Thursday, April 19, 2012

Anti-Semitism in 20th Century American Literature

I have not read very much of Hemingway's material, but I really enjoyed The Sun Also Rises. It was a bit slow at times but I found the overall plot and the portrayal of different characters intriguing. I particularly found it interesting how Hemingway represented Robert Cohn. There are several anti-Semitic statements throughout the story that lead the reader to question Hemingway's views on this matter. The treatment of Cohn by the other characters is terrible and I personally felt sorry for this guy who seemed to have struggled with this sort of resentment for his whole life.

I actually saw a similarity between Hemingway's Robert Cohn and Edith Wharton's Simon Rosedale from The House of Mirth. Rosedale is a Jewish character who is repeatedly described as having negative characteristics thought to be associated with the Jewish race. Like Cohn, Rosedale is an outcast in his social circle and society does not truly accept him as an equal to those who are in his same social class.

Although Edith Wharton wrote The House of Mirth several years earlier than the publishing of The Sun Also Rises, I think that the same motivation that lead to the creation of Rosedale inspired the character of Cohn. Jewish immigration to the United States boomed in the 19th century. In fact, 1/4 of the population in New York City became Jewish in the late 1800's. Because of the sudden increase in Jewish immigrants during this time, many people, authors included, began to convey a fear of the Jewish character and motivation. It was a belief by many that Jews were coming to overtake the American businesses at the expense of anyone who might get in their way. This along with other misguided stereotypes may have resulted in the anti-Semitic representation of Jewish characters seen in literature around this time.

If anyone is interested in more information on anti-Semitism at this time and in The House of Mirth you can check out my Wiki paper on the subject from a year ago.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Preposterous Tale

I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald's novella "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." It is such a fun and creative story and I really enjoyed reading it. So much of the tale seemed ridiculous that I had to laugh out loud. The whole story seemed to have a feel of preposterousness, even from the beginning when the town of Hades is mentioned. Any story that begins in a town called Hades cannot possibly be taken seriously. When John hears the boast of his friend Percy that his dad has a diamond bigger than the Ritz Carlton Hotel, I thought that poor Percy must be hiding his true financial state behind dreams of wealth. When I read that this diamond was a real aspect of the story and was in fact the material makeup of the entire mountain next to Percy's chateau, I again was reminded that this story was not a piece of realism. When the John is introduced to the poor imprisoned aviators who happened upon the Washington's unmapped estate, I couldn't help but burst into laughter. It seemed so hilarious that they were stuck down there, deprived of any future, and John just seems to accept it. Doesn’t he wonder why he is allowed this privilege to visit the estate and purportedly return to school in the fall? I knew then that he was doomed. So much for Mr. Unger's encouraging words of "Don't forget who you are and where you come from… and you can do nothing to harm you." Luckily, John makes it out of the dreamy yet deadly estate with his life and the two shallow Washington girls who have no true grasp of reality. For a few moments, their future seems to be safe and secure because Kismine had grabbed a handful of precious jewels before evacuating the chateau and diamond mountain that her parents and brother decided to blow up rather than leave in the hands of the invading aviators. Unfortunately, and another laugh out loud moment for me, Kismine had taken a handful of fake gems that her friend had traded her in exchange for real ones. You see, Kismine was tired of looking at real jewels and was drawn to these worthless replicas. Now the three survivors, two of whom had previously been the daughters of the richest man in the world, were penniless and without any notion of what it is like to live in the real world.

There were several other aspects of this tale that spoke to the ridiculousness of the entire thing; for example Kismine's name sounding so close to kiss me. However it is due to these hilarious parts of the story that I enjoyed it so much. It is really a great work.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Depressing Tale

I would have to argue that Ethan Frome is the most depressing story that we have read for class so far. This is even when taking into account Jack London’s "The Law of Life" and "To Build a Fire". From the beginning of the story there is a dark and sad overtone to everything and you get the impression that something really tragic has happened to this mysterious Ethan Frome. I assumed that it had something to do with his wife who I supposed was sick since he received medication for her on a regular basis. As the story continued and I learned of Mattie and Frome’s obsession with her I realized that there had to be something else behind his depressed state.

As the story progressed and we learn how much Ethan hopes to win the heart of Mattie, I began to realize that his future crippled body must have something to do with her. I began to hypothesize that he kills her when she accepts a proposal from one of her beau and that perhaps her death is never pinned on him. I thought that through this story we were going to get the confession of a man tormented by past sins. I held this hypothesis even after she professes her love for him and she is sent away by Zenobia. During the ride to the train and the first sled ride down the hill, I anticipated that the possessive nature of Ethan would lash out and take her life. I was very surprised by the decision to commit suicide together.

Once the sled hit the tree and the two were lying there in agony, I again assumed wrongly that Mattie would die and that Frome would live out his life guilty of having taken the life of someone who could have found happiness elsewhere if it were not for his selfishness. But again I was surprised to learn that Mattie had lived. She lived and Frome is tortured instead by the fact that Mattie has lost her girlish and lively appeal and has become just like his wife. She is sickly and bitter about her circumstances and Frome, despite being allowed to keep her as he wished, does not find the happiness he was so sure he would have if he could only keep Mattie for himself.

In the end, nobody is happy. The Frome’s and Mattie are poor, either crippled or ill, and suffer from what seems to be a constant state of depression and bitterness. Even death did not save them from their circumstances, which is why I believe that this is the most depressing story that we have read for class thus far.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Fire and Ice"

Out of the poems that we read by Robert Frost, my favorite was actually “Fire and Ice.” I also enjoyed the activity that we did in class today on some of his other poems, so I decided to perform some of those same searches for “Fire and Ice”.

We talked briefly about a couple interpretations of the poem in class. One included the idea that fire and ice represents the spectrum of human emotions, from desire to hate. These emotions are strong enough to cause destruction and ruin lives. Another was that the fire and ice represent the decent into “Dante’s Inferno”. Those in the earlier Cantos suffer in eternal fire and those who are considered the worse sinners suffer in ice.

I found numerous cites that analyze and interpret “Fire and Ice,” including Wikipedia, which suggests that Frost was in fact inspired by “Dante’s Inferno” and used elements from the story in the poem. As my group discovered in class, there are Spark Notes on “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” that are interesting to read for interpretation of the poem. There are also Spark Notes on “Fire and Ice” that provide a version of the poem, discusses style and form, and provides commentary and analysis of the poem. I actually really liked this version of analysis because it talked about the powerful way that Frost utilized such a small amount of wording. They did not offer any of the interpretations that we discussed in class however, or any further interpretation of their own. Finally, the Poetry Foundationm, at, provides a version of the poem read aloud that is interesting to listen to. This site also offers a lengthy and thorough biography of Frost that would be helpful for any research paper’s that may include his writing.

The most creative interpretation of the poem, I felt, was by Gary Bachlund who composed music (part of which is included above) to the poem’s lyrics. Bachlund states that “[t]he triadic polytonality suggests the discussion between "fire" and "ice," with each fitting into a larger scheme of things. The first two bars indicate the differences of opinion as the lower triads descend by half-steps over the upper triads' movement in whole steps. The setting ends with a restatement of the poem's beginning and then its title, ‘fire and ice’” (

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gone with the Wind and Literary Naturalism

After doing research into literary naturalism for my presentation, I began noticing it in several works that I was reading. For example, I mentioned during my last post that I was reading Gone with the Wind. I am still working on it and now have a new lens to read it through since learning about naturalism. Some of the most obvious aspects of naturalism in the novel, for me at least, are the stereotypical characteristics of Gerald and Scarlett. Gerald O’Hara immigrated to the United States from Ireland and is represented as having an Irish temper, an Irish taste for liquor, along with several other mannerisms that were commonly associated with the Irish. Scarlett O’Hara, despite her Mammy’s and her mother’s attempts to raise her as a Southern lady, displays these Irish characteristics throughout the novel. She has a temper that is very unfitting of a lady and a tendency to speak her mind despite the ill mannered thoughts that she has. These traits are hereditary and unavoidable for Scarlett due to the Irish blood in her veins. The old South had a superstitious way of viewing people without a well rooted family line and would usually avoid allowing their daughters to marry any man who did not have a long history of a well bred Southern family. Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s mother came from one of these old Southern families, but circumstances allowed for her to marry Gerald against the Southern norms. This union resulted in Scarlett, a perfect reflection of the hereditary and unavoidable outcomes of allowing “bad blood” into an old family line.

This aspect of naturalism is avoided in Ashley’s family, who are careful to marry only their cousins. While this has lead to some possible inbreeding consequences, as is commented on by the gossiping women in the book, the family still has been able to maintain an elite air throughout the entire line. There does not seem to be an ill-bred man or woman among the entire family in terms of character or manner. Ashley’s family is a contrast to Scarlett’s, but both show characteristics of naturalism. Neither Ashley nor Scarlett choose who they become, that is a matter of blood. Scarlett is a haughty and selfish women who lacks the inner refinement expected of a Southern lady due to her Irish ancestry, despite her attempts to be civilized. Ashley represents true Southern chivalry and is a model husband and brave soldier due to his heritage. Both characters are mere puppets to nature and neither have the free will to choose who they truly wish to become.

Friday, February 17, 2012

"We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

When reading the poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poem that jumped out to me the most was “We Wear the Mask”. The poem tells of the mask of happiness and gratefulness that the slaves were forced to wear in the presence of their owners. Just like Grandison in “The Passing of Grandison”, slaves were supposed to appear happy and content in their condition in slavery and hide their true desires of freedom. Dunbar writes that “With torn and bleeding hearts [they] smile,” telling of the slaves pain hidden behind the smiles that they are expected to wear (ln. 7). The last stanza reveals the inner thoughts of the slaves and the private prayers that they call out to God. Their suffering was hidden behind the mask and they “let the world dream otherwise” (ln. 15), just like the Colonel in “The Passing of Grandison”. The slave owners chose to believe that their slaves were in the best possible situation that they could find themselves. The belief was that the African Americans required the help and guidance of the White Americans. The position of slavery was often looked at as a role similar to that of a child under the care of apparent. I find this incredibly ironic, especially since the real children of the plantation owners would never be asked to work as a slave. I am currently reading Gone With the Wind and cannot ever see Scarlett O’Hara being required to work by her family as her father’s slaves do. I believe that the views of the plantation owners were only superficially accepted and that deep down, they knew that they were lying to themselves. I do not see how they could hold such false notions while treating other humans so inhumanly.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Charles Chestnutt's Hidden Message

Today we discussed “The Goophered Grapevine” and “Dave’s Neckliss,” both by Charles Chestnutt. While reading through “Dave’s Neckliss” I was struck by the horrible treatment that Dave received and how little the owner investigated into the thievery that was blamed on him. I did not, however, quite grasp the real tragedy of the story beyond the fact that Dave lost his mind due to the unjust treatment he received. Dave not only lost his fiancĂ©, his friends, the trust of his master, and his position as pastor for the slaves, he also lost his entire identity. Dave became no more than the slab of ham that was hung around his neck for a month or more. He was treated inhumanly and it resulted in him losing his identity as a human. The comedy behind a person seeing themselves as a ham creates a blind spot in the story where it is difficult to see the real deep sadness beneath the surface of the tale. “Dave’s Neckliss” is a real tragedy that numerous slaves experienced due to the inhumane treatment that they received at the hands of the people who viewed them as nothing more than a piece of property and a slab of meat with only the benefit of being able to work. It was a real eye opener when this was brought to my attention in class. It made me really think about the meaning behind “The Goophered Grapevine” and search out any missing details that I may have overlooked initially. Despite the general silliness that these stories encompass, I think it is important to dig deep into the lesson that Chestnutt would have us learn. There is a lot said in the tale of “Dave Nickliss” that can be overlooked if the reader is not careful to see past the comedy that Chestnutt uses to disguise the sad and horrific truth that slavery in the south inspired.