The Thinking 


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Culture and the Downloadable Novel

November 1, 2012


JOHN HARRIS, editor of Praesidium and executive director of the Center for Literate Values, writes:

I happened upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s remarks about literary taste in American democracy recently. Dense irony swirled around the discovery of his words about the literary industry. He wrote:

The ever-growing crowd of readers and the continual need they have of the new assure the sale of a book that they scarcely esteem.

My Kindle allowed me to have a free copy of Tocqueville’s classic, in the first place … but I have long since learned that the price of such free stuff is a gaudy billboard staring me in the face every time I reach for my palm-held library. Last week, some TV serial titled “Nashville” hounded me. This week it’s a novel called Dawn which claims to be “Book One of the Xenogenesis Trilogy.” Has the author, then, already contracted to produce two more tomes … or is this glorious triad being republished for Kindle-owners after an initial triumph?  Or, does it even matter?  Isn’t everything a trilogy now?  Does the sort of person who reads these things actually know what a trilogy is, any more than he or she is alert to the literal absurdity behind the word “xenogenesis”?

Tocqueville foresaw that, like everything else in America, creative literature would be driven by an insatiable thirst for novelty. Exoticism would be ground out without any consideration for plausibility. Read More »


Before There Was Chick Lit

June 26, 2012


PENNY writes:

Your recent entry on women who want to have it all made me think of the author Emilie Loring. She wrote romances from the 1930s through the ’50s. Her heroines were spirited, can-do women who tried to make the world a better place. They had a sense of humor, were loving, and believed in family. The heroes were hard-working men who, like the heroines, placed duty above personal desires. Read More »


An Essay on Oswald Spengler

June 9, 2012


AT The Brussels Journal, Thomas F. Bertonneau has an interesting essay on Oswald Spengler. Regarding the piece, Mr. Bertonneau writes:

I have come to think of him as the “Dutch Uncle” of the contemporary West, the guy your father warned you that you’d need “to have a talk with” if you got out of line.

He quotes from Spengler’s last book, The Hour of Decision (1933):

Has [anyone] eyes to see what is going on around him on the face of the globe? To see the immensity of the danger which looms over this mass of peoples? I do not speak of the educated or uneducated city crowds, the newspaper-readers, the herds who vote at elections – and for that matter, there is no longer any quality-difference between voters and those for whom they vote – but of the ruling classes of the White nations, insofar as they have not been destroyed, of the statesmen insofar as there are any left; of the true leaders of policy, of economic life, of armies, and of thought. Does anyone, I ask, see over and beyond his time, his own continent, his country, or even the narrow circle of his own activities? Read More »


The Hunger for the Heroic

November 8, 2011



From Burroughs' Barsoom series, which also included A Princess of Mars


This week the text in my course on “Science Fiction in Literature and Film” is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first-published work, A Princess of Mars (1912 – original title, Under the Moons of Mars). The protagonist is John Carter, formerly of the Army of Virginia under General Lee, who, succumbing to a paralyzing gas in an Arizona Cave circa 1870, wakes up on Mars and begins his rise through the strata of Martian society. He finds a helpmate in the beautiful and resourceful Dejah Thoris, Princess of the Twin Cities of Helium. It is essentially a chivalric romance on another planet. Predictably, the women in the class speak out positively in praise of the novel, which they like a good deal more than they liked The World Set Free and The Food of the Gods by H. G. Wells or Last and First Men by W. Olaf Stapledon. They do not consciously realise how opposite to the feminist values that they have learned elsewhere A Princess of Mars is, but they intuit it. The men like Burroughs too. A couple of years ago I wrote an article (it appeared at The Brussels Journal) on “Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative.” 

 I believe that college students are starved for moral narrative, of the kind once offered by Howard Pyle. There is nothing PC in Burroughs, but the characters male and female are independent, decent, loyal, resourceful, stalwart, and courageous.

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The Theology of Charles Dickens

November 7, 2011


Fagin in his cell; George Cruikshank

Fagin in his cell; George Cruikshank

ONE OF MY favorite works of literary criticism is G.K. Chesterton’s book on Charles Dickens. I recommended it to a reader and in return received this excellent essay. 

Greg Jinkerson writes:

I took you up on the advice to read Chesterton’s Charles Dickens, the Last of the Great Men. What an inspiration. It became obvious after one chapter that I would need to read all of Dickens. There is nothing quite like the experience of having Chesterton point you to the wonders of other writers and areas of thought. His encomium to Dickens is exemplary in this regard. It is almost a hagiography of Dickens; or perhaps I should say a theology of the world Dickens created. Read More »


By Book or by Crook

February 17, 2011


THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU writes in response to this entry on the future of the bookstore:

Books are not indestructible, but short of tossing them into a furnace or dropping them into an industrial shredder they are difficult to annihilate. Not so the electronic file. A single electromagnetic burst over the North American continent could erase every unprotected electronic file on every personal computer in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It need not be from an enemy attack either – the sun can generate powerful magnetic bursts. A civilization that considers the book obsolete and plans to base its literacy on text-files stored on Kindle-type devices is tempting the nemesis of a blue screen and nothing to read and no possibility of reconstituting the tradition.  Read More »


The Demise of the Bookstore

February 17, 2011


HERE is an excellent piece by Albert Mohler reflecting on the future of bookstores. With the news that the Borders chain has filed for bankruptcy, the bookstore appears more threatened than ever as a cultural institution. Mohler explains why the bookstore can never be replaced by online retailers.

He writes:

The general wisdom seems to be that the bookstore will go the way of the record store and the video rental outlet. The bookstore may have been an important cultural asset in years past, many argue, but it has little place in a world of e-readers, online sales, and mega retailers like WalMart that deep-discount bestsellers. Read More »


H.G. Wells Walks Out on The Fabians

January 21, 2011



H.G. WELLS, the British author, was a lifelong socialist and a member of the Fabian Society when Beatrice and Sydney Webb were its leading lights. In this excellent essay on Wells, Thomas F. Bertonneau describes the author’s encounters with the Webbs, whom he caricatured in his novel The New Machiavelli. As Mr. Bertonneau puts it,

People like the Webbs saw in dislocation and discontentment an opportunity to be in charge, to direct and assemble people, and to pull strings, but without knowing where to direct anyone or what someone ought to do to ameliorate the ills of a disintegrating society.  The Webbs liked bossing people about even to the extent of arranging, or attempting to arrange, marriages.  Wells finally saw the Webbs as ineffectual dilettantes, self-deluded, not as the architects of a rational utopia, and therefore he saw them as part of the existing confusion. Read More »



September 5, 2010


Henry James

Henry James









THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU writes, in response to the latest post on Basil Ransom, the hero of Henry James’s novel The Bostonians and an inspiring  prototype of a man at odds with modern liberalism:

When Basil Ransom first catches sight of Verena at a séance, she is sixteen years old.  She is moreover on display as a mesmeric subject who can channel messages from the beyond; her parents in a kind of mystic road show are marketing her for a Chautauqua audience of suffragettes, blue-nose liberals, and quasi-Christians of vaguely socialist inclination.  All of these people speak endlessly of ideals and Verena – as one would expect from an adolescent who has known no other milieu – speaks a vocabulary of debased Transcendentalism too.  But she is really only mimicking a style of speech; the words have no profound content for her although they imply something about her probable future. Read More »


The Living

December 25, 2009


In James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” friends and relatives gather at a Dublin townhouse for a yearly Christmas dance at the home of the elderly Morkan sisters, Julia and Kate. The guests dance to piano waltzes played by the Morkans’ niece Mary Jane, who like her aunts is a music teacher. Freddy Malins shows up not as drunk as expected. The conversation includes opera and a local monastery where the monks sleep in coffins. The guests are served goose and ham, punch and steamed pudding while the elderly spinsters fret over their welfare. Every year, Gabriel Conroy, nephew of the Morkan sisters, gives a toast at the close of the meal.

Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company. Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier.

Read More »


“The Close and Holy Darkness”

December 16, 2009




Dylan Thomas’ poetic tale, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, is a moving evocation of Christmas from a child’s point of view. It was made into an excellent movie in 1987 starring the British actor Denholm Elliott. It is well worth purchasing and watching once a year with children or grandchildren, remarkably faithful to the text and a Christmas movie likely to survive for generations.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

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A Man in the Cold

December 15, 2009


The Rev. James Jackson writes:

I’ve many favorite poems about manhood, but I particularly like the attached. Robert Hayden was a student of Auden (he sounds like Auden), though he has his own style. The discussion on your blog touches many things which Hayden expresses well, so I thought you might want to share it with your readers. 

I like it for the priesthood too. The thought of being on my knees and praying for the parishioners before most of them are up (I usually start the Office of Matins at 4:45 AM) appeals to me. It’s just right.


Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I knowbigstockphoto_Sketchy_Flower_On_Black_2055087[1]
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, 1913-1980


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Frost on Love

October 10, 2009


Robert Frost was once asked to explain the meaning of one of his poems.  He responded, “If I could have said it any better I would have.”

Frost had a very anti-modern notion of love.  He couldn’t have explained it better than this. 

Hyla Brook

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)–
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat–
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.



The Thinking Woman’s Oprah

September 9, 2009


In a long 2002 piece, “The Rage of Virginia Woolf,” Theodore Dalrymple brilliantly captures the woman whose works have enjoyed a cult-like following for 80 years and who continues to inspire envy, snobbery and boredom in college-educated girls. He aptly calls her a “feeler,” not a thinker. Says Dalrymple: 

For her, there was no such thing as the human condition, with its inevitable discontent and limitations. She thought that all the things she desired were reconcilable, so that freedom and security, for example, or artistic effort and complete selflessness, might abide in perpetual harmony. As a female member of the British upper middle class and one of what she called “the daughters of educated men,” she felt both socially superior to the rest of the world and peculiarly, indeed uniquely, put upon. The very locution, “the daughters of educated men,” is an odd one, capturing her oscillation between grandiosity and self-pity: she meant by it that class of women who, by virtue of their gentle birth and hereditarily superior minds, could not be expected to perform physical labor of any kind, but who were prevented by the injustice of “the system” from participating fully in public and intellectual affairs….

No interpretation of events, trends, or feelings is too silly or contradictory for Mrs. Woolf if it helps to fan her resentment…. 

Had Mrs. Woolf survived to our time, however, she would at least have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind—shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal—had triumphed among the elites of the Western world.

Rose, who sent the above link in response to the previous post on Woolf, also passed along this quote from Camille Paglia:

“In the beautiful hypothesis of ‘Shakespeare’s sister,’ Virginia Woolf imagines a girl with her brother’s gifts whom society would have ‘thwarted and hindered’ to insanity and suicide. Women have been discouraged from genres such as sculpture that require studio training or expensive materials. But in philosophy, mathematics, and poetry, the only materials are pen and paper. Male conspiracy cannot explain all female failures. I am convinced that, even without restrictions, there still would have been no female Pascal, Milton, or Kant. Genius is not checked by social obstacles: it will overcome. Men’s egotism, so disgusting in the talentless, is the source of their greatness as a sex. Women have a more accurate sense of reality; they are physically and spiritually more complete. Culture, I said, was invented by men, because it is by culture that they make themselves whole. Even now, with all vocations open, I marvel at the rarity of the woman driven by artistic or intellectual obsession, that self-mutilating derangement of social relationship which, in its alternative forms of crime and ideation, is the disgrace and glory of the human species.”



The Envy of a Sister

September 9, 2009


One little-known fact about Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, the famous book discussed in the previous entry, is that Woolf was angry that her family spent money to send her brothers to university and  had no funds left over for her. In other words, she was envious. She hid the fact in her lectures so that it wouldn’t appear she had a grievance. She wrote to a friend in 1933:

I forced myself to keep my own figure fictitious; legendary. If I had said, Look here am I uneducated, because my brothers used all the family funds which is the fact – Well they’d have said; she has an axe to grind; and no one would have taken me seriously.

Susan Gubar, a women’s studies authority on Woolf, says in her recent introduction to a new edition of the book:

Virginia Woolf would always resent the familial and historical circumstances dictating that she, like so many daughters of men prominent in the nineteenth century, was to be denied access to a university education.

Apparently, Woolf would have preferred her brothers to do with less. Feminism is an ideology of envy. It is based on the utopian premise that somehow envy can be resolved, that there are enough resources for men and women both to have everything they want. Envy has a bottomless appetite. Once fed, it grows. The truth is there is enough for men and there is enough for women, just not enough of the same things.


A Card Table of One’s Own

September 8, 2009

Virginia Woolf


Genius, possibly mere brilliance and shining talent as well, will always be more abundant in men than in women. Perhaps this is Nature’s way of compensating men for their exclusion from the creative and imaginative art that is motherhood at its best, work that is superior to any endeavour in mere words or paint or scientific invention. All these things are ephemeral. Human beings are immortal.

Why then do many artsy and literary women persist in the delusion that their art is more exalted than raising children and loving men? I blame one person. Her name is Virginia Woolf.

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