Wieland

2.18.2013

Wieland 1811 cover
When I chose Wieland: or, The Transformation for my history class, I was not expecting a masterpiece of plot, philosophy, or characters.  I did expect a good old-fashioned Gothic tale with a dash of melodrama, an eerie edifice, and maybe a ghost or two.  Sadly, this is the third book connected to my class that disappointed me, and while it was vastly more fast-paced, it was also quite a bit worse than The House of the Seven Gables or The Prairie.  Would I read more Charles Brockden Brown?  Maybe, someday.  Not in the near future.

Wieland introduces us to the narrator, Clara Wieland, her brother Theodore and his family, and their mutual friend, Henry Pleyel.  These characters live in a surreal sort of isolated, literati circle, centered around Theodore's home, Mettingen (which would seem to fit better in Victorian England than its actual setting: pre-Revolutionary America).  Their perfect lives become interrupted by seemingly supernatural occurrences and the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Carwin.  Tragedy accompanies transformation, as more than one character experiences hallucinations that they feel lead them to the most horrible conclusions and, in one character's case, crimes.

I give this 1.5 out of 5 stars.  The extra half star is for the writing style, which was a breath of fresh air after Cooper.  Anybody could read Brown, because his sentences are short and tend to get straight to the point.  The story moves along at a good clip, with plenty of action (the downside being, much of it is gory). 

What I did not realize when I chose this book is that it is about demonic possession and/or insanity.  It's not as disturbing as more modern works or accounts of true crime, but if it's not your cup of tea, then by all means be forewarned and skip it.  It seemed to me that the treatment of religion in this book was typical for the genre - i.e., used for effect rather than substance. And frankly, the way things were supposed to tie together did not come across as credible.  The "transformation" appeared to happen out of the blue; I was left unconvinced, which is where the story more or less lost my interest.

I will be writing a paper comparing/contrasting Wieland with The Prairie.  Two books could hardly be less alike, so my theme will probably be a comparison of female characters.  At first, I really, really liked Clara, who seems unusually independent and (on Brown's part) well-written.  Towards the end of the book she became unbearably morbid.  I think in the long run, Ellen from The Prairie is more courageous (even if she does cry more easily).

The good news?  Now I can finally devote my reading time to the Turn of the Century Salon.

The Prairie

2.13.2013

Bierstadt Albert Western Kansas
Chronologically last in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking series, The Prairie follows the wagon train of Ishmael Bush and his family, who are journeying into the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase.  The Bushes make their own laws and shun society, even that of an old, solitary Trapper who stumbles across their campsite.  He does not fail to notice that one of their wagons is closely guarded, carrying something or someone that never sees the light of day.  A chance meeting with a Captain Middleton and a party of hostile Sioux sends events and characters into a crazy chase across the prairies, where friendships and hatreds arise from unpredictable sides.

I had high hopes for this book, assigned reading in my Early American Arts, Music, & Lit class.  Even now, I would still like to read The Last of the Mohicans, which features the protagonist - the Trapper - in his younger years.  Overall, The Prairie was like Seven Gables in that the concept was great and the execution was disappointing.

More specifically, this book was painfully slow.  Mark Twain wrote a piece called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and after reading an excerpt where he dissects paragraphs from The Prairie, I'm inclined to agree with him.  It's a 500+ page tome with only enough action for a book half that size.  It was published in 1827, and Cooper's style is very much conventional - no philosophical digressions as in later American works, like Moby-Dick.  Descriptions of characters and situations take up most of the time, while descriptions of the landscape (which are excellent) are given a handful of paragraphs.  The Trapper talks a lot, even in the middle of an action scene, though the actions scenes were still by far the highlight in The Prairie.

According to my professor, portrayal of Native Americans in this book was typical for the times (i.e. riddled with inaccuracies), but to Cooper's credit, it seemed to me that he tried to write villains and heroes from both groups of people (one of the worst villains is a member of the Bush wagon train).  My favorite part overall was the duel between the Sioux chief and the Pawnee warrior, one of the very best duelling scenes I've read.  The Trapper, too, is arguably closer to the Native Americans than the European Americans, which is pretty significant. 

2.5 out of 5 stars for The Prairie.  Recommended if you are looking to finish the Leatherstocking series, but I imagine there are better volumes to start with.

Paris in the Twentieth Century

2.10.2013

This is a remarkable book with an even stranger setting - written in 1863, set in 1960, and not published till 1994.  It's not such a stretch, however, to include it in the Turn of the Century Salon, as Jules Verne was writing novels up through the early 1900s, and he is always associated with the original "steampunk" genre from this time period.  Paris in the Twentieth Century is classic steampunk: a coming-of-age story combining 20th century technology with late Victorian culture.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées
By Cezary Piwowarski (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

His reputation sullied by a school prize for Latin verse, young Michel Dufrénoy comes to live with his aunt and uncle, who hope to convert him into at least an adequate banker and a "practical man."  Michel attempts to live up to his uncle's expectations, but it is soon found he is unfit for even the lowliest job in commerce and industry.  Eagerly, he resigns himself to the life of a "starving artist," gambling on his dream that Paris has left at least one corner of literature for his heartfelt, lyrical, yet unfashionable poetic writings.  

Imperfect though it is, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a book very dear to my heart.  I cannot say it is a page-turner, but Michel's eccentricity and struggle to be himself resonate strongly with me.  Verne's predictions of future technology are stunning, while the characters (except Lucy) are refreshingly unVernian.  The ending, a superb juxtaposition of 19th and 20th/21st centuries, is lovely; the melodrama is forgivable, because the tragedy feels true.

There is a lot of truth as well in Verne's predictions about 20th century society.  Commercialism and the absence of a code of honor are a couple of them.  A subtle point that I think is not quite accurate is the apparent worship of technology; it seems to me that though we today use, say, smartphones and tablets extensively, they have not really replaced the humanities as inspiration for our art.  And, while I would agree that many bestselling books are poorly written (to put it mildly), the "great" literature of today is not chemistry or math-themed.  Still, society's dying appreciation of classic literature and classical music is spot-on - how ironic, too, that artists whom Verne cites as modern (e.g. Wagner) are today considered classic.

The life of an artist, as depicted here, seems to be fairly accurate.  On the one hand, I have found that, within a university setting, non-science/math/computer majors seem to be well respected and often receive more visibility (through the campus newspaper and literary magazine).  On the other hand, it is absolutely true that making a living as an artist is difficult (sometimes impossible), and subsequently there is a bit of a stigma attached to humanities degrees.  Like Michel, most artists today must also follow mainstream trends and demands in order to be successful.

This is my second reading, and I think the main downside to the book is Michel's surprise at technology he has been exposed to all his life.  It is hard to avoid this anachronism, but it can be done (e.g. Star Trek succeeds at making teleportation look natural).  If one can suspend disbelief of his disbelief, then it is a fascinating thing to view our modern world through a 19th century perspective.  I am not one who wishes I had been born in an earlier era, but for sure, there are some things about this century that make me feel as "old-fashioned" as Michel.  5 out of 5 stars.  

"...the men of 1960 were no longer lost in admiration of such marvels; they exploited them quite calmly, without being any the happier..."