Regular, orderly, violent & original

Reading recommendations [Politicus #1,097]

by David A. Mittell, Jr.

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. I believe that -- which may explain why my suits can charitably be called retro. But I do read books in the morning, making every rising sun a revision of certitudes. Once a year I like to recommend the best books encountered the year before. From 2011, there are six:

I. “Count Them One By One, Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote,” by Gordon A. Martin, Jr., retired Justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court. As a young lawyer in 1962 and 1963, Judge Martin went to Mississippi to work with the legendary John Doar of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, investigating the denial of voting registration to black citizens.

The book is superbly written and the personal chronicle beautifully told. Judge Martin, a lifelong Democrat, is eminently fair to principled Republicans like Mr. Doar, and he holds the Kennedy Administration accountable for failures such as the 1961 lifetime appointment of the unenlightened William Harold Cox to the federal bench. His account should be a textbook for future generations on the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

II. “A Key into the Languages of America,” by Roger Williams. Published in London in 1643 by the founder of Rhode Island, the text has been republished by Applewood Books of New Bedford, and is available seasonally at Plimoth Plantation. Williams writes in a spirit of great respect for the Narragansett, with whom he lived. He probably provides a more accurate picture of the Algonquian way of life than we usually get from modern historians and partial blood-descendants.

From New England to Quebec, Algonquian dialects were mutually intelligible. Williams notes that the half-naked Narragansett honored their word and the marriage bed: “When Indians heare that some there are/To thousand Whoredoms fall:/ They ask if such do go in Cloathes,/And whether God they know?” Williams means sexual abuse by priests in Europe. But he also understands that human judgment is individual, not racial: The Algonquians lived in fear of the Mohawk beyond the Hudson, who were said to fatten their prisoners of war, then eat them alive.

III. “The Gilded Age,” by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner. Three of my best of 2011 are classics read or re-read on account of a student 49 years my junior – a blessing I commend to the Council on Aging. If Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn don't convince us that Mark Twain is a great writer, his lesser-known works do. “Massachusetts,” he notes in passing in 1873, “is in the state of Boston.” The book concerns what we would call the One Percent, and the foolish schemes of the other 99 percent desperate to join them. Unlike modern Occupiers, Twain protests with lancing wit and humor.

IV. “Fifty-nine in '84. Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & The Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had,” by Edward Achorn. These are the Providence Browns – big league baseball before the Modern Era; and the sore-armed refugee from a slaughter house, who in 1884 won 59 games, inspired by his love for an enigmatic, probably syphilitic boarding-house madam.

Ed Achorn, a Providence Journal editor, is a prodigious researcher and a good story-teller. The broader history of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Providence comes through in countless lost-and-found anecdotes. As good books must be, it is a labor of the author's love.

V. “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” by William Shakespeare. My fourth reading since 1959. At 16, I thought the witches were stupid. I didn't believe in such things, so there was no point. In more recent readings I understand that dramatically the witches create the mood of evil. More deeply, they highlight ambiguity in what controls human events. Shakespeare exposes but does not explain the mystery of how ordinary people can, with seemingly small suggestion, commit mass murder. The mystery is ours to contemplate forever. It is Shakespeare at his greatest.

VI. “Victory,” by Joseph Conrad. For English-speaking readers, the Polish/Ukrainian Josef Korzeniowski is a miracle – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky writing exquisite English prose. “Victory” is innocence and evil brilliantly juxtaposed. Sexual love in its purest form between paramount opposites, in the presence of paramount evil.

Somewhere in Dutch East India, a middle-aged Swedish expatriate is thrown together with an ostensibly helpless English girl, whom he saves from certain rape, and whose love and paramount strength saves him. When murdering marauders follow the pair to the Swede's isolated island, one hopes for a happy ending.

Whatever its ending, men and women find love in differences they once would not have accepted. All true love comes to that. Korzeniowski/Conrad, the novelist, and a seaman unto middle age, seems to have much in common with Shakespeare, bard of Stratford.

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