A Look at the Life and Times of William Shakespeare

An interesting fact about Shakespeare’s life is that we really don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life.  After reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare : the World as Stage, I find myself wondering just what kind of man Shakespeare was.  Did he have many friends?  Did he get along with his neighbors?  Was he jolly and jovial?  Or broodingly artistic?   Was he a good father? Was he deeply in love with Anne Hathaway?  But definite answers to these questions are not likely to ever be uncovered.  Bryson calls him the “best known and least known of figures.”

This leads to much inferring and conjecture.  Even what Shakespeare looked like is a matter of doubt.

most likely painted by John Taylor sometime between 1600 - 1610

Upon viewing the Chandos portrait, which only may be Shakespeare’s likeness, Bryson fancies that he was “confident, serenely rakish” and that the earring in his left ear reveals him to be “a bit bohemian,” which feels appropriate.  His black attire denotes a certain level of prosperity. Since it took a good amount of dye to produce deeply black clothing, the color wasn’t typically worn by the lower classes.  (Later in the book Bryson gives an interesting break down of what you could tell about a person from their clothing because there were laws in place which dictated who could wear what based on wealth and rank.)

Droeshout Engraving - 1623

Another possible likeness of Shakespeare comes in the form of the Droeshout engraving, which was attached to the cover of the First Folio.  Bryson notes this work as mediocre due to it’s disproportionate features and describes the subject as “diffident, apologetic, almost frightened.”  I’m not sure I completely agree with that assessment, diffident perhaps, but apologetic and frightening is a stretch for me.

The last image we have is the bust which stands in the Holy Trinity Church in Stradford.  Bryson characterized the subject here as “puffy – faced and self-satisfying” and Mark Twain said of it that he had the “deep, deep, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder.”

Stratford Bust - by Gheerart Janssen

Indeed, Shakespeare as a man is hard to figure.  And as many of us in the classic book blogging community like to uncover as much as possible about the lives of the authors we love, this can feel frustrating.  Bryson notes;

“It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person.  If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul.  If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions.  From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more.  Shakespeare was of course all these things–as  a writer.  We hardly know what he was as a person.”

Much of the first half of the book could aptly be titled, “Shakespeare’s Times” as Bryson paints a picture of the England of Shakespeare’s childhood which was marked by rampant plagues, a changing religious climate with the country shifting from Catholicism to Protestantism, and by the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  He comments on the multitude of ways in which government affected people’s everyday lives, even to the point of dictating how many courses a person could eat at a meal.  A cardinal, he explained, was allowed 9 courses, while a person earning less than 40 pounds per year was only permitted two courses.  As stringent as this sounds, it was a far cry less oppressive than the time of Henry VIII when eating meat on Friday was a grave offense, punishable by hanging!

Again, since there is so much that remains uncertain, Bryson uses the context of Shakespeare’s times combined with certain details  to point to experiences he may or may not have had.  For instance, noting that Shakespeare’s father, John, served as a bailiff in Stratford meant that he approved funds for traveling shows which might have given young Shakespeare an early exposure to the theater.  Likewise, since any boy could attend a nearby grammar school, it is assumed that Shakespeare did.  Bryson gives an account of the typical grammar school experience for boys in Elizabethan England and notes that Shakespeare’s time there would have given him a foundation in Latin and Greek as well as in the use of rhetorical devices.

What Shakespeare did in the years after his education would have ended is unclear, but he applied for a marriage license in 1582 and married Anne Hathaway, who gave birth to their first daughter Susanna in 1583 and then to twins, Hamnet and Judith in 1585.

At some point between 1585 – 1592, Shakespeare left his hometown of Stratford with his sights set on London, where he sealed his career as a poet and playwright.  These years are noted as “The Lost Years,” because how and why and through what connections Shakespeare managed this are unknown.  (“unknown” is a word I’m getting used to in regard to Shakespeare)

sketch of the Swan theater from 1596

Much of what is known about the theaters and performances in Shakespeare’s day are details that have been extracted and gathered from the diaries of tourists and sketch artists.  One such tourist, Johannes de Witt, made a sketch that has become known as “The Swan Sketch,” of the Swan Theater, which is the only known interior image of an Elizabethian playhouse (though there’s no known connection between Shakespeare and this theater, the rendering is likely similar to the original interior of the Globe).


An early 1600s engraving by Claus Jan Visscher depicts the first Globe Theater (on the right – click for larger detail):

detail of the Visscher engraving

A panorama, called the Long View drawn by Wenceslas Hollar in the 1640s shows the second Globe which was built in 1614 after the first one burnt down the year prior:

detail of Wenceslas Hollar's drawing

At the Globe plays were performed at 2:00, the price to stand was a penny, two pennies to sit.  There was no stage set or curtains, but costumes were generally elaborate.  Though it was an era marked by poverty and plagues (which would temporarily shut down the playhouses in 1592), somehow the theater, and therefore Shakespeare, prospered.  He frequently performed for the queen and one of his performances was the last one that she would see before she died at the age of 69.

Queen Elizabeth was succeeded by King James, who Bryson described as “graceless” and owning a strange obsession with fondling his codpiece, making him sound a little less than kingly.  However, like Queen Elizabeth, King James too liked his entertainment and one of his first acts as king was to appoint Shakespeare and his troupe as King’s Men.

It was during the reign of King James that the the Blackfriars theater was finally opened.  It differed from the Globe in that the price of admission was a sixpence, performers utilized string instruments rather than brass, and there was also stage seating (for an additional cost), allowing for audience interaction.

That much of Shakespeare’s work is available to us today at all is thanks to Henry Condell and John Heminges who were responsible for putting together the First Folio which was not published until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.  None of Shakespeare’s works were officially published during his lifetime.

Bryson’s most witty and entertaining chapter is the final one, in which he examines the controversy surrounding the authenticity of Shakespeare’s authorship.  But since this posting is so long already and since I wouldn’t do it justice anyway, I’ll leave that for you to read for yourself.  :)

Bryson’s slim biography was well worth the short time that it took to read it.  I learned a great deal about Shakespeare’s life and times without feeling “stuffed” with information.  Yes, the last chapter is amusing but the entire book is peppered with wit and humor, which did much to keep my attention and focus.  This is precisely the kind of book that I would love to have about all my favorite authors.  Bryson’s style is accessible and entertaining and he imparts just enough to provide a framework and a springboard for more in depth exploration. He ignited my interest without overwhelming me.  I appreciated his brevity.  I’m stoked to read more about Shakespeare and feel like I now have a good foundation for doing so.


Thoughts on Walden


In the summer of 1845 Henry David Thoreau embarked on a two year experiment to “live deliberately” in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts.  Walden is what resulted from that experiment of spiritual and individual discovery.   He sought to escape a society which he viewed as “over-civilized” and full of people he felt were leading “lives of quiet desperation.”  He saw the pursuits of those around him as vain and empty, spiritually vacant, and therefore unfulfilled.  So off Thoreau went into the woods to reflect “on both what ails men and women in their contemporary condition and what might provide relief.”

I hesitate to accept the notion, however,  that Thoreau intended Walden to be a definitive guide or a manifesto on how to live.  Rather than a model for others to follow, I think that Walden is perhaps best looked upon as a highly individualized work of art, the interpretation of which is subjective and personal, allowing each reader to glean from it what they will.

Walden is regarded as a Transcendentalist work and from the little reading that I’ve done over the past few days, I’ve learned that rather than a definitive movement based on a collection of solid ideas and guiding principles, Transcendentalism was a broad concept with lots of individual manifestations.  Before I read Walden, I picked up  Emerson’s essay, The Transcendentalist, and mistakenly approached it with the intention of coming away being able to say, “This is what Transcendentalism is . . . ” I nitpicked at what I’d hoped were loose threads that I could unravel. But there never was anything to unravel, no framework to break down and examine the smaller pieces.  Nothing about Transcendentalism was ever meant to be absolute or definitive.  Emerson offered his vision, Thoreau his experience, and others did the same, in the same way that painters and artists offer up their unique interpretations of life and nature.  To try to define and nitpick at these works would be like trying to compare Van Gogh’s Starry Night to an actual night sky.  Pointless, really.  These writers gave their words as their own individual expressions.  Like any work of art, they are for us to examine and gain from them what we will, but not to copy or define.  As Thoreau sought his own spiritual truth, each person too must seek their own.

“I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself; I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible, but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

Thoreau puts the word “my” in italics, and when I read it I got the distinct impression that he might actually have been offended by others trying to adopt his lifestyle, as though they were trying to steal something that was his unique possession.  He further puts forth the admonition not to simply accept ideas passed along from others, but discover your own meaning in life.  Don’t be bound by society’s conceptions of what makes a good life, but actively seek and find what makes a good life for you.  He says, “Wherever I sat, there I might live,” which I understood to mean that each person must likewise find meaning in his or her existence from their own vantage point, not someone else’s.  From Thoreau’s vantage point, he saw a society enmeshed in consumerism and more bent on destroying nature than communing with it.  He saw people who followed fashion as though it were a religion and were enslaved by gossip.  He saw people “laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal.  It’s a fool’s life,” he says, “as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”  His preference:

“I would rather sit in the open air for no dust gathers on the grass unless where man has broken ground . . . a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.”

He felt that society would do well to shed its trivialities and focus on what’s truly meaningful.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

For Thoreau, getting to the “marrow of life” meant not accumulating possessions and property, but paring life down to the mere essentials.  The first few chapters of Walden relate the logistics of those essentials, such as where and with what Thoreau constructed his house, stocked his pantry, and clothed himself.

a recreation of the interior of Thoreau's cabin

Though Thoreau didn’t advise mimicking the past, he did value the reading of classic literature and devoted a short chapter to the writers he felt worthy of attention.  He quickly reminds, however, that more valuable even than literature is direct experience in nature.  Thoreau felt that nature was best experienced in solitude as “society is commonly too cheap.”  He admires the existence of a wood-chopper who was so synonymous with nature that birds would perch on his shoulder.  But with the wood-chopper’s example, Thoreau demonstrates that more is required than mere simplicity and harmony; to truly transcend, one must possess thought and intellect, which the wood-chopper lacked.  Contemplation, he believed, was an essential component.  Thoreau perhaps offers himself as an example of what he means with the chapter named, The Bean-Field, in which cultivating beans becomes a metaphor for his own self-cultivation, and not sustenance only.

Thoreau is sometimes criticized for not being charitable in the traditional sense, but this might be because he himself didn’t want charity, which he said would send him running for his life if he thought a visitor was coming with the intent of doing him good.  “As for Doing-good, . . . I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.”  At first look, it seems a harsh and callous statement to make, but isn’t he just saying with words what many of us say with our actions?  Don’t we essentially say the same thing when we choose to devote our free hours to reading a book rather than volunteering at a soup kitchen?  With such choices we are investing in the betterment of ourselves over “Doing-good” for others.  Thoreau just had the guts to speak it plainly.  Charity was not his calling.  He should be no more criticized for it than someone who chooses to be an artist instead of a social worker.  After all, isn’t a happy artist better for society than a disgruntled social worker?

Personally, I don’t think it’s selfish to be true to yourself.  Nor do I think it’s selfish to carve your own path in life, to seek and fulfill your passions whatever they may be.  I don’t agree with all of Thoreau’s ideas, but I don’t have to, they were his ideas and perhaps it was better for him to live them truly than to live someone else’s begrudgingly.       I still have a lot to learn, but thus far (after reading three essays from Emerson, Walden, and beginning American Transcendentalism), I don’t see Transcendentalism as a movement of self-indulgent people who cast off others.  On the contrary, some Transcendentalists were huge activists.  Rather, I see them as people who strived for self-awareness and who weren’t afraid to live outside of the boxes that were being imposed on them.    They weren’t willing to just accept and be fed everything that society proposed.  They weren’t crowd followers.


In essence, Thoreau wrote his own means of transcendence.  He spoke his truth as he lived it.  But I don’t believe that he intended for his truth to become anyone else’s truth. I think he was merely offering himself as an example for acting on the freedom that we all possess, to seek and speak our own truths, no matter how different they are from those espoused by our communities, families, churches, or leaders.

Not all of Walden was riveting to me; I was sometimes bored, I admit; but to criticize it would be like criticizing someone else’s essential self.  Walden is, I think, Thoreau’s essential self, as he lived and defined it.


What I took away from reading Walden:

It’s better to live openly as the person that you are than to live as you feel obliged to with a secret heartache.

Seek your truth from the depths of your existence and from the abundance of the universe.  Speak it as you live it.  No amount of possessions or titles can bring it to you, but neither can destitution take it away.  It is yours, you own it as you own your own soul.

Walden Pond - Concord, Massachusetts

The Transcendentalist : thoughts and questions about Emerson’s essay

Before it was an essay, “The Transcendentalist” was a lecture given by Emerson in 1842.  With both, he attempted to shed light on the movement, its foundation, and offer a picture of the Transcendentalist.

He began by reminding the reader / listener that these ideas are not new, but “the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mold of these new times.”  He illustrates that point with the following example:

The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it classifies.”

In essence, I understand this to mean that the same object, or the same basic idea will manifest itself differently depending on the context of the times.  In the essay, Emerson also explains the origin of the term which sheds further light on the movement.  The term “transcendental” was originally used by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his response to the philosophy of John Locke.  Locke advocated that one gained knowledge of the world through the direct experience of the senses.  Kant disagreed, arguing that there were “intuitions of the mind itself,”  which I suppose implies there there are things that just are; that exist independently of experience.

Emerson divides people into two distinct categories on one side being the “Materialists” and on the other the “Idealists.”  Naturally the Transcendentalist falls into the latter category.  To outline and contrast the defining characteristics of each, he offers this:

…the first class {meaning Materialists} founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final . . . The Materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture.”

So in short, the Transcendentalist values faith more than facts, intuition above irrefutable proof.

The idea that mankind can be classified into two distinct categories feels presumptuous.  I don’t find that people so easily fit into such compartments.  Personally, I think I fall somewhere between what he describes as the Materialist and the Idealist.  On one hand, I do tend to insist on facts.  Because of past experience I can be distrustful of exclamations of certainty for which there is not adequate proof.  Emotions are easy to exploit and  I have learned to be wary of expressly emotional appeals and elusive arguments. I don’t wish to let myself become so enraptured that I let go of reason.  Yet, I am also intrigued by the more illusory aspects of humanity and existence, including the “power of Thought and Will.”  Having said that, it’s possible that I’m injecting too much of my own bias and experience into Emerson’s words, or that I’m looking at them too simplistically.  Perhaps it’s better to stick to the context of Emerson’s times.  When considered alongside the principles of Puritanism, it’s quite the leap.

Emerson seemed to acknowledge that some of his transcendental ideas were an unattainable ideal.    While he relates that the Transcendentalist believes in the power of the human mind, of inspiration, of ecstasy, he admits that “there is no pure Transcendentalist.”  He seems to acknowledge that humans cannot possibly adhere fully to the principles that he’s put forth.  It’s an admission that the pure transcendentalist is an unattainable ideal.  Puritanism was also an unattainable ideal, but with Emerson there doesn’t seem to be that aspect of self-depravity.

In further explaining the precepts of transcendentalism, Emerson offers this:

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine.  He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.”

Okay, that sounds clear enough, but just when I think I’m following his line of thought, he follows it up with something like this:

He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to  the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is anything positive, dogmatic, personal.”

Is he trying to say that the transcendentalist rejects materialism entirely, to believe that everything is wholly spiritual?  How do you not admit anything “positive, dogmatic, personal?”  By laying out the principles of transcendentalism, by attempting to define what a transcendentalist is, isn’t that being, in a way, dogmatic?  I would argue to say that no defined movement can be completely free of dogma.  Anything that one might commit to embodies guiding principles of some sort.

Emerson later says that “they repel influences,”  but isn’t that exactly what he hoped to do with his lectures and essays – influence people to adopt his ideas instead of mainstream ideas?

He goes so far as to offer really in depth descriptions of the personality and characteristics of the Transcendentalist but at the same time says to beat off influence.  That in itself seems contradictory.  By way of summary,  he uses the following adjectives and phrases to describe the transcendentalist : lonely, joyous, susceptible, affectionate, preferring the country to the town, finding amusement in solitude.  He speaks of the lonely, secluded life of the transcendentalist, yet that doesn’t seem to describe his own as a busy, traveling lecturer.  Far from seclusion, he was somewhat of an American celebrity.

He says that transcendentalists “are not good citizens,” that they do not willingly participate in charities.  “They do not even like to vote,” he says.  This also seems like a contradiction as Emerson supported the anti-slavery movement as well as the northern cause in the Civil War.  I think the clarification, however, appears in the word “willing.”  Parts of his essay indicate that the transcendentalist will get involved in social causes only if he feels that his action will truly do some good, otherwise he would prefer not to participate.  He says that most charities have “a certain air of quackery” as they seemed to be more focused on promotion than on fulfillment of their cause.

He also makes more than a few hefty assertions such as “they have even more than others a great wish to be loved.”  {emphasis mine} I’m pretty sure that if I had made such a statement in writing, that my college English professors would have written something tantamount to “grandiose assumption” in the margins.

It might sound as though I’m being critical but in truth, I’m fascinated by Emerson and this idea of transcendentalism.  I have enjoyed reading his essays immensely.  I merely struggle with trying to make sense of his ideas and seeming contradictions.  In the back of my mind something tells me that rereading is what truly illuminates Emerson, and that I will have to visit him again.

On this first examination, I find some of his thoughts highly resonant, others not so much.  And yes, reading Emerson is a challenge for me.  His meanings are not easily summed up in a nutshell and I certainly don’t profess to understand everything that I’ve read from him.  Both his writing and his ideas can be complex and convoluted.

Just as I start to feel frustrated by his contradictions I laugh as I remember  a few lines and quotes from the next essay of his that I will discuss here, Self-Reliance, in which he says,

Suppose you should contradict yourself, what then?  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. . . speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.

I don’t know Emerson well enough to judge but part of me wonders if he made this statement to ward off criticism, realizing that he was fraught with contradicting notions.  In any case, though I question his variance, I do find this thought appealing.  I often hold back from fully expressing my thoughts because I fear that tomorrow I might realize that I’m mistaken or that I might change my mind.  I see Emerson’s thought here as permission to express myself anyway.  So what if I change my mind tomorrow or think differently or add new thoughts and ideas to my old assumptions.  That’s growth, right?  Better to expound on old thoughts and ideas than to cling to them for the sake of consistency.  Rigid adherence to anything, one’s own thoughts or an outside creed, gives the mind nothing new to play with.

While I am not yet convinced that the movement was completely dogma-free as I’ve seen it described, it does appear that it was more of a broad outlook on life with a heavy emphasis on individual intuition, rather than a carefully defined creed on how to live.


Click the image to see what others are reading and saying about Transcendentalism.  “Tea with Transcendentalists,” hosted by Jillian at A Room of One’s Own will run until December 15th.

Introducing Emerson : and his essay on Nature

1803 - 1882

I have read that Emerson is considered the “philosopher of the American spirit,”  but until last week I had no idea why he was appointed as such.  Whatever I learned about him in high school had all but escaped my memory.  I also had no idea that reading Emerson would follow a reading of Wordsworth’s poetry so well.  I credit Wordsworth for putting me in the right frame of mind for taking in Emerson, and rightly so for Emerson was an admirer.  Wordsworth and Emerson have more in common than an affinity for nature; they both lost a parent at the age of 8.   Wordsworth lost his mother and Emerson his father, a Unitarian pastor.

His mother was adamant that despite their hurdles all of her children would be educated, so at age 9 Emerson began attending Boston Latin School and followed that up with Harvard College at age 14.  His school career was rather undistinguished.  He was named “Class Poet” while at Harvard, but only after 5 or 6 others had refused the offer.

After graduation he taught at his brother William’s school for girls until returning to Harvard’s Divinity School.  He officially became an ordained minister in 1829 and promptly married Ellen Tucker.  Unfortunately, Ellen suffered from tuberculosis and only lived for just over one year after their marriage.  Not long after, he resigned from his parish due to a disagreement over the Lord’s Supper, which Emerson thought was unnecessary to commemorate.

Disgruntled, he left for Europe.  During his travels he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship.  With spirits revived, he returned home in 1833, bought a house, married again, and embarked on a successful lecturing career.  Emerson settled into a mostly happy and contented life in the beautiful natural surroundings of Concord, Massachusetts surrounded by amiable associates.

1900 drawing of Emerson's house

Emerson's Study

He wrote, he published, he lectured, he supported the anti-slavery movement, and when the Civil War broke out he supported the northern cause, though he was too old to fight and was horrified by the violence of the war.  He joined the Transcendentalist Club and co-founded The Dial, a journal to promote transcendentalist ideas.  Though his ideas may have been explosive in their time, as a man he was characterized as mild and friendly, and was a revered member of his community.

He died of pneumonia in 1882 at the age of 79.  To announce his death the church bells in Concord rang 79 times.


Nature, Emerson’s first published essay is said to be the foundation of Transcendentalism and is now one of his best known works.  However, when it was first published in 1836, it didn’t sell well.   Twelve years later the 500 printed copies still hadn’t sold out.

Emerson was inspired to write the essay after delivering a number of lectures on his visit to the Natural History Museum in Paris.  In it, he seeks to drive home his point on the interconnectedness of man and nature.  He sought to show how he believed life could be understood through nature in eight short chapters, each named for a particular topic of exploration.

I picked out two predominant ideas from reading Nature.  1) If we listen, nature speaks to us.  2) Don’t rely on other people’s thoughts or theories, OBSERVE them for yourself.

According to Emerson, the most easily understood use of nature was “commodity,” or what man could extract from it.

Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve him.  The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.”

This is the shortest of the chapters, just over one page long.  Emerson remarks that the uses of nature are endless “and the examples so obvious, that I shall leave them to the reader’s reflection.”

Emerson’s next area of exploration is beauty.  Where commodity fills physical needs, beauty satisfies the spiritual.  Every season holds a beauty that is unique and presents “a picture which was never seen before and which shall never be seen again.

I was particularly struck by this thought:

But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part.  The shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality.  Go out of the house to see the moon, and ’tis mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey.”

I think I get Emerson’s meaning here.  If I leave my house intent on witnessing some beauty in the natural world, I’ll no doubt find it, but then it remains only beauty to the eyes – it’s just a pretty sunset, or whatever.  But if I’m engaged in another pursuit altogether and just happen to be aided, assisted, or otherwise chance upon  that beauty to experience something I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, then it lends more meaning to the experience.   Maybe Emerson means to say that encountering nature in life has a greater impact upon the soul than merely pursuing it as a pastime?

Emerson concludes his ruminations on beauty by saying that nature is not beautiful in its singularity — a single leaf, a single ray of sunlight, a single mountain — but because of the harmony among nature’s features.

“Nothing is quite beautiful alone, nothing but is beautiful in the whole.  A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace.”

In the section on “Language” Emerson discusses how our words are formulated from the physical things of nature.  “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind,” he says.

“An enraged man is a lion, a cunning man is a fox, a firm man is a rock, a learned man is a torch . . .A lamb is innocence; a snake is subtle spite; flowers express to us delicate affections.  Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love.  Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope.”

Emerson also suggests that nature has it’s own ways of communicating ideas that we have formulated words and expressions for.

“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?  Throw a stone into the stream and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.”

The world is emblematic,” says Emerson.  “Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”  Emerson believed that this knowledge of the natural world was accessible to all men depending on the “simplicity of his character.”  This vision becomes blurred when man lets “secondary desires” into the picture, namely the desire for riches, pleasure, power, or praise.  These are the things that blur nature’s symbols and images.  I suppose this is because one’s focus becomes centered on the self and the elevation of the self, rather than observing and learning from one’s surroundings.

In addition to language, nature offers up lessons for us as well, which is what Emerson discussed in the fifth chapter entitled “Discipline.”  “{E}very natural process is a version of  a moral sentence.” Morality is central to nature.  He asserts that the farmer, miner, sailor, and shepherd can all learn similar lessons from their experiences in nature because they each “have an experience precisely parallel, and leading to the same conclusion: because all organizations are radically alike.”  In other words, I presume that different aspects of the natural world whether it be a field or an ocean, can teach the same moral lessons.  A fisherman can learn firmness by observing rocks continually beaten by the sea.  A clear blue sky translates to tranquility for any man.

I found the first 5 chapters of Nature interesting and resonant but Emerson sort of lost me after that when he started on universal spirits and life forces that put nature “through us,” whatever that means.    I read that after attending Emerson’s lectures some admitted to not understanding a word he said; and I too will admit that I don’t quite “get” all of his metaphysical views.   I also don’t think that agreement with every belief that a writer defends is necessary for appreciation.  I didn’t concur with everything that Wordsworth espoused either, but I still admire his artistry.  And I feel the grandeur of nature, even if not in quite the same way, or with the same associations.  As for Emerson, I applaud his love and reverence for nature, his vision, and his individualism.

logoI also read The Transcendentalist and Self-Reliance and I plan to comment on those as well but I’m uncertain as to whether or not I’ll get to this before the holiday.  If not, I wish all my readers a fabulous Thanksgiving!

“Tea with Transcendentalists” is an event running from November 15 – December 15 and is hosted by Jillian at A Room of One’s Own .  Click the image to find out more.

1776 by David McCullough

book imageThis book has been on my horizon for quite some time. I love learning about history, but I will admit that my knowledge is surface-level at best.  McCullough’s 1776 bumped to the top of my reading list after a recent trip to Boston where I was able to see a few sites related to the Revolution.  I had such an excellent time roaming around the city and that advanced my interest in better understanding the revolutionary period in our history.

1776, however, shouldn’t be considered an overview of the Revolutionary War, which spanned eight years.  1776 only covers what happened in 1776.  The events leading up to the war are barely given the notice of a sentence and not much more coverage is given to the subsequent years of the war.  That said, I closed this book with a heightened appreciation and understanding of the proceedings of that signature year and some of the key players, both American and British.

On nearly every page McCullough boosts his narrative with quotations from diaries, letters, and articles that breathe life into the people and events, and an otherwise detached writing style, allowing the reader to better grasp the impact on soldiers, leaders, and regular citizens.  In school, I remember history being covered far too quickly and often with an emphasis on achievement over actuality.  Battles become abstract concepts and causalities are just statistics.  Overall, I felt that McCullough’s writing flowed smoothly and was easy to read but his style (though definitely more interesting than a textbook) is almost as flat as you might expect from a non-fiction account of history.  That said, his inclusion of these personal anecdotes saved his narrative from being completely emotionless and helped to put a human face on the events.  These were real people after all, with wives and families and farms to tend to.

Devoting his narrative to only one year allows the reader to get a more intimate picture of the war as McCullough was able to give more time and attention to details that might otherwise be passed over.

Throughout the war, desertion was a problem. Early on, men would just lay down their arms and head home.  Not necessarily because they were cowards or had enough or were being defiant (though desertion for those reasons was also common), but because they thought their crops might need tending.  In their minds, if it was harvest time then of course they would go home and help with the harvest, war or no war.  They were volunteers, after all.  McCullough also notes that the men were undisciplined in the military sense, simply not used to being told what to do.  Unlike the British soldiers who typically “had rules, regulations, and traditions down pat,” the American soldiers were often disorderly and untrained, on top of being inadequately armed.

In the absence of being able to rely on quickly snapped and posted mug-shots of wanted deserters, they relied on detailed written descriptions of missing soldiers.  Such as this one, which I found quite amusing;

Deserted from Col. Brewer’s regiment, and Capt. Harvey’s company,  . . . one Simeon Smith of Greenfield, a joiner by trade, a thin-spared fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high, had on a blue coat and black vest, a metal button on his hat, black long hair, black eyes, his voice in the hermaphrodite fashion, the masculine rather predominant.  Likewise, Mathias Smith, a small smart fellow, a saddler by trade, gray headed, has a younger look in his face, is apt so say, ‘I swear! I swear!’ And between his words will spit smart; had on a green coat, and an old red great coat; he is a right gamester, although he wears something of a sober look; likewise John Daby, a long hump-shouldered fellow, a shoemaker by trade, drawls his words, and for comfortable says comfable.  He had a green coat, thick leather breeches, slim legs, lost some of his fore teeth.”

Washington stayed connected to home throughout the war by sending orders for renovations and modifications to his home at Mount Vernon.   He often wrote to Lund Washington about wainscoting and partitions and chimney pieces, giving careful instructions of what should be done.  In one letter to Lund Washington, along with his instructions, Washington admitted to being “wearied to death.” I will admit that by about ¾ of the way through this book, I too was exasperated.  But perhaps that is an appropriate reaction since by the end of the book everyone involved was exasperated.     Intense battles were fused by long periods of waiting and wondering.  Not only were soldiers being battered in battle but they were also being battered by illness and harsh weather.  There were scourges of dysentery, typhus, and smallpox.  Much of the spread of disease was due to the general filth of the soldiers who, in absence of their wives, were not accustomed to doing their own washing.    They also tended to relieve themselves whenever and wherever the moment struck and Washington had to coach and coax them to abide by sanitary living conditions.

The elements too, were frequently uncooperative.  Nature could be unbearably harsh.  The winter of 1776 was frigid while the summer was marked by unrelenting, fatigue-inducing heat which also further propelled the dysentery epidemic.

I was particularly struck by the account of a thunderstorm that was said to have stalled over New York and raged there for three hours.  It was called “a storm like a hurricane.”

’In a few minutes the entire heavens became black as ink, and from horizon to horizon the whole empyrean was ablaze with lightening.’ The thunder did not follow in successive peals, but in one ‘continuous crash.’


The storm raged for three hours, yet strangely the cloud appeared to stand still, ‘and swing round and round,’ over the city.  ‘The lightning fell in masses and sheets of fire to the earth, and seemed to strike incessantly and on every side.’


Houses burst into flame.  Ten soldiers camped by the East River, below Fort Stirling, were killed in a single flash.  In New York, a soldier hurrying through the streets was struck deaf, blind, and mute.  In another part of town three officers were killed by a single thunderbolt.  A later report described how the tips of their swords and coins in their pockets had been melted, their bodies turned as black as if roasted.”

Trying times indeed.

Like his soldiers, Washington too, was in many ways untrained and ill prepared for all that he would have to contend with.  He was often indecisive or made poor decisions. Again and again in his letters to Congress he called for “patience and perseverance.”  As he has been commonly quoted,

Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”

Truly that was Washington’s strength, his sheer unwavering drive and staying power to continue, to carry on, and to not give up.

As McCullough, states near the close of his book, “The war was longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate.”  An upwards of 35,000 people lost their lives.  McCullough’s account does much to shed light on the adversity, the hardship, the suffering, the disillusionment, and the doubts of success that would ensue due to the few victories sustained that fateful year.

History tends to gloss over bleak and austere realities in favor of celebrating success and achievement.   I guess that’s understandable in a sense.  But personally, I strive to develop an appreciation of history (as much as possible) for what it really was rather than only extract enough details to build a swell of national pride.  To a scantily clad soldier trekking through the snow laden fields and woods, not knowing if he was going to be alive tomorrow or ever see his family again, it was more than just “The Battle of Trenton.”  I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d prefer to have an honest, human understanding of the events of our past and strive to feel the gravity of what took place.


To further my knowledge of this period in our history I’m considering the following additions to my reading list.  If you have any further suggestions, feel free to chime in!

Phillis Wheatley: America’s First African American Author

old south meeting houseIn early May I had the opportunity to travel to Boston and while there I became intrigued by writer, Phillis Wheatley.  I first saw a statue of her in the Old South Meeting House and learned that she was America’s first African American writer and poet. Her likeness is preserved at Old South because she was a member and baptized there at age 17.




Her story is a remarkable one.


Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley’s life began in western Africa; it is guessed that she was born in 1754. The only memory that she put in writing of her childhood in Africa is one of her mother waking to pour water before sunrise.  As a small child Phillis was kidnapped, brought to America on a slave ship called The Phillis, and bought at age 7 by John Wheatley of Boston.  Years later, she would capture the experience in her poem, To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth;

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d

That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyranic sway?

She was educated by Wheatley’s oldest daughter, Mary, and learned to read in just over a year.  By age 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics and was said to enjoy the poetry of Alexander Pope.  This was obviously an unconventional education for a slave, but also for a female.  Wheatley’s academic achievements rivaled any boy her age.  She wrote her first poem at age 13.

She would go on to write just over 50 poems and publish a book of poetry in London, a first for an African American.  In 1775, she wrote To His Excellency General Washington.  It was published by Thomas Jefferson in the Pennsylvania Gazette and Wheatley sent the poem to George Washington accompanied by this letter;

I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am,

Your Excellency’s most obedient humble servant,
Phillis Wheatley

Washington received the letter at the height of the turbulent Revolution, and yet found the time to compose a personal response.  On February 28, 1776 from his quarters at Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he penned the following note;

Mrs. Phillis,
Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands ’till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming, but not real neglect.

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.

If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.

I am, with great Respect


In 1772, Wheatley would go to trial to defend her literary abilities the face of those who believed a slave could not be capable of such poetic heights.  She was scrutinized by the likes of John Hancock and Thomas Hutchison (then governor of Massachusetts).  They concluded that the poems were most certainly from her mind and being.  In the years following, her work would be cited as evidence that an African American was just as intellectually capable as any white man or woman.

Though Wheatley exalted the Revolution in her poetry, times were hard for poets.  The chaotic days of war didn’t leave much time for idle thought and contemplation of even the most elegant verse.    This confined Wheatley to a life of poverty even after she was freed upon the death of John Wheatley in 1778.

Granary Burying Ground

John Wheatley, Phillis' owner, is buried at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. The location of Phillis Wheatley's remains are unknown.

With health complications of her own, Phillis died at the young age of 31, followed, within a few hours, by the death of her infant daughter.  The location of her remains is unknown, but her legacy is long-lasting.

In conclusion, a poem by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first African American author:

To S.M., A Young African American Painter, on Seeing His Works

 To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,

And thought in living characters to paint,

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,

And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,

How did those prospects give my soul delight,

A new creation rushing on my sight!

Still, wondrous youth! each noble path pursue;

On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:

Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire,

To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire!

And may the charms of each seraphic theme

Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!

High to the blissful wonders of the skies

Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.

Thrice happy, when exalted to survey

That splendid city, crowned with endless day,

Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:

Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.

Calm and serene thy moments glide along,

And may the muse inspire each future song!

Still, with the sweets of contemplation blessed,

May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!

But when these shades of time are chased away,

And darkness ends in everlasting day,

On what seraphic pinions shall we move,

And view the landsapes in the realms above!

There shall thy tongue in heavenly murmurs flow,

And there my muse with heavenly transport glow;

No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,

Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes;

For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,

And purer language on the ethereal plain.

Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night

Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

Thomas Jefferson: a biography by R. B. Bernstein

book imagePublished: 2003

My Rating: ***, 3/5

Bernstein’s book is a great little Jefferson primer.  I typically have a hard time plowing through long historical non-fiction books – and an even harder time with political non-fiction.  In the past I’ve approached various and sundry topics with great enthusiasm only to have that enthusiasm wane after a short time, feeling bogged down with an overload of details that consume hundreds upon hundreds of pages.  My desire for a deeper understanding of certain subjects has motivated me to modify my approach instead of abandoning certain endeavors altogether.  For instance, I now know better than to begin a study of Lincoln with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nearly 1K page Team of Rivals no matter how exciting it sounds and even if she did win a Pulitzer for it.  So when I begin my study of Lincoln in a few months I’ll be starting with James McPherson’s slim 100 page synopsis of Lincoln’s life and achievements.  Likewise, I knew better than to begin my study of Jefferson with something like Ellis’ American Sphinx, even though I was intrigued by it.  R.B. Bernstein’s 192 page overview provides a concise, approachable and balanced introduction to Jefferson’s life.

monticello imageI’ve wanted to read a biography on Jefferson for a while now – even though I probably have more knowledge of him than any of the other founding fathers.  I live just a few hours from Jefferson’s home at Monticello and up until a couple of years ago, I used to visit and tour the plantation once per year, usually in the early summer.  The last time I went was with a group of boisterous 4th graders in tow.  Typically, I either go alone or with family but I must say that was probably one of my favorite visits.  They were a particularly mature and enthusiastic bunch of students and never failed to impress our tour guide with their quick and accurate answers to her questions.

The book follows Jefferson’s life chronologically from his boyhood growing up in Virginia, to his education and career in law, through his time as a diplomat in Paris, his establishment of the University of Virginia, to his last days of refurbishing  Monticello (and yes, I’m leaving out loads).  Bernstein pays attention to all of the hats that Jefferson wore in his lifetime, shedding a little more light on each of them.  And while succinct, Bernstein doesn’t use brevity as an excuse to pass over some of Jefferson’s less desirable traits and actions in the same way that your 4thgrade teacher probably did.

Jefferson has often been described as an enigma in part because his viewpoints on some matters, seem to be somewhat veiled and also due to his contradicting and often conflicting perspectives noted in his writings and some 18,000 letters that he penned during his lifetime.  (I mean really with 18,000 letters – should we really expect to see no variance in perspective?!?)  Bernstein is balanced in his approach of this matter relating that Jefferson was a man of the times and his viewpoints evolved as the times and his experiences changed.

One area where contradiction is rife is Jefferson’s professed beliefs and actions about slavery.  While Jefferson believed that enslaving people was wrong, he also believed that there might be a scientific foundation for the idea that whites are superior.   He thought that the slaves should be freed; however, he didn’t think that they should remain in America.  He feared that the resentment between slaves and their owners was too strong and too deeply rooted to allow for a peaceful co-existence; therefore he proposed that they should be exiled outside American borders.  With fellow lawyer, Colonel Richard Bland, he supported what became known as manumission – allowing owners to free their slaves if they wished.  When Jefferson and Bland first proposed the idea it was staunchly opposed and Jefferson tired out in the face of antagonistic resistance.  Yet, when the bill finally was passed over a decade later and remained in effect until 1806, Jefferson, in that time, did not choose to free any of his own slaves.     Perhaps Jefferson saw slavery as an evil necessity of maintaining his life as a Virginia gentleman planter.  His design of Monticello reflects that perhaps he liked to keep that aspect of his life cloaked and covered as the slaves quarters are very deliberately kept out of view.  Jefferson also designed two dumbwaiters to connect both the kitchen and wine cellar with the dining room so that slaves would rarely have to make an appearance when Jefferson was entertaining guests.  It appears that slavery was something that Jefferson preferred out of sight, out of mind.

dumbwaiter image

An example of a dumbwaiter, similar to the one in the dining room at Monticello

Think that politics wasn’t so nasty back in the day?  Think again.  Jefferson’s battles with his political foe Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists became more than a little heated.  Not to mention just as personal as political debates today.  Jefferson was not above nor immune to the bantering game, but rather a very adept player in it.  Bernstein relates that Jefferson was very good at collecting scathing personal anecdotes on his adversaries and filing them away to make use of at some critical moment.

Jefferson himself was very beaten and battered by politics.  When he retired in 1809, he was relieved to be handing over the reins on his political journey – at least officially.  During the last days of his presidency, he relates;

“Within a few days I retire to my family, my books and farms; and having gained the harbor myself, I shall look on my friends still buffeting the storm with anxiety indeed, but not with envy.  Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.”

Jefferson felt that his nature was more suited to a quiet, contemplative life, but that the extraordinary times in which he lived called for more “political passion.”

One of Jefferson’s greatest achievements after leaving office was the establishment of the University of Virginia, of which he was both founder and architect.  Unlike, other institutions during Jefferson’s time, he did not want the establishment to have any religious ties.  He envisioned his university as an institution for secular learning and inquiry with a student-constructed curriculum blending politics, law, and philosophy.

Regarding religion, Jefferson was a Deist, believing that God created the universe according to certain unalterable laws, but was not actively involved in the affairs of men.  This seems to coincide with his high regard for human reasoning in the work of Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu.  In his later years Jefferson even penned his own version of the gospels, which is now known as The Jefferson Bible, in which he discarded accounts of miracles and angels, believing them to be based on superstition, and left only the realistic aspects of Jesus’ life.

I’ll conclude with a few thoughts from Jefferson on government and the constitution, which he penned in his later years.  His wise words here seem particularly poignant in light of some modern political debates:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. . .But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”

Like many historical figures, it’s easy to place Jefferson on a pedestal and believe him and his ideas to be infallible.  I think that Jefferson himself perhaps best expressed the fallacy in this notion:

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.  They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.  I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it.  It deserved well of its country.  It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.”

Jefferson may not have been perfect and neither he nor his ideas were flawless, but he was certainly a remarkable character, living in extraordinary times, who managed to perform some stunning achievements.  I definitely plan on doing further reading and study of Jefferson’s life and legacy.  I suppose what makes him such an intriguing figure to me is the fact that he was so notably well-rounded in his accomplishments which extend beyond the realm of politics.  The next book I read about Jefferson will likely be his autobiography and I think it will be interesting to compare and contrast what biographers say about Jefferson with what he believed and hoped his legacy would be.

Weekend Book Treasures

I love a good book hunt.  Shopping in antique stores where there are books nestled on little shelves or inconspicuously piled up in corners or on table tops where a quick glance reveals a familiar title is pure heaven to me!  That combined with shopping at used or independent bookstores is about the only kind of shopping that I can bear on a regular basis.  This weekend my husband and I made the drive to one of our favorite used bookstores called Too Many Books.  It’s a quaint corner bookshop that is run by a woman with an exhaustive and truly impressive knowledge of her collection.  Whenever I’ve asked about a specific author or title she’s either taken me right to it or right to where it would be if she had it.  I never fail to leave baffled at how she manages to retain all of that information in her head.  If I ever owned a bookshop, I’d want to be just like her, whizzing through my store directing customers here and there all the while carrying on lively conversations.  We don’t live in the town where her bookshop is located so our visits are very infrequent, but she seems to know many of her customers personally.

Anyway, here’s what I came away with:

stack of books


The Essential Hardy Selected by Joseph Brodsky: This is a small volume of about 100 of Hardy’s poems.  They are complimented by an introduction and analysis by Joseph Brodsky, who was also a poet.


buck booksAll Under Heaven and Death in the Castle by Pearl Buck:  I will unashamedly admit that I collect Pearl Buck’s books faster than I can read them.  I’ve been fascinated by her ever since I read The Good Earth and one of her lesser known works, This Proud Heart as a teenager.  I had never before heard of these two titles but I just couldn’t resist their colorful vintage covers.




hardy short story imageAn Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress and other stories by Thomas Hardy: Indiscretion is a short story that was apparently taken from Hardy’s first novel which was never published, The Poor Man and the Lady.  The volume includes nine other short stories which deal with Hardy’s familiar themes of irony, gender, and class.




frenchman's creek imageFrenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier: Over the years I’ve picked up some very nice vintage editions of du Maurier’s novels at this bookstore.  When I was there on Saturday, I was delighted to find this 1942 edition of Frenchman’s Creek published by the Literary Guild of America.  The shop owner takes care to preserve the vintage dust jackets by reinforcing them with plastic covers.  This one is in particularly good condition.




tomalin book imageThomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin:  I first heard about this book from Chris, the author of the blog, Pro Se.  I will likely not pick this book up until at least March as I want to first get through reading Jude, the Obscure, but I’m really looking forward to reading this.  I’m even happier that I found a copy in such good condition from an independent bookseller, rather than having to order it online.


The Warden by Anthony Trollope: Last but not least I left with The Warden.  I’ve been reading so much about Trollope on other blogs lately that I want to give him a try.  From what I understand The Warden is the first in Trollope’s Barsetshire series, so I’m guessing that it’s a good place to start?

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

animal vegetable book imageby Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: *** 3/5

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is about the commitment of one family to eat only local food for one year, most of which they plan to grow or raise and kill themselves.  It is filled with information about chemicals in industrial food and the environmental cost of shipping perishables across great distances.

After reading this book I will pay more attention to eating seasonally and be a better patron of my local farmer’s market.  With that, I think the mission of the book was accomplished with me, though I’ll never be the purists that Kingsolver and her family are.  I will still eat bananas and enjoy a tall glass of lemonade on hot summer days.

Through the first 60-70 pages I was in love with this book.  The writing style was engaging, mildly humorous, and informative.  However, by mid-way through the book I was tiring of Kingsover’s repeated professions of her rural (so called minority) roots.  I was starting to feel like I did about John Edwards during the 2004 election campaign.  If he says “son of a mill worker” One. More. Time. We get it already.  You’re from a rural community where kids took off days from school for seed planting.  You’re different.  You’re special.  It’s in your blood.  Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.

This book would have been much more effective if it had been better edited.  Kingsolver repeats too many of the same anecdotes over and over again and rambles on about things (such as turkey mating) long after the reader has had enough already.  She mentions reaching for that jar of previously canned tomatoes and the homemade mozzarella one too many times.

While I wholeheartedly believe in the underlying sentiments behind this book (sustainability and supporting local farmers and not big agribusinesses), I feel that there were times when it felt a little bit self-righteous.  Towards the end of the book her daughter relates a story about one of her friends coming to visit.   They ask her if there is anything that she would like at the grocery store and the girl innocently suggests bananas.  After several sideways glances the answer is clearly “no.”  Yet, at the beginning of the book Kingsolver professes the belief that graciousness is more important than adhering to personal dogma.  What happened to that?  Why even ask the girl if there are only a dozen or so responses that would not be a “wrong answer?”  This especially seems to be a double standard when Kingsolver later admits to cheating with boxes of mac and cheese.  It appears that at the beginning of the book Kingsolver wants to be congenial but sounds a bit smug by the end.

Some of that smugness could have been abated if Kingsolver had shared more of her family’s everyday struggles.  I have a hard time believing that the whole year-long experiment went off without so much as one little hitch or disagreement.  Perhaps she felt that focusing on the difficulties would be discouraging.  However, I think the book could have used some raw humanizing.  That’s something people can relate to.

I think that the overall message of the book (which is a good one) may have gotten muddled by the preachy tone, which is likely to turn some people off.    Still, if you can get past all of that, there are important things that can be taken away from this book and applied on a smaller scale in our own everyday lives.

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

My Rating: **** 4/5book image

One of my summer reading goals is to read through all of Michael Pollan’s work; so I started with Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, his first book, which was published in 1991.

Second Nature takes readers through the explorations, tribulations, and revelations of Pollan himself, as he works to leave his mark on his personal landscape.  This is not a “how-to” garden book.  Here you will not find natural remedies for warding off common garden pests, or how to produce more tomatoes per plant.  What you will find is a personal struggle to accept man’s domination of nature, the social implications and evolution of the suburban lawn, the benefits of buying heirloom varieties over hybrids, and a consideration of domination vs. acquiescence, developer vs. naturalist.  You’ll find out why American gardens tend not to have walls and how the Dolly Parton rose bush came to be.

Pollan’s writing style is both engaging and accessible.   However, I don’t think that this book has universal appeal as some professional reviewers tend to suggest.  There is a very specific audience that this book will appeal to.  Second Nature will most likely resonate with readers, like myself, who are interested in gardening as a social and environmental act; and who enjoy a good account of one man’s relationship with his land.  I’d also recommend it for readers of Thoreau and Emerson, both of whom Pollan quotes often.   Others however, will likely tire of Pollan’s endless philosophizing and his frequent dissertations, such as the 20+ pages devoted to the politics of seed catalogs.

Pollan is thoughtful, deeply introspective, and romanticizes the act of gardening to the nth degree.  As I was reading the book, I felt like I was witnessing the conception and emergence of Pollan’s current environmental and agricultural positions.  Second Nature is an insightful and meditative book that is about so much more than just gardening.