Journalling Job

I haven’t written anything about my Bible-reading for a long time, for two reasons: one, my posts didn’t say much of anything worth saying; two, my reading has been extremely dry and dutiful. But now that I’m up to Job, I want to try writing a bit to see if it revives the dialogue between me and Scripture/me and God. This book has a different character than the history books. It’s not a journalistic reporting of facts and events, but an exploration of one man’s experience of baffling suffering. I don’t want to blow past it without engaging; it’s too closely related to the struggles I have lately with understanding pain and suffering, with doubt, with God’s mysterious permissiveness and silence, and even with the unmanageable things in my own life.

I’m only through chapter 7, so here are a few initial reactions.

I’ve read Job before, more than once. The standard line is that Job is good, his friends are bad, God is marvelous and powerful. In fact, I remember my Old Testament professor in college presenting his view that Job’s friends were legalistic, brittle, shallow counselors as if it were the renegade interpretation. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything different, including in the notes of my current Bible. As I’m reading this time, though, I don’t see what’s so bad about them. Or — brace yourself — with Satan’s question. Satan asks the obvious question we all ask when we look at others’ lives from the outside in: why do they have it so easy? It’s a question that’s naive, but not illegitimate. Usually when we get to know others, we see that they don’t have it as easy as we thought. But my point is, what makes Satan the bad guy is that he wants to strike Job, and the universally agreed-upon question of Job is, why does God allow it? If this is going to be an honest reading journal, I have to say that my greatest indignation as I read isn’t over Satan’s badness, but over God’s permission of it. In the story, Job’s testing is even presented as Satan’s idea that God goes along with, rather than simply a means of accomplishing a purpose God already had in mind.

Job’s friends seem like friends to me, not pompous windbags. When they first hear of Job’s suffering, they come to him and are shocked by how bad he looks. They simply sit with him in silence: “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (2:13). They don’t speak until Job does, and then Eliphaz responds. Isn’t this what friends do? When I’m struggling with doubts and questions, and I express them to a close friend, I welcome the corrective supplement their perspective gives. Eliphaz makes sure Job is ready, too; he asks, “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?” (4:2)

As for the content of Eliphaz’s speech, well, it’s a little naive at times. But this is because he’s trying to comfort someone who’s been an idol of sorts. “Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands,” he urges Job. “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” I find this psychologically truthful. When our idols suffer, and respond with questions, it shakes our world. I see Eliphaz as begging Job to stay perfect, and to put his confidence in his own righteousness in the same way Eliphaz has admired Job’s righteousness. Not good advice. But also not advice that comes from a brittle heart. Eliphaz is just trying to encourage someone he sees as higher than himself, and I admire him for trying.

Further, though his idealistic view of Job puts pressure on Job, his words, at least in spots, sound a lot like God’s own response at the end of the book. (I may change my mind when I get that far, but I’m going by my memory of God’s response at this point.) Eliphaz says, “I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted” (5:8, 9). Then, “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal” (5: 17, 18). Granted, Job’s sufferings have not been presented in the story’s opening pages as God’s “discipline.” But Job’s response after God finally answers him later in the book is repentence. If I remember correctly he says “I retract; I repent in dust and ashes.” It seems some kind of discipline is certainly accomplished, as well as the healing Eliphaz predicts; Job’s wealth is ultimately restored.

Last observation: usually when I’ve heard “What is man that you make so much of him?” (7: 17) quoted, it’s been as a statement of wonder and gratitude for God’s attention to human life. But that’s not at all how Job means it here. He means something more like, “Will you just go bother someone else for awhile? Why are you wasting so much energy on me?” It makes me wonder if there’s a layer of this discomfort with being scrutinized in Psalm 139 too, where David asks, “Where can I flee from your presence?”

So much for my initial reactions. Maybe I’ll write more as I work through the book.

Another Herd of Horse Books

Curious about what kinds of comparisons might emerge among the many horse books I’ve read to my 7-year-old daughter, I’ve started keeping track. I want to do one more post about them, then wait till a few more accumulate before doing another. One qualification: we also read books on other topics! These are ones that relate to a particular interest of hers, but she has other interests too, as does my 4-year-old daughter.

Cover ImageKathy Wilmore’s Horses! has been a great resource for my older daughter to learn about different breeds of horses. It’s loaded with beautiful photos, and it’s been perfect for her to read in the evening during her designated “read in bed time.” It’s a factual book, not a storybook, great for young sponges who want to absorb as much as they can about horses. She gave a presentation on her horse collection for a hobby exhibition with her Brownie troop, and I was caught by surprise at how many breeds and their distinctives she was able to name. I’m sure this book is a big reason why.

This book is a source of information about the different types of horses and their respective roles and talents. Each chapter is narrated by a different girl who tells the reader about her horse and the work they do together. The table of contents is here. It contains a collection of tear-out trading cards in the back, and my daughter has learned a ton about the different breeds this way.

I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes is another favorite informational book. It’s a slim paperback with lots of illustrations, organized according to questions. It accompanies us many places because it’s easy to carry and useful for young information hounds.

Flip, and Flip and the Cows, are paperbacks that survived my own childhood. Flip is a young colt learning about life as a horse, and he was my first acquaintance with Wesley Dennis as an illustrator. Later I would discover his illustrations in many Marguerite Henry books. The stories are simple and good for young children. My 7-year-old has outgrown the stories, but not the illustrations.

Sometimes I Dream Horses, written by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson and illustrated with beautiful pencil drawings by Eleanor Schick, is about a young girl who dreams of horses on her grandmother’s farm in the Southwest. We found it at the library. It’s a nice story about horse-lovers in two generations.

Winter Pony is Jean Slaughter Doty’s sequel to one of my childhood favorites, Summer Pony. This story follows Ginny through a winter with her pony Mokey, who learns how to pull a sleigh and then is discovered to be in foal. There’s more of Pam and Ginny’s developing friendship as well as lots of description of this exciting new chapter of life for Mokey. The story culminates in the foal’s birth, with Ginny supervising. It’s very readable and enjoyable, and we finished it in under a week.

This one was given to us by my friend JW. It’s about a Native American girl who prefers horses to human companions, and eventually gets her wish to live with them, with the blessing of her family. The illustrations are lovely, simple and stylized. Our other book about a Native American child who longs for a horse is Indian Two-Feet and His Horse, a book saved since my own childhood. It’s written by Margaret Friskey and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, and tells the tale of a boy who longs for a horse, finds a wounded one, and builds a lasting friendship by caring for it. Both these tales offer an alternative to the conquering notion of ownership, and present instead a vision of friendship with the natural world.

One other book we found at the library is about a Native American boy with a love for a horse: Black Kettle: King of the Wild Horses by Justin Denzel. Though the initial picture of Native Americans isn’t flattering — Little Bear, a 9-year-old, is part of a raid on settlers, and he steals the black colt — the relationship between Native Americans and settlers quickly fades into the background. However the theme of the Native American valuing wildness and freedom more than the white man remains at the forefront of the story; Little Bear frees the colt, who becomes famous as “king of the wild horses” and is targeted for capture more than once by a shopkeeper named Lockard. I have to believe this is a main source of the story in Disney’s movie Spirit. It’s interesting that none of these three stories identify their main characters as belonging to a particular tribe.

Now for some more oldies: Little Black, A Pony by Walter Farley is about a boy whose small black pony is relegated to semi-retirement when the boy learns to ride a larger horse, only to rise to heroism when the boy falls through the ice later in the story, and Little Black pulls him out. This one is good for an early reader. There’s some tension, but also a subtheme about importance and friendship not being determined by visible things. Both the boy and the pony learn this; the boy learns that riding a big horse doesn’t make him independent or all-powerful after all, and the pony learns that there are some things his small size enables him and him alone to do.

Last but not least, there have been a number of C.W. Anderson books that offer adventure and mild tension, equestrian knowledge, and great drawings. It’s been nice to follow Billy and his pony Blaze through a series of picture books. Stories like The Rumble Seat Pony, A Pony for Three, and The Lonesome Colt round out the collection, building on the winning theme of children and their horses. My daughter knows which shelf these are on at the library, so we’ve brought them home more than once — well-worn pieces of history that have been loved by many before us.

Horsebook Riding: Weekly Roundup

A Pony for the WinterHelen Kay’s A Pony for the Winter tells the tale of a pony who gives rides at an amusement park boarded to a young girl for the winter. Deborah, who’s 8 years old, learns the ropes of pony care and wrestles with the moral choice of whether to hide the pony from its owner when he returns in the spring. It’s not a picture book; text outweighs pictures. But there are still plenty of illustrations, and though the reading level is perhaps 3rd grade, younger children can read it with no problems.

Cowardly Clyde has been a real favorite this week. Clyde, a “cowardly” horse belonging to a bravado-filled knight, ends up saving the day (and the knight) from a rampaging ogre. When I came back from my morning walk yesterday, both girls were lying on their stomachs in my 7-year-old’s bed, reading and discussing, admiring Clyde, pointing out their favorite features of the pictures, dreaming what they would do in such a situation: “I’d bite him in the tail, then run around and around till he got dizzy and fell down!” was the best solution I heard.

The Mare on the Hill is a beautifully illustrated book about a white mare who fears people (kind of like Ginger in Black Beauty) who eventually comes to trust the young boys who long to befriend her. The text and paintings are by Thomas Locker, an acclaimed Hudson River painter. Gorgeous book.

Leah’s Pony is about a young girl living in the Dust Bowl during the great Depression. Her family’s farm is about to be auctioned off “the year the corn grew no higher than a man’s thumb,” and Leah makes a decision to sell her pony so she can bid on her father’s truck. (I’m tearing up just writing about it, actually.) It’s a wonderful story that inspires young children with a vision of the power their choices can have. (Good site here.)

Last but not least, Robert the Rose Horse… I’m very tired of this book, but my girls never seem to weary of it. We’ve checked it out of the library several times now. My older daughter read it through earlier in the year, and it was one of the first books she was curious enough about to push through as an early reader. It’s about a horse with an allergy to roses whose itchy nose ends up saving the day during a bank robbery. He’s a lovable equine, albeit one who walks around on his hind legs at will….

God in the Dark: Probing Doubt

When I was in 8th grade, I found myself assailed by questions about the faith I’d been raised in. How would I prove God’s existence to my friends? What does all the church-speak mean? How could I know this was real? At the time, my Sunday school teacher heard my questioning and took it to heart, organizing the class around it. She had us all write down our questions, and she dealt with one each week.

I’m not sure how fully mine were answered. Sometimes living and gaining experience is required before things make sense. But the affirming respect and responsiveness she dared to offer us on her maiden voyage as a Sunday school teacher meant — and still means — a great deal to me. Os Guinness’s God in the Dark has been a fitting sequel to that first experience. Whereas the 8th grade class laid a foundation of viable Christian love and relationship, this book is a rigorous intellectual voyage that tackles exhaustively the nature of doubt in all its dimensions and varieties. It was a good read for me now, almost thirty years later, with a fuller range of experience under my belt and therefore different kinds of questions.

My only other experience reading Guinness was Fit Bodies Fat Minds, a much more witty and fast-paced book dealing with anti-intellectualism in the church. This book is written more reflectively and sensitively. A glance through the other reviews posted at Amazon shows that it’s unanimous: this book is a profound, unflinching tour through a difficult subject. It’s structured in three parts: first, an overview; second, a survey of seven “families” of doubt; and last, a look at two specific doubts, “Why, Lord?” and “How long, Lord?”

It’s an excellent book, though I had my usual struggles grappling with nonfiction. The unrelenting focus on its subject is a strength of the argument, but plowing through the many kinds of doubt was slow going at times. I also had to guard against the “That’s me!” syndrome of thinking I suffer from every single variety of spiritual doubt in the book.

However, I value it in two ways. First, it legitimizes — almost blesses — doubt as a stamp of authenticity on faith. “The world of Christian faith is not a fairy-tale, make-believe world, question-free and problem-proof,” writes Guinness, “but a world where doubt is never far from faith’s shoulder.” I’ve gotten whiffs of a spiritual gestapo mentality from some quarters where doubt is viewed as unbelief or sin, so I found this refreshing air to breathe. I also value this book for its incisive, constructive discussion. It’s not a book that wallows; solutions are proposed, and they’re complex, not simplistic.

On the whole the varieties of doubt that I could relate to best were the doubt of disuse and the doubt of injury (not Guinness’s names for them, but my shorthand). By the doubt of disuse, I mean the uncertainty that comes of not activating faith through choice, but waiting in the wings, safely outside the fray. My life at present is pretty insulated, and faith can take on an air of unreality except as a verbal thing. The doubt of injury has to do with the kind of deep-seated mistrust that comes of old wounds, the pain of which is attributed to God rather than the real offender. I know this is an area I need to give more thought to. I have a great suspicion of authority, and the cultural atmosphere makes me right at home in that. But some authorities are trustworthy, and need to be trusted, not hidden from, if faith is to escape being stunted. I’ll probably refer to this book along the way, because it sharpens focus and gives a language for thinking through a potentially paralyzing subject.

Summer Pony

Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty is the latest in my read-aloud syllabus for my horse-loving 7-year-old. It’s a story about Ginny, a middle-school aged girl whose family rents a pony for the summer. Though she has dreams of a sleek and beautiful pony, the one she ends up with is an underfed, shaggy, unimpressive pinto with unmatching eyes, rented from a pony farm that badly neglects its animals.

The story has lots of great ingredients: rescue and restoration of an animal in poor condition, a heroine who’s learning the ropes of pony care along with the reader, and the overcoming of first impressions to form a friendship (as Ginny does with her neighbor). Best of all for the young horse fan is the winning combination of understanding parents, and the conversion of a garage into a pony stall. What pony-lover hasn’t entertained that dream? I know I did.

Ginny, the story’s heroine, is plausible. She has her issues with negative attitude and self-doubt, but she grows a lot over the course of the story and gains confidence in the process. The reading level of this book is probably 3rd-6th grade, but my first-grader was able to work through the text herself. I read it aloud, but often she’d get the jump on me by taking it to bed with her and reading before lights out. (So far she hasn’t discovered reading under the covers with a flashlight…)

The question now is where to go from here. I found this list of 30 best horse books, of which we’ve read four: Summer Pony, Old Bones the Wonder Horse, Misty of Chincoteague, and Black Beauty. What next? I notice Ruffian is on this list, and it’s out of the question… I’m still wrenched every time I think of Eight Belles put down after her second place finish at the Derby last week. I dimly remember a book called A Pony for the Winter; maybe that would be the next logical choice. I’m open to suggestions. Meantime it’s back to watching my daughter pore over her well-worn Breyer’s horses catalogue, checking the boxes of… well, pretty much every model ever made and making plans for saving her money.

One Writer’s Beginnings

This book has been on my shelf for years, but though I’ve read pieces of it (my tagline comes from it), never before this week have I sat down and read it all the way through. It’s an autobiography of Eudora Welty’s writerly persona, but this doesn’t mean it’s a dry, theoretical treatise. Far from it. She explores her family history, complete with photographs and early childhood memories recounted with wonderful clarity of detail. It’s a short book, organized simply into three sections: “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice.”

I’ve only read one of Welty’s novels, The Optimist’s Daughter, and both my great liking for it and its alleged autobiographical nature compelled me to pick up One Writer’s Beginnings. The two books truly do bear a close resemblance to each other. I find it interesting that Welty quotes a passage from Optimist in the concluding pages of this book. Apparently she wrote Optimist first, and in One Writer’s Beginnings she’s following in the footsteps of the heroine of that story, Laurel Hand. I love the idea of a writer who’s inspired by her characters, rather than always implanting her own already-lived experience into them.

The commonalities between the two books are many and substantial. The characters, the locales, the events, and even the central, organizing situation of a woman returning to explore her family’s past are identical. I was glad that along with other aspects of writing and the genesis of stories, Welty touches on character creation, a discussion that’s invariably provocative and discerning. On the subject of her own autobiographical explorations she has this to say:

Through learning at my later date things I hadn’t known, or had escaped or possibly feared realizing, about my parents — and myself — I glimpse our whole family life as if it were freed of that clock time which spaces us apart so inhibitingly, divides young and old, keeps our living through the same experiences at separate distances.

It is our inward journey that leads us through time — forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.

These fascinations with time, different kinds of time, overlapping experience, and the function of memory, run through both this story and Optimist. Welty’s ideas about a transcending ”confluence” of experience are what give her exploration of the past meaning, and resolve the story. Through memory, we can reach into the past and access the truths of our own “beginnings.” What Welty wasn’t aware of as a child, she can uncover in this book, writing in her seventies, through memory. Her perspective reminds me very much of Wendell Berry’s, which surfaces over and over in his stories and poems, and includes like Welty’s not just the importance of memory, but the equally important tempering influences of faith and love.

This all sounds very abstract, so I’ll conclude by handing the microphone back to Welty herself as she links art and life and memory far more succinctly than I seem able to do:

It seems to me, writing of my parents now in my seventies, that I see continuities in their lives that weren’t visible to me when they were living… Could it be that I can better see their lives — or any lives I know — today because I’m a fiction writer? See them not as fiction, certainly — see them, perhaps, as even greater mysteries than I knew. Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.

Old Bones the Wonder Horse

We read Mildred Mastin Pace’s Old Bones the Wonder Horse as a read-aloud. I remember my mother reading it to me many years ago. It’s the true story of Exterminator, a racehorse dubbed Old Bones because of his ungainly appearance. Bought as a “work horse” to challenge Sun Briar, a more favored thoroughbred in training, Exterminator instead begins a long and illustrious racing career of his own when Sun Briar is unable to run the Kentucky Derby. Exterminator races in his place and wins.

This book follows his racing career until he retires at the age of 9; his adjustment to retirement and attachments to Peanuts and Peanuts II, two ponies bought as companions for him; and his lifelong friendships with Henry McDaniel (his trainer), Mike Terry (his groom, who meets him at his first Derby and never leaves him), and others. The book does justice to this remarkable animal, developing his intelligence, his steady personality so unusual in a thoroughbred, and his sociability. My 7-year-old (and I) laughed aloud at times over the characterization of this distinctive horse who embodies a combination of wisdom. playfulness, determination and physical giftedness. There’s more information about Exterminator here, here, and here.

My daughter has been listening to Black Beauty on cd alongside our reading of this book, and there’s a marked contrast between the two stories. Black Beauty is a tale I’d never survive as a read-aloud because it’s so desperately sad. Its arguments against vice and cruelty gain their momentum from the tremendous hardship Black Beauty and his fellow horses have to endure at the hands of their human handlers. But this story is poignant without being heart-breaking. Its reading level is 3rd-6th grade, but as an adult I enjoyed it every bit as much as my daughter did.

Interestingly enough, in reading about Exterminator I’ve discovered two interesting facts about him: first, that he was born on Almahurst Farm near Lexington, a few miles from my alma mater in the heart of bluegrass country; and second, that my daughters were born in a hospital located on property that was once part of the Kilmer farm at which he lived out his last years. He’s buried at a pet cemetery close by. When I talked this over with the librarian, he told me he visits the gravesite every year, because Exterminator was “one of the greats.” This book makes a convincing argument that he’s right.

The Optimist’s Daughter

There are many books I read and enjoy, but few that I swoon over. This one, at least in parts, was swoonworthy for the lyrical beauty of its writing and its unmasking of truthful moments. That’s the best way I know how to say it. But the flyleaf testifies to the difficulty others have had in finding words to capture this author’s power. “It is easy to praise Eudora Welty,” says Robert Penn Warren, “but it is not so easy to analyze the elements in her work that make it so easy — and such a deep pleasure — to praise.”

The Optimist’s Daughter has a simple storyline. It follows Laurel Hand home from Chicago to the South for her father’s surgery and, shortly afterward, his death. A night alone in her childhood home brings her face to face with artifacts and realities of her past, and she comes to a deeper understanding of herself and those who are a part of her history. (You can read an excerpt from the book here.)

This novel is the work of an author with deep roots in her place, a keenly attentive eye, and a penetrating, contemplative intelligence. I don’t want to use this post to go into tons of detail or analysis of the story, except to say that this novel is considered autobiographical, and there are some good questions and other materials for exploring this further here under “Resources.” There’s plenty more information on Welty here.

I tend to think, and to file information away, in pictures or symbols. This book contains some compelling ones. I’ll conclude with my favorite from the book, a passage of loving description, and one of several in the story that picks up fictionally on the significance of reading and books discussed in Welty’s autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings. Who wouldn’t become a lover of books with a history that can be described this way?

When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stiched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams…

Brighty of the Grand Canyon

We read Marguerite Henry’s Brighty of the Grand Canyon as a family read-aloud. I read it long ago, probably when I was 11 or 12, but remembered virtually nothing. How can this be? It’s full of excitement and the usual emotional highs and lows of animal stories. This one includes a prospector, a lion hunter, a president, and a murderer along with the noble and unassuming Brighty the burro. It also incorporates Ms. Henry’s now familiar theme of love for wild places, taking place in the Grand Canyon before it was made a national park. What’s wrong with me that my mind permits such good stuff to evaporate, while certain episodes of The Little Rascals are firmly established there till my dying day?

In any case, this book was a success for both mother and 7-year-old daughter. The only thing I disliked was what I always dislike about animal stories: bad people who enter the scene and abuse the animals. Fortunately in all the Marguerite Henry novels I’ve read, the animals triumph in the end. But sometimes they have hard going at the hands of people far more brutish than they are. The villain in this story is truly diabolical, a vicious criminal who’s counterbalanced by the brave, straight-shooting (both literally and figuratively) Uncle Jim Owens. His character is carefully and lovingly drawn, respectful of the real Jim Owens after whom he’s modelled.

I should add too that this worked well as a read-aloud. The narrative is interesting and dramatic, and the dialogue/dialect are fun to bring to life.

Brighty was a real burro, named “Bright Angel” after Bright Angel Creek, and some information is gathered about him here. There’s also a movie about him, in which Marguerite Henry’s own burro Jiggs plays Brighty. Though I did know a Breyer’s horse figurine exists (no longer in production), I didn’t realize it replicates a statue of Brighty that sits at the north rim of the Grand Canyon. All of this testifies to Brighty’s popularity and indicates that my enjoyment of this story treads an already well-established path.

Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a book of short stories that created a stir when it was first published in 1919. My library copy included an introduction by Malcolm Cowley which suggested Anderson’s great strength as a writer was to provide momentary, bright glimpses of character and truth, and this is why 1) this book succeeded, and 2) Anderson never succeeded as a novelist. My Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia mentions its “lyric beauty.” Another source spoke of its logic as song-like. But unlike these critics who seem unanimous on its literary merits, other readers objected to it as “pessimistic or destructive or morbidly sexual” (quoted from Malcolm Cowley’s introduction).

My own reaction to the book is somewhere between these two extremes. I recognize the beauty of its writing. It’s written simply and straightforwardly, capturing characters’ essence over and over with stunning economy. Its narrator functions as a keenly observant eye, never staining the lens with strong personality, moralizing, or emotional heavy-handedness.

Except in the first story, “The Book of the Grotesque.” Here Anderson essentially orients the reader to his purpose by setting forth the book’s organizing myth:

In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful… And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques… The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

The only character in this collection of stories, many of them only 5 or 6 pages long, who isn’t a “grotesque” in the sense described here is George Willard, a young reporter who becomes the audience — or perhaps more accurately, the hearer of confessions — for other characters. Over and over, those who are struggling to make sense of life, or who have chosen their course and lived to a disfigured old age, buttonhole him and explain their experience. Usually these encounters take place at night and outdoors, which may have helped to give this collection a timeless quality that transcends its very specific locale of smalltown Winesburg in an innocent era.

Willard himself is a quintessential young man of “a great many vague thoughts,” a passive recipient of information. He appears in almost all of the tales, sometimes as a main character, sometimes as a peripheral character in someone else’s story on whom others project some significance. Eventually, he leaves Winesburg to seek his fortune. If I were to read the criticism of this book, I’m sure it wouldn’t take long before I heard an argument for Willard as Anderson’s writerly persona, a portrait of the artist as a young man. He becomes, in the sense described above, a “composite” of the truths others confess to him but doesn’t really develop or change in any significant way himself. He succeeds in not becoming a grotesque, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll develop into anything else.

For some reason, despite its strengths, I struggled through this book. Very possibly, this isn’t so much the fault of the book as the beautiful weather that’s freed me from my house and taken me outdoors. I’d bring the book with me, but let’s just say my reading process was interrupted more frequently than usual.

A second reason is that if someone had taken Thoreau’s statement that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and plotted out a fictional argument for it, this would be the resulting book. I don’t despise such truth as it conveys. I’m grateful for a glimpse into other ways of thinking and experiencing. Why else do we read but for that? I’m just saying it began to weigh me down, taken all in a gulp. Quality? No question. Significance as a literary achievement? No question. Pleasure in reading it? Well, there’s a question there. Surely I delighted in some of the book’s beauty, but I also wasn’t sorry to see it end.