TomahawkPoe.jpgIn Print (Book Reviews and Published Pieces)

 

Sunday
Feb242008

Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery Bird

Sunday, Feb 24, 2008  Philadelphia Inquirer878004-1365343-thumbnail.jpg

19th-century tale of reincarnation had Poe's praise

Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself
By Robert Montgomery Bird

Introduction by Christopher Looby

NYRB Classics. 425 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

So, you've been looking for an early 19th-century novel about metempsychosis? Look no further. Robert Montgomery Bird's Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is back in print. What? You are not an ardent follower of tales of the metempsychotic? Let me explain. Metempsychosis is the transference of the soul or spirit from one body to another after death. Sounds like the kind of story Edgar Allan Poe might write. In fact, Poe himself reviewed Bird's novel when it was first published in 1836:

"We must regard 'Sheppard Lee,' upon the whole, as a very clever, and not altogether unoriginal, jeu d'esprit. Its incidents are well conceived, and related with force, brevity, and a species of directness which is invaluable in certain cases of narration."

There is even a blurb from Poe on the back cover of the newly printed edition, and Poe also mined Bird's plot for one of his greatest stories, "The Gold Bug."

Sheppard Lee is an indolent gentleman farmer in New Jersey who bemoans his dwindling finances, but can't muster enough energy to change his fortunes. When he dies in a foolhardy attempt to locate buried pirate treasure, his ghost discovers another deceased man, a rich Philadelphia brewer who has broken his neck jumping a fence while hunting. Sheppard wishes he could have led this rich man's life, and immediately his ghostly spirit enters the dead man's body.

Sheppard retains the memories of his own existence, but he also fully becomes the other man, gradually recovering that man's identity and memories as he walks in his shoes and interacts with his family and friends. However, Sheppard soon learns that all-important lesson about the color of grass on the other side of the socioeconomic fence. What follows are several picaresque adventures among the social strata of antebellum America, as Sheppard Lee hops from one dead body to the next.

The lives of others beckon to Sheppard like the desiderata of his own unfulfilled dreams. After the brewer, he metamorphoses into a spendthrift dandy on the hunt for a wealthy girl to marry. Then he enters the body of Philadelphia's most notorious moneylender. Next he is a wealthy Quaker philanthropist who can't give away his money quickly enough. Sheppard learns too late that each new existence has its own unique set of miseries. His metempsychotic gift becomes a curse. Sheppard is like a comic version of the Wandering Jew, roaming the streets and country lanes of a corrupt nation, solace never at hand. He is beaten, robbed and swindled.

After his Quaker self is kidnapped by Southern slavery sympathizers who mistake him for an abolitionist, Sheppard's only recourse is to jump into the body of a dead slave named Tom. Bird's satiric romp now takes a grim turn as Tom becomes involved in planning a slave insurrection on his plantation. The political and social humor is easy to swallow when the wealthy and corrupt receive their comeuppance, but slavery is a bitter pill.

Bird distrusts everyone who would attempt to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden. His Quaker philanthropist is a fool who ruins himself trying to help those who scorn his charity. His abolitionists are scaremongers, sowing discord that will erupt in violence. Whereas early in the novel it's often hard to interpret Bird's political stances - some of his lines are pitch-perfect irony - when it comes to the effects of an abolitionist pamphlet in the hands of slaves, Bird pulls no punches. Humor leaves his pen and bloody carnage follows. It seems clear that Bird had no love for abolitionists or their cause.

It's not that Bird is pro-slavery. As a dramatist he wrote a heroic account of the Roman slave revolt led by Spartacus and declared that the play could never be performed in the South without its author being lynched. What scares Bird is the very real threat of violence over the slave question. He already sees enough misery and injustice in his society. The threat of a slave insurrection is too horrific for him to accept as a valid solution.

Poe wrote that the novel is "a farce of very pretty finesse." True, but Bird's humor is also sharp, even cynically driven. He leaves no social group (not even slaves) unscathed. Although I am suspicious of his characterization of the issues of slavery, it fits the broader purpose of his novel, which is to dissipate the delusions of a corrupt society. Sheppard Lee's imposture of his fellow citizens mirrors the false pretenses of a nation. Bird's richly nuanced novel wears the dramatic mask of comedy, but underneath lies the mask of tragedy.

Friday
Jan252008

Arthur Conan Doyle

878004-1290792-thumbnail.jpg878004-1290788-thumbnail.jpgJanuary 20, 2008 Philadelphia Inquirer

More Doyle, yet still Unsated

Books on Holmes' creator leave mysteries unsolved.

Arthur Conan Doyle
A Life in Letters
Edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower

and Charles Foley

Penguin Press. 706 pp.

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes
The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
By Andrew Lycett

Free Press. 557 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

There are already more than 20 biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle. There is even a biography about the biographies, The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Thirteen Biographers in Search of a Life, compiled by Jon Lellenberg, one of the editors of the new book of letters. Unique among fictional characters, there are also several biographies of Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. After reading the two latest entries in Doylean biography, I still feel I know more about Sherlock than I do about Arthur.

Indeed, in "The Game," which diehard Sherlockians play, Doyle is relegated to the status of mere literary agent, guiding to press the works of Holmes' compatriot, Dr. Watson. The very conceit of the stories, that Watson is the author, makes it easy to forget that Doyle was the writer behind it all. And for many, Sherlock is such a vital character that his creator takes a back seat.

So how is it that a man who led such an adventurous life, the second-highest-paid writer of his generation (Kipling was tops), creator of the iconic detective as well as hundreds of short stories and historical novels, a war correspondent and historian, a physician, a missionary for Spiritualism, an ardent sportsman (name a sport and he played it) - how can this kind of man remain more of a cipher to us than a character he created? The answer is revealed in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, rife in copious detail about what Doyle did in his life, but fallow in why he did what he did.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading Doyle's letters. The editors - Foley, a great-nephew of Doyle, and Stashower and Lellenberg, both biographers and long-standing members of the American Holmes group, the Baker Street Irregulars - have benefited from the recent release of Doyle's papers after years of family legal wrangling. Approximately 500 of the 600 or so letters in this collection are addressed to Doyle's mother, who remained throughout her life her son's most frequent correspondent.

I am a devoted Sherlockian and love the detail of his letters and the incidental trivia that relate to Sherlockiana. In a boyhood letter we learn perhaps the root of "the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared," when Doyle recounts a visit to a menagerie where he sees "the largest rat ever caught; it was found in the Liverpool docks; it was about the size of a small bulldog."

We also learn of the schoolboy's trouble with mathematics and geometry, which he claims to "detest and abhor," perhaps inspiring him to make Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, a mathematical genius. Singled out in Doyle's letters is Euclid, whom Holmes would famously refer to in his criticism of Watson's tales: "Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid."

I was fascinated to read about the details of a boy's life at boarding school, what he ate, read and studied, the games he played, his visit to see Henry Irving play Hamlet. And his life gets richer and more adventurous as it progresses, the editors filling in the biographical blanks between the letters. What we are left with is what one editor called an "experiment in autobiography."

Andrew Lycett, in The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, has written an engaging interpretation of Doyle's life. He begins with Doyle's native city: "Molten lava and packed ice: even natural forces which created Edinburgh's jagged landscape came in contrasting pairs." This grounds Lycett's suggestion throughout that Doyle himself was a force of nature.

We find Doyle signing on as ship's surgeon on a whaling voyage; attempting, later on, to overturn the conviction of a man accused of mutilating animals; and, finally, believing in the photographic evidence of fairies. Lycett is very thorough and probably has more to offer than previous Doyle bios, some of which are nearer to hagiography. Lycett's meticulous research into and analysis of Doyle's Spiritualism as the guiding light of his life certainly helps map a complex and varied life.

But after reading both books, I still come away slightly empty, happy to have been in the company of such a giant, but still not knowing the intricacies of his character.

Both new books are quite readable and enjoyable, but Arthur Conan Doyle, the remarkable literary figure who led a life worthy of emulation, remains in the end the literary agent of the still very real Sherlock Holmes.

Tuesday
Sep042007

A Philadelphia Perspective: the Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher

Fisherdiary.jpgAugust 22, 2007  Philadelphia Inquirer

A Phila. gentleman warms to Lincoln

A Philadelphia Perspective: the Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher

Edited by Jonathan White
Fordham. 282 pp.

by Edward Pettit

"Met Mr. Ryan on the road. He told me news had just come to town that the Republican Party had nominated a Mr. Lincoln for President. I never heard of him before," writes Sidney George Fisher in his diary on May 18, 1860. "It will calm many fears, allay much animosity and inspire hope of better times throughout the country, whoever Mr. Lincoln may be."

Sidney George Fisher was a member of Philadelphia's high society in the mid-19th century. He came from a wealthy family, hobnobbed with the merchant and banking aristocracy and, though not rich himself, spent his days as a gentleman farmer.

Fisher gave speeches to historical and agricultural organizations. He wrote books and pamphlets on the major political questions of his day, such as slavery and constitutional authority. Fisher was, as Samuel Johnson once said of Boswell (according to Boswell), "a very clubable man." Respectable, sociable and determined to make his mark (as long as he didn't have to break a sweat doing it).

Fisher, also like Boswell, kept a diary for most of his adult life. From 1834 until 1871 Fisher commented on the daily minutiae of his own life and of the society in which he lived. Only death halted his voluminous output: He died a mere three days after his last entry.

Unlike Boswell's, Fisher's diary is not filled with details of sexual encounters. While Boswell's journals would not seem out of place as a contemporary blog, with its author's private life splayed for all to see, Fisher writes with a precision and formality that suggest he hoped for readers in years to come. He was not merely taking notes for future writing projects. He was crafting an autobiography, in daily detail.

Fisher's diary has been a boon to historians of 19th-century America for some time. Nicholas B. Wainwright first edited and published a single-volume edition in 1967. This new one, edited by Jonathan White, is a reprinting of only the Civil War years from Wainwright's edition. White has not added any previously unpublished material, even though, as he notes in a preface, Wainwright only published "5 to 10 percent of the original diary." White adds that the Civil War years, in Fisher's own original format, "span some twenty-two volumes." Considering that White was only republishing a few years from the diary, couldn't he have added some extra material? Are there perhaps some salacious Boswellian moments that we don't know about?

From the first entry in this edition, on Jan. 1, 1860, Fisher crafts himself as a man apart. On not attending church service, he writes, "It is very well for the multitude to have a day consecrated to religious observances. . . . But for the thinking man, every day is Sunday, he sees the moral, the divine in truth, and truth governs every day and all things, the most common and familiar." He's not one of the rabble. This passage also suggests an iconoclastic distrust of organized religion.

The personal nature of a diary almost forces a reader to make emotional judgments about the subject, and I found myself disliking Fisher for much of the first year's entries. Longing for the aristocratic ways of yesteryear, lamenting the growing numbers of the uneducated, Fisher often comes off as a prig. But, in documenting the swirling events of the Civil War, Fisher evolves before your eyes. His views on slavery shift. He waxes philosophical. One day (March 13, 1861) he is viewing Barnum's exhibit of African and Central American natives, but can only see (like most of his time) "man in an arrested state of development." The very next day Fisher turns to metaphysical rumination: "We thus die daily and yesterday is as much lost to me as the hour of my birth."

Most interesting is the development of Abraham Lincoln's reputation in Fisher's eyes. From the first mention, quoted above, Fisher is longing for a statesman to save his society from its secessionist mess. And although, as a result of Lincoln's nomination, no fears were becalmed and those "better times" would come only after four years of bloody civil war, Fisher sees the light at the end of the dark tunnel, choosing to quote "the mystic chords of memory / better angels of our nature" part of Lincoln's first inaugural address. Lincoln's speeches gradually win him over and galvanize his commitment to the Union.

A melancholic tone, as Fisher nurses various ailments and mourns Lincoln's assassination, concludes these diary entries as if recording the final days of some lost America. The diary is, at times, an aristocratic idyll in which the classes are forever separate (and not at all equal), and at other times a place where Fisher can explore the ideas of his day and provide the reader with honest opinions. All in all, well worth reading.

Thursday
Jul052007

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K Dick

July 1, 2007  Philadelphia InquirerPKD.jpg

A most worthy gathering of Philip K. Dick sci-fi of the '60s

Four Novels of the 1960s
By Philip K. Dick

Library of America 830 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

The Library of America has issued its first volume featuring a science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick's Four Novels of the 1960s (The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik), edited by novelist Jonathan Lethem. Dick, who died in 1982, began his writing career in the 1950s churning out dozens of science fiction stories for the pulp magazines (nearly 70 stories from '53 to '55 alone) and a few paperback original novels, but it was mainstream success he sought. So, for a couple of years, Dick dedicated himself to writing "realist" novels. None of them sold (almost all have since been posthumously published), and Dick returned for good to the SF genre that turned out to be the most fertile for his own visions of alternate realities.

The four novels in this collection were created during Dick's most prolific years. He wrote 23 novels in the 1960s (a dozen in the three-year period following The Man in the High Castle). The fuel for such productivity was his prodigious intake of amphetamines. In fact, he claimed he had never written a novel without the help of stimulants until 1973's A Scanner Darkly. "The words come out of my hands, not my brain. I write with my hands." While this approach to creativity brings to mind Truman Capote's remark about Jack Kerouac's books - "That's not writing; it's typing" - Dick mastered his craft and these four books not only are SF gems, but they also easily cross generic lines and rival the multifaceted brilliance of other revered writers (Kerouac himself, by the way, joins the Library of America series in September). And considering that schlock supernatural horror hack H.P. Lovecraft was published by the LoA just two years ago, it is a relief that they have chosen to honor a science fiction writer as talented as Dick.

Although most of his work is chock-full of the futuristic gadgetry and interplanetary settings one usually encounters in the SF genre, Dick is concerned less with "the shape of things to come," as H.G. Wells phrased it, than with the shape of the mind to come. What happens to people as they are forced to confront their own humanity? What happens if the world we live in is just an illusion? Does the nature of humanity change if our consciousness becomes unmoored from not just our material selves, but from all that we perceive as materially solid? Dick is a writer not of physics, but of metaphysics.

These novels grapple with spirituality, rather than science. In The Man in the High Castle, set in a United States that has been defeated by the Axis powers in World War II, the characters use the ancient Chinese text I Ching to determine their actions. In The Three Stigmata, hallucinogenic drugs provide virtual reality experiences that lead to discussions of the existence and nature of God. Do Androids Dream features a religion, Mercerism, in which adherents experience real suffering through a machine that registers their empathy for a sacrificial victim. Ubik utilizes the Tibetan Book of the Dead to examine the existence and consciousness of an afterlife.

I don't want this to sound as if Dick is some dry-as-bones, proselytizing prophet. These novels are also funny, thrilling and stimulating. There are shootouts with renegade androids and undercover spies. There are parodies of consumer culture. There are debates about historicity and drug use. Each novel offers a reading experience that is cathartic while reading, yet offers fruit for continued thought afterward. I didn't want any of them to end and, in a Dickian sense of warped reality, each grew in shape and scope in my own mind (my own alternate world) for long after I put the volume down.

Like those of Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, Dick's novels are permeated with the paranoiac mood that, in his own words, "things are seldom what they seem." Characters in Dick's novels are forever trying to gauge their position in an ever-shifting mindscape. Dick once said his novels "try to pierce the veil of what is only apparently real to find out what is really real." Unlike Pynchon and Vonnegut, Dick has remained on the periphery of literary recognition. The title of this new collection, Four Novels of the 1960s, may be hinting that more of Dick's work will be forthcoming. Certainly a volume of his short fiction and several more of his novels would hold its own on a shelf surrounded by other Library of America luminaries such as Melville, Faulkner and Wharton. Pynchon and Vonnegut will have to wait.

Sunday
Jun172007

The Gentle Axe by RN Morris

Gentle%20Axe.jpgJune 10, 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer

Mystery sequel concocted from 'Crime and Punishment'

The Gentle Axe
By R.N. Morris

The Penguin Press. 320 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, the beleaguered student Raskolnikov murders two women with an ax and would have escaped undetected if not for the investigating magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich. Raskolnikov wanders the dark streets and fetid tenements of St. Petersburg , handing out kopeks to its demoralized, poverty-stricken inhabitants, searching for meaning in the ghastly murders he has committed. Petrovich, however, is like an armchair detective who wanders the tortured passages of the student's criminalized mind, searching for motive, but more important, hoping to lead the murderer to confess his crime.

R.N. Morris returns the reader to 1867 St. Petersburg in his historical mystery The Gentle Axe. A year has passed since Raskolnikov's crime, and Petrovich is faced with another murder and another student, Virginsky, with his own curious moral compass. A man is found hanging from a tree in a park, a bloody ax in his belt loop. At his feet, half-buried in snow, is a suitcase crammed with the body of a dwarf whose head has been bashed in. Not so gentle, this ax. Nor is this crime so easily solved as a murder/suicide. Indeed, there are more killings to come and these first two dead bodies, blanketed in snow, are no preparation for the bloody carnage to follow.

Petrovich acts as a kind of anti-Sherlock Holmes. He explains his method to his assistant, Salytov:

"I do not believe these mysteries are solved rationally, through the exercise of cold deductive, reasoning. . . . One must go to a place within one's self. It is a kind of Siberia of the soul. In the criminal, it is the place where these deeds are conceived and carried through. But we all have a similar place within us, or so I believe. I know that I have."

Like the catchers of serial killers in contemporary thrillers, Petrovich attempts to get inside the head of the murderer, find out what makes him tick and trace his actual steps. He empathizes with the criminal, to draw him out. And unlike the traditional armchair detective, Petrovich actively and personally pursues his quarry through the squalid crime scenes of bloody destruction.

We follow Petrovich and Virginsky through an icy maze of decrepit pawnshops, seedy brothels and vodka bars. A prince, a prostitute and a missing actor have an interest in the investigation. As Petrovich follows his leads, he must discover not only why an ax of a particular size was used ("It was in precisely such a detail that the killer would betray himself"), but also the connection between a respectable publisher of European philosophy translations and another publisher of pornographic books. Virginsky, like his predecessor, Raskolnikov, proudly wears his cloak of poverty while moodily denouncing the injustices of his society. As a good mystery writer should, Morris weaves a complicated plot, revealing just enough to raise more questions, but not quite enough to provide any concrete answers, until the final, harried denouement.

In using characters from a previous novel, and also by specifically referring to the events of the previous novel, an author does not create a distinct stand-alone work. A sequel, no matter how well written, is still an extension of its predecessor. Morris' characters and setting do ring true to Dostoyevsky's originals. So, too, does his retelling of the philosophic debates that swirled like the snow through 19th-century St. Petersburg . But Crime and Punishment is not a mystery novel. There is no mystery to solve. The murderer is not only known to the reader, but is also discovered by Petrovich fairly early in the novel. Dostoyevsky's book is about the metaphysics of murder, the "psychological account of a crime," he called it. In his notebooks for the novel, he wrote, "Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering." Raskolnikov, deranged with guilt, bears the burden of this sentiment.

Morris' sequel is firmly encamped in the mystery genre. Petrovich is the sleuth who must catch the killer. But Morris' use of a generic form does not dilute the idea of human suffering that Dostoyevsky wished to explore. Morris' twist is investigating the suffering of the investigator, not the criminal. In identifying with the killers he chases, Petrovich bears the terrible weight of suffering in the world. His profession forces him to perpetually wander the Siberia of his own soul. Morris' novel is a book not about the metaphysics of murder, but rather the metaphysics of the investigation of murders. As such, The Gentle Axe proves a worthy sequel.