“To Any Reader” — Robert Louis Stevenson

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Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother — Vincent van Gogh

The Artist’s Mother — Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother — Camille Pissarro

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Happy Mothers Day! (Peanuts)

peanuts

“Mothers” — William Gaddis

“Mothers” by William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

Five Favorite Fictional Mothers

Happy Mother’s Day! Sure, it’s a marketing scam, but we all love moms, right?

Fascinating moms populate literary fiction, and there’s no shortage of great baddies, evil stepmothers, and distant headcases in our favorite literature—but we thought we’d focus instead on some of the moms that seem to be, you know, really great moms.

(See also: Five Favorite Fictional Fathers, Five Favorite Fictional Sons (the daughters list is surely round the bend)).

“Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks”, an illustration by Mary Hallock Foote from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter

1. Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Hester Prynne is a bundle of contradictions—sin and salvation, radical freedom and reactionary repression, hope and despair—all bound to a deeply patriarchal society that had to control women’s bodies at all turns. Fortunately, there’s no analog for the Puritans’ judgmental, shame-based behavior in our own society (har har). Hester and her daughter Pearl, living in a cottage outside of Boston, are outside the dominant social order. It’s a form of punishment that paradoxically frees the pair, allowing Pearl to grow into a kind of nature spirit—impish and willful, to be sure, but also artistic and able to express herself. Although Pearl is the human doubling of Hester’s titular letter, she’s ultimately no badge of shame, but rather a treasure in her mother’s eyes.

2. Penelope, The Odyssey (Homer et al.)

Patient Penelope weaving and unweaving her husband’s shroud—is she the faithful wife, waiting for Odysseus who’s having adventures asea? Or is she cunningly keeping her son safely alive from the predatory suitors who would certainly want to get him out of the way ASAP. Penelope is an extraordinary and ambiguous figure, but one thing is clear: she loves her son Telemachus.

3. Molly Bloom, Ulysses (James Joyce)

Speaking of Penelope . . . Molly might not be the most faithful wife, but damn if she isn’t a hot mama.

4. Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Ma Joad never gets a first name in Grapes—she’s an elemental matriarchal force that keeps the family together against every kind of pain. The final scene of this novel is utterly amazing. When Rose of Sharon’s daughter dies in childbirth, Ma Joad directs the mother to nurse a man dying from hunger. All the while, a flood of epic proportions looms. Ma Joad’s determination to live transcends Darwinian impulses here; against the backdrop of infanticide, economic and social genocide, and natural disaster, she still directs her family to a loving, Emersonian course of action.

5. Grendel’s mother, Grendel (John Gardner)

In John Gardner’s fabulous retelling of the Beowulf saga from Grendel’s POV, we find a deeply alienated young man who, try as he might, cannot communicate with the plants and animals around him. Grendel should be a thing of nature, but he is a thinking thing, a thing with a conscience, a soul. He can understand men but they cannot understand him. In one of the book’s saddest conceits, Grendel cannot communicate through speech with his mother, who in many senses seems a creature apart from him. Gardner here dramatizes the radical alienation that all children must feel at some point for their mothers, an alterity grounded in the paradox that, hey, your mom gave birth to you—you came out of her, metaphorically, sure, but also, like, really. Even though Mama Grendel can’t speak to her son, she protects and lovingly cares for him, splitting a few skulls here and there in the process. Motherhood is tough.

Five Favorite Fictional Mothers

Happy Mother’s Day! Sure, it’s a marketing scam, but we all love moms, right?

Fascinating moms populate literary fiction, and there’s no shortage of great baddies, evil stepmothers, and distant headcases in our favorite literature—but we thought we’d focus instead on some of the moms that seem to be, you know, really great moms.

(See also: Five Favorite Fictional Fathers, Five Favorite Fictional Sons (the daughters list is surely round the bend)).

"Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks", an illustration by Mary Hallock Foote from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter

1. Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Hester Prynne is a bundle of contradictions—sin and salvation, radical freedom and reactionary repression, hope and despair—all bound to a deeply patriarchal society that had to control women’s bodies at all turns. Fortunately, there’s no analog for the Puritans’ judgmental, shame-based behavior in our own society (har har). Hester and her daughter Pearl, living in a cottage outside of Boston, are outside the dominant social order. It’s a form of punishment that paradoxically frees the pair, allowing Pearl to grow into a kind of nature spirit—impish and willful, to be sure, but also artistic and able to express herself. Although Pearl is the human doubling of Hester’s titular letter, she’s ultimately no badge of shame, but rather a treasure in her mother’s eyes.

2. Penelope, The Odyssey (Homer et al.)

Patient Penelope weaving and unweaving her husband’s shroud—is she the faithful wife, waiting for Odysseus who’s having adventures asea? Or is she cunningly keeping her son safely alive from the predatory suitors who would certainly want to get him out of the way ASAP. Penelope is an extraordinary and ambiguous figure, but one thing is clear: she loves her son Telemachus.

3. Molly Bloom, Ulysses (James Joyce)

Speaking of Penelope . . . Molly might not be the most faithful wife, but damn if she isn’t a hot mama.

4. Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Ma Joad never gets a first name in Grapes—she’s an elemental matriarchal force that keeps the family together against every kind of pain. The final scene of this novel is utterly amazing. When Rose of Sharon’s daughter dies in childbirth, Ma Joad directs the mother to nurse a man dying from hunger. All the while, a flood of epic proportions looms. Ma Joad’s determination to live transcends Darwinian impulses here; against the backdrop of infanticide, economic and social genocide, and natural disaster, she still directs her family to a loving, Emersonian course of action.

5. Grendel’s mother, Grendel (John Gardner)

In John Gardner’s fabulous retelling of the Beowulf saga from Grendel’s POV, we find a deeply alienated young man who, try as he might, cannot communicate with the plants and animals around him. Grendel should be a thing of nature, but he is a thinking thing, a thing with a conscience, a soul. He can understand men but they cannot understand him. In one of the book’s saddest conceits, Grendel cannot communicate through speech with his mother, who in many senses seems a creature apart from him. Gardner here dramatizes the radical alienation that all children must feel at some point for their mothers, an alterity grounded in the paradox that, hey, your mom gave birth to you—you came out of her, metaphorically, sure, but also, like, really. Even though Mama Grendel can’t speak to her son, she protects and lovingly cares for him, splitting a few skulls here and there in the process. Motherhood is tough.

“The Founding Mothers” — David Eagleman’s Mother’s Day Thought Experiment

Very cool thought experiment at Slate by David Eagleman, author of Biblioklept fave Sum. He begins: “In honor of Mother’s Day, I’m going to spend five seconds thinking about each woman in the proud line of matriarchs who brought me here.” Here’s an excerpt from near the end:

Eleven months into the project I’ve reached my great5,797,443 grandmother, who in her youth breaks her hipbone when lightning strikes her from a boulder. This leaves her with a scarred hide and a strange gait, but she grows to be unusually large and is able to bark with such ferocity that her pack is saved by her on several occasions. Consumed with maternal passion, she nudges her progeny under sheltering branches whenever the skies darken.