Three Books


The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. 1979 2nd edition hardback from FS&G. Jacket design by Janet Halverson. A marvelous book—Fitzgerald’s editing is wonderful here—there’s a rich index that makes this book a pick me up and read me anytime kind of resource. Particularly great are O’Connor’s letters to ‘A,’ a smart reader whom O’Connor struck up a friendship with in letters.IMG_0522

The Marble Faun; or The Romance of Monte Beni by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1958 mass market paperback by Pocket Books. No designer credited. I love this cover and design—simple and elegant. The Marble Faun is the only Hawthorne novel (book, really) that I’ve yet to read.IMG_0523

Habitations of the Word: Essays by William H. Gass. 1985 trade paperback by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster. Cover design by Koppel & Scher—and what a great design! (The quotation on the cover is from Gass’s essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence”). I had pulled this book out to find some lines from the first essay, “Emerson and the Essay,” for an American lit class I’m teaching. The essays collected here are brilliant stuff—literary criticism that surpasses “literary criticism.”

Three ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books

It seems a greater pity that an accomplished worker with the hand should perish prematurely, than a person of great intellect; because intellectual arts may be cultivated in the next world, but not physical ones.

To trace out the influence of a frightful and disgraceful crime in debasing and destroying a character naturally high and noble, the guilty person being alone conscious of the crime.

A man, virtuous in his general conduct, but committing habitually some monstrous crime,–as murder,–and doing this without the sense of guilt, but with a peaceful conscience,–habit, probably, reconciling him to it; but something (for instance, discovery) occurs to make him sensible of his enormity. His horror then.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Passages from the American Note-Books.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry from October 16th, 1837

October 16th.–Spent the whole afternoon in a ramble to the sea-shore, near Phillips’s Beach. A beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon, the very pleasantest day, probably, that there has been in the whole course of the year. People at work, harvesting, without their coats. Cocks, with their squad of hens, in the grass-fields, hunting grasshoppers, chasing them eagerly with outspread wings, appearing to take much interest in the sport, apart from the profit. Other hens picking up the ears of Indian corn. Grasshoppers, flies, and flying insects of all sorts are more abundant in these warm autumnal days than I have seen them at any other time. Yellow butterflies flutter about in the sunshine, singly, by pairs, or more, and are wafted on the gentle gales. The crickets begin to sing early in the afternoon, and sometimes a locust may be heard. In some warm spots, a pleasant buzz of many insects.

Crossed the fields near Brookhouse’s villa, and came upon a long beach,–at least a mile long, I should think,–terminated by craggy rocks at either end, and backed by a high broken bank, the grassy summit of which, year by year, is continually breaking away,and precipitated to the bottom. At the foot of the bank, in some parts, is a vast number of pebbles and paving-stones, rolled up thither by the sea long ago. The beach is of a brown sand, with hardly any pebbles intermixed upon it. When the tide is part way down, there is a margin of several yards from the water’s edge, along the whole mile length of the beach, which glistens like a mirror, and reflects objects, and shines bright in the sunshine, the sand being wet to that distance from the water. Above this margin the sand is not wet, and grows less and less damp the farther towards the bank you keep. In some places your footstep is perfectly implanted, showing the whole shape, and the square toe, and every nail in the heel of your boot. Elsewhere, the impression is imperfect, and even when you stamp, you cannot imprint the whole. As you tread, a dry spot flashes around your step, and grows moist as you lift your foot again. Pleasant to pass along this extensive walk, watching the surf-wave;–how sometimes it seems to make a feint of breaking, but dies away ineffectually, merely kissing the strand; then, after many such abortive efforts, it gathers itself, and forms a high wall, and rolls onward, heightening and heightening without foam at the summit of the green line, and at last throws itself fiercely on the beach, with a loud roar, the spray flying above. As you walk along, you are preceded by a flock of twenty or thirty beach birds, which are seeking, I suppose, for food on the margin of the surf, yet seem to be merely sporting, chasing the sea as it retires, and running up before the impending wave. Sometimes they let it bear them off their feet, and float lightly on its breaking summit; sometimes they flutter and seem to reston the feathery spray. They are little birds with gray backs and snow-white breasts; their images may be seen in the wet sand almost or quite as distinctly as the reality. Their legs are long. As you draw near, they take a flight of a score of yards or more, and then recommence their dalliance with the surf-wave. You may behold their multitudinous little tracks all along your way. Before you reach the end of the beach, you become quite attached to these little sea-birds, and take much interest in their occupations. After passing in one direction, it is pleasant then to retrace your footsteps. Your tracks being all traceable, you may recall the whole mood and occupation of your mind during your first passage. Here you turned somewhat aside to pick up a shell that you saw nearer the water’s edge. Here you examined a long sea-weed, and trailed its length after you for a considerable distance. Here the effect of the wide sea struck you suddenly. Here you fronted the ocean, looking at a sail, distant in the sunny blue. Here you looked at some plant on the bank. Here some vagary of mind seems to have bewildered you; for your tracks go round and round, and interchange each other without visible reason. Here you picked up pebbles and skipped them upon the water. Here you wrote names and drew faces with a razor sea-shell in the sand.

After leaving the beach, clambered over crags, all shattered and tossed about everyhow; in some parts curiously worn and hollowed out, almost into caverns. The rock, shagged with sea-weed,–in some places, a thick carpet of seaweed laid over the pebbles, into which your foot would sink. Deep tanks among these rocks, which the sea replenishes at high tide, and thenleaves the bottom all covered with various sorts of sea-plants, as if it were some sea-monster’s private garden. I saw a crab in one of them; five-fingers too. From the edge of the rocks, you may look off into deep, deep water, even at low tide. Among the rocks, I found a great bird, whether a wild-goose, a loon, or an albatross, I scarcely know. It was in such a position that I almost fancied it might be asleep, and therefore drew near softly, lest it should take flight; but it was dead, and stirred not when I touched it. Sometimes a dead fish was cast up. A ledge of rocks, with a beacon upon it, looking like a monument erected to those who have perished by shipwreck. The smoked, extempore fire-place, where a party cooked their fish. About midway on the beach, a fresh-water brooklet flows towards the sea. Where it leaves the land, it is quite a rippling little current; but, in flowing across the sand, it grows shallower and more shallow, and at last is quite lost, and dies in the effort to carry its little tribute to the main.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry from October 16th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Five ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books

Some man of powerful character to command a person, morally subjected to him, to perform some act. The commanding person suddenly to die; and, for all the rest of his life, the subjected one continues to perform that act.

“Solomon dies during the building of the temple, but his body remains leaning on a staff, and overlooking the workmen, as if it were alive.”

A tri-weekly paper, to be called the Tertian Ague.

Subject for a picture,–Satan’s reappearance in Pandemonium, shining out from a mist with “shape star-bright.”

Five points of Theology,–Five Points at New York.

From Passages from the American Note-Books. Stray notes of 1842.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 26th, 1841

Brook Farm, September 26th.–A walk this morning along the Needham road. A clear, breezy morning, after nearly a week of cloudy and showery weather. The grass is much more fresh and vivid than it was last month, and trees still retain much of their verdure, though here and there is a shrub or a bough arrayed in scarlet and gold. Along the road, in the midst of a beaten track, I saw mushrooms or toad-stools which had sprung up probably during the night.

The houses in this vicinity are, many of them, quite antique, with long, sloping roofs, commencing at a few feet from the ground, and ending in a lofty peak. Some of them have huge old elms overshadowing the yard. One may see the family sleigh near the door, it having stood there all through the summer sunshine, and perhaps with weeds sprouting through the crevices of its bottom, the growth of the months since snow departed. Old barns, patched and supportedby timbers leaning against the sides, and stained with the excrement of past ages.

In the forenoon I walked along the edge of the meadow towards Cow Island. Large trees, almost a wood, principally of pine with the green pasture-glades intermixed, and cattle feeding. They cease grazing when an intruder appears, and look at him with long and wary observation, then bend their heads to the pasture again. Where the firm ground of the pasture ceases, the meadow begins,–loose, spongy, yielding to the tread, sometimes permitting the foot to sink into black mud, or perhaps over ankles in water. Cattle-paths, somewhat firmer than the general surface, traverse the dense shrubbery which has overgrown the meadow. This shrubbery consists of small birch, elders, maples, and other trees, with here and there white-pines of larger growth. The whole is tangled and wild and thick-set, so that it is necessary to part the nestling stems and branches, and go crashing through. There are creeping plants of various sorts which clamber up the trees; and some of them have changed color in the slight frosts which already have befallen these low grounds, so that one sees a spiral wreath of scarlet leaves twining up to the top of a green tree, intermingling its bright hues with their verdure, as if all were of one piece. Sometimes, instead of scarlet, the spiral wreath is of a golden yellow.

Within the verge of the meadow, mostly near the firm shore of pasture ground, I found several grapevines, hung with an abundance of large purple grapes. The vines had caught hold of maples and alders, and climbed to the summit, curling round about and interwreathing their twisted folds in so intimate amanner that it was not easy to tell the parasite from the supporting tree or shrub. Sometimes the same vine had enveloped several shrubs, and caused a strange, tangled confusion, converting all these poor plants to the purpose of its own support, and hindering their growing to their own benefit and convenience. The broad vine-leaves, some of them yellow or yellowish-tinged, were seen apparently growing on the same stems with the silver-mapled leaves, and those of the other shrubs, thus married against their will by the conjugal twine; and the purple clusters of grapes hung down from above and in the midst, so that one might “gather grapes,” if not “of thorns,” yet of as alien bushes.

One vine had ascended almost to the tip of a large white-pine, spreading its leaves and hanging its purple clusters among all its boughs,–still climbing and clambering, as if it would not be content till it had crowned the very summit with a wreath of its own foliage and bunches of grapes. I mounted high into the tree, and ate the fruit there, while the vine wreathed still higher into the depths above my head. The grapes were sour, being not yet fully ripe. Some of them, however, were sweet and pleasant.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 26th, 1841. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree

Does Suttree die?

At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, I mean?

Look, before we go any farther, let’s be clear—this little riff is intended for those who’ve read the book. Anyone’s welcome to read this riff of course, but I’m not going to be, y’know, summarizing the plot or providing an argument that you should read Suttree (you should; it’s great)—and there will be what I suppose you’d call spoilers.

Oarsman is a sculpture by David Phelps, located at the northwest corner of Gay and Church Streets in Knoxville, TN. This photo is by Wes Morgan, part of his Searching for Suttree series.

So anyway—Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

This question percolated in the background of my brain as I revisited Suttree this month via Michael Kramer’s amazing audiobook version (I also reread key sections—especially the last), in large part because of comments made on my 2010 review of the novel.

The first comment suggesting that Suttree dies at the end of the novel came in 2012 from poster “Jack foy,” who suggested that Suttree “has died in the boat and that it is his corpse cariied [sic] from there and his spirit and not his body hitching a ride at the finale.”

Earlier this year, a commenter named Julie Seeley responded to Jack foy’s idea; her response is worth posting in full:

I kind of agree that Suttree dies at the end also–or at least there are a lot of indications that the ending is meant to be ambiguous. Suttree reflects on his life, saying something to the effect of “I was not unhappy.” He visits his own houseboat and finds the door off and a corpse in his bed. A driver picks him up and says, “Come on,” even though Suttree had never even stuck out his thumb to hitch-hike It feels oddly similar to Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” All of the scenery whizzing by faster and faster does feel like (sorry for the cliche) his life sort of flashing before him. This was a thought-provoking novel that I am looking forward to reading again soon.

Julie Seeley’s analysis is persuasive and her connection to Dickinson is especially convincing upon rereading the book’s final paragraphs. In my Suttree review, I argued that the book is a synthesis of American literature, tracing the overt connections to Faulkner and Frost, Poe and Cummings, Ellison and Steinbeck, before laundry listing:

…we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).

Revisiting Suttree this month I found myself again impressed with McCarthy’s command of allusion and reference. Its transcendentalist streak stood out in particular. (Or perhaps more accurately, I sensed the generative material of the American Renaissance writers filtered through the writers that came before Suttree). But one American Renaissance writer I failed to name in my original review was Dickinson’s (near) contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work of course filters through all serious American novels. There are plenty of echoes of Hawthorne in Suttree—Hawthorne’s tales in particular—but it’s the way that Hawthorne ends his tales that interests me here. Like the dashes that conclude many of Dickinson’s poems (including “Because I could not stop for Death”), Hawthorne’s conclusions are frequently ambiguous. Like the conclusion of Suttree.

So: Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

Well, wait. Let’s go back to the beginning. Of the novel, I mean. Like I said, I’d had this question buzzing around in the back of my head as I revisited the book.

So, the beginning. Well, I’d forgotten that Suttree had a twin brother who had died at birth. The twin resurfaces a few times in the text, and there’s even a scene in the musseling section featuring a set of twins. Does Suttree’s twin brother’s death in infancy prefigure Suttree’s own death? How could it not? But—at the same time—hey, it’s ambiguous if Suttree dies; should I have stated my answer to my own damn question earlier?—hey, at the same time, the twin brother’s death is not Suttree’s death sentence, right? It simply introduces a motif—the dead body. Continue reading “Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry of September 18th, 1842

September 18th.–How the summer-time flits away, even while it seems to be loitering onward, arm in arm with autumn! Of late I have walked but little over the hills and through the woods, my leisure being chiefly occupied with my boat, which I have now learned to manage with tolerable skill. Yesterday afternoon I made a voyage alone up the North Branch of Concord River. There was a strong west-wind blowing dead against me, which, together with the current, increased by the height of the water, made the first part of the passage pretty toilsome. The black river was all dimpled over with little eddies and whirlpools; and the breeze, moreover, caused the billows to beat against the bow of the boat, with a sound like the flapping of a bird’s wing. The water-weeds,where they were discernible through the tawny water, were straight outstretched by the force of the current, looking as if they were forced to hold on to their roots with all their might. If for a moment I desisted from paddling, the head of the boat was swept round by the combined might of wind and tide. However, I toiled onward stoutly, and, entering the North Branch, soon found myself floating quietly along a tranquil stream, sheltered from the breeze by the woods and a lofty hill. The current, likewise, lingered along so gently that it was merely a pleasure to propel the boat against it. I never could have conceived that there was so beautiful a river-scene in Concord as this of the North Branch. The stream flows through the midmost privacy and deepest heart of a wood, which, as if but half satisfied with its presence, calm, gentle, and unobtrusive as it is, seems to crowd upon it, and barely to allow it passage; for the trees are rooted on the very verge of the water, and dip their pendent branches into it. On one side there is a high bank, forming the side of a hill, the Indian name of which I have forgotten, though Mr. Thoreau told it to me; and here, in some instances, the trees stand leaning over the river, stretching out their arms as if about to plunge in headlong. On the other side, the bank is almost on a level with the water; and there the quiet congregation of trees stood with feet in the flood, and fringed with foliage down to its very surface. Vines here and there twine themselves about bushes or aspens or alder-trees, and hang their clusters (though scanty and infrequent this season) so that I can reach them from my boat. I scarcely remember a scene of more complete and lovely seclusion than the passage of the river through this wood. Even an Indian canoe, in oldentimes, could not have floated onward in deeper solitude than my boat. I have never elsewhere had such an opportunity to observe how much more beautiful reflection is than what we call reality. The sky, and the clustering foliage on either hand, and the effect of sunlight as it found its way through the shade, giving lightsome hues in contrast with the quiet depth of the prevailing tints,–all these seemed unsurpassably beautiful when beheld in upper air. But on gazing downward, there they were, the same even to the minutest particular, yet arrayed in ideal beauty, which satisfied the spirit incomparably more than the actual scene. I am half convinced that the reflection is indeed the reality, the real thing which Nature imperfectly images to our grosser sense. At any rate, the disembodied shadow is nearest to the soul.

There were many tokens of autumn in this beautiful picture. Two or three of the trees were actually dressed in their coats of many colors,–the real scarlet and gold which they wear before they put on mourning. These stood on low, marshy spots, where a frost has probably touched them already. Others were of a light, fresh green, resembling the hues of spring, though this, likewise, is a token of decay. The great mass of the foliage, however, appears unchanged; but ever and anon down came a yellow leaf, half flitting upon the air, half falling through it, and finally settling upon the water. A multitude of these were floating here and there along the river, many of them curling upward, so as to form little boats, fit for fairies to voyage in. They looked strangely pretty, with yet a melancholy prettiness, as they floated along. The general aspect of the river, however, differed but little from that of summer,–at least the differencedefies expression. It is more in the character of the rich yellow sunlight than in aught else. The water of the stream has now a thrill of autumnal coolness; yet whenever a broad gleam fell across it, through an interstice of the foliage, multitudes of insects were darting to and fro upon its surface. The sunshine, thus falling across the dark river, has a most beautiful effect. It burnishes it, as it were, and yet leaves it as dark as ever.

On my return, I suffered the boat to float almost of its own will down the stream, and caught fish enough for this morning’s breakfast. But, partly from a qualm of conscience, I finally put them all into the water again, and saw them swim away as if nothing had happened.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry of September 18th, 1842

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 5th, 1838

September 5th.–I took a walk of three miles from the village, which brought me into Vermont. The line runs athwart a bridge,–a rude bridge, which crosses a mountain stream. The stream runs deep at the bottom of a gorge, plashing downward, with rapids and pools, and bestrewn with large rocks, deep and shady, not to be reached by the sun except in its meridian, as well on account of the depth of the gorgeas of the arch of wilderness trees above it. There was a stumpy clearing beyond the bridge, where some men were building a house. I went to them, and inquired if I were in Massachusetts or Vermont, and asked for some water. Whereupon they showed great hospitality, and the master-workman went to the spring, and brought delicious water in a tin basin, and produced another jug containing “new rum, and very good; and rum does nobody any harm if they make a good use of it,” quoth he. I invited them to call on me at the hotel, if they should come to the village within two or three days. Then I took my way back through the forest, for this is a by-road, and is, much of its course, a sequestrated and wild one, with an unseen torrent roaring at an unseen depth, along the roadside.

My walk forth had been an almost continued ascent, and, returning, I had an excellent view of Graylock and the adjacent mountains, at such a distance that they were all brought into one group, and comprehended at one view, as belonging to the same company,–all mighty, with a mightier chief. As I drew nearer home, they separated, and the unity of effect was lost. The more distant then disappeared behind the nearer ones, and finally Graylock itself was lost behind the hill which immediately shuts in the village. There was a warm, autumnal haze, which, I think, seemed to throw the mountains farther off, and both to enlarge and soften them.

To imagine the gorges and deep hollows in among the group of mountains,–their huge shoulders and protrusions.

“They were just beginning to pitch over the mountains, as I came along,”–stage-driver’s expression about the caravan.

A fantastic figure of a village coxcomb, striding through the bar-room, and standing with folded arms to survey the caravan men. There is much exaggeration and rattle-brain about this fellow.

A mad girl leaped from the top of a tremendous precipice in Pownall, hundreds of feet high, if the tale be true, and, being buoyed up by her clothes, came safely to the bottom.

Inquiries about the coming of the caravan, and whether the elephant had got to town, and reports that he had.

A smart, plump, crimson-faced gentleman, with a travelling-portmanteau of peculiar neatness and convenience. He criticises the road over the mountain, having come in the Greenfleld stage; perhaps an engineer.

Bears still inhabit Saddleback and the neighboring mountains and forests. Six were taken in Pownall last year, and two hundred foxes. Sometimes they appear on the hills, in close proximity to this village.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry of September 5th, 1838.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 1st, 1838

September 1st.–Last evening, during a walk, Graylock and the whole of Saddleback were at first imbued with a mild, half-sunshiny tinge, then grew almost black,–a huge, dark mass lying on the back of the earth and encumbering it. Stretching up from behind the black mountain, over a third or more of the sky, there was a heavy, sombre blue heap or ledge of clouds, looking almost as solid as rocks. The volumes of which it was composed were perceptible by translucent lines and fissures; but the mass, as a whole, seemed as solid, bulky, and ponderous in the cloud-world as the mountain was on earth. The mountain and cloud together had an indescribably stern and majestic aspect. Beneath this heavy cloud, there was a fleet or flock of light, vapory mists, flitting in middle air; and these were tinted, from the vanished sun, with the most gorgeous and living purple that can be conceived,–a fringe upon the stern blue. In the opposite quarter of the heavens, a rose-light was reflected, whence I know not, which colored the clouds around the moon, then well above the horizon, so that the nearly round and silver moon appeared strangely among roseate clouds,–sometimes half obscured by them.

A man with a smart horse, upon which the landlord makes laudatory remarks. He replies that he has “a better at home.” Dressed in a brown, bright-buttoned coat, smartly cut. He immediately becomes familiar, and begins to talk of the license law, and other similar topics, making himself at home, as one who, being much of his time upon the road, finds himself at ease at any tavern. He inquired after a stage agent, named Brigham, who formerly resided here, but nowhas gone to the West. He himself was probably a horse-jockey.

An old lady, stopping here over the Sabbath, waiting for to-morrow’s stage for Greenfield, having been deceived by the idea that she could proceed on her journey without delay. Quiet, making herself comfortable, taken into the society of the women of the house.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 1st, 1838. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Note on pigs (From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s August 31, 1838 journal entry)

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The ocean is to lose its saltness (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 7, 1851)

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