Thursday, November 30, 2006

Twoknights only! Apollo E. Arroz fights Boxus O’Grapes! Live on Humphrey’s Belly’s Omphalos!

Those in high school who read Joyce in their Enlglish classes often read his short story collection Dubliners. I suppose it is more accessible, but I find the stories far less inviting than either Ulysses or the Wake. For me, it comes back to the old Apollonian-Dionysian divide which is very much a part of Joyce. The short stories of Dubliners are solidly Apollonian, careful and detailed constructs built with a cool objectivity. Nothing is spelled out, and we have to deduce the story’s import like detectives building a case. In addition most of the stories are rather somber and depressing affairs with Joyce acting like a doctor describing some hopeless case. We sometimes feel his scorn in the way that his characters in the story “Grace” fail to live up to their exalted models in Dante’s Divine Comedy. If “The Dead” is the most read of the lot, it probably has a lot to do with it being by far the most compassionate story.

Ulysses also started out as a short story in Dubliners, and one might imagine that Joyce initially regarded his cuckolded Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, with the collection’s distanced pity and scorn. I guess it just got away from him. The character of Bloom is impossible not to fall in love with, perversities and all. And as opposed to the reserved stories of Dubliners, Ulysses overflows with energy and imagination with its stream-of-consciousness musings, surreal halllucinations, and styles ranging from cheap romance to scientific catechisms. The Apollonian element is still there. The seeming chaos is secretly organized to ridiculous degree with each chapter having hidden Homeric correspondences, a dominant color, organ, etc. The writing is organized closer to how a medieval thinker would see the world: outwardly chaotic, but inwardly part of a divine plan down to the smallest atom. The synthesis infuses the Apollonian order with Dionysian delight.

TheWake is even more outwardly Dionysian as befits a book that is a dream, but it has basically the same synthesis in different proportions. I emphasize this point for fear you shall read posts with quotes from the book and exclaim “Surely this is nothing but a game for snobs which, getting 5% of the references, I can’t play. If only he had written more plainly!” But Joyce has written more plainly as in Dubliners, with accordingly measured results. The forbidding austerity of Dubliners may be clearer, but I think the wild bacchanalia of the Wake is more inviting. There’s a reason the title refers to a drinking song of all things, and one which boasts “lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake.”

If anyone would like to weigh in with "Yes! Dubliners is exactly like that!" or "Are you kidding? That's not how Dubliners is and Ulysses is so dry I can't get past the first chapter," or "You know what other author is like that?" by all means, weigh in.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 6: Strength Out Of Dependence

It’s 1763. The French and Indian War is over, the British emerge victorious. They gain Canada. Some gain a confirmation of their religious beliefs, viewing the conflict as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics. British soldiers who fought in America come home to tell tales of colonial wealth. As we know, their tales were not exaggerated – colonists developed an acute addiction to luxury in the 1740’s, and were eager to show off to the British soldiers, able because of the soaring wartime economy. British officials, already grumbling that the Americans hadn’t financed their fair share of the war, develop a new strategy…

1764. Parliament passes the Sugar Act. A year later – they initiate a duty collected by government officials on various papers used in business and legal affairs – The Stamp Act. From this side of the Atlantic, all seems reasonable. But let’s jump to the other side of the water to see what we find…

An America slowly sinking deep into depression. The soldiers have left. The economy sags. The Sugar Act fuels a fear that colonists have held for quite some time – that the British view them as second class citizens. The act has a bit of an economic effect as well, as along with the tax on sugar, it includes a ban on trade with the French Caribbean – a lucrative market for the colonists. Then, when Parliament passes the Stamp Act in March, 1765, relations between them and Britain change irrevocably.

Let’s go to the founding fathers to gauge their reaction. Here’s a now shameful one from co-founder of the land of the free, John Adams: “We won’t be their negroes,” he begins, continuing to say that God never intended white men “for Negroes… and therefore never intended us for slaves… I say we are as handsome as old English folks, and so should be as free.”

Here’s one from John Hancock, who took an economic stand on the measure. He writes in October 1765 to a London firm with whom he traded: “I have come to a Serious Resolution not to send one Ship more to Sea, nor to have any kind of Connection in Business under a Stamp… I am Determin’d as soon as I know that they are Resolv’d to insist on this act to Sell my Stock in Trade & Shut up my Warehouse Doors & never Import another Shilling from Great Britain… I am free and Determined to be so & will not willingly and quietly subject myself to Slavery.”

Riots broke out in several cities. Houses were torn down. Mobs burned effigies of government officials.

The merchants reacted. Their historically unprecedented response – non-importation agreements. New York merchants were the first to act, meeting in October, agreeing to cancel all import orders until Parliament repealed the act. Within six weeks, Philadelphia, Albany, Boston, Salem, Marblehead, Newburyport, Portsmouth and Plymouth had all followed suit.

But don’t become too amazed at how these merchants organized and sacrificed for the idea of “no taxation without representation.” One major justification was that such a measure could help reduce long-standing debt obligations to their British suppliers while allowing them to unload previously un-sellable inventory. Furthermore, the tactic was to create a strain on the British manufacturing industry, causing manufactures to lay off workers who would then hopefully rise up in support of the American cause. In other words – cripple and impoverish Britain’s working class. As one writer callously put it: “Such a measure might distress the manufactures and poor people in England, but that would be their misfortune. Charity begins at home… and besides, a little distress might bring the people of that country to a better temper, and a sense of their injustice toward us.”

Though most northern merchants weren’t supportive of the non-importation agreements, there was no noticeable drop in the price of British imports, and Britain’s working class didn’t rise up as the Americans hoped, some English groups did lobby Parliament for repeal of the tax for fear of economic ruin, and the non-importation agreements were largely effective.

A pivotal moment in the crisis came on February 11, 1766, when Benjamin Franklin, living in London at the time, was called to testify before the House of Commons. He paints a very vivid picture of the colonies, accentuating the economic benefits they held for Britain. As he says, colonial obedience never depended on “forts, citadels, garrisons, or armies.” But the Americans “were governed by this country at the expense only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread.”

He cited various statistics: “In 1723, the whole importation from Britain to Pennsylvania, was about 15,000 Pounds Sterling; it is now near Half a Million.” - estimating that the figure would continue as the American population doubled over the next 25 years.

But, as he also says, “I do not know a single article imported into the Northern Colonies, but what they can either do without, or make themselves.” And when asked what will be the consequences if the act is not repealed, he says, “A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.” American pride, he says, which used to be “to indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain” was now “to wear their old cloathes over again, till they can make new ones.”

March 18, 1766, within weeks of Franklin’s testimony, the Stamp Act was repealed. The addiction to luxury continued. Americans flocked back to the market. Franklin quickly sent a British-made gown to his wife living in America, with an attached note expressing relief that no one would have to walk around wearing old unstylish clothes.

And though appeals to develop American manufacturing persisted, like this one: “Our enemies very well know that dominion and frugality are closely connected; and that to impoverish us is to enslave us. Therefore, if we mean still to be free, let us unanimously lay aside foreign superfluities, and encourage our own manufacture. SAVE YOUR MONEY AND YOU WILL SAVE YOUR COUNTRY!”

And this one: “Let the manufactures of America be the symbol of dignity, the badge of virtue, and it will soon break the fetters of distress. A garment of linsey-woolsey, when made the distinction of real patriotism, is more honorable and attractive of respect and veneration than all the pageantry and the roves and the plumes and the diadem of an emperor without it. Let the emulation be not in the richness and variety of foreign productions, but in the improvement and perfection of our own.”

Franklin’s statement on the subject remained true – America did not have enough poor people willing to subject themselves to the wage slavery required for a successful manufacturing industry.

I’ll leave you with this highly prescient thought from a 1768 colonist: “America, after many revolutions, and perhaps great distresses, will become a mighty empire.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Return to Moocow

Unpacking everything in that first passage of Finnegans Wake is interesting but truth be told, rather trying. What purpose is there in writing in such an obscure way? Things became a little clearer after reading the following quotations in Re Joyce, which show the evolution of a short passage from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section, in which Anna has been transformed into the eastflowing River Liffey.

From the first version in 1925:

Tell me, tell me, how could she cam through all her fellows, the daredevil? Linking one and knocking the next and polling in and petering out and clyding by in the eastway. Who was the first that ever burst? Someone it was, whoever you are. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, Paul Pry or polishman. That’s the thing I want to know.

From 1927:

Tell me, tell me, how could she cam through all her fellows, the neckar she was the diveline? Linking one and knocking the next, tapping a flank and tipping a jutty and palling in and petering out and clyding by on her eastway. Wai-whou was the first that ever burst? Someone he was, whoever they were, in a tactic attack or in single combat. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, Paul Pry or polishman. That’s the thing I always want to know.

From 1928:

Tell me, tell me, how cam she camlin through all her fellows, the neckar she was the diveline? Linking one and knocking the next, tapting a flank and tipting a jutty and palling in and pietaring out and clyding by on her eastway. Waiwhou was the first thurever burst? Someone he was, whuebra they were, in a tactic attack or in single combat. Tinker, tilar, souldrer, salor, Pieman Peace or Polistaman. That’s the thing I always want to know.

And in the final version:

Tell me, tell me, who cam she camlin through all her fellows, the neckar she was, the diveline? Casting her perils before our swains from Fonte-in-Monte in Tidingtown and from Tidingtown tilhavet. Linking and knocking the next, tapting a flank and tipting a jutty and palling in and pietaring out and clyding by on her eastway. Waiwhou was the first thurever burst? Someone he was whuebra they were, in a tactic attack or in single combat. Tinker, tilar, souldrer, salor, Pieman Peace or Polistaman. That’s the thing I’m elwys on edge to esk.

With each reading it becomes less comprehensible but somehow better. Musical sense replaces verbal sense, the rhythm becomes more interesting, the riverlike qualities heightened, giving us a sense of the Liffey both "clyding/colliding" with obstacles and "clyding/gliding" smoothly by. More musical qualities emerge when I read it aloud, such as the bouncing alliterations of “tactic attack.” (tack-ticka-tack!) The first version is fine, but by the last I am under its spell. Reading this reminds me of the excitement I felt reading my first Joyce ever, the first sentence of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was moo-cow coming down the road and this moo-cow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

And my disappointment with the explanation that follows:

His father told him that story.

Och, no James, let me be lost! Actually Portrait's opening is another insight into the language games of the Wake. For all its erudition, the playing with sounds is childlike fun. I actually tested this theory by reading one of the long words representing thunder (and the Fall) to a seven-year-old piano student of mine. The word for the record was:

Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!


She loved it! In spite of the Wake’s intimidating erudition, the language itself is so musical, playful, and as ready to reference Humpty Dumpty as Giordano Bruno that I can’t help but play along with it. The temptation to go on with this post is great, but is resisted. So next: Prizefight!

I'm curious, what do y'all make of the evolution of the Plurabelle passage? Do you think it gets better? Worse? Is it beautiful? Is it pointless?

The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 5: The Corrosive Logic of Choice

We don’t particularly view the men who fought and died to found our country as luxury-obsessed fashion addicts. This fact is yet another one swept under the rug of mythology, giving us a greatly distorted perception of how this country came to exist.

One writer appropriately dubbed it the “colonization of taste”. Colonists carefully watched British fashions, closely assessing which goods they should buy and wear. At some points, stories of this behavior reach comic proportions. A Long Island resident described mid-century colonists encountering tea for the first time, eager to replicate the behavior of their British fashion-guides. However, reportedly, they didn’t know what to do with it – some spread the leaves on toast, others boiled it and consumed it as porridge.

The style obsession spanned the entire spectrum of colonial society – even slaves. In 1735, the South Carolina legislature passed a law preventing slaves from wearing stylish clothes. Here’s one argument in favor of the legislation: “when dressed in them, [they] make them so bold and impudent that they insult every poor white Person they meet.”

A bitter culture war erupted over the chase for luxury items, with some railing against the behavior on religious grounds, as did Reverend Andrew Elliot of Boston: “Shall I speak of Luxury, or that Propensity there is in us, to gratify our sensual Appetites? Poor as we are, we live high, and fare sumptuously every day. This destroys our Health, consumes our Substance, enfeebles the Mind, feeds our Lusts, and stupefies Conscience, While we feed and pamper our Bodies, we starve our Souls.”

Perhaps a more sound argument comes from the editor of the Independent Reflector, when he wrote that luxury is “a great and mighty Evil, carrying all before it, and crumbling States and Empires, into slow, but inevitable Ruin.- Like sweetened poison, it is soft but strong, enervates the Constitution, and triumphs at last, in the Weakness and Rottenness of the Patient.” – An argument echoing one made halfway around the world by Rousseau in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences.

And there you have it – a more-than detailed description of the economic landscape of colonial America. In the next chapter, finally, we will see what this all lead to, how events unfolded, and how they were all shaped by the economic trends we’ve explored in these chapters…

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lots of Puns in Finnegan's Wake

So if you thought it took a while to unpack the title, get a load of the opening two paragraphs.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
Howth Castle and Environs.

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-
core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy
isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor
had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse
to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper
all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to
tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a
kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in
vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a
peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.


Right…so prior to the present attempt, my enthusiasm for reading through the Wake would crumble after trying to make sense of this. Thank goodness for Burgess again. What messed me up most in this passage was the “nors” and “not yet” since there is no intitial negative statement you could add the “nor” onto! What I didn’t pick up on, having bad French, was the passencore. I got the English sense "pass over" or "passenger" but a speaker of French would notice the words pas encore , which mean “not yet.” So this big paragraph is really to say “in the beginning, before all this stuff happened” or perhaps even more simply “once upon a time.”

And the puns and arcane references keep coming. For example:

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores: There is the first earl of Howth (the castle referred to in the first sentence) whose full name is Sir Amory Tristram. There is a baroque instrument viola d’amore. And there is the mythic knight Tristram who by having an affair with his lord’s betrothed is a “violator of love” which I’m promised will be a theme of the book.

Pensiolate: the first meaning is peninsular war, which calls to mind Wellington vs. Napoleon. But there is also the solitary life of the writer who uses his pen in isolation. And there is Joyce’s personal connection with creative and phallic powers, which I guess is both a verbal and visual pun. And perhaps a co-opting of those who might claim the Wake is just Joyce jerking off.

Mishe mishe: irish for “I am I am”

Tauf: German for baptize

Thuartpeatrick: Ireland’s St. Patrick

Had a kidscad butteneded a bland old Isaac: one thinks naturally of Jacob fooling Isaac, but those familiar with 19th century Irish politics would recognize the reference to the great Irish leader Parnell's ousting out of leadership old Isaac Butt.

And so on and on. Next post: Is this worth it?

The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 4: Vade Mecum

Vade Mecum, a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “go with me”, was a common name for eighteenth century guidebooks. Breen intends this chapter to be his own little Vade Mecum, guiding the reader through the economy of the time period.

He first brings us to the tobacco industry. It was, of course, the cash crop of the Chesapeake region, and the product through which founding fathers Washington and Jefferson acquired wealth. Seemingly, the steady demand for tobacco on the world market meant that any man with a bit of land and some slaves could make a decent living. However, Breen also delves into the volatility of the tobacco industry. Widely fluctuating prices lead to an unstable economy, so much so that in times of severe depression, armed revolts against royal authorities of Virginia were not uncommon.

Breen also tells us of a change that took place in the tobacco industry in the 1740’s that contributed to the massive influx of British goods that flooded the colonies – a bizarre economic phenomenon that begs any explanation that can be found. Before the 40’s, most tobacco farmers sold their product to agents in London who would take care of the shipping and resell it. Then, when the 40’s rolled around, the Scots successfully attempted to get in on the action. They targeted small planters, opening up “Scotch stores” in America, which collected tobacco and, in return, supplied the planters with British imports. Let’s not underestimate the impact of these stores. From the mouth of a 1742 colonist: “there are 25 stores within 18 miles round which is 13 more than at Mr. Johnson’s death [in 1740] and 4 or 5 more expected next year.” This new system brought British goods to impoverished country-folk who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such lavish items, fueling the addiction that would, twenty years later, result in the colonists having enough power to influence policy through commercial boycotts.

The significant question, though, is this: In what way were colonial governments involved in economic affairs. By exploring this issue, we can track how disruptive the crown’s policies were when Britain became more heavily involved in the 1760’s. We can also get a glimpse of the economic policy of our country in its infant state. As far as the tobacco industry was concerned, there were government-operated warehouses and agencies that tracked prices on the world market, but there were two main areas of government regulation: peddling and vendue sales.

Peddling was regulated by most colonial legislatures and, oddly enough, made illegal in the Massachusetts Bay colony. Vendue sales, events resembling something between a modern flea market and an auction, more than peddling, were a significantly more controversial topic. The auctions allowed shopkeepers to unload merchandise they were otherwise unable to sell while simultaneously allowing poorer colonists to purchase goods they would otherwise not be able to afford. However, keepers of larger stores complained about the unfair price competition, and moralists complained about the auctions’ ability to fuel people’s addiction to luxury. Fun words from Benjamin Franklin, from a story he wrote in which one character advises others against the dangers of the vendues: “Here you are got together at this Vendue of Fineries and Knickknacks. You call them Goods, but if you do not take Care, they will prove Evils to some of you.” And he continues: “Many a one for the Sake of Finery on the Back, have done with a hungry Belly, and half starved their Families.”

No one seemed to be aware that the luxury addiction would lead to a massive rise in political power. Perhaps because the boycott had not yet been invented. However, in the coming chapters we shall see the coming of the revelation, and the utilization of the tactic to the colonists’ full advantage…

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 3: Consumer's New World

This chapter begins with something that I feel may have been a point of departure for the entire book – Edmund Burke’s 1775 speech before the House of Commons appealing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in America. Burke’s argument is almost entirely an economic one. He cites the data compiled throughout the century by the Inspector-General of Imports and Exports, showing that the colonies were vital to the empire’s economic security. He coins a couple phrases, as well, that have become common verbiage for historians of the time period, those being the “salutary neglect” first instituted by William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution, and the description of Great Britain as an “empire of goods”.

The notion of Great Britain as an “empire of goods” is vital to this book, and equally vital to fully understanding the revolution that lead to the founding of our country. A fact often lost when people look at this time period is that Great Britain viewed itself as a completely new and different kind of empire. The English felt uncomfortable even calling their country an empire, a term which brought to mind images of Rome, which was built on a foundation of military conquest. This empire was based on freedom and sound economic policy that lead to commercial prosperity for all.

Though it may not seem to be so since England was waging war on its European neighbors almost constantly during their entire colonial period, the overriding view of citizens of Great Britain was that the England of the eighteenth century was vastly different from the monarchs who ruled in medieval times. We find such rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic. Here’s what a New York writer had to say in the 1760’s: England had “laid the foundation of the greatest Empire that ever existed: An Empire the more glorious, as it was not to be founded on the ruin and destruction of our own Species, but what is in the highest degree laudable, the cultivating and peopling [of] an immense wilderness.”

Here’s some more rhetoric from John Dickinson, in his 1768 pamphlet Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer: In the old days colonies were established “by warlike nations to keep their enemies in awe; to relieve their country, over-burthened with inhabitants; or to discharge a number of discontented and troublesome citizens… in more modern ages, the spirit of violence being in some measure… sheathed in commerce, colonies have been settled by the nations of Europe for purposes of trade. These purposes were to be attained, by the colonies raising for their mother country those things which she did not produce herself; and by supplying themselves from her with things they wanted. These were the national objects, in the commencement of our colonies, and have been uniformly so in their promotion.”

This chapter also explores the state of England’s manufacturing industry. Here’s an interesting bit from a pamphlet on the advantages of the Glorious Revolution: “Another undeniable Instance of the Advantage which has accrued to this Nation by the [Glorious] Revolution is the vast Increase and flourishing Condition of our Manufactures; and if Industry is a Characteristic of Liberty, I may venture to affirm that no country in Europe can at this day produce such glorious Proof of being in Possession of this valuable Blessing as Great Britain,”

And more from an economic philosopher of the time: “Industry hath its foundation on liberty, and those men, who either are actual slaves, or have reason to believe their freedom precarious, will never succeed in trade; which thrives and flourishes most in climates of liberty and ease.”

Quite in contrast to Benjamin Franklin’s analysis in the previous chapter – that a successful manufacturing industry depends on impoverished people willing to submit themselves to wage slavery. However, we receive perhaps a more honest description from Joshua Johnson, who traveled to England to survey the country’s leading industrial towns. He discovered the bizarre system, developed probably a couple hundred years earlier, in which peasants would receive raw materials from agents, assemble goods themselves, then return the completed products at the end of the week for a small wage, one which could barely support them. In other words, Franklin was right.

Overall, the colonists viewed their relationship with England as mutually beneficial. However, they sometimes seemed to take a defensive tone on the topic, seemingly suspecting that the English may view them as inferior. The Navigation Acts of the 1600’s fueled this mutually beneficial relationship, though they remain quite mysterious to me. They seem to be a blatant indicator of the colonies’ subservience and inferiority, though they were seemingly accepted and obeyed almost uniformly. The two main purposes of the Navigation Acts were these: 1) Limit overseas trade to English ships manned by English sailors to prevent the Dutch from trading in the Americas and to encourage the training of sailors who could later be impressed into the military. 2) Deny colonists access to European markets, so that all goods coming in and out of the Americas had to pass through England. And it was not until the 1760’s, when these acts were re-enforced, that colonists expressed negativity toward them. Though colonists happily obeyed them prior to the 1760’s, they seemed to view the re-enforcement as some kind of exclamation point to the taxes they viewed as unconstitutional, accentuating their inferiority.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Inventories of Desire

Today’s chapter of T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution tells us all we need to know about the drastic economic change that occurred in the colonies in the mid-1700’s. Breen paints a portrait of colonists who, for some unknown reason, suddenly developed a severe addiction to imported British goods in the 1740’s. This addiction played right into the hands of royal officials who strove to keep the colonies economically dependant on the mother country as a means of controlling them politically.

The result, oddly, was the exact opposite. As the colonies grew economically, they actually gained power, which they used to their advantage in the 1760’s in the form of non-importation agreements – a movement that slowly grew into armed revolt. The conclusion is clear: the drastic influx of imported British goods that flooded the colonies in the 1740’s was a crucial event that eventually lead to the founding of our country.

In this chapter Breen meticulously guides us through the six major methods of studying the economic activity of time period…

1) TRAVEL JOURNALS

Travel journals of the time reveal that seemingly all colonists were engaged in the intense devouring of imported British goods.

One quite famous one written by the Scottish physician Alexander Hamilton (no relation to the future country’s first Treasury Secretary) relates a 1744 tale of encountering a lower class family living off the Hudson River in a small cottage. The humble abode was gaudily decorated with fine British imports, illustrating that even simple country folk were possessed by the British import demon.

Another journal, from 1750, by Gottlieb Mittelberger, who traveled to Pennsylvania to assess the possibility of establishing a new German settlement, states, “Throughout Pennsylvania, both men and women dress according to English fashion.” And continues, saying that if British women saw bonnets worn by the colonial women, “they would want them for themselves.”

Writers almost uniformly convey this phenomenon, sometimes taking it to comically hyperbolic levels, as did William Eddis of Annapolis in the 1770’s: “The quick importation of fashions from the mother country is really astonishing. I am almost inclined to believe that a new fashion is adopted earlier by the polished and affluent American than by many opulent persons in the great metropolis.”

2) LITERATURE WRITTEN BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS

Royal governors were required to submit reports to British officials describing and analyzing local economic behavior. The language they used reveals their sinister intentions to keep the colonies dependant on British imports.

Here are the words of New York’s 1705 royal governor, Lord Cornbury: “These Colloneys, which are but twigs belonging to the Main Tree ought to be kept entirely dependant upon and subservient to England... For the consequence will be that if once they can see they can cloathe themselves, not only comfortably but handsomely too, without the help of England, they who are not already fond of submitting to government would think of putting in execution designs they had long harbored in their breasts.” – a startling prediction made seventy years before the official instigation of military violence.

New York’s 1774 Governor William Tyron was confident about the colonists’ dependency on British imports: “more than Eleven Twelfths of the Inhabitants of this Province both in the necessary and ornamental parts of their dress are cloathed in British Manufactures…”

As did Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor of 1763, Francis Fauquier: “the quantity [of imports] is now so great and increases so fast, that it is now almost beyond a doubt that it exceeds in value the tobacco exported.”

Most governors gleefully trash-talked colonial manufacturing. One example comes in 1768, from the Royal Governor of New Jersey, William Franklin (and son of Benjamin): “A Glass House was erected about 20 years ago in Salem County, which makes bottles, and a very course Green Glass for windows, used only in some of the houses of the poorer sort of people.”

3) PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

Museums containing relics of the time period show that we find the same products - bowls, cups, plates - in every colony. North and South, though very culturally and religiously different, were united by the fact that they purchased and used the same goods.

There is, of course, the “risk of survival”, that families were more likely to keep expensive goods, and they are therefore more likely to appear in a museum, which is why we turn to colonial trash pits. Every colonial family, rich or poor, white or black, had a family trash pit. Trash pit excavations confirm that all colonists – rich or poor, country-folk or city-dwellers – were engaged in the mass consumption of British goods.

4) PROBATE RECORDS

Inventories of colonists’ estates also confirm that the dramatic economic shift of the 1740’s. They almost uniformly show that colonists possessed significantly more British imports after the 1730’s, in both rural and urban areas.

5) NEWSPAPERS

The mid-eighteenth century also saw a dramatic increase in the number of newspaper publications, and in these publications, an increase in the number of advertisements for imported British goods. In 1720, only 3 weekly published newspapers existed in America. By 1760, there were 22. These journals mostly reprinted articles and essays that first appeared in the British press, and they usually avoided controversial issues such as disagreements between royal governors and colonial legislatures.

The advertisements serve as a useful tool for discovering what was being sold. Before the 1750’s, advertisements were generally small, one-column pieces. A decade later, it was not uncommon to find two-column advertisements outlining long lists of items, sometimes running into the hundreds. By the eve of revolution, sometimes an ad would fill an entire page. After 1760 - space for advertisements usually equaled or exceeded the space for news.

Breen carefully compares various publications. Let’s look sat the numbers…

In New York City, in the 1720’s and 30’s, usually no more than 5 or 6 British goods would appear per issue. By the 1770’s, between 350 and 1000 unique items were advertised per issue.

The South-Carolina Gazette of 1733 had an average of 50 British goods advertised per issue. The 1773 paper averaged around 400.

The Pennsylvania Gazette of 1733 advertised about 10 British goods per issue. In 1773, the number had risen to around 400.

There was also a much wider array of items. 1740’s advertisements merely advertised “paper”. Ads of the 1760s showed 17 varieties of paper: Demy Paper, Post Paper, Writing Paper, Vellum Paper. Strangely, the same choices emerged in all the colonies at approximately the same time.

6) BRITISH CUSTOMS RECORDS

We can also look to the Inspector-General of Imports and Exports, a post created in 1696 for the purpose of keeping “a particular, distinct, and true account of the importations and exportations of all commodities into and out of this kingdom.”

In these reports, we find some very specific statistics…

In the mid 1740’s, Great Britain exported 871,658 pounds worth of goods to America. By the 1760s, that figure rose 130%. In Pennsylvania, there was a 380% jump from the 1740’s to the 1760’s. New England doubled imports during the same time period.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, America received a mere 5.7% of all exported British goods. By 1773, the number had risen to 26%. Estimates show that by mid-century, colonists purchased half of Britain’s exported ironware, and three-quarters of their exported nails.

Some of this behavior could be attributed to population growth – which rose from 250,888 in 1700 2,148,076 in 1770. However, a look at the customs records shows that between 1742 and 1770, per capita consumption of British goods rose 50%.

Much evidence of economic change, but so far the only explanation for the shift comes from a 1753 article in the New York newspaper, Independent Reflector, which analyzed the economic change as a result of King George’s War.

We do, however, get a revealing explanation from Benjamin Franklin as to why the colonies were unable to excel at developing a manufacturing community: “Manufactures are founded in poverty. It is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture.”

In other words, the people of America were too prosperous to be willing to submit themselves to the wage slavery of the manufacturing industry. Interesting analysis from a man who would help found the country that later heralded the Gilded Age…

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Welles' Great White Whale

After reading RVR's hilarious account of reading Moby Dick, I remembered that I still had lying around, unfinished on my bedside table, staring at me with longing in its eye, Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, a play he wrote in 1965 as a (mostly) verse adaptation of Melville's novel, which got its debut at the good ole Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Welles' idea is brilliant-- why not do a stripped-down, basically entirely theatrical adaptation of Moby Dick? Why not use a mammoth novel as an opportunity to return the theater to some bare bones storytelling techniques, instead of the usual grand spectacle?

Of course, he couldn't just produce a version of Moby Dick like that. It is a testament to the o'erweening power already exerted by realism and conventions of virisimilitude in American Theater (and Welles' own brain) that he clearly felt that he had to create a framing device for his deconstruction. Said frame-- which feels totally superfluous by today's aesthetic standards-- is that we are watching a theatre troupe in the late 19th century. Said troupe is coming in on their day off from doing King Lear to perform an adaptation of some book most of them haven't heard of. The adaptation is written by a young up-and-comer within the company. The old stalwart actor-manager wants to do this because he, of course, has been promised the role of Ahab. After some milling about and a few theatr in-jokes vaguely reminicent of the opening moments of Vanya on 42nd Street they begin with a little paraphrase of Shakespeare and suddenly whammo! we're on the wharf with Ishmael and Peleg.

The parallel's with King Lear and Moby Dick are fairly obvious, and it's nice that Welles' doesn't belabor the point. This is Moby Dick performed on a set for King Lear. That's about all the Learing that's necessary here.

Welles obviously has to pick and choose in his adaptation-- Queequeg is demoted to just another "savage" and has no lines save for whooping along with Tashtego and Daggoo, while Pip is made into a kind of main character, an echo of King Lear's fool, only here the fool is already insane. Welles focuses on a few key moments in the book-- the sermon about Jonah, the nailing of the gold piece, an argument or two between Starbuck and Ahab, the arrival of the Rachel, the swift demise of the Pequod-- and leaves out entirely all of the damned Cetology that frustrates readers so.

Of course, the white whale that Welles is chasing here isn't Melville or his novels at all-- it's Shakespeare. Welles is attempting a kind of contemporary Shakespearean writing. It's ballsy, to say the least (arrogant might be another term for it) but he pulls it off pretty well. Take a gander at this:

Were this round world an endless plain,
by sailing eatward we could reach
new distances forever; forever find
new sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or
Islands of King Solomon.
But in pursuit of mysteries;
or in tormented hunting of that demon phantom
that swims before all human hearts
whilst chasing such across the globe,
they lead us on in barren mazes,
or midway leave us whelmed


Who utters this? Ishmael, played by the same actor is as the young up-and-comer narrating with a bit of philosophy the journey of the Pequod. Welles' sacrifices a certain amount of clarity on the altar of his verse (see the above example) but it's pretty good stuff nonetheless.

It's been awhile since I've read Moby Dick so it's hard for me to place which utterances are Welles and which are Melville, but I have an inkling that it's a great deal more of the former than the latter. Which is just as well. Welles takes great pains to distance his adaptation from the source material-- it is an adaptation written by a character in the play in another century of a book. And this gives him free reign to display a canny knack for theatrical device-- particularly in the church section, as the whole cast becomes a chorus saying the names of dearly departed and singing hymns.

By the end of the play, of course, we're so caught up in the thing itself, that Welles has almost entirely forgotten the "Rehearsed" part. After the Pequod's demise, there is only one line that exists back in the realm of the actors. It is almost like some mystical conjuration, after which no one really knows what to do.

Obviously, as a director, when I read a script, my first instinct is to figure out whether I would want to do it myself. And with this text I can say "yes", so long as I could adapt further-- by ditching the framing device and simply setting it in a rehearsal, perhaps creating a new frame out of the back and forth of the real actors. Otherwise, it feels too much like a museum piece-- a B-side from a great artists' bizarre and idiosyncratic catalogue.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Thanum an Dhul, do you thunk I'm dead?

You know a book is going to take a while when even the title takes a good deal of unpacking. While Joyce was writing the book over seventeen years, he thought the title so good that he needed to keep it secret, and called the book “Work in Progress.” His idea of a fun evening was to invite people over to dinner and have them guess what the title really was.

What’s the big deal? The title itself is the same as that of an old Irish ballad about the late Tom Finnegan who so loved whiskey that when he gets doused with it at his own wake, he rises from the dead. “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake” indeed. But the title is more than the reference, it’s also punning by the two words containing opposite meanings. Finnegan is made up of Fin(ish )+again and a wake is both for those on their way to their graves, and those about to rise from their beds. Finnegan wakes at Finnegan’s wake. And as a last added meaning, the apostrophe is left off so that the “s” becomes a plural: (many) Finnegans wake (up).

It is a brilliant title. In two words he sets out the comic and punning style of the book, its major theme of the cycles of death and rebirth, the fluid identities (Finnegan will have many different incarnations, hence the plural "s"), and roots the book in salt of the earth Irish culture. Joyce references Tristan and Isolde a bunch in the book and could have figured out a way of naming the book for those title characters of Europe’s highest of High Operas. But I feel Joyce is signaling us that while it's about to get pretty high falutin, it's supposed to be good fun too. Wagner built a church for his holy operas, but Joyce wants to sing a rowdy song and have a drink. And probably touch you for a quid.

Administrative Notes

We Read Books continues to grow. We now have four regular writers (names and- hopefully soon- profiles to your right) and we should be adding somewhere between two and four more over the next two weeks.

Because of the group nature of the blog, posting is probably going to be erratic, with some days having posts almost simultaneously (like yesterday) and some days being fairly empty. Hopefully with more writers, posting will be fairly constant. Anyway, if you would like to keep track of everything going on here, please consider subscribing to this website. Web services like Bloglines are easy and free and can walk you through subscribing to sites. It's a great time saving way to keep up with what's going on around the blogosphere.

Also we have an online bookstore which carries the books covered here on the website, as well as any helpful supplements (for example, Anthony Burgess' Re Joyce, discussed in the post immediately below this one). Amazon pays us in gift certificates, which we can then use to buy more books to cover for the site!

Thanks for tuning in, and I hope you enjoy We Read Books as we continue to grow.
---
Isaac

Monday, November 20, 2006

Plan of Attack

Thus far I’ve read all the other major Joyce works: Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, and Ulysses. I have picked up his one play, Exiles, and found it so awful I put it down after a few pages. I tried to read Ulysses a few times before getting sage advice from a beloved professor. He said one should start reading Ulysses knowing it will take at least three go rounds. The first time, just keep on reading to the end, knowing that you won't get a lot of it. The second time, look up every reference and study it as closely as possible. The third time, just keep on reading to the end, knowing all the Ulysses arcana you now know. It was great advice, as it gave me permission to just plow through when I didn’t understand something and to enjoy Ulysses as a good read. And it turned out it was a great read! Since then I’ve reread the whole thing a couple of times, and individual chapters many times, assisted by Gifford's Ulysses Annotated, Anthony Burgess’s Re Joyce, Stuart Gilbert’s classic study, and Richard Ellmann’s definitive biography of the guy, among other books.

So the plan is to attack the Wake in a similar way. Unlike Ulysses, it is going to be impossible for me to not look anything up at all the first go round. It’s just too damn difficult at times to figure out what is going on. But I’m going to initially limit myself to Burgess’s Re Joyce which is insightful but brief so I won’t be tempted to get bogged down in scholarship; the time for that will come later. I learned from my first read through Ulysses that the confusion is part of it. It’s a dream after all, and you’re not supposed to understand everything at once. Sometimes instead of thrashing to stay afloat, you have to let yourself be carried along by the rhythms and half-understood words and images. Of course you do that all the time and you’ll drown so we’ll see what the balance is.

OK we're off! Cheers and jeers welcome.

Wakey Wakey, Up and Adam!

It is time. I bought it a year ago. I have attempted to start it a few times only to get rebuffed by the first four pages. I sneakily tried to start in the middle and got rebuffed there too. But I knew if I was patient, one fine day I would realize that I was ready and I had to start reading it as soon as possible. And it happened. So I’m doing it. Expect reports on the book, the indignities it will heap on my head, digressive musings, etc. Old Burgess, stand me now and forever in good stead.

Buy a book in brown paper
From Faber & Faber
To see Annie Liffey trip, tumble and caper.
Sevesinns in her singthings,
Plurabelle on her prose,
Seashell ebb music wayriver she flows

--Joyce’s blurb on the dust jacket of the two-shilling edition of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section from Finnegans Wake.

A Test In Stamina

It was a chilly October morning in Queens. The streets were empty save for a wandering beggar and a handful of stray cats. I was in search of books-cheap books-and I 'd been told there was an old man on the street with just such a supply. I knew I could get the good stuff-the classics- for a buck, while the crap sold like hot cakes for $2.75. The old man had blackened teeth and one ambitious eye drawing lazy circles around its withered socket. He gave me the once over with his obedient eye and tossed a copy of "Confessions of a Video Vixen" my way. Mildly insulted, I told him I'd pass on "Vixen", and that I was looking for something with a little more teeth. He let out a high pitched cackle and pointed a bony digit towards a stack of classic literature. And there it lay as defiant as the cold steel of a harpoon in a pool of fresh spermaceti... Moby Dick. Its quiet black cover dissembling the white hot Cetacean rage that pulsed beneath.

"You'll never finish you know. Ha ha ha!" he howled, snatching my tattered dollar and once more revealing a row of teeth as dark as a muscadine grape.
"I once wasted 2 months of my life trying to read Ulysses," I said "I'll take my chances with Mr. Dick."
I could still hear the old man's cackle as I climbed the subway stairs with my latest acquisition tucked safely under my armpit. A wave of excitement rippled through me as I pried open the book that would haunt me for the next 12 months.

From the first paragraph I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of his prose, his words clinging to me like the fierce Nantucket gale.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily
bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet...I account it high time to get to sea
as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical
flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.


I was hooked...that is until I got to chapter 32, "Cetology".


Most people who give up on Moby Dick do so at this point. I powered through the exhaustive lecture on the many species of Leviathan, only to find several more chapters devoted to the many wonders of the whale hunt, the dissection of the prodigious beast, and the storage of its oil and blubber.
Who knew it was such a long and complicated process? Herman Melville that's who.
All of these long and frustratingly detailed chapters I managed to stomach while maintaining some modicum of enthusiasm for the remainder of the book. But when Melville began what was to be a two chapter summary of the basic measurements of the Sperm Whale's skeleton, I could take no more!

My reading dropped down to a couple of pages a day. I used any flimsy excuse to abandon my old book for the allure offered by most other books-a moving plot and dialogue. I began using Moby Dick as a pillow on a slow day at work, a coaster at my bedside at night, and a paper weight for my sheet music in my voice lessons. Anything to keep me from the painstaking detail of Melville's indefatigable pen. Until one day the book was gone. Vanished without a trace. My burden was lifted- but the hollow cackle of the decrepit book seller rang in my ear..."You'll never finish you know. Ha ha ha!" What should have been the joyous celebration of a life free of paper cuts, joint strain, and retinal fatigue instead became an ever increasing longing for closure. What happens with the whale!?!


Just as the dismembered Captain's hate for his elusive foe grew as he rounded Cape Horn, my thirst for an ending to this cursed book did equally grow. And that's when it hit me- Herman Melville is more than just our erudite navigator of the high seas, but a master of suspense! Craftily keeping his tiring readers distracted from the endless hunt for the White Beast with flowery prose and longwinded lectures! How better to terrify his readers than by shrouding his eponymous character in veil of mystery? Giving the whale a protracted introduction through a series of deadly prophecies, and horrifying tales of his malignant attacks. All of this culminating in a slow reveal rivaling that of a Sally Rand fan dance- ingenious! I had to find that book! But how the hell was I going to muster the energy to finish it?

Some days after my grand realization,I found myself dragging an old suitcase and other belongings out of the common area of my apartment and into my room. And there it was again in all its verbally superfluous glory-laying in my suitcase exactly where I'd left it after my last visit home. I picked it up and felt in its weight the dread that comes from knowing you may be completely lost in a book and have to start anew. This was the deciding moment. I was Starbuck. Hovering over Ahab with loaded musket in hand like a sea weary Hamlet. Do I put an end to the infinite page turning? Or do I hoist the sails and ride the back of this literary Leviathan to its dark and watery finish? Suddenly I felt the swell of the sea and the taste of its gritty salt in my mouth. I was surrounded by that grizzly monomaniac and his rag tag pack of whale hunters. His gnarled fist pumping the air and ivory leg pounding out the rhythms of the deep blue on deck as he cries:

Look ye, Nantucketer; here in this hand I hold his death! Tempered in blood, and
tempered by lightening are these barbs; And I swear to temper them triply in that
hot place behind the fin, where the white whale most feels his accursed life!

The curl of my fingers on the page acted as the curl of the sailor's lips around the deadly chalice on which they swore allegiance to Ahab and death to white whale. I, like them, swore an oath to conquer the great Leviathan! And so I read. Plunging into the depths of that book with a ferocity that would put the most seasoned harpooneer to shame! Ripping into the pages like a blood thirsty Ahab-hell bent on claiming the prize that he and his crew would never win-Moby Dick! I seared into the hot flesh of the beast until his black blood spewed forth and the final chapter was read!

After the fray, I wondered back to Astoria in search of that fish eyed and withered would-be Elijah, who 12 months prior sold me this interminable masterpiece. Spotting his hunch back straining under the weight of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, I shoved my prize in his face and let out a hearty cackle heard clear from Ditmars to the China Seas!

"IN YOUR FACE SUCKA! HA HA HA!"

I dedicate this post to my fallen men of the Pequod who, unlike I, were unable to conquer the Great White Beast...Moby Dick.




Thursday, November 16, 2006

Another Country Part One (Rufus)

Every now and then you meet a book and think oh, I'm going to remember this one. Song of Solomon, as much as I enjoyed it, was not one of those books. It's actually been awhile since I've gotten that premonition reading a book, but James Baldwin's Another Country has so far announced itself to be one for the memory bank. I say so far, because I'm not done with it. I'm going to try to write a post about it every time I finish a section of the book.

But before we get that, let's talk about the cover of the book. Vintage International consistently has some of the best cover art in the business (their only real US rival is, as far as I'm concerned New York Review of Books). Another Country is no exception. Just look at it. At first glance, a white man is smiling and possibly touching his lips to a black woman who reaches to hold him. About them is empty blackness. Look closer. His shirt is covered in blood. The look on her face is despair. Is she reaching for the wound or to comfort him? Is it his blood? Above them, in the empty black space, a tree and a chimney grow, only visible when light reflects off the cover of the book.

There is no better way to sum up the experience of reading this emotionally brutal, overwhelmingly despair-filled book about interracial romance. There's nothing easy about this book except for the easy pleasures of Baldwin's prose:

There's thousands of people, Bessie now sang, ain't got no place to go, and for the first time Rufus began to hear, in the severely understatedmonotony of this blues, something whihc spoke to his troubled mind. The piano bore the singer witness, stoic and ironic. Now that Rufus himself and no place to go-- 'cause my house fell down and I can't live there no mo' sang Bessie-- he heard the line and the tone of the singer, and he wondered how others had moved beyong the emptiness and horror which faced him now.


Spoiler's Ahead

The first part of the book, spanning roughly ninety pages, tells the story of Rufus, a black jazz drummer in New York City. Rufus has just reappeared in his own life, having vanished off the map for a few months. We never fully learn what happened in the months while his friends thought he had disappeared, it's never fleshed out. What we do learn in the ninety pages chronicling Rufus' last night on Earth before throwing himself off the "bridge named for the father of the country" is that he was involved in some kind of fatally intense affair with a white woman named Leona. As Rufus struggles (and fails) to reconnect with his life, we delve into various points in his romance with Leona-- the night he met her in a bar, the night his best friend Vivaldo (also white) had to rescue Leona from Rufus' physical abuse. We learn about Leona's kid back south whom she can't see. We learn about her and Rufus' heavy drinking. We learn about how the affair eventually drove her to Bellvue, and then to an asylum in the South, where Rufus can't see her, since they aren't related and have no kids together.

We also meet along the way Rufus' circle of friends, all of whom (it bears noticing) are white. The ever-tolerant Vivaldo, who comes to Rufus' aid even when there's potential murder in the air. Vivaldo's loathsome on-again-off-again girlfriend Jane. Vivaldo's English teacher Richard and his wife, Cass. And we get a sense of the seedier world of Greenwich Village and Harlem in the sixties, a world of drugs, jazz, drinking and sex.

What Baldwin is able to do that few authors can is mix the political and the personal, and find the intersecitonality between race, class, gender and sexuality. All of it is there in every encounter, from the time Rufus insults Jane in an all-white blue collar bar and she says (voice raised) Are you threatening me? just to show her power over him, to Rufus' (so far unexplained) possible sexual encounters with Eric, a gay friend now living in Paris:
Those cufflinks [that Eric gave him] were now in Harlem And when Eric was gone, Rufus forgot their battles and the unspeakable physical awkwardness, and the ways in which he had made Eric pay for such pleasure as Eric gave, or got. He remembered only that Eric had loved him; as he now remembered that Leona had loved him. He had despised Eric's manhood by treating him as a woman, by telling him how inferior he was to a woman, by treating him as nothing more than a hideous sexual deformity. But Leona had not been a deformity. And he had used against her the very epithets he had used against Eric, and in the very same way, with the same roaring in his head and the same intolerable pressure in his chest.


If all of this sounds a bit histrionic... well... it is. But the world is not a deadpan place, as much as we might like it to be. The world is filled with high drama and chaos, with violence emotional and physical. Our contemporary response to it is one of alienation, of deadpan. On our stages, in our films, our literature, the hip way to deal with the world is to act like it doesn't affect you. Baldwin refuses to do this, and it's a refreshingly in-the-world approach to human relating. The world of human relationships is in that above paragraph- and in this book. Here is gender, sexuality and race, not to mention class (Eric has enough money to give a man he loves cufflinks) all at once. Rufus is no sympathetic victim-- his rage at the world leads him to destroy everything he loves and (finally) himself. He can't stand the way people look at him and Leona on the street, and takes it out on her with his fists. The world crushes him and, not having any better response, he self-destructs.

One of the boldest gestures here is to center the entire first part of the novel around a character who offs himself. Rufus won't be returning in the present-day narrative of the book, and having started the second part, it continues with the other characters (Rufus' sister Ida, Richard, Cass and Vivaldo, with a cameo from Jane) trying to deal with Rufus' death. We'll see how well Baldwin continues to make this all pay off in the next installment.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Marketplace Chaper 1: Tale of the Hospitable Consumer

For those unfortunate ones just tuning in, I'm currently making my way through The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen, all along the way tracking how the book fleshes out my understanding of the American Revolution.

The title of the first chapter refers to a phenomenon that occurred during the Seven Years War, when newly rich colonists, made wealthy by a flourishing war economy, sought to impress British soldiers with their decadence. At the war’s end, the soldiers brought home stories of colonial wealth, creating a distorted view in the minds of British politicians of the financial situation of the Americans.

The exaggerated image of colonial prosperity shaped Parliament’s new economic strategy in which the colonists would shoulder more of the empire’s tax burden. Some colonists believed tales of their financial situation were deliberately falsified for this political end. Others blamed the colonists themselves for unnecessarily engaging in such luxuriousness. Among them, Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1766, “The Luxury of your Tables, which could be known to the English only by your hospitable entertaining, is by these grateful Guests, now made a Charge against you & as a Reason for taxing you.”

Breen traces this behavior back to the 1740’s, when a sudden influx of British imports flooded America. Colonists became interested in British goods, followed British styles, and adopted British etiquette. British cloth, ceramics, and metal goods became staples of American consumers, drastically altering rituals of self-presentation. As a result of this change in consumer behavior, another miscommunication phenomenon emerged. Much British literature began exploring the issue, giving the colonists a false sense of their importance in sustaining British prosperity. This misinformation fueled the colonists’ belief in the effectiveness of a mass boycott strategy.

Breen begins his tale, however, with an exploration of the unlikelihood of a colonial union, looking to words of the eventual founding fathers themselves. A pre-revolutionary John Adams once wrote that cultural and political differences among the colonies would prevent them from ever uniting under one common cause. Benjamin Franklin, as well, wrote about the impossibility of union. At the Albany Congress of 1754, he proposed a loose confederation of colonies, a measure rejected universally. Seemingly enlightened by his failure, in the early 1760’s, as part of his drive to persuade the British to retain Canada after the French and Indian War, he circulated a pamphlet outlining reasons why unified rebellion was impossible. Overall, though, the colonies gained much by their political alliance with Britain: commercial prosperity, military security, and individual liberty guaranteed by a balance-of-power secure political structure.

Then we come to colonial reaction to the Boston Port Act. Within weeks, charitable assistance flooded to Boston from other colonies. Many Massachusetts villages sent money. Pennsylvanians sent grain. South Carolinians sent rice. In Charleston, a play was staged, Busiris, King of Egypt, billed as a piece about, “an injured gallant people struggling against oppression, resigning their All to fortune, and wading through a dangerous bloody field in search of freedom.” Proceeds went to Boston. Rhetoric changed and for the first time ministers’ sermons and newspaper articles talked about the “common cause of America.”

The colonists essentially invented the boycott. The non-importation of British goods that began in the 1760’s was the first time an effective large-scale boycott was successfully employed. It was a new political tool, allowing even those ineligible to vote to become involved in politics, influencing matters through decisions in commerce.

Overall, though, Breen paints the colonists as victims of their own need to prove their financial status through purchase of lavish British goods. Some analyzed this behavior as a result of the decline of the class system in America. As the Danbury, Connecticut preacher Ebenezer Baldwin said in 1774, “In a country like this, where property is so equally divided, every one will be disposed to rival his neighbor in goodness of dress, sumptuousness of furniture, ect... Hence the common people here make a show, much above what they do in England.”

Here endeth Chapter One. More to come later in the week, when we'll no doubt delve deeper into this "influx of British imports" of the 1740's, and explore in greater depth the relationship of the colonies to their mother country, and how relations slowly deteriorated to absolute fissure within a decade. Until then...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another Country

Has anyone out there read James Baldwin's Another Country? I'm reading it right now, hope to start an ongoing series of reaction posts when i finish each part. I just finished the first part (about Rufus, so I'm like 100 pages in). Just interested in people's (hopefully spoiler free) thoughts on the book.

Thanks!
Isaac

The Marketplace of Revolution

Greetings.

For those who don’t know me, I’m Rob. I’m an actor, playwright, and comedian who works in New York and Los Angeles.

I’m currently busily working on various projects. One of them, a play that will be produced early next year, explores the moral complexity of the founding of our country, an issue frequently swept under the rug of self-aggrandizing mythology. Though the script is already written, I still search for obscure and informative books about the time period in hopes that new information will inform my rewriting process.

This search has lead me to The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen. This book explores the American Revolution from a purely economic viewpoint, theorizing that similarities in economic behavior served as the true catalyst for uniting the colonies against Britain. So to kick off my tenure here, I’ll first provide you with a brief summary of my understanding of the American Revolution, and while reading the book, track how my understanding of the movement evolves and grows.

My current understanding of the revolution movement is, essentially, that it first arose in a post Seven Years War world, when the British Empire re-imposed mercantilist regulations on their colonies, introducing taxation and enforcing age-old Navigation Acts to finance war debt.

The policy seemed sound for a variety of reasons. One, the colonies were originally created to serve the mother country’s economic interests. Two, Britain used the same tactic a decade earlier in India. After British forces successfully battled the French for territory to ensure the British East India Tea Company’s economic dominance in the region, a deal was struck in which the company agreed to pay the British government an annual fee to repay charges incurred during battle. The same strategy, when applied to the American colonies was, of course, an abysmal failure, reversing 75 years of salutary neglect first instituted by William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

Two pieces of legislation passed in the wake of the Stamp Act illuminate in crystal clear terms the difference of opinion that ultimately lead to war: The Declaration of Rights and Grievances passed by the colonies in 1765 and the Declaratory Act passed by Parliament a year later. The Declaration of Rights and Grievances states the belief of the colonies that Parliament has no authority to tax them without their consent. The Declaratory Act states Parliament’s firm belief in the opposite.

This issue snowballed, not reaching definitive resolution until the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Britain’s first controversial measure, the Stamp Act, was met with a colonial non-importation agreement created by the Stamp Act Congress. Britain repealed the Stamp Tax but replaced it with the Townshend Duties of 1766. Bostonians responded with riots and mob attacks. Britain responded by sending a standing army to police Boston. Tensions between Bostonians and British soldiers lead to the Boston Massacre of 1770, an incident seized upon by colonial propagandists.

In the 1770’s, Parliament attempted to use their colonies to help resolve a somewhat different economic issue. The bankrupt British East India Tea Company, desperate for funding to repay government loans, resolved to sell excess tea to the American colonists. The Sons of Liberty, who owned the docks of the Boston Harbor, refused to unload the tea, and one day before the tea was supposed to be legally seized by the royal governor, they threw it into the sea. Britain’s response was the Intolerable Acts. Colonial response was the First Continental Congress, which agreed to form militias. The activities of these militias lead to Lexington and Concord. Then, an eight-year war ensued, after which it became definitively clear that Britain would never again levy another tax on any of its former thirteen colonies.

And so we shall see, over the course of the next few weeks or so, how Breen’s analysis of the events helps flesh out my understanding of the topic. Until then…

Monday, November 13, 2006

Song Of Solomon

Having just finished Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon a few days ago, I thought it would be a neat place to start with this blog.

I picked up Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon having never read any of her books before. I was on vacation, in Virginia, and had just finished Richard Hughes' interesting but profoundly racist High Wind in Jamaica. I felt a need to purge the hatefulness of the novel from my brain, and someone had left their copy of Song of Solomon in the house I was staying in. It felt like more than a coincidence. It felt like the book had decided it was time for me to read it. So I did.

It is a ritual of mine to read (or at least glace at) everything in a book other than the book itself before reading it. In this case, that meant a back cover with favorable notices from critics, three pages of same on the inside, and lists of books in the back that you might like if you like Song of Solomon in four categories: Contemporary Fiction, Compelling Novels, Sizzling Reading (which I think means lots of Sexy Time) and Literary Fiction. Oddly enough, listing those categories is about the best summation of this book I can offer, as the plot is so impulsive and complicated that summarizing it is nerarly impossible.

That is, however, why I'm here, so let me give it a shot. Song of Solomon is the story of the Dead family, told largely through the eyes (via third-person limited perspective) of Macon "Milkman" Dead III, the ne'er-do-well scion of a wealthy black family in Michigan in the middle third of the twentieth century. The first incident of the book takes place just as Milkman's mother (Ruth) is about to give birth to him. And the book rapidly tells the story of Milkman Dead up until he is in his mid thirties. As Milkman searches (flails, is more like it) for a purpose in this world, he discovers the history of his family, a history he is bound and controlled by, even though he doesn't know it.

And along the way we will meet the nacent civil rights movement, instructions for making the perfect soft boiled egg, a secret order of assasins, magic realist grace notes of dead bodies and ghosts, music, music and more music, a whole lot of sex, the necessity of returning to the land, slavery, the north vs. the south, black-on-black racism, the meaning of the books title, and at least three characters trying to fly without the aid of machinery.

Ultimately what we really meet with-- "visit with" as the turn of phrase goes-- is love in all it's forms. Milkman learns love as the book goes on, starting from his own self-love (and the self-absorption that comes with it) to, eventually, love for his family, the women he's used (sexually and otherwise) and black people in general. As he learns the history he's spent his life trying to run from-- as, in fact, in the act of running from it he learns it more and more-- he meets and reckons with the powerful (and often destructive) nature of love, be it sexual, romantic, familial, platonic or what have you.

Stylistically, Toni Morrison's novel has a free jazz jam session feel. Morrison tells the story at a breakneck pace. In one paragraph she will jump a decade, and then two chapters later fill in some of what happened in between. The story skips from plot point to plot point, careening backwards and forwards in time and geography. Characters regularly launch into long monologues which are then interrupted by the narrator taking over the story. No one in the novel is exactly what they seem, and as the book fills in more details, we come to realize the weight of conversations that seemed inoccuous, and realize the true meaning behind moments that seemed at first glance overburdened with the unknown. The plot seems to have no bearings and be told almost impulsively. This continues to the very end of the novel.

I wonder, looking back at it if it isn't a novel mean to be read twice. Having just glaced through the opening chapter again, I realize that the entire novel is contained there-- most of the main characters are in that chapter, and their relationships are very present, but you don't know it yet. Morrison's gift in this novel is for making a book that feels both completely unstructured and masterfully designed at the same time. You never know what will happen next, but you trust that she does.

It's a testament to Morrison's strength then that Song of Solomon holds up. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be a complete mess, making so many points that it never makes any, hitting so many plot angles that it never lands. In Morrison's hands, the story of the Dead family is a compelling journey forwards and backwards through a history both personal and social. You have to read closely to not get lost, but the novel is a rich and engrossing experience if you do.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Introduction

We Read Books is a new blog started by me, Isaac Butler. My other blog is a theater/culture/politics blog called Parabasis. You can find that here. Parabasis has a very wide focus, so I wanted to start another blog that has a laser-like specificity. That is this blog you are reading right now.

The concept is simple-- I'm in the process of inviting an interesting group of people with (hopefully) diverse taste in books to simply write about the books they are reading, in whatever way they see fit, be that a formal review, a discussion thread, a response, whatever. Also, hopefully we will be able to get some good conversations about reading, books, literature etc.

This is also, BTW, an effort to counter a recent trend towards obnoxiousness on many book blogs, where authors seem to have adopted the snark and snide of the mainstream critic, with none of the authority, expertise, or institutional history that critics possess, thus giving us the worst of both worlds.

Posting will hopefully start in earnest later this week.

To get things started, just in case anyone is reading this right now...

How do you decide what books to read?

Test Post

This is a test post!