Friday, September 2, 2011

GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT

The story is told that Ernest Hemingway wrote the ending of 'The Old Man And The Sea' twenty six times. When a reporter asked him why he wrote the ending so many times old Hem said, "I couldn't get the words right."
That's it. That's what the true artist struggles with. That's what I've been trying to do my whole life. So, when I hear from readers that my novella 'The Angelic Mysteries' is very short, I cringe a little. Yes, it is not long. It was once a longer work and I have worked it down to the very essence of the story at hand. There are not long descriptions of landscapes or backgrounds of the lives of the characters or long rambling discourses of philosophy. There is, instead, a broken up but progressing series of events that lead the characters to a life changing decision. Much like my own life. Yours and mine.
Hemingway also spoke about the words that are purposely left out of a work. He claimed they are of equal importance with the words that are left in. Such discipline does not lend itself to wordiness.
A reader would have to go a long way to find another novel as great as 'The Old Man And The Sea'. It was specifically mentioned in Hemingway's 1954 Nobel Prize award. Old Santiago had gone eighty-four days without catching a fish and he was now considered unlucky by one and all. Even the boy Manolin who used to go out in the boat with him was no longer allowed to go. He was sent out with other boats that had a better chance of actually catching fish. (People must be pragmatic in such matters, after all).
Somewhere along the line Santiago had become a simple and humble man. He dreamed of lions playing on the beach of Africa, and life has made a true saint of him. The large fish he was about to catch would make an even greater saint of him.
He had the heart of a turtle, this old man, which would keep on beating long after it had been butchered. When the giant fish took the bait, Santiago let him take the line for a while so he would have time to eat it, and would be deeply hooked. So deep, he hoped, that the hook would pierce the great fish's heart. Instead, however, when he was hooked he began to tow the old man's skiff far out to sea, steadily and slowly into deep water.
Here, in this simple tale, is all the suffering of a lifetime. All the greatness. All the destruction. All the tears. In the end, tired to the point of exhaustion, Santiago shoulders his mast like a cross and climbs the hill toward his shack. Several times he fell down and had to get back up again. There, in with the other garbage along the shore, is the backbone and tail fin of his great fish, waiting to be washed out with the tide.
This story, also, is the story of every writer who ever tried to write something extraordinary or great. The author is towed far out into the deep water, even against his/her will, and has to struggle with the work as one suffers with a fishing line heavy across the back and cutting the hands until they bleed. The author sheds the tears and implores all the powers of the universe to help in this one task alone: "Help me get the words right!"
Then, having suffered and labored so long, the author must send the work out into the marketplace along with the garbage and swill along the shore, waiting for it to be swept out on the tide of popular opinion. It doesn't seem fair, really, and it is small wonder we see so many good authors abandoning literary fiction and embracing instead the ready money of genre writing. Perhaps greatness will be extinguished altogether. Readers will recall the day when great fish once swam in these waters, but no more...
That is the task that is before us, fellow authors. Fellow readers. Are we going to abandon that which is great? Are we going to satisfy ourselves with something less than the right words? I vow to you now, I will keep up the struggle for greatness, even if I suffer for it. (And at fifty nine years old I can assure you I already have). What say ye? Will you take up the challenge? Will you struggle and sweat and shed the tears that greatness demands of us?
I do hope you will.
'The Angelic Mysteries' available in Kindle now: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005HFA3K0

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The ANGELIC MYSTERIES: A Novella

Greetings my friends,
'The Angelic Mysteries' has been a long time coming. Back in 1995 the novel 'The Angelic Mysteries' first came out in literary paperback. As it began to sell locally and regionally an agent became interested in it. She loved it and believed it would bring in an advance of seven figures. (I had to count the digits on my fingers). Yes - $millions. I had made the big time. Her advice was to pull it off the market until we got the big money. Well, things don't always work out the way they are portrayed.
One editor did call. She wanted me to say that the events in 'The Angelic Mysteries' were fact - that they had actually happened. She didn't want me to lie, exactly, but couldn't I think of a time when something like this might have actually happened to me. This was at the time when some very far-fetched stories were being sold as nonfiction. There was a lot of money involved...
But the events in 'The Angelic Mysteries' are not true. It is fiction. When Daniel Allman meets and falls in love with Sarah - a woman who believes she is an angel - we are in the territory where the material world meets the spiritual. We are seeing the duel nature of human existence in struggle. Will these two aspects of life unite? That is the question.
Because I didn't believe 'The Angelic Mysteries' ever got a fair reading from the public, I have dusted it off and completely re-written it as a novella. Much shorter, but in my mind much better. I am making it available to you in Kindle or Nook for only $2.99. I hope you'll give it a read:

Friday, August 12, 2011

AN EXCERPT - THE ANGELIC MYSTERIES

This excerpt is taken from Chapter 23 of ‘The Angelic Mysteries’. It is Copyright © 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Are Reserved.

Daniel Allman and Sarah have been fleeing across Europe to escape the huge anti-angel Morton Toombs but here in Chapter 23 he finally catches up with them:

At last they came out on the Grand Canal. A boatman was standing at the ready. “Can you take us to Santa Lucia Station?” Daniel asked him.
“Of course,” the boatman replied. “I can take you anywhere you want to go.” The boatman pointed across the canal.
Daniel seemed perplexed. “I thought it was on this side.”
“No, my good sir. It is across over there.” He pointed again, as if they might be able to make it out in the darkness. “Step in; I’ll take you straight to it.”
“Very well,” Daniel said.
“Where are we going?” Sarah asked.
“We need to get over to the other side.”
“What’s wrong with this side? Going over there doesn’t seem right to me.”
“No? Well, unless you have a better idea, that’s where we’re going,” Daniel said. “We’ve been lost for hours.”
“I don’t know which way to go.”
“Just follow along, then. One way is as good as another.”
“This is the way,” said the boatman.
They stepped down into his vaporetto and a moment later they were off across the swampy-looking water.
“This place smells like hell,” Daniel remarked.
The boatman nodded sincerely. “These canals have become like swamps. They are like Styx itself.”
“Is that where we are?” Sarah asked him. “Are we entering the gates of Dis?” A black water snake shagged by in the silence. “Has he chased us into hell’s black capital?”
“Few return,” the boatman said.
“We’re at the gate,” she said. Red flames were reflecting on the walls of the buildings ahead. Toombs was on the other side, waiting for them.
“Welcome,” he said.
“You!” Daniel said.
“Weren’t you expecting me? Fallen angels are the first here. We have rebelled against Himself.”
“So you admit it. Sarah was right all along.”
Toombs laughed maniacally. “Right. Wrong. Makes no difference here.”
“Why have you brought us here?” Sarah asked.
“Ah, a sensible question. You have brought yourselves here, actually. I am here to conduct your tour for you. That’s all.”
“What if we don’t want the tour?” Sarah demanded.
“Don’t worry. You have nothing to fear, being here. Not yet.”
“What is this about?” Daniel asked.
“You have begun your inquiries. Now you must learn the truth.”
“Don’t follow him,” Sarah cautioned. “He knows nothing of the truth.”
“As I told you,” Toombs picked up smoothly, “there is no reason to hesitate. You have a free passage here. No one will detain you.”
Without another word on the subject Toombs turned and made his way up the street. Daniel followed him and Sarah tagged along after him. They were unable to resist his power which was drawing them onward. Wild birds were screeching somewhere ahead in the distance.
“Tell me, where are the other fallen angels?” Daniel asked Toombs.
“They are all above, on your good earth, doing whatever tasks have been assigned them.”
“What kinds of tasks are those?”
“They have tasks similar to mine.”
“What exactly is your task?”
“You still need to ask? It is just as your girl here has supposed all along. We have become very good at trapping these risen angels and bringing them back here.”
“What happens when they get here?”
“They are held in captivity until they come to recognize the true way.”
“The true way?”
“The way that leads to the great one – Satan himself.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Sarah interjected. “His words twist everything.”
“Quiet,” Toombs shouted. “Life here is not as she would portray it. This is a good place. A place of sensual delights. Unlike the sterile silence of her heaven.”
Sarah began to object again but the big man raised his hand and shouted, “Silence!” Sarah found she could no longer speak. “You have no power here.”
“What have you done to her?” Daniel asked.
“She talks too much. You have come here to learn, and learn you shall. You must decide for yourself. I think you’ll find that hell is very much for people like us. It is a place of power.”
“Is it all about power, then? I thought hell was about punishment.”
“Dantesque clap trap,” Toombs snorted. “Some are punished here. But not those who have power. We are Satan’s chosen.”
“You keep saying ‘us’.”
He gave Daniel a libidinous wink. “You too can be here, in the halls of power.”
Sarah grasped his arm between her two hands but Daniel pulled away brusquely. “And you say you have risen angels held captive here?”
“Only the ones who refuse to convert. Foolish, really. We all serve a master, do we not? What difference does it make which one?”
“But… I don’t see any of those captive angels around anywhere.”
Toombs stamped his foot. Daniel followed his eyes downward. “In the cement.”
“In the cement?” Daniel did not understand.
“We mix them in the cement we use to build our roads. None ever escape.”
Daniel was horrified. “So, we’re walking on them right this minute?”
“Don’t worry about offending them. It’s their punishment. Those who have risen so high must now lay there while we tread on them. Just punishment, don’t you think?”
“Are they never released?”
“Of course they are,” the big man smiled. “Some are released every day. They have but to pledge their allegiance to their rightful King, the Prince of Darkness, and they fly out of the roadway complete and unharmed. It’s quite a spectacle.”
“I can imagine it is.”
Toombs continued to lead the way. “Ahead here is the Park of the Suicides.”
Daniel caught his breath. It was from this park the sound of the screeching birds was coming.
“This is one part Dante actually got right. The leaves of the trees trap the souls of those who have committed suicide, and the Harpies eat the leaves.”
“Is my father...?”
“You father committed suicide, didn’t he?”
“Is he here?” Daniel whispered.
“He’s here. In one of these trees. But he doesn’t have to be, you know.”
“How do you mean?”
“Those of us with power can have things as we wish them.”
“You know what I wish…”
Morton Toombs cocked his head to one side. “What do you wish?”
Daniel caught himself and shook his head. “Nothing. It’s only that this has something to do with my dream. I don’t know what exactly.”
“A dream?”
“A recurring dream,” Daniel said. “In the dream I am confronted by two knights on horseback; a white knight and a black knight. The black knight is first. He charges his horse at me and lowers his lance. At the last possible moment I leap aside and, using my staff, pin his lance against the trunk of a tree, breaking it. The white knight then turns his horse and rides away.”
Morton Toombs nodded his head reflectively. “It’s a funny thing.” He motioned to the leaves of the trees. “All any of them have to do to escape is to desire it. But none of them ever does.”
“Because of pride?”
“I suppose so. But I don’t really know. Only they know, and they’re not talking.”
Just then a great pit began to open up at their feet. Sarah became frantic trying to pull Daniel back from the edge.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Toombs asked.
“This is far enough. I’m going back.”
“Oh, so you’ve decided have you? Don’t you want to see more?”
“I’ve seen enough.”
“That’s a pity, but there’s no going back from here.”
“I thought we were immune…”
“Who told you that?” Toombs asked. “Oh, I did, didn’t I? Well, I lied.”
“I want to go back.”
“Of course you do.”
The mouth of the pit opened up like the aperture of a giant camera lens. Daniel turned to Sarah. She needed no prompting. She was running already. There was a tremendous crashing noise all around them. The earth crumbled and fell away. Toombs’ laughter was in their ears. Toombs reached out and grabbed Daniel’s leg. His grip could not hold. His nails left a nasty scratch. Daniel and Sarah continued to lose ground, like ants in an ant lion’s trap.

Friday, July 15, 2011

CAVEAT LECTOR

Caveat Lector. Let the reader beware. Latin, of course. When this phrase was used in Rome it meant that there might be something wrong with the text. That there might be something that could mislead the reader. My usage today is a little different. I am asking the reader to beware my new novella 'The Angelic Mysteries'.

There are several things about this novella that might mislead the reader. First is the title. When we hear the word 'mysteries' today we naturally think of murder mysteries from the likes of Agatha Christie or from television shows like Monk. But in this work it doesn't mean that at all. The word mysteries here is used in its original sense: that which has been kept secret, unknown, obscure; and which is revealed by devine revelation. When Daniel Allman meets a woman who believes herself to be an angel, as he does in 'The Angelic Mysteries', he is running smack into the most deeply held secrets of his own soul.

When Daniel meets Sarah a love story begins which might lead the reader to think this is a romance. One reviewer has already been left scratching her head wondering why there isn't more background given leading the reader to the romantic moment. Well, okay, that's called In Medias Res. It begins in the middle of things. When Gregor Samsa awoke in the moring to find himself turned into a giant vermon we don't necessarily get a lot of preparation either. It simply happens and we are left to figure out what it's all about.

Then, because a very bad pyschopath comes into the story - Morton Toombs - one might be led to believe this is a suspense-thriller. Well, yes, it is suspensful and it is thrilling, but there may be more to this bad man than a plot device to drive the story forward. I will quote here from the Prologue of 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. Kazantzakis writes, ""My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. Within me are the dark immemorial forces of the Evil One, human and pre-human; within me too are the luminous forces, human and pre-human, of God - and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met."

Reader beware. There are powerful forces at work in this novella. If one chooses to read it as a mystery, so be it. If one chooses to read it as a romance or a thriller, read on. But if the reader stumbles into the treacherous deep and finds herself/himself clawing tooth and nail trying to get back out... well... don't blame me. You have been warned.
'The Angelic Mysteries'. Release date: August 18th, 2011. For more follow along on Facebook.

http://www.facebook.com/jamesdsandersonbooks

Friday, July 8, 2011

REGARDING INJUSTICE

When Richard Wright wrote his autobiography ‘Black Boy’ in 1945 there was already a long tradition of black writers using their words to expose the truth about racism in America. It stretched at least as far back as Frederick Douglass and his ‘Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass’, which came out one hundred years earlier. Douglass wrote that he did not know his age and could not remember a slave who did know his birthday, and that was a source of some unhappiness for him. He worked on a farm where the principal crops were tobacco, wheat and corn. An adult slave received a monthly allowance of food – eight pounds of pork or fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Yearly they received two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, one jacket, one pair of winter trousers, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes. Children did not receive an allotment.

“I have been utterly astonished,” Douglass continued, “since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” He wrote of the savage brutality of the various overseers. Of his suffering from hunger and cold. He had no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, and no trousers. He wore nothing but a linen shirt that hung down to his knees. On cold nights he crawled into a corn sack. The food he ate was coarse corn meal boiled – called mush. He was taught to read by the wife of one of his owners, or he would never have learned. It was against state law to teach a slave to read.

“I often found myself regretting my own existence,” he wrote, “and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.”

The first African American novel (that is, a novel written by an African American) – ‘Clotel’ – was written by William Wells Brown and it is his own story that opens the work. (This following a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier):

“Shall tongues be mute when deeds are wrought
Which well might shame extremest Hell?
Shall freemen lack th’ indignant thought?
Shall Mercy’s bosom cease to swell?
Shall Honour bleed? – shall Truth succumb?
Shall pen, and press, and soul be dumb?”

President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Heming. This while penning words of freedom and equality. (Proving that the truth can transcend even the actions of those who bring that truth). In ‘Clotel’ Brown attempted to portray the reality of slaves in America, though it cannot be said to be an accurate account of Jefferson and his mistress. Currier, “a bright mulatto, and the mistress of Thomas Jefferson”, according to the novel, was about to be auctioned off with her two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. In a ruthless act of unconcern, the President’s own family was about to be sold to others. Slavery, these writers insisted, could only undermine the values of a great nation.

Their voices were only the beginning of this insistence. Throughout the next hundred years black writers wrote against slavery and then the white supremacy attitudes and ‘Jim Crow’ laws that sprang up throughout the south after the Civil War. Streetcars were segregated, to cite an example, and blacks boycotted lines in some twenty five different cities. (This long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott more than seventy years later). One black woman journalist in particular, Ida B. Wells, resisted with everything she had. In Memphis in 1884, Ida Wells was told to give up her seat to a white man on the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad. She was ordered into the ‘smoking car’, a car set aside for ‘Jim Crow’ passengers. Wells protested and was physically thrown off the train by the conductor and two other white men. The crowd of whites that had gathered applauded the action. Her inquiries into lynching in the south led her to publish the ‘Red Record’ itemizing many of these abuses of justice. Of the 728 lynchings she investigated, only a third were accused of any crime. Most had never received a trial in a court of law. Hers was a strident voice for change until the end of her life.

Other voices along the way that might bear reading again are Paul Laurence Dunbar; Charles W. Chesnutt; Booker T. Washington; and W.E.B. Du Bois. One wonders where our country would be today if it had not been for the writers who dreamed of freedom.
This essay has been adapted from chapters of 'American Masters', a forthcoming book by James D. Sanderson. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.
For more visit: http://www.facebook.com/jamesdsandersonbooks Please click 'Like' when you get there. Thanks.

FROM THE MOUTH OF TOOMBS

People tend to think of evil as something coarse and gaudy and ugly. That’s a laugh. You’d think they might know better by now. No, evil is smooth bordering on silky. It is bright and beautiful and glossy. Do you think the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was bitter fruit? No, it was enticing and delicious. I can tell you this straight out, without any subterfuge, because you won’t listen anyway.

People tend not to believe in the veracity of demons which is exactly why we can be so honest. We can lay a trap in open country, mark it with red danger signs and post flashing neon arrows all along the way and still fill it up faster than we can get the trap door slammed shut. Now that’s saying something.

That’s why when we hear there’s an angel about, we really sharpen our claws and rise to the occasion. An angel is harder to trap, you see. They’re not going to walk right into a trap – they’re not going to put their own neck in the noose so to speak – like humans will. No, we have to show some real skill and cunning when it comes to catching an angel. What we do, (and you’ll probably come to appreciate this more when you read Mr. Sanderson’s ‘The Angelic Mysteries’)… what we do is to build a kind of labyrinth. When the angel enters the labyrinth she loses her way. She gets turned around and before she can find her way out she discovers that she has been grounded. She has lost her wings, if you will. Then we track them down and confine them in the land of Dis.

Anyway, I don’t want to give too much away. You’ve got your Dante. You’ve got your Milton. Now you’ve got your Sanderson. They’ll tell you how it is. ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ ought to give you enough to go on.

It was pride that caused our leader the infernal Serpent to stir up our most foul revolt, so I hope you’ll indulge me for just a moment. Look around you, good people. Read your newspapers or take a look at the evening news. What do you see there? Acts of goodness and mercy? Be honest now. I think not. LOL. (Which in our language means the Lowest of the Low). No. What you see is murder and mayhem in your streets. What you see is war and armed revolution and acts of terrorism. What you see is nuclear disaster and illegal business deals and adulterous behavior and drug and alcohol abuse. The list could go on and on. So, in my one moment of pride I will ask only that you recognize this: I’m not doing too badly now, am I?

Go ahead. Put another angel in my path. At least then I’ll have a worthy opponent. (You humans make me laugh. You’re just too easy).

While you’re at it, why don’t you go check out Sanderson’s page over on Face Book. Click ‘Like’ when you get there:

http://facebook.com/jamesdsandersonbooks

Yours for Eternity, Morton Toombs

Copyright © 2011 James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, July 1, 2011

THE AMERICAN CHARACTER PART III

The other famous character found in Washington Irving's 'The Sketch Book' is 'Rip Van Winkle'. ''Rip', perhaps, as in R.I.P. - Rest In Peace - as indeed this strange tale will have its hero slumber as if dead for twenty years. This is another of those papers found among the effects of one Diedrich Knickerbocker, deceased; an old gentleman who had researched the history of the Dutch settlers in that region. The story takes place in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It opens with its hero, Rip, being portrayed as a 'loafer' - one who loves to fish and hunt rather than engage himself in more profitable labor. After hunting squirrels one late afternoon he settled down on a green knoll.
From there he continued on, meeting a square-built stranger along the way. They joined up together and as they went along they heard a sound like distant thunder, and came upon some strange looking men playing ninepins. After joining them for a drink Rip fell into a deep slumber.
Upon waking he found himself once again on that green knoll where he had first dozed off. Since it was morning he realized that he must have slept there all night. Next to him he found a rusty old gun and his dog had disappeared. He headed back to the village but he met no one along the way.
The village itself was larger and more populous than he remembered it, and there were strangers everywhere. He headed over to his house but found it gone to decay and a half-starved dog waiting there. His nagging wife was nowhere around and the very character of the people in the town had changed. He found himself, then, after twenty years of sleep, "alone in the world." Eventually he meets up with his daughter and her child, and goes to live with them.
Again an afterward is signed D.K. and in it he attests to the absolute truth of this account. "The story therefore," he concludes, "is beyond the possibility of doubt."
In this story of Rip Van Winkle it is shown that change is not always for the better, and that Rip has lost his identity in the time he has been gone. In this world of constantly accelerating change and progress and 'future shock', alienation is a very valid motif in American literature, and has been right from the start. If one should only happen to blink, or to take forty winks, as it were, he might lose his place in time. Unlike the tradition-bound Europeans that have been left behind, Americans are at a loss to find any tradition at all. The American character, again, is just not able to find a place in this world.
As with the Sleepy Hollow story, old Rip returning home reveals the very American tension between the wilderness 'out there', and the civilization he returns to. Between the outer and inner aspects of humankind. Between the one who hunts and the one who works. Between brains and brawn. Here, another theme is added as well - the confusion that change brings in the lives of those who live through it.
In his eulogy to Washington Irving given at the Massachusetts Historical Society in December of 1859 his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke of this author's contribution in these words: "We feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters."
Copyright 2011 James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

THE AMERICAN CHARACTER PART II

How would the American character have been portrayed if our earliest writers had not made the attempt to define it for us? Last time we left off with Washington Irving warming to his story set in the small market town of Greensburgh. Or, more specifically, in a quiet spot two miles outside of town. A spot known as Sleepy Hollow. In this bewitched place there was one apparition that seemed to prevail over all others - that of a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War whose head had been carried away by a cannon ball. Historians believed that the body had been buried in a nearby churchyard and that every so often he rides out in search of his lost head. Before daybreak this 'Headless Horseman' was always in a hurry to get back to his proper place.
Now it is said that some thirty years earlier a tall, lank man with narrow shoulders and long arms and legs - a man named Ichabod Crane - 'tarried' in the area. "To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him fro the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield," Irving writes. Such details continue to build believability in his tale.
Why is it that Irving gives his main character, his 'hero', such strange features and odd manners? This school teacher from Connecticut is an 'outsider' and anyone who has been an outsider in a small town will recognize just what this man is up against. That old Headless Horseman is more accepted, despite the fact that he is ephemeral - a spirit - than this very human stranger. By sharing his stories of ghosts, Crane is hoping to win acceptance in this place where nightmares and superstitions are as real as, or more real than, real life.
Ichabod Crane was a strict taskmaster in the classroom who always kept in mind the golden maxim to spare the rod is to spoil the child, but after school he would hang out with the older boys and even escort the smaller ones home if they had pretty sisters or mothers who were good cooks. This character might be summed up in modern terms like this: he was a gangly, freeloading, self-absorbed, sissy. Not the attributes that would naturally endear him to his solid, hardworking, tough neighbors. He was the quintessential outsider.
This hero makes his first real mistake when he begins courting the beautiful Katrina Van Tussel, whose father also just happens to be a prosperous farm owner. She, of course, is also being courted by some of the local boys - strapping, hardy lads. Chief among them is a strong country fellow named Brom Van Brunt, whose nickname reflects his prowess - Bram Bones. He is the true hero. Here is the insider, the hard rider, the wild and spirited fist fighter. It is he, Bram, (the narrator leads his readers to believe), who 'becomes' the Headless Horseman in order to run this weak, effeminate, intellectual city slicker back to where he came from. It is this child of the American wilderness who prevails in the end and all join in the laughter as old Ichabod Crane skedaddles back to civilization.
It is here, too, in this tension between civilization and wilderness, between the insider and the outsider, between the intellect and the physical, that is found the American character and the gravitas of Washington Irving's storytelling.
Next week we'll take a look at Rip Van Winkle in the concluding post of The American Character. Hope you'll join me.
Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 17, 2011

THE AMERICAN CHARACTER PART I

I thought there would be a 'Sacred Writing' Part III this week but as is sometimes the case, I just discovered it is not here to write. I do reserve the right to post more on Sacred Writing at some later date. Instead, join with me as we explore some of the earliest writing in our country's history, and how it reveals something about The American Character:
Jorge Luis Borges said of Washinton Irving and James Fenimore Cooper,"... we can skip over them without any consequence." Friends, their position at the very beginning of the history of American literature brings at least some relevance to their work. Here in their writings is found the first seeds of the American hero. Here is found the hero that is never quite at home in the world. The one who is unsure of his place. The one who is unable to ever completely fit in. Here is found the predecessor of Ahab, Snopes, Jake Barnes and Dean Moriarty.
It is, in fact, impossible to calculate just how much influence Washington Irving exerted over those who were to follow. He was the first belletrist of American Letters. He was the one who shaped and created the modern American short story - placing his tales on American soil. He was the first to write in the vernacular - the common language of the day. The first to bring humor into his work. The first in the Gothic tradition that would later influence Edgar Allen Poe. The first to set pen to parchment to create literature in America. What might have emerged if he had not written can never be known.
Because he was born shortly after independence in 1783, he was named for George Washington. He was a sickly kid - the eleventh in his family - but he dreamed of adventure and far-flung travels. His favorite book growing up was 'Robinson Crusoe'. One day his dreams would be realized and, as was reported in 'The Atlantic Monthly' "He recognized fully the advantages of a foreign life... in following up that career of belles-lettres study which he had marked out for himself. The free entree of European libraries and galleries and familiar association with a class of cultivated men of leisure (in countries where such class exists), offered opportunity for refining his taste, for enlarging his stock of available material, and for stimulating his mental activity, of which he was not slow to perceive the value, and of which he has given ample account." ('The Atlantic Monthly' Vol 13, Issue 80. Boston. June 1864).
Irving's two most famous stories appeared in 'The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.' (1819). Its publication won its author and American literature in general the respect and acclaim of European critics.
'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is told in the first person, presumably by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. By claiming the manuscript was found among the papers of the deceased, and by saying in the Postscript that it had been "Found in the Handwriting of Mister Knickerbocker," Irving is doing everything he can to make the story seem a true one. The narrator gives details that he claims to be precise and authentic. At every turn he attempts to establish the story's veracity. "On my word of honor," is what is implied.
Having established the 'truth', then, Irving warms to his story. (One can almost see him rubbing his hands together with a mischievous and knowing smile on his full face). On the eastern shore of the Hudson River lies the small market-town of Greensburgh or, more properly Tarry Town. So-called because in it men used to tarry or hang around on market days while their wives were off shopping. Outside of town, some two miles away, is found a quiet and secluded spot. In fact the general characteristics of the entire area is of quietude, of repose, and retreat from the troubles of this world. There, in that little valley known as Sleepy Hollow one may find tranquility and a drowsy atmosphere. Some say the place is haunted or bewitched. There are many local tales about that enchanted region.
Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.
Let me tell you more about this Sleepy Hollow next week in Part Two of 'The American Character'. Jim

Monday, June 13, 2011

SARAH'S STORY

SARAH’S STORY
I don’t even know where my name came from. I like it though. Sarah. There is something romantic about my name. But when people ask about my mother or father, I have no idea how to respond to them. I tried to explain it to Daniel, I really did, but he seemed to understand even less than anyone else. Leave it to me to run into such a skeptic.

Actually, Sarah has always been my name. There has never been a time I know of that I was not called Sarah. It means something different in heaven though, I think. Sarah was Abraham’s wife in the Bible, of course, and the name itself is from the Hebrew for ‘Princess’. But a princess on earth is one who is honored for being born high-up in society, while in heaven the name has more to do with servant hood. That’s what makes me the perfect guardian, I guess. The name fits for that, don’t you think?

Many stories are told about angels but not many of them are very accurate. Angels are not born as humans are. We are created and have always been. Our encounters with humans have been relatively recent, in fact. I recall my very first assignment with human beings. They were the first man and first woman – Adam and Eve. They had become hopelessly lost in the harsh land to the east of Eden and I helped them find their way. The morning after they were expelled from the Garden both of them paused for a long moment to look out over the land around them. Behind them the smoke and fire at the gates of the Garden that had seemed so near the night before now was far off. The black smoke was on the distant horizon. Far beyond that – a mere dimple on the skyline – was the mountain they had called God’s Throne. It was part of a great range of peaks that bled off into the distance, purple and indistinct. The hillock they stood upon led down into what looked to have been a river valley; dry now. As they descended they slid in the rough rock scree and were forced to steady themselves with their hands. Adam was pricked by the spine of a tiny cactus and he held his palm to his mouth and tried to force the black spine out with his teeth. At last he succeeded and he rubbed his palm against the thigh of his skin robe.

They reached the bottom of the slope now and began to follow the dry stream bed along, generally to the south. Here, they were confronted with a world that was so different from the life they had led in the Garden that both of them felt slightly unhinged from their former identity. Nothing was as it had been. They were no longer who they had been. The life they had lived was no more, and yet they had no idea what their life ahead might lead them to. As they passed under gigantic overhangs of rock and the infinite sky overhead, they seemed to be passing through time – from one time (the time that had been) – into another.

Distances were deceptive here. They walked the entire long day before they reached the other side of the bowl and came upon a ridgeline of rotted rock and crumbling outcroppings. They lay down in the sand at the base of this rise just as the sun was blotted out by the distant line of the horizon. The next morning they climbed the outcropping to the top of the ridge. Ahead was more of the same. Rock sculptures were thrust up here and there with colors that were so muted they almost could not be called colors. There were layers of light red and pink and brown and tan all fused together into one grand effect. When the yellow sun hit them, they seemed to be transformed into even more indescribable hues.

A sense of emptiness plagued them all that day as they walked along the floor of this immense flat expanse of dirt and rock. Only the shifting colors of the rocks – red, yellow, brown, confirmed that they were actually moving forward. An eagle flying far overhead was a major event. They found no water that day and by nightfall their tongues were thick with thirst.

The next day the land changed again and I managed to lead them without their knowledge to a narrow stream that ran down between the rocks. They drank as much as they could hold – their bellies were bloated by the time they had finished – and then they began to follow the stream down into a wide valley that was strung along with greenery because of the water. Who knows what would have happened to humankind if I had not been there to lead them to water.

Anyway, my story goes on like that over the centuries. I go wherever I am needed and I could tell you some interesting things all right. (Perhaps one day I will write my angelic memoirs, who knows?) But my most recent story (the story Mr. Sanderson relates in his ‘The Angelic Mysteries’), begins with the trickery of Morton Toombs. I was in New York City following my charge Daniel Allman when I found myself getting turned around in the dark alleys and streets. I recognize now what I did not recognize then – that Toombs had drawn me into an elaborate labyrinth from which I could not escape. In this way he clipped my wings and brought me into an earthbound existence. I am still not certain exactly how he did it.

Then, when he had me completely lost and without my superpowers (as it were), he tried to get his hands on me. I knew very well what would happen if he did. But let me leave all that to your reading of ‘The Angelic Mysteries’ which is being released on August 18th. Mr. Sanderson is a capable storyteller and he has written very well the story I have just begun for you. I do hope you will continue reading it there.

Oh and by the way, you can keep up with Mr. Sanderson and his writing at http://www.facebook.com/jamesdsandersonbooks

Hope to see you there. Sarah

Copyright © 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 10, 2011

SACRED WRITING - PART II

I'm way behind the times. In fact the truths I try to live by are as old as the hills. Love God. Love One Another. Tell the truth. (Perhaps even more important -live the truth). Haven't I heard about Postmodernism? people demand to know. I must be stuck way back there in the male dominated, structuralist, pre-deconstructionist, urban, elite, totalization - ated :), hierarchical, designed, purposeful, modernism (or even pre-modernism) of some other time! Well, OK, while that is not completely true, it is mainly true. Is that because I don't understand Postmodernism? Not at all. I understand it only too well and I reject it.

How can I reject it? Everyone else is doing it. I reject it because of its selfish, relative, anarchic, fragmented, and deconstructive approach to the truth. (Or antithesis of truth). It is just that simple. I believe in a creator God. A saving Christ. A single truth. A value system rooted in God's Word. A purposeful life lived according to an ultimate plan. Eternal life.

The way I believe causes me to write the way I do. There is a reason for writing as I do, I should say. I understand that there is a reason Postmodernists write the way they do too. They see the world as a frustrating, enraging, dis empowering, authoritarian place to live. (And believe me on certain days I can see exactly what they are talking about). But when I'm in my right mind, I know that I am but a small part of the overall pattern and plan in a universe created for a purpose by a Grand Creator - God.

My belief causes me to love others even when they are unlovable. (Its a supernatural thing). To help others even when they don't deserve help. To live the way of nonviolence in my life. (And that's a tough one folks in a culture steeped in violence). To love and cherish my wife and family. To touch the earth lightly with a smaller car, recycling, reusing, rethinking the way I do things, batching my trips so I drive less, buying locally when possible, shopping at the thrift shop, to grow my own food as much as I can, to capture and use rainwater, to stop and help my neighbor with her goats... I'm not trying to pat myself on the back here. I'm trying to make a point that the way I believe drives the way I act 'and' the way I write. My writing is just part and parcel with the way I have chosen to live my life.

And, as I pointed out last week, my life is all I have to give. The time I'm given on this great earth is all I'm going to have so when I write, I'm investing the most precious gift I have - my time - into my work. I think that makes what I have to say pretty important. It will have to be important to you, too, if you're going to spend/invest your time reading it. Does that mean you have to believe exactly as I do? Not at all. We can agree to disagree. We can even disagree and disagree. But I want you to know that what I have written I take very seriously. I hope it entertains you, but I also hope it makes you stop and think about the nature of the planet we live on, and the sacredness of our lives.

Those are the terms under which I set pen to paper. It sets a standard for my writing and it also sets forward a challenge for the reader. The more the reader has read, the more insight the reader will have into what I have written.

Whew, this whole post took an unexpected turn. I guess I'll have to write what I planned to write next week. Let me know what you think either here or on Facebook at:

http://www.facebook.com/jamesdsandersonbooks

See you next time GLW (Good Lord Willing),

Jim

Monday, June 6, 2011

MARMADUKE

It doesn't seem like so long ago when I was young and my dad was in business for himself as a house painter and Marmaduke came over every so often to visit us. I always looked forward to seeing Marmaduke. He was a college guy and he had big plans and he always handed me one of those match sticks that was made of cardboard and asked me to split it with my thumb nail. Then he'd tell me to take each side between my fingers and hold the thing out in front of me. Then he'd tell me to say 'Vroom' 'Vroom' and when I did he said, "Hey, what have you got there, a motorcycle?"

He did it every time he came over and I guess it was a little bit silly, especially looking back at it now, but I admired him so much I didn't care.

Marmaduke always had a story to tell and of course I don't remember most of them now. He really liked my dad and they hit it off well in spite of the difference in their ages, just as I hit it off with him in spite of the age difference between us. Maybe Marmaduke just hit it off well with everyone, I don't know.

One time Marmaduke came over with a record album to play for my dad. It was one of the first albums by Bob Dylan - I don't remember which one. I listened in and I could tell my dad didn't really get it about Bob Dylan but I did. After a while my friends were listening to Bob Dylan and they didn't really get it either. I tried to explain it to them but they still didn't get it. Then after some more time went by everyone was listening to Bob Dylan and they really got it about him. I think I must have been one of the first people to get it about Bob Dylan and that was because of Marmaduke.

Another time he came over he had a roll of paper under his arm and it was plans for an amusement park once he rolled it out, all laid out like it was ready to be built. It was a project he had done for a college class but then he started to take it seriously and thought that he might actually build it and he'd make a bundle of money. He asked my dad if he'd like to invest some money in it but my dad just shook his head sadly and shrugged his shoulders and showed the palms of his hands.

"Sorry, buddy, I can't do it. I've got kids to raise."

I don't know if the amusement park ever got built. I don't remember there ever being a new park being built around that part of Southwest Michigan. Probably not. That's how things go, really. There are a lot more 'probably nots' than there are 'probablies' in the world. As least that was true where I came from.

Anyway, I ran into Marmaduke years later and he didn't mention the amusement park or anything like it. He worked in a record store as I recall. He still like Bob Dylan but there was a lot of other music he liked too. That was after my dad lost his business and went out to Arizona to live in a school bus.

After we had gotten past our greetings and smiles and back slapping and answering, "Say, where is your old man anyway?" and "How is he doing?" Marmaduke said, "I've got a story to tell you, Jim." And he proceeded to tell me about this man he knew - Daniel Allman - who met a woman who believed she was an angel. "Honest to God," he said. "They traveled around together and I'm not lyin' he said they were being chased around Europe by a huge anti-angel. An anti-angel is one that comes from hell according to Daniel. And their job is to catch or kill the good angels."

And the more he told me the story of this Daniel Allman and the girl, Sarah, the more I knew I had to write it all out and that is the story that is 'The Angelic Mysteries' that is coming out August 18th this year.

I don't know whatever happened to Marmaduke after that. I never saw him again. I do know what happened to my dad and all the rest of it. But I guess that will have to wait for another time.

Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 3, 2011

SACRED WRITING - PART I

All writing is sacred. It is sacred in the sense that our lives are sacred and if we are pouring our lives into something, that something becomes a sacred endeavor. This makes some assumptions, I know. It assumes that our lives 'are' sacred. That there is some meaning and purpose for our lives. And it assumes that what we do is sacred - that it is part and parcel with the purpose of our lives. Without those basic assumptions I question whether anything is, or could be, sacred at all.

Even if we leave aside the idea of a Creator God (which I don't), our lives are sacred in the sense that we are only given so much time. This moment is the only such moment we are to be given. When it has passed it will never be present again. We will never again be present in this moment. In a sense I have traded this moment in time to be writing this blog posting. It will never be again. I will never be again in this moment. Therefore, this moment is a sacred moment.

I have heard it said that time is limited. That's not true. Time is not limited. Our lives are limited in time. Because our lives end, we have been given only so much time to be. What I am be-ing in this moment, what I am doing, is therefore important. Should I not be doing something important with it?

Sacredness in our culture has been eclipsed by the desire for money and the pleasure that we believe money can buy. We are intent upon getting our work done so that we can exchange it for payment and to exchange that payment for a night out, a travel adventure, a new car/boat/house/RV, or what have you. Even when we are poor, however, and not presented with so many options, we can lose track of our sacredness. We become caught up in our lack of money and our lack of the pleasures that money can buy. (We see these pleasures being lived out all around us, do we not?) We can come to curse our life and lose sight of its significance.

But time is passing whether we recognize our sacredness or not. A good exercise might be to imagine we are at the end of our lives and looking back and asking ourselves what we would like to see there. Am I going to curse the day I held my child and loved her? Am I going to rue the day I woke up early to watch the sunrise? Am I going to feel cheated by the time I put into writing the greatest work I possibly could?

Such is the sacredness of writing.

I am nearing 59 years of age and both ends of life are coming into view. Looking back now, I can scarcely remember the gratification that came from owning things. I can scarcely recall the days I cursed my life because I was poor and having trouble paying the bills. What has become important to me, and what was important all along, was the time I spent/invested in finding the sacred center. It is here I want to spend the rest of my days.

With love,

Jim

Monday, May 30, 2011

WRITING GREATNESS

I was twelve years old. It was the year - and this is how I remember it - it was the year I took a job with old Mister King. He grew tomatoes for the local grocery stores and he was gettin' old. He needed a hand around the place. Mostly I was breaking up tomato crates so they could be reassembled into new crates. Anyway, it was in that same year my dad took a creative writing course. So I have my writing career to thank my dad for - for better or worse.

Here's how it went: When I heard that a body could make money writing stories, which is what I already knew I wanted to do anyway, I was amazed. I was already reading classic literature by that time. I would read a story like 'A Barn Burner' or 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' and I didn't really understand it so I would go to my dad and ask him what it was all about. "Did the guy die in the end or what?" I'd ask.

"Maybe you're too young to understand it yet," he'd say.

And he was right, of course, but I'd read them anyway and maybe that was part of the appeal - that I didn't really understand and wanted to, or that I wanted to be able to say I read stuff than nobody my age understood.

This is the second anniversary of my blog. I am creating this blog while I am working on my work in progress - attempting to work out details and to come up with solutions I might not otherwise have come up with. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which. I am writing from within the creative eye, as I call it. I hope you are enjoying my work here.

In August my novella 'The Angelic Mysteries' will be released through Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and Smashwords. I hope you will give it a try and let me know what you think of it. It has been many years in the making. 'The Angelic Mysteries' was published first as a trade paperback novel in 1994. It was picked up by an agent who made promises of millions $. When that didn't happen it was dropped quick enough and I don't feel it was ever given a proper reading. I have since completely re-written it and it is much shorter. I like to think it has been distilled. In any case, I like this version much better and am excited to be releasing it soon.

Thanks for following my work here and as always I invite comments from my readers.

Yours always,

Jim

Friday, May 27, 2011

RESURRECTION

What if you decided to give up everything you owned and live among the poorest of the poor? Would it make any difference in the world? Would it make any difference in your life?

Tolstoy tried it and the results were mixed. His family didn't want him to give up his property and they wanted to retain the rights to his work. After his death they won it all back in court. We know Tolstoy by his greatest works 'War and Peace'
(1863-1869)and 'Anna Karenina'(1873-1877) of course. So how is it I have never before read his third great novel, 'Resurrection'(1899)?

Tolstoy's later writings caused a great deal of trouble for a great number of people. 'The Kingdom of God is Within You' and other writings and thoughts troubled the Orthodox Church so much that he was excommunicated in 1901. He corresponded with M.K. Gandhi about the way of nonviolent resistance to evil. (Still a controversial idea today in this world filled with violence). It is better to let such troubling ideas slip into oblivion, is it not? But this is Tolstoy! How can you silence this great author and moralist? But that is apparently what happened to 'Resurrection' in those years following his death in the train station at Astapovo in 1910.

'Resurrection' is the story of Prince Dmitri Nekhlyodov who, as a younger man, seduced and then abandoned a young woman by the name of Katyusha. Many years later he chances to become involved in her life again - as a juror this time - and he is confronted with the fact that his actions have ruined her life. He becomes determined to give up everything and follow her into exile in Siberia.

The questions remains: Will he be able to find redemption in his attempt to overturn his past mistakes? Will it make any difference to anyone if he does? Will the world be a better place because of his sacrifice?

Tolstoy's conclusions will be as disturbing today as they were then to those who have chosen to look for answers everywhere but in the Bible: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all the rest shall be added on to you."

Tolstoy highlights five 'commandments' from the Bible, each of which is most disturbing to those of us who have decided to try to live this way literally in our daily lives. They are commandments based upon the law of love and nonviolence. From our own experience we have found that the way of love leads us quite literally to die to this world and to be resurrected in eternity. 'Resurrection' is work of literature that explores that territory.

Friday, May 20, 2011

THE WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Now that we are all positively giddy with the prospect of yet another election season - only seventeen months left before the election - we can't wait to see what a crop of political geniuses will enter the ring and which will stand victorious before the nation next November. (Or as my southern friends would say, "November a year.") Will it be Newt? Sarah? Jim? Jim. Jim who? Yes, it always begins like that. From 'Jim who?' to Mr. President. In this way I am announcing my own bid for the White House.

And why not? Every four years we hear the we have need of change. Well I say we are tired of change. We'd rather have dollars. We're tired of spare change. Give us dollars or give us gold!

And why not? I really am the common citizen. Others make a mockery of our commonness by claiming their own commonness. This when they are anything but common. They are common to one another. They are not common to me.

Campaigns are a war of words and images. Slogans. Speeches. Radio and Television and Internet spots. And words are the stuff of literature. The one candidate I believe transcended words to achieve literature was Abraham Lincoln. I'm not sure how that happened. He really was a common man and he spoke in the common language and he lacked the classic education of other gifted pols. Further, his words were few. All of his speeches were incredibly brief. In that fact may be the key to his literary greatness.

In his 'Farewell to Springfield' he summed up his sentiments in this way: "To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything."

His 'First Inaugural Address' was longer, but for good reason. Only two weeks earlier Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated President of the Confederacy. He made his case again the division of the Union in part in this way: "Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. ...no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination." "...if the destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be law full possible, the Union is less perfect... having lost the vital element of perpetuity."

His most famous speech is, of course, the 'Gettysburg Address'. Who has not heard the words, "Four score and seven years ago..." "...we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." And in conclusion: "...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

And finally his 'Second Inaugural Address', delivered little over a week before his assassination: "With malice toward none, with Charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, t bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

As I was looking at Mr. Lincoln and his work this past week I found that it was important to keep in mind the time in which he lived, and the pressures that he was under. Pressure is what turns carbon into diamonds under the earth. Pressure is what makes the need for a few well-chosen words a must. We live in a world that is filled with words, words, words. There is no pressure. Words can just be glibly reeled out, one after another after another. Everyone knows they don't mean anything. They may even be lies. That's just the way it is.

What if we began to apply the pressure of the spiritual to our words? What if, as in other days, words were seen as sacred? What if our lives had to live up to our words, and our words live up to our lives? Would that not bring a different and more pressurized meaning to our words? I believe it would. As I am writing my latest work, I am keeping in mind that each word is sacred. That should make all the difference.

In closing I will use these words spoken by former Presidential Candidate Pat Paulsen: "If you vote for one of the other candidates, don't blame me!"

Friday, May 13, 2011

BOTH

Both! That's what the title character in the popular movie 'Radio' answered when he was asked which kind of pie he wanted. (Cherry or Apple? I don't remember specifically). But I remember that answer. Both. Isn't that what we all want when it comes to pie? (Never mind my diet).

But when it comes to literature we are told we can't have both. It's either cherry or apple. Take your pick, but you can't have both. Only in this case it's either deeply moving character-driven 'literary' stories or novels 'or' it's plot driven stories with shallow characters and even more shallow moral problems to work through. Now I may be hard to please but if I get the chance, I want both. I want a work that sweeps me up in a genuine story (it doesn't have to be a three act play or follow the Freitag Triangle, but it has to move along) 'and' a reason for that story to exist. Both a deep character study 'and' a great story line, in short.

After all, what is a plot but a series of incidents that happens to (or are caused by) character? What is character but an ever deepening personality formed by the things that happen to her/him, or by what they already believe? I know. I know. This is not the place to go into a long study of either character or theme or plot. You can read entire books on any of those subjects.

I'm a frustrated author and reader. About the time I started writing in earnest, back in the early seventies (that's 1970s thank you very much), a movement was taking hold that later came to be called 'Post Modern'. A division had begun between what was considered 'literary' and thus serious writing, and popular, and thus not serious writing. If you were a serious literary writer, you didn't concern yourself with the story. (Sniff). You only concerned yourself with character and experimental ways of driving the story forward. But if you were a popular writer who wanted to explore the depths of human character in your story, you were accused of slowing the plot line down. (Which is Baaad).

Well, I'm here to tell you: I still want both. I want to read both and I want to write both. I know I'm too picky for words. I want 'Lonesome Dove' or 'A Thousand Acres' or even 'Blindness' for crying out loud. Both. So if you're writing, please remember me while you're doing it. And I pledge that I will remember 'both' in my writing.

Work on my master work continues and you can bet it has both. I am experimenting a little too, but it is within the framework - the structure (another no-no word for post moderns)- of the greater story. I am taking time to develop my characters and they have genuine heart-felt reasons for doing what they do and the action grows from those characters and their convictions. Work is progressing nicely.

I wanted to take a moment to thank my daughter Holly here, too. I was struggling with all the work I am doing promoting 'The Angelic Mysteries' which is coming out in August. I wasn't getting as much work done of my work in progress and was having trouble concentrating on it. She reminded me of something her writing professor taught her: "Do the writing first." Now that sounds like pretty simple advice (the best advice usually is), but it is so true. The minute I started putting my writing first again, everything else has begun to fall in line. After all, I could work 24/7 on promotional activities and still never be done. Start with your writing. Then do everything else. Thanks again Holly.

Jim

Friday, May 6, 2011

THE HEART AS LUTE - PART TWO

The first Gothic novel was ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole, Earl of Oxford (1717-1797). Its castle was a dismal place, but not near as much time is spent developing the atmosphere in that story as in ‘Usher’. (The Fall of the House of Usher). The reader is led, there, straight into the action with the crushing death of a young prince. There was the underlying shame of incest, of supernatural events, and hauntings by unknown and perhaps unknowable fears and horrors. Other influences on Poe may have been Clara Reeve (1729-1807) who wrote ‘The Old English Baron’ and Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) who wrote about things supernatural in his ‘The Monk’ and in the Gothic tradition in ‘Mistrust’ with its mysteries, witchcraft, murder and the horror of human deeds. There was Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, of course, and his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, though Poe did not like Hawthorne’s, ‘The White Old Maid’.

Did Poe influence Wolfgan Hildesheimer’s story ‘A World Ends’? This story describes a gala party at San Amerigo (an artificial island – can the word America be missed here?). It is a place of much splendor and opulence. The end of something has come but no one seems to have a clue about it. It is as if they are on the deck of the Titanic but no one notices that they are about to sink. The story is told in a tone of dreaminess and acceptance. There is a certain cynical notion presented here that things have always been this way, and they always remain so. The first person narrator finds himself among the cultural elite, but the rats have quite literally begun to abandon the place. The floor vibrates as the very foundation of the island is breaking apart. The music continues to play and all stay behind save the narrator who, like the rats and the servants, flees for his life. There was the crashing roar as of a building collapsing. Upon looking back from sea, it was if the place had never been.

To ‘usher’ is to lead someone to their seat. An usher is a person who is the doorkeeper; the one who introduces a personage. In this case, to usher in a new way of being, and to usher out the old.

Poe is the first one to usher in the detective story as well. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ begins with a narrative discussion of those who delight in analyzing (as with Poe himself): “that moral activity which disentangles”. “He (the analyst) is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics…” The author is setting the scene here in a different way – setting the mind to pondering what it means to analyze a situation. He then discusses various games – chess, draughts, and whist – weighing the necessity of each in the use of calculating powers. He goes on to say, “The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis.”

His narrative then brings the reader to Paris in the summer of 18— and as a matter of shear coincidence the narrator and a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin happen to meet while searching for the same rare book. Dupin had, he noticed, a peculiar analytic ability. He seemed, in those times when he pondered a problem, to become a different person, as though he were a “Bi-Part Soul”. Dupin managed to amaze him with his powers of deductive reasoning. His powers of observation were extreme.

Later, as they were looking through the latest edition of the ‘Gazette de Tribunaux’ the story of “Extraordinary Murders” caught their eye. At about 3 A.M., according to the report, there was an uproar on the fourth floor of a house in the Rue Morgue which was occupied by Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. Neighbors and gendarmes found the door locked and upon forcing it open found the apartment in wild disarray, a blood-stained razor, several thick tresses of gray human hair pulled out by the roots, with the corpse of the daughter up the fireplace chimney, head downward. The old lady was found later in the rear yard of the building, also dead. Her throat had been cut.

The next day’s paper added some details, statements had been taken from various people but these seemed to bring the authorities no closer to solving the case. In spite of that, a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon had been arrested and imprisoned in the matter. Dupin remembered that La Bon had once done him a good turn and wanted to look into the case a little further. In the end, of course, it is C. Auguste Dupin’s powers of deductive reasoning that cause him to solve this extraordinary case using only the most common and obvious of clues. He resolved at the beginning that these women were not murdered by spirits, thus rejecting the possibility of spectral evidence that had been used in the trial of witches a century earlier. By ruling out the various possibilities, what is left must be truth, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

This ratiocination, that is, the cold, objective logic used to solve a mystery, was later used in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It is difficult to miss, again, the very American contrast and conflict between the use of brains, represented by the man of reason; and brawn, represented here in the very real animal itself.

‘The Gold Bug’ too, is an extraordinary story. Extraordinary in that a code is embedded in the text. A parchment is found on the beach, apparently something from the pirate Captain Kid. A treasure hunt is afoot, but what distinguishes this story from other ordinary adventure stories based upon the seeking of a lost treasure, is the cryptogram written in invisible ink on the parchment. An ink that only reveals its secrets when held near the fireplace. A code, of course, begs a solution. And what is used to solve this particular code is a substitution cipher using letter frequencies. This cipher presumes that some letters occur more often than others. The letter ‘E’, for example, occurs in writing more often than any other. This is one of the few stories ever to involve a cryptogram in the story itself.

In a way Poe was already ‘ushering’ in with his work, the coming of modern literature - (Can ‘ushering’ be used more than once?) – laying out the satisfying but fragmentary modern short story. The collapse of the old way was not to be eclipsed yet for another sixty years. Then it would come tumbling to pieces in the hands of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others. With Poe the old order is already being shaken. A new order is yet to take its place.

I have lived under the specter of madness all my life and suspect many people have. The malady seems to infiltrate every home in one form or another. It is this sense of madness in modern life that Poe predicts so well. When I sat down to write 'The Angelic Mysteries' (it was begun many years ago), I wanted to convey this madness not only in the story itself, but in the way the story is presented. Some early readers have commented on the large number of very short chapters. Yes, that is right. Madness leads to a kind of fracture in a life's story. So, this story also attempts to break up attempts at a 'rational' reading. Please bear with it. I think the effect is worth it in the end.

Jim

This post has been adapted from a chapter of 'American Masters' due out March 2012. It is copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson

Friday, April 29, 2011

THE HEART AS LUTE - PART ONE

In a letter to Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, May 19, 1841), Longfellow wrote: “You are mistaken in supposing that you are not ‘favorably known to me.’ On the contrary, all that I have read, from your pen, has inspired me with a high idea of your power; and you are destined to stand among the first romance-writers of the country, if such is your aim.”

Poe returned the favor the following year with a heavy-handed review of Longfellow’s ‘Ballads and Other Poems’ in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, 20 (March – April, 1842) 189-190; 248-251. “Much as we admire the genius of Mr. Longfellow,” he wrote, “we are fully sensible to his many errors of affectation and imitation. His artistical skill is great, and his ideality high. But his conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong…” Then he picks up a line later, “He has written brilliant poems – by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking – a habit deduced from German study.”
This, as it turns out, is a rather more clear-eyed criticism of Longfellow than Poe will render later, when he becomes absolutely obsessed with the claim that Longfellow was a plagiarist in the matter of the Kalavala and ‘The Song of Hiawatha’.
Edgar’s parents were both actors but his mother died while he was still in infancy. He did endure some poverty for a time but then began to make a name for himself as an editor and critic at the ‘Southern Literary Magazine’. He married his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. Then, because he tended to drink overmuch, he lost his position at ‘Southern’. His bent toward Romanticism caused his concern with the occult and the satanic. His own feverish dreams seem to have driven him on. He may even have been bi-polar or to have had, as they called it, a double personality. That would certainly explain his bizarre mood swings and obsession with things macabre. His ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym’ is believed to have had an influence on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Who can forget the first time they read Poe? Whether it was ‘The Raven’ or ‘Masque of the Red Death’ or ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – (or ‘The Gold Bug’; ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’; ‘The Cask of Amontillado’) – one can have started almost anywhere and still have the same strong impression; the same strong memory.

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ begins with a quote by Pierre Jean de Be’ranger from his ‘Le Refus’: “Son Coeur est un luth suspendu; Silot qu on le touché il resonne.” (See accents). Why does Poe choose to begin this dreary Gothic account with such a peculiar epigraph? “His heart,” it reads, “is a suspended lute; which resounds at once when it is touched.” Whose heart resounds – the narrator’s? (Why has Poe changed the quote from ‘My heart’ to ‘His heart’? What does that have to do with a man visiting this “melancholy House of Usher”? One who felt “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom…” A man who was forced at the outset to, “…grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.”

Poe uses the atmosphere and tone of the work to create an emotional response in his reader, using the first person narration (narrator as character), to forge a bond – to grab hold and not let go until they – narrator and reader – have reached the desired conclusion together. Desired, in any case, by the author, Poe himself.
Roderick Usher had been a boyhood companion, the narrator claims, but it had been years since their last meeting. Then, out of the depths of an oppressive mental and physical disorder a letter arrived asking for a visit. Usher had always been a private soul, so even though they had been close friends in some ways, the narrator claims he didn’t really know him at all. Thus our narrator arrives on horseback at the House of Usher.

The impression of the house itself and the atmosphere surrounding it was that it had been cut off from Heaven’s good graces, and was instead a place of rot and decay. Of death. It was as if the rot had occurred, and was still occurring, but nothing had fallen apart because there was no force; not the slightest force, that could complete the task. The narrator comments, “I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.” Certainly this is a world far from the open expanses and good air of wild country.

The Usher he met was quite a different man from the one he remembered. He seemed to believe that the mansion itself controlled his behavior and shaped his destiny. Usher was afflicted, he said, by “a constitutional and family evil…” His sister, the lady Madeline, was also afflicted by this elusive illness. There was, “A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person…” These strange afflictions may have been the result of familial intermarriage, “…the entire family lay in the direct line of decent.”

Poe includes his poem, published earlier, ‘The Haunted Palace’, in which people dance to a lute around a throne upon which the King of the realm sits in all his glory. But some evil “in robes of sorrow” had entered in and now a discordant melody was being played.

There was a poison, it seems, that had gotten down deep into the soul of this place. Was this, perhaps, representative of the Europe of old with her monarchs and traditions; a place that could not change. Or was it something more – a warning – against any form of rigidity in life. Life is supple and spontaneous and animated. Death is rigid, airless, and motionless.

A list of books is included in the tale, a list that proves Usher was fascinated with the occult. The list includes, in part, ‘The Subterranean Voyage of Nicholan Klimm’ by Ludvig Holberg, a novel published originally in Latin. ‘Chiromancy’ by Robert Flud (1574 – 1637), who studied chemistry, medicine, and the occult. ‘Journey into the Blue Distance’ (‘Das alte Buch und die Reise ins Blave hinein’ by Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853). And ‘Directorium Inquisitorum’ by Nicoau Eymerich (1320-1399), the Inquisitor general of the Inquisition of the Crown of Aragon. This ‘Directorium’ defined witchcraft and ways of discovering witches. “Over which,” the narrator claims, “Usher would sit dreaming for hours.”

At this point in the story, Usher informed him that the lady Madeline was no more. He was keeping her corpse hidden away (lest her physician snatch her body – a specimen for medical study). She was, it turns out, his twin. Now Usher roamed about the place aimlessly. “The pallor of his countenance had assumed if possible a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out.”

To pass the night as Usher slowly sinks into madness, the narrator chooses to read aloud from an “antique volume” called the ‘Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning’. (This may, in fact, have been another work by Poe, but one which has never yet been discovered). As he reads he hears unusual screaming or grating sounds which correspond, oddly, with the final shriek of the slain dragon in the tale. Then he reads of the sound of a brass shield falling upon a silver floor, and again there is the corresponding sound in the house of Usher.

Now Usher claims that the lady Madeline has been placed in her coffin still alive! (An attempt, perhaps, to keep her entombed just as she is. To keep her from being changed in any way by this stranger’s visit). And there she is now in shrouds, come to bear her brother also off to death. (The only one who could touch Roderick Usher’s suspended lute of a heart was his twin sister).

It had been the narrator’s hope, one thinks, to save his long lost friend. But by entering that world of fantasy and madness, one risks being infected as well. One must escape back into the real, the natural world, if he is to save himself.
The narrator flees and along his path a wild light flashes. He turns to witness the house rent from roof to foundation, and the walls come crashing down – the fall of the house of Usher.

This article (along with Part Two) was first published by The Smoking Poet and is adapted from a chapter from 'American Masters' to be published in September 2012. It is Copyright 2011 By James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 22, 2011

NAKED UNDER THE SKY

“How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” That is a strange and wonderful quote from ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin. I read it some years ago but I’m not sure I really appreciated its worth. Written well over a hundred years ago, it predicts the coming awakening of women in history, but reading it again now I can see how it also predicts the coming experimentation in modern literature. Here is a writer on the cutting edge, in short.

When the book’s main character Edna Pontellier is released from the sweltering heat of New Orleans and from the oppressive hand of her husband, she finds she is not the woman she had thought herself to be. Unlike others of her time, however, she is willing to throw off the constraints of life as a married woman and the mother of her children and explore beyond the bounds that good society will allow. And yet the ‘lesson’ in the story is not what is expected. It is not the tragedy it seems to be on the surface. Rather, it is a story of liberation. A woman’s personal struggle against the ties that bind. And Woman’s struggle in history to break out of the captivity of society’s norms. That seems to be what readers and critics alike objected to. The book was pulled from the shelves of her local (St. Louis) library and she was ostracized for the remaining few years of her life.

One need not be a feminist to appreciate ‘The Awakening’ and as modern readers we need not be shocked by the story it tells. But when I think of what it must have been like for Kate Chopin to write such a beautiful and powerful work so ahead of its time, I also wonder where those writers are today. Now the tide has turned. It is the ‘norm’ to write stories of moral relativity and it is shocking to think that anyone might write from any other perspective. Can anyone still, in these post-modern times, think that God exists? Did not Nietzsche pronounce God’s death? Can anyone still, in these post-modern times, believe that there is a single overarching truth that is worth searching for? Can anyone possibly, in these post-modern times, question the absolute conclusions drawn by the scientific community about the ‘facts’ of evolution over creation? Of course not. To do so would be to draw the ire of readers and critics alike.

Much as Kate Chopin did.

I am continuing to write this weekly experiment in literature from within the creative eye. By that I mean that I am reading and writing and thinking and just plain trying to figure it out as I go along. I write where the words will take me. I experiment with my own thinking so that when I sit down to my own fiction, I have an idea about what I’m doing and why. It takes me into some strange territory sometimes. I will end with a quote from Hermann Hesse: “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

Regards,

Jim

Friday, April 15, 2011

SIXTY MILLION AND MORE

There is something special about the writing of Toni Morrison right from the start – her first novel was ‘The Bluest Eye’ (1970). Hers is a distinctive voice that draws the reader in. She remains as popular today as when she wrote those first words filled with place and people and color: “…here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother. Father. Dick and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress…” It reads like something out of that ‘Dick and Jane’ reader from grade school. Then is all runs together into one perplexing Dick and Jane mess. Is it the American Dream unraveled?

Claudia tells the story. She and her sister Frieda. She tells the story of their eleven-year old friend Pecola Breedlove (an astonishing family name) who is carrying her father’s baby; a girl who believes she will only be beautiful if her eyes turn blue. Blue like those blue-eyed, blond, white children who are loved in America. She had no place to stay, so Pecola came to stay with their family – just for a few days until the county could decide what to do with her – until her family was reunited. Her father had “…burned up his house, gone upside his wife’s head, and everybody, as a result, was outdoors.” (Horror of horrors, as everyone knew, was to be left homeless).

“… all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” Here, as with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the world is seen through the eyes of a child; except for that blur of Dick and Jane at the head of each chapter echoing like a prolonged scream down through the entire book. She talks about that doll in a way that proves she does not comprehend its value. She knows she is supposed to take it in her arms and hold it – but it is cold and lumpy and scratchy and makes that awful noise that is supposed to sound like ‘Mama’; but in reality all she wants to do is to tear the thing apart so she can get to the place where the secret of its beauty is found. But that, of course, is impossible.

‘The Bluest Eye’ did not receive the recognition the author thought it should, and in fact it took 25 years before it would.

‘Sula’ (1973) picks right up where ‘The Bluest Eye’ (and Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner…) left off. Here, the Medallion City Golf Course is displacing what was one a neighborhood. When black people lived in that neighborhood is was called the Bottom. It is now called the suburbs. The pool hall, the hair stylist, the grill, even the foot bridge over the river are coming down to make room for ‘progress’. Nothing will be left of the old neighborhood when they get done with it.

The Bottom was bottom land promised to a freed slave for some work he did – that’s the ‘bottom’ up in those hills. It was part of a little river town in Ohio that didn’t used to have a name. Nel was born to a manipulative mother and, “Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.”

On the other hand Hannah, Sula’s mother, “… never scolded or gave directions…” Their home was much more comfortable, with lots of people dropping in. Nel and Sula were friends growing up. They stood together. When a group of Irish boys started harassing them, Sula pulled out her mother’s paring knife and sliced the end of her finger to show them she meant business.

Nel got married and settled down with her husband and had three children. Sula, however, left the Bottoms and wandered around in America for ten years. There is something a little stilted and contrived about these early works (compared to her later works). People are catching fire and drowning but there is little emotional attachment, it seems. (Or is it as Flannery O’Connor said about this being the southern reality?) They are not as natural as her later books, ‘Song of Solomon’ (1977) and ‘Beloved’ (1987). Still, one can sense the storytelling mastery that is growing in her work.

‘Song of Solomon’ was cited in awarding its author the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. Early on she writes, “Just goes to show, they murmured to each other, you never really do know about people.” That’s what people were saying when their insurance agent was up on the roof of Mercy Hospital getting ready to jump with flapping blue wings on. It was as true of him as it was of any other character in that novel. It is true of all the characters wandering the streets of anywhere right now. You just don’t know about people.

“The next day a colored baby was born inside Mercy for the first time.” This was Macon Dead III who would later become known as ‘Milkman’ because he was breastfed for so long his feet were “… touching the floor.”

The trouble is, not only do you not know about people; most of the time people do not even know about themselves. Milkman spends a great deal of time in this novel trying to discover who he is and just where he fits in the history of his people.

His best friend, Guitar, comes to believe Milkman has cheated him, and threatens several times to kill him. In ‘Song’ as in all her novels, Toni Morrison is confronting the long-term consequences of that peculiar institution – slavery. The effects of slavery have been deep and are passed on from generation to generation. And the high-point of her examinations reside in her next novel, ‘Beloved’. Some claim that ‘Song’ is a better novel than ‘Beloved’, but really the comparison elevates both – they are both that good. If one had to choose, ‘Beloved’ edges ‘Song’ out by a whisker.

The Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘Beloved’, you see, is a culmination of this extraordinary writer’s life work and is extraordinary itself for that reason. “Sixty Million and more,” reads its epigraph. It is unclear exactly how many people died as a result of the slave trade in American history – the number could be much higher. The practice of slavery, the participation in it, the horror of it, has left a deep stain on American history. Can Americans ever truly face the past of witchcraft trials and the extermination of indigenous peoples, and the institution of slavery and the exploitation of workers and women and find repentance? Or will Americans, like so many others, indulge in a continued mass amnesia that allows forward motion into the future, without ever allowing for a change of direction? Well, if it is up to writers like Toni Morrison, no one will be allowed to forget.

In her Forward to ‘Beloved’ Morrison relates, in thumbnail fashion, the story of Margaret Garner, also known as Peggy, an escaped slave woman who killed her two year old daughter (and attempted to kill the others), to prevent her from being returned to slavery. She and her husband Robert escaped across the river from Kentucky and made it to the home of a relative near Cincinnati, Ohio. There, slave catchers and police cornered them. Garner killed her daughter with a butcher knife and was preparing to kill the others and herself when she was apprehended. Her case became a landmark for the Abolitionist movement and the opposition to the fugitive slave laws, (which forced the return of escaped slaves to their owners). It was also inspiration for ‘Beloved’.

‘Beloved’, then, is the story of an escaped slave woman, Sethe, who killed her daughter, Beloved. She now lives with her daughter Denver in the house at 124 Bluestone where the crime was committed and which is now haunted. Her boys, Howard and Buglar ran away from home at age thirteen, secretly fearing their mother might one day kill them as well.

Paul D, also a former slave, arrived one day and sees how things have stagnated there in that house. “What kind of evil you got in here?” he asked. Not evil, she assured him, but the strong presence of her long lost daughter. Still, Paul D sees it as his duty to bring them all back into the real world of solid and present events, leaving the past behind them where it belonged. He took them to a carnival over near Cincinnati. When they returned a young woman with a broken hat was there in front of the house. When asked her name she replied, “Beloved”. Then she spelled it out slowly. She slept four days, only sitting up to take some water.

“This girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, though he (Paul) couldn’t say exactly why, considering the colored-people he had run into during the last twenty years. During, before and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked at night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merry-makers.”

Who was this young creature with the babyish features and the new look about her? She could be the girl who had been locked up by a white man over Deer Creek way. Or could she be, could she possibly be the very daughter, killed by her mother’s hand, that they all wanted her to be – come back in some supernatural form? Or was she, somehow, the personification of all the horrors of all those years and years and years when white slave owners held captive and did as they pleased with black human beings who were their slaves?

There are times when a story is so full of truth that it simply is – it simply tells itself in a powerful way without the need of fancification or ornamentation. That is the story of Beloved. Whether or not that child that shows up at 124 Bluestone was the child that was killed, or some other, simply does not matter. She is the specter of the past that is very real and will not go away until it has somehow been ‘exorcised’ by the entire community.

The storytelling did not end with her Nobel Prize, either. Picking up ‘A Mercy’ (2008), the reader knows once again he or she is in the hands of a master storyteller. This novel takes place in the 1680’s America of the religious divisions, the class divisions, the prejudice and oppression of the early slave trade that was just beginning to take root. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer takes a small slave girl named Florens, in payment for a debt. He did not normally deal in ‘the flesh’. Florens has the hands of a slave but the feet of a Portuguese lady. Her feet are not tough enough to withstand the rigors of this world. She was a daughter that had been cast off by her mother in order to save her. (Looking back with Ms. Morrison, one wonders how anyone had the strength to withstand the rigors that early America required.)

John Updike wrote a review of ‘A Mercy’ (‘Dreamy Wilderness’ The New Yorker, November 3, 2008) in which he writes, “Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on.”
“… in time we come to comprehend that it is 1690 in Virginia, and that the narrator is a sixteen-year-old black girl called Florens, who was, at her mother’s plea, impulsively adopted, eight years ago, by a white proprietor (“Sir” to Forens), in partial settlement of a debt owed him by an insolvent slave owner from Portugal called “Senhor.”

Mr. Updike concludes with this observation: “Varied and authoritative and frequently beautiful though the language is, it circles around a vision, both turgid and static, of a new world turning old and poisoned from the start.”

Adapted from 'American Masters'. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson.
All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 8, 2011

PSYCHE REVIVED BY CUPID'S KISS

During my first visit to the Louvre in Paris, in the early 1970’s, I became transfixed by a certain statue. It was Antonio Canova’s neoclassical work ‘Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss’. I couldn’t believe the impression the softness of the white marble made upon me as I gazed at that winged son of Aphrodite meeting in a kiss that most beautiful of women – Psyche. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the lightness with which Cupid descends upon her, supporting her with his left arm across her breasts and his right cradling her head. How her arms reach up for him. How their lips are only the merest moment past touching together. He has awakened her lifeless form. She is his!

The tale of Eros and Psyche has always fascinated me. An old woman tells the tale in the second century AD ‘The Golden Ass’ by Lucius Apuleius. It is the story of a most beautiful girl named Psyche who has caused envy and jealousy to grow in the goddess Aphrodite. Spitefully she calls upon her son Eros, or Cupid, to use one of his golden arrows while she sleeps to cause the girl to fall in love with the vile creature she will place there when she awakes. (Because of the arrow’s magic, she will fall in love with the first one she sees).

Cupid himself becomes invisible as he surreptitiously enters her room so no one will be able to see him. He intends to scratch her shoulder with his arrow but she awakens and looks directly into his eyes; seeing through his invisibility. Cupid is so startled he scratches himself with the arrow instead and falls madly in love with Psyche. When he reports what has happened to his mother, Aphrodite is enraged. She places a curse on the girl, so that she will never be able to find a husband for herself. Cupid, for his part, refuses then to use his arrows. No one falls in love. No one marries. No one has children. The earth begins to grow old.

At last Aphrodite relents and lets Cupid go to the girl. The story has many more twists and turns, but the part that intrigues me is the coming together of the earthly and the divine. The material and the spiritual. The two aspects of humankind. Together they have a daughter – Voluptas – the goddess of sensual pleasures.

I always wanted to write the story anew, but could never find a way to do it. I wanted to capture Eros reviving Psyche with that divine kiss. But how does an artist express such a theme in a new way? Whenever I outlined or sketched out a plot it either sounded like the same old story retold, or was so far from the original as not to make any sense whatever. That was the state of things until, one day; I came upon the idea of a man meeting his beautiful and now earth-bound guardian angel. If such an arrangement could be made in a very realistic way… say, being forced to travel together, they might just fall in love. They might just bring heaven and earth together in a very real and believable way.

Yes!

That was the first moment of ‘The Angelic Mysteries’. (Due out August 18th).