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Stalin Doesn't Live Here Anymore

2017 Spring, Vol. 75, No. 2

Editorial Sketches, Stories, and Poems: And Then . . .

Stalin Doesn't Live Here AnymoreThere are certain essays and books that have held my attention over the years relative to the fashioning of stories, poems, sketches and historical literature that take up the bulk of this issue. The first is, of course, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel originally given as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge in the spring of 1927.
    
According to Forster, they were “informal” almost talkative in tone. The lectures were in honor of William George Clark, a fellow of Trinity, who though a Shakespearean scholar had vacationed in Spain and that led him to produce an account of his holiday called Gazpacho, the famous cold soup of the country. Forester used that fact to go beyond the traditional topic of lecture namely “periods of English literature” to venture some words about the novel (a “spongy swamp”) that extended from Pilgrims Progress to Ulysses. His range is wide, his observations acute. He says, for example, that both Samuel Richardson and Henry James are “each an anxious rather than ardent psychologist.” He then passes on to two other writers, H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens and how they approached the subject of funerals in their works.
    
T.S. Eliot had delivered the lecture the earlier year and Forster quoted (approvingly) one of his remarks about critics: “It is part of his business to preserve tradition—when a good tradition exists. It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time.” He also chose the title “Aspects” because it was unscientific and vague, because it leaves us the maximum of freedom, because it means the different ways a novelist can look at his work. He picked seven to consider: The Story; People; The Plot; Fantasy; Prophecy; Pattern and Rhythm.
    
Writing about Tolstoy, for example, he says that his power comes from the immense area of Russia “over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields which accumulate grandeur after we have passed them…. Space is the lord of War and Peace, not time.” Yet Forester believed that the “fundamental aspect of the novel is its story telling aspect” which draws on the backbone of One Thousand and One Nights” brilliantly characterized by “an uninteresting little phrase”- -“And then” as “the tape worm by which all her tales are tied together and ‘the life of the most accomplished princess was preserved.” There is much to learn from Forster’s critical dissection though I suspect he is little read today.
    
Another provocative book is Ivan Turgenev’s equally unread Sketches From A Hunter’s Album published in 1847, the Russian journal The Contemporary that chronicles the often brutal life of the peasantry and the estates they labored on. Additionally it covered aspects of their life: their taverns, their landlords who included his mother. He had grown up on her estate of Spasskoye and suffered under her cruel hand.
    
There is a story (one of many) that Edmund Wilson relates in an essay about Turgenev in a New Yorker article of 1957 that is an “And Then” story taken from reality that bears repeating in full to see the power of a sketch: “The quick tempered old women was stricken with paralysis and spent all of her time sitting almost motionless in an armchair. One day she got very cross with the little serf who was in attendance on her, and in a fierce fit of anger seized a log and hit him over the head with such force that he fell unconscious on the floor. This sight produced a most unpleasant impression on her: she bent down, picked the little boy up, put him beside her on the big armchair, placed a pillow on his bleeding head, and sitting down on it, suffocated him.” Turgenev’s mother Varvara Petrovna Lutovinova had been brutalized and raped as a young girl on her stepfather’s estate that later fell into her hands.
    
Another book—also full of sketches—fell into my hands as an undergraduate at a college in New York when my American history professor Robert Remini assigned several large tomes as the text for a survey of American civilization. It was an unusual choice in that it was written by a literary scholar, Vernon Louis Parrington, with a liberal interpretation of the topic outlined in three hefty volumes. Those days—it was the late 1950s—professors at Ivy League schools were setting that extended history aside for fear of censure, but a Jesuit university had little to fear since everyone assumed (wrongly) that its student were destine for the F.B.I and the C.I.A and were hardly candidates for the Communist Party despite the fact that Dorothy Day’s little magazine was passed out at the gates of the campus.
    
Parrington’s method was to present sketches of prominent Americans from Franklin (“Our First Ambassador”) to Calhoun (“The Realist”) and to Whitman (“The Afterglow of the Enlightenment”) to Booth Tarkington (“The Dean of American Middle Class Letters”). His effort was to try to bring them alive to make them vivid. Parrington’s own career was equally vivid. Born in Aurora, Illinois he attended the College of Emporia and Harvard College (1893) and first taught at the University of Oklahoma where he coached the football team, organized the English department and was fired as the result of pressure from religious groups who wanted all “immoral faculty purged.” He moved on to the University of Washington where he had a distinguished career that included a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. He died the following year.
    
A final text is one I just recently discovered: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Contemporaries. Higginson is best known as an admirer and mentor to Emily Dickinson. In 1899 he set out to chronicle a clutch of New England reformers and worthies he knew and to write about other authors of his day—such as Sidney Lanier the noted Southern regional savant. These “sketches” as he referred to them had originally appeared in the periodicals of the day such as The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly and the Chatauquan. He led off with personal profiles of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott, his eccentric protégé and Helen Hunt Jackson: “The poetry of Mrs. Jackson unquestionably takes rank above that of any American women, and its only rivalry, curiously enough is that of her early schoolmate, Emily Dickinson.”
    
One of the more charming essays is about “The Eccentricities of Reformers” a subject that would engage Henry Adams who thought America had none and delighted in meeting Algernon Swinburne who epitomized the English strain of oddballs. He quoted approvingly of a remark by Thomas Hughes the English reformer who came to America to found a utopian community called Rugby in Tennessee. Hughes spoke of one of his new American friends as “doubtless, however, a cracked fellow in the best sense. “

All of these writers and their sketches—despite their sharp differences—deserve to be read because of their stylistic capacity, their willingness to explore new work and new figures. They are Russian, Swiss and American. Enjoy their fiction, poetry and the sketches now before you.  
    
 Robert S. Fogarty

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