life could be like.

Rereading the book now, I wonder how I reacted to the gender message that it carries. Although Caddie’s adventures appealed to me, I probably simply glossed over the gender issues. Children’s books entertain while at the same time imparting the message of what one’s society considers proper behavior, especially which behaviors are proper for boys and which for girls. Other members of society question Mr. Woodlawn’s approach to raising Caddie along with the boys. Early in the book the visiting circuit preacher asks, “When are you going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian, Mrs. Woodlawn?”

Significantly, Caddie turns 12 during the year of the book’s narrative, the traditional age of puberty that marks the progression into adulthood. After her birthday the gender message intensifies. Near the end of the book, Caddie’s mother punishes her for treating a visiting cousin badly, while the boys, who also participated, go free. Later Mr. Woodlawn “thrashes” the boys because he thinks it only fair that they share in the punishment, since he has raised Caddie, Tom, and Warren the same way.

Then father explains to Caddie:

It’s a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to reach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie—harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as ich as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well.”

You will not find a better description than this of the Victorian notion of separate spheres of life for men and women. This notion prescribed that business, finance, and politics were men’s world, while home and church constituted women’s world. There could be no overlap in these spheres of distinction. This concept also gave rise to the view of woman as a tender flower who had to be protected from the unsavory aspects of the world. This view conveniently kept women in their place and kept men in charge.

Like other young girls, I would have unconsciously and unquestioningly absorbed this vision of reality as truth. Caddie certainly does. After her father’s talk, she falls asleep.

When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility, but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.

Thank you, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for shattering the notion of that view of life as a “thrilling responsibility, beautiful and precious,” that all girls should rush forward to meet as they grow up.

The Classics Spin #9

It’s time for The Classics Spin #9.

For this exercise, Classics Club readers are to make a numbered list of 20 unread books on their original reading list. Then next Monday, April 6, the club will announce a number between 1 and 20, and by May 15 we are to read the book with that number on the spin list we created .

The assignment suggests that we pick books from several categories for the spin list to challenge ourselves:

For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

However, I know that the next three months (April-June) are going to be very busy for me. Not wanting to set myself up for failure, I’m choosing from among the shorter books and the easiest to read on my original list.

So here’s my list of 20 for the upcoming spin:

  1. Faulkner, William. Sanctuary
  2. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
  3. Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
  4. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  5. Morley, Christopher. Kitty Foyle
  6. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  7. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire
  8. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  9. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
  10. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  11. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology
  12. Wilder, Thornton. Our Town
  13. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
  14. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
  15. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  16. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five
  17. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  18. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground

Update

We have a winner! It’s #2.

So I’ll be reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row by May 15. Excited! Believe it or not, I’ve never read this book before.

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg. Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, in “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Rereading “Anne of Green Gables”

Cover: Anne of Green GablesMontgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables
Original publication date: 1908

Like most young girl characters who appear in books written for girls, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables functions for readers as a model of how to be a successful girl. These books communicate and reinforce to children the beliefs and behaviors that society deems appropriate for them to emulate. These messages may be submerged within a colorful narrative, but they are nonetheless there for youngsters unconsciously learning how to fit in and succeed in their world.

I know that I read Anne of Green Gables as a child, and I’m sure that I saw Anne as someone I should emulate. Also, Anne’s acquisition of a loving family is a theme that intrigued me throughout my own unhappy childhood. (I was fascinated at how all the Mouseketters managed to live with Jimmy and Uncle Roy in such harmony in their house on The Mickey Mouse Club.) Yet I don’t remember at all how I felt at the time about Anne or how I reacted to her story.

But on recently rereading the book, I felt a much greater affinity for Marilla than for Anne. This isn’t unreasonable, since now I resemble Marilla, not the young Anne. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how Montgomery includes in the book the growth of Marilla as much as the growth of Anne.

Early in Anne’s life at the Cuthbert farm (Chapter XI), Anne gives Marilla her opinion on the minister’s Sunday text and sermon:

It was a very long text. If I was a minister I’d pick the short, snappy ones. The sermon was awfully long, too. I suppose the minister had to match it to the text. I didn’t think he was a bit interesting. The trouble with him seems to be that he hasn’t enough imagination.

And here’s how Marilla reacts:

Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said, especially about the minister’s sermons and Mr. Bell’s prayers, were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years, but had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape and form in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity.

Although Marilla secretly agrees with Anne, she has never had the gumption to say so. Marilla herself has been successfully socialized into what society considers proper behavior. However, Marilla at least can recognize the truth of what Anne says, even though she takes seriously her job of teaching Anne how to be polite.

Gradually Marilla softens toward Anne. When Anne hurts her ankle while playing at her friend Diana Barry’s house and Marilla sees Mr. Barry carrying Anne home (Chapter XXIII):

At that moment Marilla had a revelation. In the sudden stab of fear that pierced her very heart she realized what Anne had come to mean to her. She would have admitted that she liked Anne—nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything else on earth.

Marilla begins to admit to herself her love for Anne, even though she doesn’t know how to express it:

The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn. But she had learned to love this slim, gray-eyed girl with an affection all the deeper and stronger from its very undemonstrativeness. Her love made her afraid of being unduly indulgent, indeed. She had an uneasy feeling that it was rather sinful to set one’s heart so intensely on any human creature as she had set hers on Anne, and perhaps she performed a sort of unconscious penance for this by being stricter and more critical than if the girl had been less dear to her. Certainly Anne herself had no idea how Marilla loved her. (Chapter XXX)

When Anne grows taller and needs new clothes, Marilla laments her growing up:

Marilla felt a queer regret over Anne’s inches. The child she had learned to love had vanished somehow and here was this tall, serious-eyed girl of fifteen… Marilla loved the girl as much as she had loved the child, but she was conscious of a queer sorrowful sense of loss. (Chapter XXXI)

Later, Anne tells Marilla that she will always love her and Matthew:

Marilla would have given much just then to have possessed Anne’s power of putting her feelings into words; but nature and habit had willed it otherwise, and she could only put her arms close about her girl and hold her tenderly to her heart, wishing that she need never let her go. (Chapter XXXIV)

It isn’t until Matthew’s death near the end of the book that Marilla can finally tell Anne:

Oh, Anne, I know I’ve been kind of strict and harsh with you maybe—but you mustn’t think I didn’t love you as well as Matthew did, for all that. I want to tell you now when I can. It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier. I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables. (Chapter XXXVII)

By the end of the book, then, Marilla has learned not only how to love, but also how to express her love. Marilla and Anne both grow through their interaction with each other throughout the novel.

“Revolutionary Road”: The Film

In an earlier post I reviewed the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, one of the books on my Classics Club list. The book contained some passages that presented Frank Wheeler as a melodramatically theatrical man always concerned about how he appears to others:

He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was (p. 4).

all afternoon in the city, stultified at what he liked to call “the dullest job you can possibly imagine,” he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight (p. 16).

Since these are examples of the author telling readers about a character, I wondered if this characteristic would come across in the 2008 film version of the novel, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler.

The film did not suggest this characteristic of Frank, but the visual nature of film did allow for some dramatic emphases of other themes in the novel. The book describes the Wheelers’ house on Revolutionary Road as on a hill. In the scene of the film in which the real estate agent, Mrs. Givings (played by Kathy Bates), first shows Frank and April the house, a low camera angle makes the house appear high on the hill. This visual effect presents the house as a castle high on a hill and suggests the Wheelers are a royal couple who will live there, an echo of the Wheelers’ feeling of their own superiority or specialness.

Even more dramatic is the visual effects early in the film to suggest the isolation and loneliness of the Wheelers’ current lives. Wide scenes show Frank dressed like all the other men waiting on the platform of the local station to take the train into the city for work. Then a shot of Frank inside the train isolates him among all the other similarly dressed men. The series culminates with another wide shot of a horde of suburban men in their suits and hats, all carrying their briefcases, pouring out of Grand Central Station and marching off to work. Even among such a crowd, Frank is isolated and alone.

Juxtaposed with that sequence is a scene of April, a suburban housewife in her apron, dragging her metal garbage can to the end of the driveway for pickup. She pauses to look around, and the camera reveals a road lined with identical driveways and garbage cans, but no other human being. Just as Frank is isolated among all his fellow workers who commute every day between their homes in the suburbs and their jobs in the city, April is also isolated in the suburbs. Several more scenes showing April peering outside from behind her living room picture window heighten her isolation into a feeling of entrapment.

Yates’s novel presents Mrs. Givings’s mentally ill son, John, as a kind of Greek chorus who comments on the action. Ironically, this disturbed character is the one who speaks the truth. Although the character’s role is clear in the novel, it stands out even more in the film thanks to the dramatic presence of veteran stage and film actor Michael Shannon.

In one of the bonus features on the film DVD, either director Mendes or screenplay writer Justin Haythe (I can’t remember which) calls Revolutionary Road “the grandfather of suburban novels.” The film version explores the layers of meaning that include not just the mundane realities of suburban existence but the tragic interlocking of a couple who use each other to explore their own individual pain and shortcomings. April says, “We thought we would be wonderful in the world.” But finally she has to admit, “We were never special.”

Classics Club Spin #8: “Revolutionary Road”

Related Post:

rev roadYates, Richard. Revolutionary Road
Original publication date: 1961
Rpt. Random House, 2008
eISBN 978–0–307–45627–4

This novel is most often described as an anti-suburban tract, a condemnation of the life of conformity and veiled unhappiness that flourished in the U.S. after World War II. And it is that. But it’s also much more, because that vision is too simplistic. The serpent in the paradise where Frank and April Wheeler buy a house on Revolutionary Road arises from the geography of the human heart as much as from its suburban Connecticut location, where a serpent of cars continually moves along nearby Route 12.

Frank and April met in New York City, where they enjoyed a carefree life together while planning their ideal future. “According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon” (p. 65). To accommodate their altered lives, they found a starter home in a western Connecticut suburb, but the serpent has already entered their lives: “The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees; and what if it did take time? Who could be frightened in as wide and bright, as clean and quiet a house as this?” (p. 41).

The novel begins in 1955, two years after the Wheelers’ move to the house on Revolutionary Road. Frank and April are both about to turn 30. They have the requisite two children: Jennifer, age 6, and Michael, age 4. Frank has a corporate office job that he hates and, like most men in his neighborhood, takes the train into Manhattan every morning while April stays home and cares for the children and the house.

In the novel’s opening vignette, Frank attends a community theater group performance in which April, who attended “one of the leading dramatic schools of New York” (p. 9), stars. When one of the male players becomes so nervous that he can’t go on and the female stage manager has to stand in for him, the performance falls apart. Even April can’t save it. The incident becomes a source of humiliation for April and foreshadows the collapse of their lives.

This theatrical failure is significant because both Frank’s and April’s lives are based on acting. Frank in particular is always posing as someone, assuming a particular persona. He spent his early twenties “wearing the proud mantles of ‘veteran’ and ‘intellectual’ as bravely as he wore his carefully aged tweed jacket and washed-out khakis” (p. 27). His face has “an unusual mobility: it was able to suggest wholly different personalities with each flickering change of expression” (p. 15). He performs life according to his own mental projections of how he should speak and act, as if seeing himself on stage or in a movie. After an afternoon assignation with a woman from the office, he wonders if he should apologize to her: “the very last thing in God’s world he wanted to do was apologize Did the swan apologize to Leda? Did an eagle apologize? Did a lion apologize? Hell, no” (p. 138). And April vacillates between a vague desire for something more satisfying from like than the role of the sensible middle-class housewife that she simultaneously works at projecting.

The serpent eating away at the Wheelers’ suburban lives is unfulfilled desire, the inability to make their everyday lives conform to their grand yet vague dreams of themselves. In his twenties Frank

“hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit. Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways? He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field” (p. 29).

After moving to the suburbs Frank continues to locate what’s wrong with the world in others, never in himself: “It’s all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity” (p. 81). He never loses the sense of his own superiority:

“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were” (p. 27).

It’s April who comes up with a new plan to allow Frank to discover the as yet unarticulated self he dreams of becoming. They will move to Paris. She will get a secretarial job to support them and leave Frank free to find himself. Ironically, April sees her getting a job as a way both to free herself from her housewifely existence and to allow Frank to escape the drudgery of his job. But, like their earlier grand plans, this one, too, proves impossible.

In the end, suburbia is not the cause of their unhappiness but rather the place where it unfolds. There’s a remarkable ambivalence here, for who of us has not had bigger plans that we’ve been unable to fulfill. Between the imagined vision and its achievement snakes reality. We understand the Wheelers’ dreams at the same time as we foresee the inevitability of their downfall.

“Parnassus on Wheels”

Morley, Christopher.  Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

Christopher Morley (May 5, 1890 – March 28, 1957) was an American essayist, poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. His first published work, Parnassus on Wheels, features Helen McGill, a 39-year-old woman who buys a horse-drawn wagon equipped as a traveling bookstore, and the people to whom she peddles her wares.

There’s not really much to review here, but the book celebrates the pleasures and benefits of reading. Here are some of the best quotations from the text:

“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.

I think reading a good book makes one modest. Whey you see the marvelous insight into human nature which truly great book shows, it is bound to make you feel small—like looking at the Dipper on a clear night, or seeing the winter sunrise when you go out to collect the morning eggs.

A good book ought to have something simple about it. And, like Eve, it ought to come from somewhere near the third rib: there ought to be a heart beating in it. A story that’s all forehead doesn’t amount to much.

Classics Club Spin #8

This will be my first time participating in the Classics Club Spin.

Here are the directions for spin #8:

At your blog, by next Monday, November 10, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list – in a separate post.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books in November & December. (Details follow.) So, try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

Next Monday, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by January 5, 2015.

I can’t see setting myself up for failure by including here any of my list’s huge books like Atlas Shrugged, The Golden Notebook, or Ulysses. I know I need to save those until I have a large chunk of time to devote to doing them right, and I will not have that kind of time between now and January 5.

So here is my list for the spin:

  1. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  2. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  3. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle (1948)
  7. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  8. Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  9. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  10. Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  13. Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road (1961)
  14. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  15. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  16. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  17. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  18. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway
  19. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955)
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin

Update: We Have a Winner!

It’s lucky #13!

I’m the lucky one. I get to read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates by January 5.