Sarah Orne Jewett and the First Salt Wind from the East

The hurry of life in a large town, the constant putting aside of preference to yield to a most unsatisfactory activity, began to vex me, and one day I took the train, and only left it for the eastward-bound boat. Carlyle says somewhere that the only happiness a man ought to ask for is happiness enough to get his work done; and against this the complexity and futile ingenuity of social life seems a conspiracy. But the first salt wind from the east, the first sight of a lighthouse set boldly on its outer rock, the flash of a gull, the waiting procession of seaward-bound firs on an island, made me feel solid and definite again, instead of a poor, incoherent being. Life was resumed, and anxious living blew away as if it had not been. I could not breathe deep enough or long enough. It was a return to happiness.

This passage is from Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella that gently conjures a vision of the women and men living along late-19th-century coastal Maine. Continue reading

Toujours Gai, or Why I Love Don Marquis

Archy & Mehitabel book cover

At the recent semiannual Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale, held in in one of the vast hangar-like buildings in Magnuson Park’s old Navy complex, I happened to pick up for a few dollars a copy of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, a 1939 edition peppered with drawings by Herriman of Krazy Kat fame. A delightful discovery! A collection of wry, sardonic, funny-sad free verse poems, tapped out on a typewriter by Archy, a “vers libre” poet trapped in the body of a cockroach. Archy often writes of his friend Mehitabel, a spirited, capering—and sporting—lady-cat. What she calls her motto, and what we might, in our present day ecumenicalism, call her mantra, has been jangling around my head like the brass bells on the back of a shop door: “Toujour gai kid toujours gai.” Continue reading

Reading James Agee

For the fiction section of Harper’s December 2007 issue, the editors presented lost passages from James Agee’s A Death in the Family. The novel is not one one I’ve yet read, but it’s now on the short list.

The narrative voice flows with a pleasing but peculiar tempo and tone, with drawn-out sentences as if the young boy through whose eyes we are looking is pattering on, at times to the point of breathlessness, about the novel world around him, at times puzzled, at others exultant.

It was a long way out to Chilhowee Park but even the ride out there was fun because the streetcar was all open. Continue reading

An Epigraph

“My taste for literature had developed into a love of language, the word in isolation. At school my subjects were French and Spanish, and the pleasures of the language were at least as great as those of the literature. Maupassant and Moliere were rich; but it was more agreeable to spend an hour with the big Harrap French-English dictionary, learning more of the language through examples than with Corneille or Racine.” —V.S. Naipaul, “Jasmine”