Monday, November 30, 2009

Pekka Hämäläinen's audacious The Comanche Empire

A sample of Pekka Hämäläinen's startling The Comanche Empire (2009):

The assault came in March 16, 1758, when an estimated two thousand allied Comanches, Taovayas, Tonkawas, and Hasinais appeared at the gates of the San Sabá mission, announcing that "they had come with the intention of killing the Apaches..." Their faces "smeared with black and red paint," equipped with lances, cutlasses, helmets, metal breastplates, and "at least 1,000" French muskets, and led by a Comanche chief clad in a French officer's uniform, they set fire to the buildings... (59)

Does this seem remotely plausible? A large band of Comanches approach a Spanish mission in Texas. Their chief is wearing a French military uniform. The warriors wear French helmets and armor, and wield swords. Try to picture it in a movie. An audience would snort - it would look ridiculous.  Is this how Plains Indians are supposed to look?  Yet it appears to be true, known through multiple eyewitness accounts.

Hämäläinen makes an audacious argument, that the Comanche-occupied territory (in contemporary terms, western Texas and parts of neighboring states) should, from the early 18th through the mid-19th century, be considered as a unified state, as an empire, subclass: nomad.  Like the Mongols, as a for instance.  Hämäläinen demonstrates that Spanish New Mexico, for example, was essentially a tributary province of the Comanches for about a century.

The book is filled with startling reversals like this.  It's become common for historians to simply flip perspectives - to look at America's westward expansion, say, from the point of view of the conquered peoples.  The Comanche Empire is doing something else.  Hämäläinen argues that for a long time the Comanches were the conquerors.  There is no reversed perspective.  Earlier perspectives were simply mistaken.

They were mistaken, often, because of partial evidence, the limited view of the participants.  Spanish residents of Taos and Santa Fe, desperate to scrape up enough tribute to buy off Comanche raiders, had no idea that the horses stolen in New Mexico ended up on the other side of the empire, in the hands of French traders in Louisiana.  Those Comanches in French uniforms and armor are not only plausible, but likely.  Hämäläinen, with the assistance of hundreds of earlier historians, is able to put all of these pieces together. 

I'll try to write about it for a couple more days.  It's a complex book, meant for academic historians and what one might call "advanced undergraduates."  Often, I found myself ill-equipped to judge it.  It's packed with "no way" moments.  Maybe I'll share a few of those.  The book's a triumph.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Wuthering Expectations has gone to grandmother's house for Thanksgiving. A pie for every one!

Back next week.  Have a good holiday, or nice normal week, depending on who and where you are.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What I would be doing if I were not doing what I'm doing

No, not extending my research to mummified baboons, or bog cats.  I'm all done with that.

Skeptical readers of Wuthering Expectations may have noticed that despite my current specialization, I am not quite exactly really entirely committed to the 19th century.  Some might have discerned deviationist Modernist tendencies. 

If I were not reading what I am reading, that's what I would be reading.  Robert Musil and Robert Walser, Pound and Cavafy and Montale, various scruffy Surrealists and Dadaists and Symbolists and Vorticists and Lunatists and other Istists.  Virginia Woolf, definitely Virginia Woolf. 

See Nonsuch Books, which is hosting a group reading of four Woolf novels this winter.  Mmm, how tempting.  Mrs. Dalloway is one of my touchstone books, one that I've studied a bit and really wrestled with.  I say wrestled because I find some of its ideas very challenging.  I don't even like it that much.  Woolf, in her novels, is sometimes more of an enemy than a friend.  But fighting with her is enormously valuable.  She always wins, and improves my game, so to speak.  If I keep practising, maybe I will win a round someday.

But I don't think I'll read along.  I'm doing what I'm doing.  Scottish literature, and Native American history, and when will I get back to Hawthorne and Melville and Dickens and Eliot (G., not T.S.)? 

The other thing I would be doing if I weren't etc. is turning back to early modern literature, particularly the period from about 1580 to 1640, the Age of Shakespeare and the Spanish Golden Age (plus Montaigne).  It's the single greatest temporal congregation of literary genius I know, just unbelievably rich.

A little over a week ago, Jennifer at Early Modern Underground announced a discussion of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1630 or so), a bizarre and insane minor masterpiece.  That was another thing I was not going to do, but Michael5000's response to the play pulled me in, so I re-read it one evening last week and had a great time.  The discussion has been productive, too.  And this play is only the, I don't know, 19th best Elizabethan or Jacobean play not by You Know Who.

Really, what a time.  Donne, Spenser, and Jonson.  Marlowe, Webster, and more Jonson.  Calderon de la Barca, Luis de Góngora, Don Quixote, Francisco de Quevedo.  The Anatomy of Melancholy.  Most amazing, in a way, is how good the best poems of the minor poets are:  Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton and the Psalms of Mary Sidney and so on.  Not to mention Ol' What's His Name.  That's what I'm trying to say: it's a treasure trove even ignoring Shakespeare.

Maybe Early Modern Underground will host another one of these?  But for now, I doubt they'll mind if anyone wants to join in on John Ford.

And if you don't like any of those, how about The Lord of the Rings, hosted by Shelf Love and others. That one is definitely not for me, not anymore.

No, now, I'm reading what I'm reading.  But I wanted to plug these worthy read-alongs.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Egyptian cats doing unusual things

I came across one really interesting book in my mummy cat research.  I did not actually read the book, but it has pictures!  In the spirit of The Blue Lantern, I will look at some of them.  I should point out one difference between myself and The Blue Lantern, a truly fine art blog - she actually knows something about her subject.

Let's see, what's this?  "A cat and a mouse engaged in a boxing match supervised by an eagle."  From the 1st or 2nd century.  You can go see it in Copenhagen, if the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek happens to have it out on the day you visit.

Unfortunately the eagle umpire is missing its head.  I love that it's actually grasping the palm leaf with one of its claws.

Today's exercise has one point: mummified cats are the least of it!  How about another one.

On the left we see "A cat slaying the Anophis serpent in front of the ished-tree," on a Book of the Dead papyrus, circa 1280 BC.  This was actually a common subject.  I chose the goriest version available.  This one is owned by the British Museum.

One more, another surprisingly common theme.  This is "a cat herding a flock of geese and a fox looking after a herd of goats while playing the double oboe."  British Museum, again, circa 1150 BC. 

The double oboe is amazing.  The fox has one foreleg sort of hooked over part of it, I guess.  The herd of geese is also amazing.  As is every single thing in this crazy 3,000 year-old picture.

I'm omitting the rat being fanned by its cat servant, and the cat whipping a human while a rat looks on, and many other magnificent things, including plenty of mummifed cat containers, and an X-ray of an actual mummified cat.  If interested at all, be sure to acquire The Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek (1993, British Museum Press), the source of these images.*  Malek mentions the Liverpool auction using extremely careful and unobjectionable language.  I've read a different book by Malek, the Phaidon Press Egyptian Art, typically gorgeous.  But it is deficient in mummy cat.

*  In order, I borrowed images 100, 51, and 96. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A mummified cat miscellany - featuring swedes, guano, and sensitive pre-Raphaelites

Frankly, when I started investigating the mummified cats, I was hoping to debunk it.  The story is usually told quite badly, with important details omitted or mangled, and exaggerated to the point of falsehood.  The most common exageration is to use the Liverpool cat auction as a stand-in for the other importations of mummified cats that must have occurred, even though no one wrote down a word about them.  I'm convinced that this was it.

Many, many thanks, by the way, to the indefatigable Obooki for the English newspaper articles supplied in comments here.  His work is a tribute to the historic Anglo-American Special Relationship. The articles answer more questions than they raise, which is progress.  For one thing, the seesawing tonnage of mummified cats is explained: there was one shipment (19 1/2 tons) and two auctions, half of the cats in the first, half in the second.  The same buyer "won," if that's the right word, both lots, paying 1.6 times more for the second lot - all of that newspaper publicity must have driven up the price.  That second auction sounds like a circus.  A circus whose only attraction is cat mummies.

Bones as Fertilizer:  19th century England had an active animal bone and bone ash import trade that dates from the late 18th century and continued well into the 20th century.  Bones were ground and directly applied to crops, or, as the chemical fertilizer industry developed, used to make superphosphate fertilizers.  Although "15 per cent were taken by bone-turners and other for non-agricultural purposes."*  I don't even want to know.  Bone ash china, ma femme suggests.  Good point.

The article that supplied that quote also has a handy table of fertilizer prices, 1840-1870, including nitrate of soda, Peruvian guano, and "half-inch bones."  If I am reading the table correctly, the supposed mummy cats were auctioned for a price per ton comparable to that of other bone imports, at least in the first lot.  But the bone price series is incomplete, so who knows if the cats were bought at a premium or a discount.

Did you know that almost all of the guano imported into England went onto turnip crops?  Turnips and "swedes"?  What the heck is a swede?  (It's a rutabaga).  All turned into animal feed.

My bone chemistry question: does the phosphate content of old bones change over time?  Would four thousand year old animal bones be as useful for fertilizer as new ones?  It's a mineral, so why not. 

Mummy Paint, Mummy Powder:  The thing that still puzzles me is that mummies were in fact imported to England for two high-end purposes.  They were ground up to powder for sale as a) medicine, and b) paint.  The scattered and poorly sourced references I've found to these trades refer to these as valuable items, priced per ounce, not per ton.  But I have no idea what amount of actual mummy went into paint and quack powder.  The medicinal mummy dust was notoriously faked.  And anyway, the key part of mummy powder was a mineral salt called natron, which is part of the rags, not of the bones.

I haven't been able to figure out which part or how much of the mummy went into "Mummy Brown" or "Egyptian Brown" paint, either.  I read a crazy story about the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema coming upon his assistants grinding up a mummy for paint.  Alma-Tadema, horrified to learn that there was human material in his paint, rushed off to tell Edward Burne-Jones, who also didn't know that "Mummy Brown" contained actual mummy.  They then - well, let's turn to Rudyard Kipling's memoir.  Burne-Jones was Kipling's uncle:

And once he descended in broad daylight with a tube of 'Mummy Brown' in his hand, saying that he had discovered it was made of dead Pharoahs and we must bury it accordingly.  So we all went out and helped - according to the rites of Mizraim and Memphis, I hope - and - to this day I could drive a spade within a foot of where that tube lives. (Something of Myself, Chapter 1, p. 10 of the 1990 Cambridge University Press edition).

Note that Alma-Tadema has vanished from Kipling's version, which was written fifty years after the fact.  Is any of this true?  I thought art historians had gotten interested in materials and prices and that sort of thing, but I can't find any real information about "Mummy Brown."

Is this all the result of a large mummy trade?  Or the product of a small number of mummies smuggled out of Egypt (I've seen sources that imply this)?  Or is the amount of actual mummy rather more homeopathic?  And why couldn't the cats be used for this more valuable purpose?  You can order your own supply of mummy-free Mummy Brown right here.

How to read late 19th century newspapers:  One thing I've learned here is that I don't really know how to use these sources.  To what degree should I trust what I find in a late 19th century newspaper?  Of all the newspaper articles I or Obooki found, only one (The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Feb 11, 1890) reads like an eyewitness account.  Newspapers today have been known to print lightly edited press releases.  They're a source; sources have problems; be careful out there.
Perhaps it's better that the mummified cat story is true. It's so ridiculous.  So unrealistic.  So much fun.

*  All guano and bone-related information from Mathews, W. M. "Peru and the British Guano Market, 1840-1870." The Economic History Review, 23:1 (April 1970), pp. 112-28.  That bone-turner business is from footnote 6, p. 121.  The table with the price series for various types of fertilizer is on p. 120.  Note that the period covered here ends before the legendary mummy cat auction.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Horrible Result of Using the "Egyptian Fur-tiliser" - or Punch as proof

So last March we were genially discussing a misapplied Mark Twain quotation when the Curse of the Mummy Cats was somehow triggered and I got sucked into their dusty world, which smells vaguely of fish.  Nile perch, I think.

Mark Twain had put me in a skeptical mood, so I decided to look around.   My first attempt to debunk investigate the story that cats were imported into England for fertilizer led me right to:

Wake, Jehanne. Kleinwort, Benson: the History of Two Families in Banking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Specifically page 118, visible at Google Books right here:

Kleinworts also financed the import of cotton from Egypt for Stucken and Co. of Liverpool. And in February 1890 gained notoriety over another of their Egyptian imports. When their client refused to accept a shipment of fertilizer, Kleinworts were left with the cargo. This consisted not of fertilizer but the raw material for it, namely 180,000 mummified cats excavated from their ancient burial ground in Egypt. Kleinworts consigned the 19 ½ tons of embalmed cats to auction where they fetched £3 13s. 9d. per ton; the auctioneer knocked the lots down using one of the cats’ heads as a hammer.18

So it seems that I had already found the cats.  I just needed to inspect footnote 18, which would tell me how we knew all of this.  The footnotes were not available through Google Books, so I needed the actual book.  Here's what I found (note that KBA means "Kleinwort Benson Archives, Fenchurch Street") on p. 453, footnote 18 in its entirety:

Punch and Daily Graphic, 15 Feb 1890, Press Clippings file, KBA.

PunchPunch???  That's a comedy magazine!  I don't have access to the Daily Graphic, but Punch is easy to find.  Let's see, 15 Feb, 1890.  Here it is, p. 81:

Horrible Result of Using the "Egyptian Fur-tiliser."  Click to enlarge, so you can really appreciate the foreshortening of the hind leg of the fleeing farmer, and the ghostly mummy cat eyebeams.  Now, once I saw this magnificent creation, I knew I had to write about mummified cats, sometime, somehow. 

But please note what's going on here.  A historian supports a complicated and unlikely story about the importation of mummified cats for use as fertilizer not with a newspaper account, or an internal memo, or a letter, but with a file folder that contains the above Punch cartoon and, if I understand what the London Daily Graphic is, yet another illustration.  Isn't the footnote supposed to tell me where to find the information being footnoted?  Oxford University Press!  And then there's this Routledge book I found - no, that's enough whining about footnoting.

Perhaps if I can see the Daily Graphic article, or the Daily Paper article mentioned in the caption of the Punch cartoon, or the London Times articles I mentioned yesterday, this will all be straightened out, although I doubt it.  It's just that, see, if a historian writes a book about the history of a Liverpool merchant firm and all he can find in their own archives about one of the oddest events in their history is a pair of clipped cartoons, maybe something else is going on.

Tomorrow:  Peruvian bat guano, mummies as medicine, mummies as paint, and guest appearances by Rudyard Kipling and Edward Burne-Jones.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Wuthering Expectations Investigative Report - Were mummified cats actually shipped to England for use as fertilizer? Yes, probably. I didn't say it was a good investigation.

I've been wasting my time researching the importation of mummified cats to Europe and elsewhere.  For what purpose?  Let's not get into that.  Neil, of the magnificent Adventures in the Print Trade, inspired me way back here.  If I'm lucky, this will be the stupidest thing I ever do here - the very first Wuthering Expectations Special Investigative Report.

Were mummified cats shipped to England to be used for fertilizer?  After months of investigation, the shocking answer is: probably, although I have my doubts, but no more than once.  I thought I might get a week out of this.  Now it's going to be a couple of days, because the conclusion is lame.  I could spend a lot of time whining about the low quality of sourcing in books from respected academic publishers, but I'll keep that to myself.

The problem is that National Geographic forced my hand this month with a typically excellent cover story on the subject.  The article is about how Egyptologists are squeezing all sorts of new information out of mummified animals. 

The article begins with a description of the 1888 discovery of the enormous cat cemetery near Beni Hasan.  Their source is the Liverpool Egyptologist William Martin Conway, writing for the English Illustrated Magazine.  That article can be found on Google Books in Conway's The Dawn of Art in the Ancient World (1891), with pp. 181-3 of special relevance.  The best specimens - intact, even gilded - are valued for the souvenir trade.  The mass, though, "a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep" (Conway, 181) suffer a different fate:

Some contractor came along and offered so much a pound for their bones to make into something - soap, or tooth-powder, I dare say, or even paint. So men went systematically to work, peeled cat after cat of its wrappings, stripped off the brittle fur, and piled the bones in black heaps, a yard or more high, looking from the distance like a kind of rotting haycocks scattered on the sandy plain.  The rags and other refuse, it appears, make excellent manure, and donkey loads of them were carried off to the fields to serve that useful, if unromantic, purpose. (Conway, 182-3)

Conway appears to be an eyewitness.  Here is where we must get the cats for the next step in the journey.  Now I'm quoting the National Geographic article: "One ship hauled about 180,000, weighing some 38,000 pounds, to Liverpool to be spread on the fields of England."  The consignment of this shipment was announced in the February 4, 1890 London Times, and its auction in the February 11 paper.*  The first article title mentions 19 tons of embalmed cats, the second 9 tons of mummy cats, which turns out to cause great confusion in later references.  The number of cats, 180,000, seems to be the result of assuming that each cat weighted 1/10 of a pound (9 tons times 10 cats per pound). 

See also this March 2, 1890 New York Times paragraph describing the auction.  You might see what caught my attention.  Weird piece, written at third hand.  Note the appearance of "two gentlemen described as 'evidently scientists'".  A critical reader of historical evidence may begin to wonder what's going on here.

I still wonder.  Two years after the discovery of the cat cemetery in Egypt, described in a well-known article by a Liverpool professor, a shipment of an "undistinguishable mass of fragments", along with some intact mummified cats, arrives in Liverpool and is auctioned off.  Some sort of link between Conway's piles of bones and this shipment would be nice.  An actual eyewitness account of the auction would be nice.

Note, please, that I have not come across a single reference, reliable or otherwise, to any other shipment of mummified animals to England, or anywhere.  This one is apparently it.  More on this one tomorrow, including a cartoon.

*  Source: Palmer’s Index to the Times, January 1st to March 31st 1890.  I haven't seen the articles.  Anyone who wants to pursue this will need better access to old English newspapers than I have.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Entail - some bullet points

● The three best characters in The Entail, the Laird and Lady Grippy and their poor sone Watty, are the only characters who speak the thick Scotch dialect.  Lady Grippy, selected at random:

It will be an unco like thing no to partake o' the marriage feast, though ye hae come without a wedding garment, after I hae been at the cost and outlay o' a jigot o' mutton, a fine young poney cock, and a florentine pye; dainties that the like o' hae na been in my house since Geordie, wi' his quirks o' law, wheedled me to connive wi' him to deprive uncle Watty o' his seven lawful senses, forbye the property. (III. vii.)

A florentine pye seems to be a veal pie.  Lady Grippy is a terror.  That's not my point.  Older lawyers and ministers speak ordinary English with a smattering of Scottish.  The Laird and Lady's educated children hardly use Scottish at all.  One of the grandchildren, hilariously, mostly speaks in the clichés of sentimental novels: "Heaven protect me! I am ruined and undone!" (III. iii), like "Clarissy Harlot," as her grandmother says.

Galt's use of dialect has probably cost him readers.  It requires a bit of effort sometimes.  But it's central to his art, his characterization.

●  Yesterday I wondered if the inimitable Charles Dickens had been imitating John Galt in Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby RudgeA year ago, I noticed some connections between The Entail and Wuthering Heights.  Every conceivable aspect of the work of Dickens and E. Brontë has of course been stripmined by literature scholars.  Or so I thought, until I plowed through the shelves at a university library yesterday, vainly looking for "Galt, John" in the indices of Brontë and Dickens monographs.

Maybe it is somehow known that these writers definitely did not read The Entail?  If not, someone, get to work!

●  The Entail has a curious connection to Galt's next novel, Ringan Gilhaize.  For one thing, a character with that name is mentioned twice.  Maybe a descendant of one of Ringan's siblings, memorializing the name of his heroic great-uncle. 

Claud Walkinshaw, retired, guilty about his misdeeds, becomes increasingly religious.  The Laird, it seems, from his childhood, or something else, remains a real Calvinist, a despairing one.  In an amazing outdoor confession scene (II. viii.),  Claud finally confesses to his minister and faces his sins:

At that moment a distant strain of wild and holy music, rising from a hundred voices, drew their attention toward a shaggy bank of natural birch and hazel, where, on the sloping ground in front, they saw a number of Cameronians from Glasgow, and the neighboring villages, assembled to commemorate the persecutions which their forefathers had suffered there for righteousness sake. (II. viii.)

Interested readers can meet those forefathers in Ringan Gilhaize.  Meanwhile, since we're not even halfway through the novel, Claud has more suffering ahead of him.

● Have I done my duty to this non-minor writer?  I don't know.  The next time I do this, I'm picking someone big and famous.  Goethe, maybe.  Many thanks to Bibliographing Nicole for reading along.

I'm thinking I might host one of those reading challenges next year - Scottish literature, pre-1914, or something like that.  I've come up with an idea that will blow the challenge world apart, or at least overcome one of my complaints about challenges.  I don't know.  That'd be another chance to encourage people to read this fine writer.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

She canna abide me, for she ken I'm daft

The Entail has, at its heart, three great characters.  I mean really great, archetypes, if only people knew them.  Claud Walkinshaw is one, the miserly Scot stricken by his conscience.  His wife is another - Scott and Byron both single her out as an all-time classic.*  But I want to look at their second son, Walter, or Watty.  Because Walter presents some difficulties.

Walter is mentally handicapped, from birth.  A "natural," people call him, or an idiot.  They are aware of his condition because of his behavior, not his appearance, but I won't speculate about what it is, exactly.  How many ways must there be to botch this character?  Dickens does it twice, with Smike in Nicholas Nickleby and later, but not so badly, with Barnaby Rudge.  Smike, especially, does not fit in his novel, and suffers the necessary fate.  I wonder if Dickens knew The Entail?  Because Walter Walkinshaw really lives in his novel.

At first Walter seems to be a plot device.  He's the center of the novel's inheritance plot.  But he has a will of his own, and a mind of his own.  He never quite does what I expect him to do.  He concludes, for example, that all of his father's secret scheming is an attempt to disinherit him in favor of his older brother, when it is in fact the reverse.  He eventually does lose his inheritance, but to his cold-blooded younger brother, who has him declared mentally unfit:

The jury then turned round and laid their heads together; the legal gentleman spoke across the table, and Walter was evidently alarmed at the bustle. - In the course of two or three minutes, the foreman returned a verdict of Fatuity.

The poor Laird shuddered, and, looking at the Sheriff, said, in an accent of simplicity that melted every heart, "Am I found guilty? - O surely, Sir, ye'll no hang me, for I cou'dna help it?" (III. 21.)

This reader's heart melted, too.  By this point in the novel, Walter's suffering is real enough.  One more taste of Walter telling his brother George that he "dinna like big folk":

"And why not?"

"'Cause ye ken, Geordie, the law's made only for them; and if you an me had ay been twa wee brotherly laddies, playing on the gowany brae, as we used to do, ye would ne'er hae thought o' bringing yon Cluty's claw frae Enbro' to prove me guilty o' daftness."

"I'm sure, Watty," said George, under the twinge which he suffered from the observation, "that I could not do otherwise. It was required from me equally by what was due to the world and my mother."

"It may be sae," replied Walter; "but, as I'm daft, ye ken I dinna understand it;" and he again resumed his oscillations. (III. 24.)

A not uncommon reaction to Galt - I don't know another character quite like Walter.

*  Galt's - The Entail's - most appreciative readers seem to have been Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (his marginaliaed copy of The Provost is extant).  John Galt was apparently one of those "writers' writers."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Entail, Galt's best book

The Entail (1822) - this is the hardest one for me to write about.  I think it's really among the best English novels of the century, but it may be hard to make the case.  In some ways, it hardly seems English.  It's Scottish Balzac, a bit less than a decade before the French version.

Claud Walkinshaw is obsessed with owning the estate lost by his grandfather in an ill-fated American speculation.  Claud is self-made, an orphan since he was one, a peddler at age eleven.  We have barely started the novel when we find Claud already "one of the wealthiest men of that age in Glasgow" (Ch. VIII), married with three sons and a daughter.  The novel covers over a hundred years, so it has to move pretty fast sometimes. 

So the plot is not about the re-acquisition of the estate.  The first hint of the real story comes a few pages later.  Claud's father-in-law settles his property on Claud's second son, not his first, because the first son presumably inherits Claud's own estate.  In a normal family, good enough.  But because of Claud's obsession with regaining and maintaining his grandfather's old lands, Claud wants to unite the two farms and make sure they can never be separated.  He secretly disinherits his oldest son in favor of the second.

This decision ruins his life, and destroys all three sons.  The grandchildren, with the help of Claud's wife, the magnificent Leddy Girzy Hypel, finally repair some of the damage.

The reader is expected to keep track of the order of inheritance specified in the entail.  I guess that's a little more work than usual.  And it does cover a long period.  Sometimes a character is discarded just as you get to know her.  The last third of the novel is weak compared to what comes before, mostly because we have lost two of the best characters. 

But the three best characters, Claud and Watty and Leddy Girzy are superb and not to be found elsewhere.  And the plot is really very strong, basically from the beginning to end, once you see what it is, Claud's obsession with a particular monetary arrangement infecting his family and wreaking havoc across generations.  A few key intense scenes - Claud's death, for example, or poor Watty's trial for mental competency - put this novel among the century's best.

I have a couple of days left to make that case.  We'll see.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Such was the doom of avenging justice, such was the pleasure of Heaven - Galt's Calvinist masterpiece

I seem to remember that yesterday I compared Ringan Gilhaize to a Mel Gibson movie.  As I think about it, I realize that I've never actually seen a Mel Gibson movie like this novel.  I've just heard that such things exist.  So I'll switch actors.  Ringan Gilhaize - the last half, at least - is like "Gladiator."  Yes, the 2000 Russell Crowe movie.  A man loses everything at the hands of an oppressive ruler and lives only for REVENGE!

Many a time yet, when I remember that night, do I think with wonder and reverence of our condition.  An infirm grey-haired man, with a deranged head and a broken heart, going forth amidst the winter's wind, with  a little boy, not passing thirteen years of age, to pull down from his throne the guarded King of three mighty kingdoms, - and we did it, - such was the doom of avenging justice, and such the pleasure of Heaven.  But let me proceed to rehearse the trials I was required to undergo before the accomplishments of that high predestination. (272)

A "deranged head" - few modern readers will disagree, whatever else their sympathies might be.  When Ringan says that he plans to overthrow the King of England, he means it.  When he says "and we did it," he means it.  He means "I did it."

All of his losses are part of the preordained plan for Ringan to save Scotland from its enemies.  All of his grandfather's successes (his exploits, his large family, his long life) are also part of this plan.  Why is it Ringan that must suffer?  Who knows.  That's the plan.  Providence, that's the word Ringan always uses.

Almost always.  When his family is killed, and worse, all but that last son, the Calvinist language drops away.  Can this horror be the work of Providence?  Ringan refuses to say so.  Actually, he refuses to say almost anything about the loss of his family - "all is phantasma that I recollect of the day of my return home" (263).  Even years later, writing his book, Ringan cannot face what happened to him.  Maybe we're used to this kind of writing now, this kind of psychology.  I'm having trouble thinking of another 19th century example.  Galt was way ahead of his time, again.

Note that Ringan has not, in that first passage, lost quite everything.  In the the same chapter (XVIII-XIX), Ringan is asked to let his last son join the Covenanters, to become an open rebel against the crown.  He consults the Bible, three times, and each time is told to sacrifice his son.  It's a powerful scene of faith and despair.  We already know - Ringan the author knows - that the sacrifice will be real, that God will not provide a ram to replace Isaac on the altar.

Unlike every other Galt novel I tried, Ringan Gilhaize is not remotely comic.  No, it's bleak and obsessive, a fanatic's attempt to find meaning in the horrible things that happened to him.  Most readers (the author, too) will only be able to follow him so far.  That gulf is the heart of the meaning of the novel.  I wish that Galt had relaxed his conceptual grip a bit and moved us to Ringan's own story more quickly.  The last third of this book is a troubling masterpiece.  Few readers will want to fight their way to it, and I don't blame them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

John Galt's Ringan Gilhaize - in which the writer is undone by his conceptual ingenuity (but recovers)

Welcome to Week 2 of the John Galt Clishmaclaver.  Have I inspired more than a single person to read John Galt?*  I'll tell you what inspired me.

Writing about Wuthering Heights last year, I mentioned that Brontë novel sure had a lot of strange resemblances to The Entail.  In the comments, The Little Professor claimed that Galt's Ringan Gilhaize or The Covenanters (1823)** was, I quote, "awesome."  Well.  I don't know about what you read, but where I come from, awesome is pretty good.  And since I obviously have to read Ringan Gilhaize, why not take another run through The Entail and The Provost, and then another book turned up, and then another, but my point is, "awesome."

Walter Scott's The Tale of Old Mortality (1816) is a novel about religious fanaticism.  The 17th century Presbyterian Covenanters are simply villains, ridiculous and insane, and menacing.  Galt thought Scott's depiction of the Covenanters was insufficient, unfair.  He thought Scott lacked sympathy.  Ringan Gilhaize is an attempt at sympathy with the fanatic.  He may be wrong about everything, but he's wrong for good reasons.

Ringan himself writes the story.  He traces the history of "the divine right of resistance" (1) in Scotland from his grandfather's youth in the mid-16th century through his own old age in the key year of 1689 - "and thus was my native land delivered from bondage" (322).  As is typical in historical novels, either Ringan or his grandfather is an eyewitness to most of the great events in the period's history.

Much of the first half of the novel reads like a prejudiced chronicle.  Ringan's grandfather, a kind of a secret agent, is a wonderful fellow, lucky and resourceful.  His tribulations are few.  John Knox, the leader of the Presbyterians, is a recurring character.  He's wonderful, too, a saint on Earth, really.  Young Ringan blends his grandfather with Knox (136-7).  It's an odd effect - the vigorous 20 year-old is always "my grandfather," as is the old man telling Ringan about his adventures establishing religious freedom in Scotland.

Perhaps one can see a problem with the conception of the novel.  Galt spends the first 40% of the book with the grandfather, whose story is told at a distance, as history, and who is never seriously threatened.  Then another 10% is required to set up Ringan's own story. The historical interest of the first part of the novel is high, but the literary interest is hard to see.  The grandfather's story is obviously crucially important to Ringan, but the first-time reader cannot possibly know why.

John Galt was a conceptual novelist.  The conceit of Ringan Gilhaize turns out to be brilliant, really ingenious.  Ringan's writerly voice is perfect, and the novel makes sense as the book he would write.  Is it the book John Galt should have written?  Rather than violate the purity of his concept, Galt delays the real interest of his novel all the way past the middle of the book.  That, I have to say, and I'm a patient reader, is too far.  This is a hard book to recommend.

The reason to care about any of this is because once Ringan Gilhaize gets moving in the last half of the novel, after a hundred and fifty pages of pious Scottish church history, it's awesome.  I mean, the dang thing turns into a Mel Gibson movie.  So, tomorrow: the awesome.

Page references to the Scottish Academic Press edition, 1984, ed. Patricia J. WIlson.

*  Bibliographing Nicole on The Ayrshire Legatees, from earlier today.  Excellent. More here.

** Pronounced, perhaps, GILL-eez.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A roundup of short Galt novels

Look at the day slip away. It's those mummy cats, they're ruining my life. Let me try to focus on the task at hand.

Of the seven John Galt novels I have read, there is only one that I really can't recommend.  The Member (1832) is another political novel, the memoirs of a Scottish MP who buys a seat in Parliament because, well, because he wants something to do.  He's another small-time Machiavellian, although bigger-time than Provost Pawkie.  Over time, to his surprise, he becomes interested in the job, the labor of governing, committees and all that.  Over more time, to his greater surprise, he becomes interested in the problems of actual people, which confuses him.  At that point, his borough is abolished by the 1832 reforms.

Put this way, the novel sounds pretty good, and it is.  The voice is typically credible, and the ethical meaning of the novel goes beyond the political details.  Not too far, though, and that's the difference between this novel and The Provost.  No reader of The Provost has to have any real understanding of the details of governance.  Galt and his narrator supply everything necessary, and the issues of the day are always in the background.  The Member is too much about the politics of its time, to tangled in it.  I knew enough to figure it out and to see what the novel was doing, to see how clever it is.  But The Member is a real period piece. For Specialists Only.

I had read four Galt novels several years ago.  The Provost and The Entail were good enough that I re-read them.  Maybe I just wanted an excuse to re-read them.  I'm relying on memory for two others, Galt's first two successes: The Ayrshire Legatees (1820) and Annals of the Parish (1821).  They're also both clever, but I rank them both well below The Entail.

Annals of the Parish seems especially thin.  A minister writes a chronicle-like account of his fifty years in the parish.  He marries and remarries, wars begin and end, mass emigration and industrialization come along.  The narrator is pleasant and witty.  I can easily recommend it to anyone visiting Ayrshire in western Scotland, where it's set.  It's just all so mild.

The Ayrshire Legatees is more like The Last of the Lairds.  I don't know if it amounts to much in the end, but it's genuinely funny, still, and that's something.  A family of Scottish country mice travel to London.  As in Smollett's Humphrey Clinker, we read the letters of father, mother, son, and daughter, so we get humorously varied accoutns of every incident in the trip.  Galt adds an innovation, though.  He takes us back to their village in Scotland, where the recipients of the letters share the letters with each other - in fact, with everyone - so the villagers (like the reader) know more about what's happening on the trip than any of the travellers.  Bibliographing Nicole read this one recently, so she can tell me if I'm misremembering or undervaluing the book.

One curious thing - I always think of 19th century English fiction as so London-centered.  But the major writers before Dickens - Austen, Scott, Hogg, Edgeworth (I think), Mary Shelley - have very little to do with London.  This is more than a third of the 19th century.  The Ayrshire Legatees is really unusual for its relatively early tour of London.  It's a nice companion to Burney's London in Evelina (1778), or to a contemporary essayist like Charles Lamb.

Every book I've really written about so far has been a short one - they were all "one volume" novels.  And they have all been, if not plotless, rather weak in the story department.  Next week, the longer ones, the "three volume" novels, one, Ringan Gilhaize, a tricky case, brilliant and deeply flawed, the other, The Entail, Galt's masterpiece, both with killer plots.

Now, back to the Egyptian archives.  Here, kitty, kitty.  I have a nice mummified herring for you.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I have a notion that the auto-biography of an idiot might not only be interesting... - The Last of the Lairds, Galt's funniest book

In The Last of the Lairds (1826), the novel that closes out John Galt's creative burst that begin in 1820 or so, Galt himself appears as a character, as the narrator, in fact, in what turns out to be another weirdly brilliant postmodern whaddayacallit.  Not unrelated, The Last of the Lairds is, to me, the funniest of his books.

The novel begins with "Galt" visiting his country acquaintance Laird Malachi Mailings, a down-in-the-mouth bachelor landowner.  The servant Jenny Clatterpans is not sure the Laird has time for Galt this morning, because he is so busy:

"Busy, Jenny!"

"Ay, sir, dreadful! - He's putting out a book - Loke, sir, if he's no putting out a book! O that wearyful jaunt to Embro' to see the king! It has skail't the daunert wits o' the master - the like o' you and the minister may put out books, but surely the 'stated gentry has come to a low pass indeed, when they would file their fingers wi' ony sic black art!" (Ch. 1)

And why shouldn't he write?  "Balwhidder o' Dalmailing, got a thousand pounds sterling, doun on Blackwood's counter, in red gold, for his clishmaclavers; and Provost Pawkie's widow has had twice the double o't, for the Provost's life" (Ch 2).  That first book is The Annals of the Parish, the second is The Provost.  Galt actually got about five percent of that, so the Laird seems to be misinformed.

I described the Laird's book itself yesterday, the physical artifact.  "Galt" first mocks the idea, but then warms to it, sort of (see this post's title).  It's his first step towards sympathy with his own characters

The plot begins to tangle up, and the memoir is abandoned.  The Laird's property is threatened by his Nabob neighbor, the sublimely ridiculous Mr. Rupees, whose conversation keeps wandering back to India, and whose house is a hideous Indian palace.  The meddling widow Mrs. Sorrocks knows how to save the Laird - marry him to one of the spinster Minnigraff sisters.  As with the memoir, "Galt" begins by thinking they're all idiots, but as he is dragged into their problems, he actually begins to root for them, even to encourage their nonsense.  The novel climaxes with all of the characters together at an impromptu auction, in a scene that would fit well in a Marx Brothers film.  Everything ends better than it should.

So in The Last of the Lairds, it's the author who has to learn to sympathize with the characters, not the reader.  The author doesn't humanize his characters.  They humanize him.  I suspect the presence of a metaphor about the authorship of fiction.

A textual note: Be sure to read the 1976 Scottish Academic Press edition.  The century old editions were butchered by an editor while Galt was in Canada.  Entire chapters were removed and added.  All the naughty bits were suppressed.  How naughty?  One of the novel's best running gag has the Laird and Miss Minnigraff, newlyweds at novel's end, obsessively worrying about their future children, even though Miss Minnigraff is too old to have children.  Says Mrs. Sorrocks: "ye'll gang into Enbro' and live comfortable, like tua patriarchs, begetting sons and dochters, if ye can" (Ch. 35).  Anything like this was cut.

So not particularly naughty, but just slightly blasphemous.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The spelling is not for a man in haste - John Galt, master of dialect and voice

The Laird's work consisted of about half-a-dozen small copy books, such as schoolboys are in the practice of using, two or three of them with marble covers; on one I observed a parrot, and on another the ruins of Palmyra.  The penmanship was not very legible; it was narrow, crampt, and dotty, and the orthography made me pause at the first sentence.

"Ye're troubled wi' my hand o' wrote." said he, "and deed I must own it's no schoolmaister's, but wi' a thought o' pains ye'll soon be able to read it."

"I think, Laird, I could make my way with the writing, but the spelling is not for a man in haste." (The Last of the Lairds, 1826, Ch. 3)

John Galt is a master of Scots dialect.  He claimed that Scottish writers had the advantage over English writers because they also had possessed the magnificent Scotch vocabulary.*

The Provost's Provost writes in a mishmash of proper English and Scots dialect:

For many a year, one Robin Boss had been town drummer; he was a relic of some American-war fencibles, and was, to say the God's truth of him, a divor body, with no manner of conduct, saving a very earnest endeavour to fill himself fou as often as he could get the means; the consequence of which was, that his face was as plooky as a curran' bun, and his nose as red as a partan's tae. (Ch. 32)

"Divor" means bankrupt. "Partan's tae" is a crab's claw. Do any of the other words need translation? "Fill himself fou" is vivid enough, right? And a face as plooky as a currant bun - that takes care of itself.  That's great.

 I know that some people just hate dialect writing, no matter how well done, no matter for what purpose. So Galt is not for such a reader, not until he overcomes that prejudice.   Galt's novels now come with glossaries.  The Last of the Lairds comes with two!**  Is the anti-dialectician now happy?  I thought not.

I don't have it quite right when I emphasize Galt's dialect writing.  He's really interested in voice, and uses whatever tools are needed to make his characters convincing.  So The Provost has to mimic the voice of a proud and successful but only lightly educated man who has never written a book before.  The Annals of the Parish (1821), a companion to The Provost, is "written" by a minister, more sophisticated, more educated, so his writing is more Latinate and somewhat less Scotch ("Poor old Mr Kilfuddy of the Braehill got such a clash of glar on the side of his face, that his eye was almost extinguished," Ch. 1).  The parliamentarian of The Member is barely Scottish at all.***   The Ayrshire Legatees (1820) is a Humphrey Clinker-like epistolary novel, requiring distinct voices for four letter-writers, plus a separate set of letter-readers. 

For Galt, the concept is primary.  The character, the realistic voice, trumps plot.  The conceptual purity of the voice of Ringan Gilhaize (1823) almost destroys the book.  That's a complicated case that I'll save for next week, along with The Entail (1822), where voice, dialect, character and plot all come together perfectly. 

*  Reference sadly misplaced.

** One character is an idiotic Nabob who speaks in a bizarre pudding of English mixed with Indian and military words.  "My aubdaar will cool it for you, with a whole seer of saltpetre: for my ice-house has gone wrong, you know, by the mason leading the drain wash-house through it, like a d--d old fool as he was." (Ch 17).

***  The glossary of The Member is a page and a half long, and many of the words are political jargon rather than Scots.  The Last of the Lairds has an amazing six pages.  "begrutten" = tear-stained. "wally-waeing" = lamentation.  And "pawkie," the name of the narrator of The Provost, = sly.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A canny seduction of policy - the Machiavellian Provost

I'll start with one of Galt's best: The Provost (1822), the memoir of a small town tailor who inherits a bit, marries well, and sets his sights on politics.  Over fifty years, he is elected Provost of the town three times.  "Elected" means - well, this is the 18th century.

Since the book is Mr. Pawkie's own story of his public life, the short chapters often have titles like "Of the Public Lamps" and "The Improvement of the Streets."  Pawkie's private life is only barely in the book.  It's about his political career, what he did for the town, his setbacks and successes.  Incidentally, it traces the social changes in the town.

So far, so dull.  Except that Pawkie turns out to be a genuine Machiavellian.  He does not admit to having read The Prince (Galt sure did), but it turns out he has completely intuited and assimilated that book's principles.  Pawkie never seeks office - he is always asked to serve.  Enemies are never directly opposed, but somehow always undermine themselves. 

See Chapter 39, "The Newspaper," where Pawkie destoys the poltical effectiveness of the town's first newspaper ("a rank exuberance of liberty") not by trying to suppress it but by advertising in it, "which I did by the way of a canny seduction of policy," eventually turning it into a "very respectable instrument of governmental influence and efficacy."

Pawkie is also just a wee bit corrupt.  He protests that he is honest, but cannot help revealing the personal advantage he accrues from one scheme or another.  It's the subtlest touch of the novel - he can't help telling  us about his corruption, just as he tells us about how he manipulates everyone in town, because of his pride in his own cleverness. 

As time passes, he insists that he only behaved as people did back then, and that he has changed with the times, yet in the last chapter we find him manipulating the town council into giving him "a very handsome silver cup" for his retirement.  The last sentence:

Posterity, therefore, or I am far mistaken, will not be angered at my plain dealing with regard to the small motives of private advantage of which I have made mention, since it has been my endeavour to show and to acknowledge, that there is a reforming spirit abroad among men, and that really the world is gradually growing better--slowly I allow; but still it is growing better, and the main profit of the improvement will be reaped by those who are ordained to come after us.

In The Provost, Galt creates a technically perfect unreliable narrator.  Pawkie is not concealing, or revealing, anything too dramatic.  He doesn't, I don't know, kill anybody, or rob the orphan's fund.  He's quite benevolent, in a way.  He just shaves off his little percentage.

Monday, November 2, 2009

This is John Galt

See left - this is John Galt, in front of a map of Ontario. A Scottish novelist, he was, living 1779 to 1839. I've read seven of his novels (and re-read two of them), and am just starting a collection of short stories. So that's eight books, total, in twelve "volumes," as Galt would have thought of them, somewhere around 1,500 pages.

Why, why on earth, why? I certainly don't recommend you do it, whoever you are, although every volume has been worth the trouble.

Galt was a magazine writer, a hack,* who somehow experienced a burst of creativity that led to the creation of a group of novels about ordinary Scottish life that were anything but hackwork. One (The Entail, 1823) is a masterpiece that can stand with the best of the century. Another (The Provost, 1822) comes close.

Also:  John Galt wrote the first political novel, decades before Disraeli or Trollope.  He wrote, as far as I can tell, the first multigenerational family saga.  Sir Andrew Wylie (1822) apparently (I ain't read it) contains an early detective story, long before Poe, in the "lawyer frees his client by finding the real murderer " subgenre.  John Stuart Mill found the word "utilitarian" in Galt's Annals of the Parish (1821).  Galt's novels features recurring characters and references - he, not Cooper, not Balzac, invented the roman-fleuve.  He actually called his Scottish books "theoretical histories," not novels, emphasizing his creation of an imaginary Scotland.

That list contains not a single reason to read a single page of John Galt, not for anyone innocent of the joys of the literature PhD.  But it does suggest one reason Galt is less read than he should be.  He was a restlessly experimental novelist.  In his non-hack novels (and he knew exactly which ones those were), he experimented with narrators, dialect, and structure.  In some of his experiments, Galt prefigures various Modernists and postmodernists.  Galt strikes me as smarter than Scott, and even Austen, about certain technical aspects of the novel, which suggests the limited importance of this particular type of intelligence.

For a while, I had planned to have a week of John Galt, just about his two best books.  But I started to read a bit more, and then a lot more, and now I want to take two weeks.  Fortunately, it's easy enough to skip or skim - in that case, be sure to return in two weeks for a special event, the first Wuthering Expectations Special Investigation.

* He was also a lobbyist for Canadian interests. He founded the city of Guelph, Ontario. Every first Monday of August, it's John Galt Day!