Death! Gotham! Masks! Devil! Ravens! Bells! Sleepy Hollow!

Don’t we all love explorations of the mysterious, of the uncertain of nature? It’s theundeniable mark of the human being: wonder and fear. Last year, I really enjoyed reading speeches, pamphlets full of dreams and power. But then, drifting away from the raising political USA I found the more romantic, folkloric USA, the one we learn the least about. And I am here to talk about Washington Irving,  William Cullen Bryant, and Edgar Allan Poe. I’ll be honest: I’ll say nothing new about Poe.

With no doubt, Irving caught me with three stories. I am very sure you’ve heard of the Sleepy Hollow, perhaps Rip Van Wrinkle and The Devil and Tom Walker, the first two of which are adaptations of German folk tales to his immediate context, New York (wait! did you know he popularized the word “Gotham” to refer to New York, and that’s the origin of the name of the city in Batman?!). What I like the most about his writing is that even though he might seem to go into psychological characters, he doesn’t. He doesn’t try to reveal ONE character, but rather aspects of humans in general through one character. The Devil and Tom Walker, a story where a man encounters a devil in the swamps of Manhattan, talks about the guile for power and goods. Sell your soul to the devil has never been old, and will never get old.

The Devil and Tom Walker by John Quidor

The Devil and Tom Walker by John Quidor

Now, Willian Cullen Bryant marks the beginning of Romantic poetry in the US, moved by what he considered the connection between the self and the universe, a source of poetry directly linked to God that was part of everything. It is all about the power of human imagination to unveil mysteries of nature. Here are some verses of Thanatopsis that reflect on death:

Thine individual being, shalt thou go/ To mix forever with the elements/ To be a brother to the insensible rock/ And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain/ Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak/shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.


Last but not least, Poe.The horror, the wit, the transformation of natural phenomenons into supernatural ones…!Story after story, poem after poem. No questioning his mastery and his legacy. I read him until I got sick of him: after a while, his techniques get repetitive, but that doesn’t take any of his credits away.  The one shocking thing is that sometimes he seemed too self-indulgent. Example: in Descent into the Maelstrom, the main character, a fisher with little or no academic background comes up with mathematicky terms right in the middle of the whirlpool. He justified it saying some scholar had taught him the words. Poe knew that vocabulary wasn’t realistic, but his smart, intellectual buttocks couldn’t avoid pouring all that geometry and logical thinking into the story. He just couldn’t. But that’s alright, he’s that awesome. If you haven’t read The Black Cat, The Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven, The Bells, and some others, your life isn’t complete. You think it is, but it really isn’t. You can find the ebooks online for no cost, they are public property!

I’d better stop this because I have accumulated about eight more authors… See you soon!!!

Why be a better person: Benjamin Franklin

When I completed my basic readings of the Revolutionary Period (1760-1800) of American Literature earlier this year, I ended up with this in my head: politics, ideals, and the so-wished by so-few, whipping mother-of-all value called discipline. Among all the pamphlets and ideals and bustling desires of dignity, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography struck me the most.

Before I explain this well, I have much and many to mention. First, Patrick Henry’s speech at the Virginia Convention, a perfect example of persuasive, blunt discourse:

Give me liberty or give me death!

My heart shrank in a single pulse when I read, from The Crisis by Thomas Paine, the words below, probably because I feel it can be said about our times:

These are the times that try men’s souls . . . What we obtain too cheap, we steem too lightly

I felt passion under Jefferson’s words on the Declaration of Independence, the beginning of the American identity forming in the Letters from an American Farmer by Michael-Guillaume Jean de Crévecoeur and in the verses of Phillis Wheatley, the widely applauded female African-American poet of the 18th century.

But I am here to talk briefly about Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the United States -therefore a politician-, philosopher, writer, musician, scientist/inventor and many other occupations, titles and professions I purposedly omit.

He had bad education, was raised in poverty. If young Benjamin Franklin lived today and were in literary workshops, he would probably be the type I dislike: the person who doesn’t stop mockery and stamps on all sorts of diplomacy. His attitude gained him job blockage, due to which he fled to New York. His journey there depended on fate and on mercy of others.

So how does a miserable imp become an extraordinary historical figure, a successful newspaper editor, founder of the University of Pennsylvania (which is currently in the top 20 universities of the world), founder of the American Society of Philosophy, a unique catalyzer of technology (it’s just so much, Google it, please)? First of all, he could get a job in NY and earned his bread. But that’s not all.

It’s outside the realms of my pretension to lay as statements of truth what I consider is good or bad or being a better person or a worse person or whatsoever. However, I do consider being a better person (in non-moral aspects of the term) involves setting goals related to discipline and prudence, and working on them without self-indulgence.

Franklin’s method -which I tried for two months- involved watching himself closely, daily, orderly, what he considered virtues: Temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility. He obliged himself to acquire the habit of those so-called virtues, one by one, for a period of time; he kept a calendar of his failures, and worked cycles after cycles on those habits.

Probably we wouldn’t consider those exact virtues in that exact order as priorital, but surely this is a top example of the power of discipline and self-development. So if you would like to know more, if you are one of those people interested in constant progress,  read his Autobiography!

P.S.: I have already started “First Harvest (1800-1840)” and I am loving it! Will definitely write on it!!!

What’s up with all these posts in English and on US literature?

Some of you might be wondering that. Last night I realized I needed to provide some background on this.

I fell in love with American Studies during my exchange year in Bozeman, partially because of the excitement and chillingness of my professor Dr. Sara Waller and the enthusiasm of my favorite corrector so far, Trudi Fisher, when it was time to work on my papers.

It was one of those Friday nights by myself early in January this year and I went to take a walk down El Conde. I stopped by a used books stand to “see if anything motivated me”. There were all sorts of books piled on the ground: universal literature classics, engineering textbooks, photography, plastic arts… all of them. And in one of those piles, with at least  fifteen other imposing books on it, I read golden on ocean blue: “Adventures in American Literature”. It felt warm inside, the memories of books on counterculture and flashes of history from that class. I had to get it.

But since I don’t make that sort of decisions quickly, I sat to read under the faint lamp. I glanced through it out for hours, while random men kept stopping by to check other books or sit next to me and talk about life and studies and books and languages and travel. One of them used to study tourism and had hair people would admire back in “his days”. But then he went to Bávaro, met a German girl who drove him crazy and took him to Europe, and forgot about everything. And there he is, back in DR, no hair, no German. Another of them always wanted to learn English, but it was never possible. He would ask why I chose that book, why I studied why I studied, why I would read on a Friday night. The rest would just comment on different books. The rest, of course, is fiction.

I felt more certain about getting that book: “Adventures in American Literature” sounded fresh, fun, seductive. It was published by HBJ (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers) and written by a bunch of guys from everywhere: Francis Hodgins from Illinois, Kenneth Silverman from NY, Milton R. Stern from Connecticut, and Rolando, Hinojosa-Smith from Texas. The edition was very good and the index showed me exactly what I wanted: names, excerpts of texts and references on dozens of American writers, from the colonial time to what available to their date of publication in 1989.

So that’s the reason why I might seem to have suddenly changed: I have a super guide on American Literature I read really slowly. But I also stop for further reading whenever something entices me. It was the case of Sarah Kemble Knight (my favorite up to 1760). I know I will keep writing on my strongest impressions. I can’t restrain myself once that fever starts dragging me towards the blank page. So here is the announcement and warning: There will be English and American Literature… probably mainly.

Next stop: The revolutionary period!

Sarah Kemble Knight came to my rescue!

Among diverse historic fiction, diaries, poetry and other fashions of literature produced during the colonial American Epoch, my self has found comfort in the vivid lines of The Journals of Madam Knight.  This diary of her travel from Boston to New York early in the 18th century has anything you could ask for: adventure, humor, sarcasm, prose, verses and the briskest descriptions to expect. I will let this post drift along my considerations, as no formality is necessary.

First stamp: It’s a girl! The most spherical one -not physically, that I ignore-, that who, as nature rules, is a mother. But who is also a teacher, a businesswoman and even gets involved in judicial processes. That who, while pondering the threats of a voracious river in the middle of a manly trip, mentions the horror of wetting her clothes. But more relevantly, a non-self-discriminating female. Compare to Anne Bradstreet… wait, stop for a while: the first American poet was a woman, period. Now restart: Anne Bradstreet, 17th century Puritan, produced poems on various topics throughout her entire life with certain remorse: “Men have precedency, and still excel/ It is but vain, unjustly to wage war,/Men can do best, and Women know it well.”  But not Knight. She is solid and she knows it.

Second rock: a genre mash-up. Would you like to read a diary? There’s the journal. Like narrations? There’s the journal. Probably get mellow? There’s the journal. Plastic descriptions? There’s the journal. Verses? There’s the journal. Embedded dialogues? There’s the journal. No  text written in America before the 1760’s gets up to her knees on the compacting quality of the different formats. The rest of the offer consists of monotonic, long descriptive texts for record purposes: scurvy, natives, famine, war, settlement, grace.

Third nail: graphic power. Not a single prostituted adjective, and fine precision:

“…having called for something to eat, the woman brought in a twisted thing like a cable, but something whiter; and laying it on the board, tugged for life to bring it into a capacity to spread… The sauce was of a deep purple, which I thought was boil’d in her dye kettle.”

Fourth thorn: distilled humor, intermittently bathing her narrations. Her keen sensibility to differences in social and ethnic groups sometimes permits her to render them absurd and/or ridiculous. Also her evident capacity of self-mockery screams yet another sign of ingenuity. The best examples are too long to be mentioned here, and I will trust my ability to induce my readers to check the full text (link below) and find that for themselves :).

As time to regurgitate arrives, I shall say much of the above again. Sarah Kemble Knight came to my rescue, when I thought everything was lost amid drunken sailors, the disappointment of some Englishmen, Pocahontas, theories on reaching a superior level of grace and several other topics I couldn’t care less about.  A handful of resources, styles and shapes are intermingled into this multi-layered -literary, historic, sociological- piece, leaving lots of scraps for entertainment. So if you have any interest… there’s the journal!