Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Three questions came to mind as I read this book: (1) Is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass a “great book”? (2) What would Douglass think of circumstances today? and (3) Do some issues trump our constitution and our laws? The answer to the first question depends on your definition of what makes a book great. This book is certainly a moving account of one man’s triumph over tremendous adversity and injustice. And it certainly gives a vivid portrayal of social conditions in the South prior to the Civil War. What is less certain is to what extent this book is history, and to what extent it is autobiography. Autobiography is by its very nature a highly personal account and Douglass’ story of his slave days is an intensely personal and powerful one. It is intended to move the reader through a series of intertwined anecdotes, stories and personal observations. For this reason, the book takes on the personality of its author. Take the meaning of the songs sung by slaves, for example. Douglass says: “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy…At least, such was my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness.” Douglass says that it has been his experience to sing when he’s sad. Is this true for everyone? Was this the source of blues in American music? These are the kinds of questions that do, indeed, make the book a great one for some readers.

However, those are really minor questions regarding the overall intention of the book. This is the story of a man’s life, not a philosophical treatise. Douglass wants to show the reader what it felt like to be a slave. To quibble over the importance of slave songs is to miss the whole point. And the point is this: how could slavery exist in “the land of the free”? In the Appendix Douglass talks about “Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches?...” What would he think of American churches today? Government has more influence, churches less. Would he approve? Slavery has been abolished. K-12 education is free and freely available to all children. And there are plenty of positive African-American role models living today who have made great contributions to society. But there are also high rates of crime, alcoholism, drug use, teen pregnancy and other problems. How would Douglass feel about that? He relates an incident in the book about teaching other slaves to read and write: “…instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we (the slaves) were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they (the slave owners) had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.” Would Douglass approve of African-American culture in the 21st century? Hard to say. Probably some things yes and some no.

Finally, do some issues trump our own constitution and laws? William Lloyd Garrison (editor of the abolitionist paper Liberator) was persuaded that slavery was one of these issues. He was so moved by the Douglass story that he wrote the Preface to the book. In it he talks to a crowd about protecting Douglass: “I appealed to them, whether they would ever allow him to be carried back into slavery, - law or no law, constitution or no constitution…come what may – cost what it may…” A few years later the whole country would learn the cost when Civil War broke out between the Northern Free states and the Southern Slave states. It’s not true that this book caused that war, but it is true that the book is a powerful reflection of why it happened on such a large and tragic scale.

-- RDP

Monday, January 22, 2007

Saul Bellow: SEIZE THE DAY

Tommy Wilhelm has a problem. Actually, he has a lot of problems. He’s fiftyish, unemployed, running out of money, separated from his wife and boys, living in the same hotel as his elderly father, and can’t seem to get his life together. Where to begin sorting things out? Let’s focus on his relationship with his father. That seems to be the starting point for many of his current problems.

From Tommy’s perspective, he isn’t receiving either the amount or the quality of love he expects from a father:

He (Dr. Adler) behaved toward his son as he had formerly done toward his patients, and it was a great grief to Wilhelm; it was almost too much to bear. Couldn’t he see – couldn’t he feel? Had he lost his family sense?

That’s a good question. And the way each reader answers that question will skew the whole story in one direction or another – either in Tommy’s favor as a son, or in Dr. Adler’s as a father. Another way of putting the question: is Tommy a bad son, or is Dr. Adler a bad father? Maybe neither one is to blame? Maybe. But consider Tommy’s own perspective, stated in his own words:

He (Dr. Adler) was thirty-two when I was born, and now he’s going on eighty. Furthermore, it’s time I stopped feeling like a kid toward him, a small son.

If Tommy feels like a kid toward his own father, a “small son” as he puts it, then who can change those feelings except Tommy himself? Why doesn’t he act more like a grown man? That’s what his father would like to know.

Tommy is still immature and there are clues that he’s likely never to mature. The problem goes way back, from the time he first set out on his own:

When he (Tommy) was best aware of the risks and knew a hundred reasons against going and had made himself sick with fear, he left home. This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life.

Tommy made some bad decisions early in life, and he’s reaping the consequences. Now he’s turning to his father for help. This is a tough decision for any parent facing similar circumstances: at what point do you cut the cord and tell your children that they’re on their own from now on? At 18? 25? 50? Never? Tommy can’t understand why his father won’t help him out, even though he’s a grown man:

…his father might have offered to pick up his hotel tab. Why didn’t he? What a selfish old man he was! He saw his son’s hardships; he could so easily help him. How little it would mean to him, and how much to Wilhelm!

But Dr. Adler’s attitude is different: “You’re neither a widower nor a bachelor. You have brought me all your confusions. What do you expect me to do with them? Is the old doctor too tough with Tommy? Does he even love his son? There are certainly things about Tommy that he doesn’t care for:

The doctor couldn’t bear Wilkie’s dirty habits. Only once – and never again, he swore – had he visited his room. Wilhelm, in pajamas and stockings had sat on his bed, drinking gin from a coffee mug and rooting for the Dodgers on television…Wilhelm lived in worse filth than a savage.

Even though they’re father and son, they inhabit different worlds. They have different world views. Dr. Adler doesn’t think money is what Tommy really needs. He needs sound advice. And he needs to get his act together. This is the advice Dr. Adler gives his son:

I was not self-indulgent, not lazy. My old man sold dry goods in Williamsburg. We were nothing, do you understand? I knew I couldn’t afford to waste my chances…I didn’t run around with fifty women, either. I was not a Hollywood star. I didn’t have time to go to Cuba for a vacation. I stayed at home and took care of my children…Have I made my view clear?

We have two stark world views before us, and Bellow is a master at making things clear.

-- RDP

Thursday, January 11, 2007

SEIZE THE DAY: Saul Bellow's Perspective on the American Dream

Tommy Wilhelm is not an easy character to admire. Most of his pain is self-inflicted: he quits his job after being passed over for promotion; he leaves his wife and children for a bachelor's pad in a hotel; he asks his father for money but doesn't want any real advice. Instead of changing his attitude, he just wants to change his luck. Thus, his one technique for survival is to see what life brings each day, then to complain bitterly when he finds it's not enough. His father, Dr. Adler, is a respected and wealthy physician who retired from a successful practice of internal medicine. But the kind of medicine Tommy needs is not the kind his father can provide. Dr. Adler is pragmatic and would like to help his son, but he knows that simply giving Tommy additional money is not a solution to the problem. So what is the problem? Why is Tommy incapable of living life better than he does?

Tommy Wilhelm's real name happens to be Wilky Adler (his father calls him "Wilky," not Tommy). He is a man who lives his entire life without regard for what lies ahead or behind the present moment. With his laissez faire approach to career planning, Tommy awakens one day to find himself deeply in debt, out of work, estranged from his wife, and in disgrace with his father. In short, a clueless forty-something child chasing after salvation with an older man named Tamkin, who studies the commodities market, and convinces Tommy to invest his last 700 dollars in a dubious attempt to hit the big time. But, soon, the scheme unravels, Tommy loses all his money, and wanders the streets of New York, aimlessly searching for answers from the mysterious Tamkin, who has suddenly vanished from Wall Street, along with Tommy's hopes for a better future.

The dénouement of this tale has Tommy joining a receiving line at a funeral for a man Tommy does not know. As he passes the coffin of the recently deceased, Tommy unleashes the full measure of his existential grief. But we are left unsure if this sudden torrent of tears is a sign of complete emotional surrender, and a turning point in his odyssey to become a man, or just the final collapse of a another broken human being.

The easy answer is that he refuses to grow up and accept responsibility for his actions. But the real truth is that Tommy believes in the American dream, in the golden promise that hard work will always be rewarded, and that prosperity is just around the corner. At the same time, he clings to the notion that happiness is the only meaningful goal in life, so that if we awaken one day to find our self unhappy, then we should abandon whatever path we're on and strike out for a new destination. Unfortunately for Tommy, his father fails to mention that not everyone succeeds in life, and that hard work is not always rewarded. Tommy's biggest misfortune is the discovery that happiness doesn't mean doing whatever you feel like doing, and that life is full of disappointments and sorrow. Sometimes you have to accept a little less than you dreamed of achieving.

At some level, Tommy suspects this bitter truth. Although he gives money to Tamkin to invest in the commodities market, he can't help wondering if Tamkin is a financial genius or a lunatic. Either way, Tommy feels swept along by events. He can't afford to wait for good things to happen. He needs a miracle right away and Tamkin is the only prophet available. For Tommy, the allure of Wall Street beckons like a prostitute, while Tamkin makes the whole venture seem rational and in some sense, inevitable. It's simply a matter of doing the right calculations. Thus, any intelligent man can be the architect of his own destiny. This is the medicine that Tommy craves and that his father will not give him, a belief in his own autonomy. And so he rebels against a society that would bind him to conventional values, and smother his creative potential. For Tommy, autonomy means freedom from troubling entanglements. Every person should follow his bliss, and if that means quitting your job and leaving a wife you no longer love, then so be it.

The words "seize the day" ("carpe diem") originally came from an ode by the Roman poet Horace, who advised young people to live life fully. Bellow's novel explores the question of what happens when we take bold affirmation as a lifestyle, and ignore our duty to ourselves and to others. At the end of the day, when the money's all gone and there's no one else to feel our pain, to whom shall we cry for relief? To no one. Tommy suffers alone, which, as Saul Bellow reveals, is the fate of every human being in our post-modern world, a world in which faith has been made obsolete by chaos theory and God has retreated to the domain of silence. Even the ancient Greeks knew that our attempts to circumvent fate (i.e., mortality and the eternal laws of nature) are pure folly and lead only to more heartache. For human life unfolds in a vale of tears, and the invocation to "seize the day" reminds us that our stay is temporary, and we should make the best use of the time we have before our earthly travail ends...ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

"Even as we speak, envious time is running away from us. Seize the day, and trust as little as possible in the future."[Horace (Odes 1.11)]