It took a long time, but I finally finished reading Northrop Frye’s 1957 classic, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, from cover to cover. It is, as Frye expressed in the opening paragraph, a work of “pure critical theory,” practically and appropriately biblical and epic in style and structure. Because anyone reading this review is likely to already have a good notion of the content of the Anatomy or, in the case of students for whom it is assigned reading, who soon enough shall, I will not belabor that matter here; instead, I’ll spend a few moments and words to try to locate the work in its proper celestial locus almost 60 years since its first publication.
The jargon-heavy Anatomy is a thick slab of critical theory marbled with little fat or garnish on the side. Frye approaches literature and its criticism as a physical universe unto itself, having some connection to the world we inhabit, but these connections are of little interest to him, or less. This all has to do with words and how they hook together, what kinds of patterns emerge from their concatenations, and what their attendant etymology is, and mythic allusions, as well as how cultures work and rework the old myths, always pressing their own stamp upon the myths and words, so the stories change even while they carry their most ancient meanings, or significations. Still, it is how we talk about stories or poems, or how we relate to them in the unfolding of time, that is of more concern to Frye, for criticism becomes for him something of a persisting cloud of dust raised upon the old roads of literature that is inseparable from the original item. Frye penetrates to pattern where others perceive only a hodgepodge of old fairytales and random psychological archetypes. He assembles these patterns laboriously into a structure which is become his theory, and it is for the student to decide whether to accept or reject Frye, or to take bits and pieces of his conclusions and adapt them to current use.
I am struck that the Anatomy appeared shortly before the heyday of the literary renaissance of the 1960s, and it’s easy to see why this book provided a timely roadmap for many who were to launch their own explorations of that other-dimensional spacetime of limitless literary possibility toward the end of that turbulent decade. But it is now 2015 as I write these words and the world has changed again, so that now the Anatomy almost feels like both a triumphant summation of centuries of literature and its scholarly criticism as well as a final fanfare before the darkness which was to come. For we every day sink deeper into a new Dark Age in which all that Frye clearly cherished and believed in is rejected by our modern society ― one bridles at calling it a culture ― as impractical, non-utilitarian and dangerously liberal. We live in a time in which free-thought is summarily rejected, in which we are to aspire to become useful tools of the state, to collect our pittance and go home and plug in to the bread-and-circus world series and pennant races and celebrity shenanigans de jour and cheer on the outrageous tantrums of our political party of choice. Reading literature for literature’s sake has become a sign of perversity, a symptom that one is improperly integrated into the social machine. Despite Frye’s careful arguments, he now seems impossibly old-fashioned, a relic of the past, a brief harbinger of a world-to-come that failed to thrive and to survive.
I am a scientist ― and an admirer of science ― by training, a cog in an industrial nightmare by vocation and a writer by choice. I would not be uplifted as an exemplar of the society in which I find myself. Unlike all those who surround me, seemingly, I believe our culture ― not this toxic society ― has now a more pressing need for broad liberal arts education than perhaps ever before. Any society that values monetary profit and ransacking the planet far above tending the needs of its constituent citizens is sick, and a return to the arts, including the literary arts and theories of their criticism, must surely be part of the requisite cure. So I believe that Frye may grow dusty on the shelves for years to come, or for decades to come, or maybe even longer, but one day Frye will be read again when the wheel has turned sufficiently. Then a more encompassing theory of criticism will be put forth, leaving much of the Anatomy behind, no doubt, but incorporating its mythic essence at least, and there will be a culture which will advance upon his work. Then, once again, the theories of literature and criticism will be reborn, and they will be appropriately valued.
Having myself a background in clinical microbiology and a more than passing preoccupation with the American Civil War, I found this article by Dr Michael D Brown of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “The American Civil War as a biological phenomenon: did Salmonella or Sherman win the war for the North?” to be of interest; enough so in fact to prompt this quick blog response.
I neither question nor challenge the data Dr Brown sets forth with respect to infectious diseases and their prevalence and distribution during the Civil War. Although the widespread influence of infectious diseases are often cited in Civil War studies, this usually takes the form of a sentence or two early in an historical work, after which they are forgotten, relegated to background status with only an occasional reference to intermittent diarrheic outbreaks. Historians tend to be far more interested in generals and strategies than to microbial pathogens, giving the bugs short shrift for the role they do play in shaping and defining historical epochs.
I do, however, have some trouble with Dr Brown’s historical inferences drawn, and I’ll point out a few reasons why this is so.
The first has to do with a decision to go to war. As has been noted elsewhere, we don’t go to war with the army we want or wish to have, but with the army we do have. Victories afterward tend to be chalked up to superior leadership, superior morale, a can-do attitude, national exceptionalism, etc., while defeats can be attributed to an inadequate army, to insufficient supplying of that army, to failed national support or, should I say it, to such uncontrollable matters as infectious disease. When either set of arguments is advanced, what’s often omitted is that nations (or, in this case, rebels and their state governments) before and during the war make choices about their military and about their health care that have a direct bearing on the final outcome regardless of the role the microbes may play. Simply to assert ignorance of germ theory ― an historical truth ― is nonetheless a cop-out, particularly when the point is also made, as Dr Brown indeed states, that the North provided better health care for its soldiers than the South did, as this directly implies that in principle the South could have done better. These are human choices being made, or not being made, to deal with ongoing crises, and so one cannot simply blame the bugs and shrug.
If there were greater disease losses in the South than in the North, could or should the South have recognized that problem and addressed it more aggressively, particularly if, as Dr Brown suggests, it was infectious disease that was turning the tide of the war? Are we to believe that microorganisms were deliberately and differentially infecting the South and sparing the North? If, to a degree, we are to blame the South’s decision to conscript less healthy men ― boys and the elderly, or otherwise lacking immunity, as Dr Brown states ― then to what degree should the microorganisms be blamed, and to what degree should the blame fall on those deciding to conscript unsuitable men for service? These are decisions made by human beings to put other human beings at risk of being killed in battle, or by infectious diseases: the blame does not and can not begin and end with the microorganism.
Rather preposterously, I think ― this being, in my view, his weakest supporting argument ― Dr Brown suggests that the siege of Vicksburg might have turned out better for the city’s Confederate defenders had they not suffered so much from infectious disease. The entire point of besieging a city in 19th Century warfare was to cripple the occupants of that city until they surrendered by cutting off all supplies, essentially guaranteeing plummeting public health conditions, as Dr Brown states, “due to dysentery syndromes such as Salmonella and Shigella infections, a direct result of water contamination, poor and insufficient food, lack of appropriate clothing with subsequent exposure, and poor hygiene which resulted in infestations of insects and other vermin.” Rather than excusing Vicksburg’s loss due to infectious diseases, the better case to be made is that Grant assured Vicksburg’s loss by deliberately taking advantage of the inevitable toll infectious disease would take on the city. As to Grant being a general possessed of “somewhat tenuous stature in the Union Army” who might have been turned back at Champion Hill but for poor, sick Confederate soldiers, I doubt many serious students of the Vicksburg Campaign, or of the Civil War, or of Grant, can take this claim very seriously.
Finally, addressing the title of Dr Brown’s article, the answer is Sherman, not Salmonella. Because Joseph E Johnston could not and/or would not prevent Sherman from taking Atlanta, and because the Army of Tennessee subsequently withdrew from Georgia, Sherman was able to trample through that state as well as through the Carolinas, ultimately overcoming the Southern will and ability to continue fighting. Of course there were many other influencing factors as well, not the least of which was the Army of Northern Virginia being pinned down at Petersburg. No doubt Salmonella played a role at that point too, but the Confederates did fight very hard and nobly to prevent Sherman from taking Atlanta, and John Bell Hood did not advance into Tennessee because his men had diarrhea. The importance of infectious disease in determining the endgame of the war was relatively minor.
Tonight the 10th anniversary of the UA Science Lecture Series came to its conclusion. This year’s lecture series was entitled “Life in the Universe.” You can read summaries of each lecture here. If you’re interested in the preceding nine Lecture Series, you can learn about them here.
Lecture 1: What is Life?
Lecture 2: Planet Formation and the Origin of Life.
Lecture 3: Life on Earth: by Chance or by Law?
Lecture 4: Complexity and Evolvability: What Makes Life so Interesting?
Lecture 5: Searching for Life in the Solar System.
Lecture 6: Amazing Discoveries: A Billion Earth-Like Worlds.
Lecture 7: Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.
PEA RIDGE — It was cold as William Vaughan marched toward Pea Ridge in March 1862, days before the battle there.
Vaughan, a private with the Seventh Division of the Missouri State Guard, was called out March 3 to begin marching at daylight from Cove Creek.
The Missouri State Guard was a Missouri militia group that supported the Confederate cause, said Troy Banzhaf, park ranger at Pea Ridge National Military Park. The Battle of Pea Ridge kept Missouri in the Union after Confederate forces lost, he said. Missouri was a slave state.
Vaughan’s diary from December 1861 to 1862 recently was donated to the park.
Read the full article here: Pea Ridge Takes Donation of Battle Diary.
Title: William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry
Author: William Faulkner (Compilation and Introduction by Carvel Collins)
Written: (copyright 1962)
In 1962 Carvel Collins collected Faulkner’s early writings from the time he spent at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. This writing is generally precious and nearly unbearable. By 1925, however, much of Faulkner’s habitual pretension had begun to fall away. Following are a few notes concerning the individual stories and articles collected in Collin’s book.
“L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune.” Published in The New Republic 6 Aug 1919; appears in slightly revised version in The Mississippian on 29 October. Meter, rhyme and imagery: just fine. The speaker frolics lugubriously with a fetching nymph in the woods. Too many similes, too many repetitious trees and leaves, and a few unintentional chuckles, such as reference to the girl’s “lascivious dreaming knees” makes it a challenge to pay attention to the rest.
“Cathay.” Published in The Mississippian 12 Nov 1919. Meter, rhyme and imagery: just fine. A poem which envisions “empty years infinitely / Rich with thy ghosts” of a glorious past: anticipating the collected works of William Faulkner. No doubt inspired by Ezra Pound’s 1915 collection of Chinese poetry.
“Landing in Luck.” Faulkner’s first published short story, appeared in The Mississippian 26 Nov 1919. Not much of a story: characters almost certainly tiny portraits of real persons Faulkner had known in Canada, and none of them sympathetic, or even memorable. A puff with no control of setting or character or point of view.
“Sapphics.” With “Landing in Luck,” also appeared in The Mississippian 26 Nov 1919. An abstraction, this one, remote, dissevered from easy understanding or relating. An elusive tale of Aphrodite en route from Lesbos. A pre-soporific vision that Faulkner once suffered, seemingly, unfolding in lieu of sleep.
“After Fifty Years,” published 10 Dec 1919 in The Mississippian. A former beauty has become transformed into an ancient (50 years old) witchy crone. Faulkner seems too tied to his rhyme scheme at the expense of generating peculiar images: “A crown she could have had to bind each tress / Of hair.” A separate crown on her head for each tress? Hum? Huh? And Faulkner’s (as usual) hung up on a few words that seem to overpower him but which do less for us: white(ness), dreams, soft(ness), crown(ed), bound, blind. Repetition of cheap words and iffy images.
“Une Ballade des Femmes Perdues” published in late Jan 1920 in The Mississippian. A tip o’ the cap to François Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” Seemingly an old man looking back fondly at the innocent romances of his youth. Green dusk: a nice touch.
“Naiads’ Song” published in The Mississippian, 4 Feb 1920. More Greek mythology strangely out of place in early 20th Century north Mississippi, although it makes for a nice enough Come all ye-type ballad. Nice meter and rhyme and rhythm. When you’re weary and downhearted, come dip down into dreams with us.
Between February and April 1920 Faulkner published a series of four poems in The Mississippian ―exercises, really ― that were part translations, part transformations of Paul Verlaine: “Fantoches” (25 Feb 1920), “Clair de Lune” (3 Mar 1920), “Streets” (3 Mar 1920) and “A Clymène” (14 Apr 1920). Of these the last is the most compelling, with Faulkner getting off a few interesting turns of phrase: “because your eyes / Color of the skies,” and “your voice . . . troubles the horizon / Of my reason.”
“A Poplar” published in The Mississippian 17 Mar 1920, later in The Marble Faun. A girl as tree, or a tree as girl. Some images either troubling or ridiculous, take your pick: “You are a young girl / Trembling in the throes of ecstatic modesty, / A white objective girl / Whose clothing has been forcibly taken away from her.” Now, what are we to make of that? Our ecstatic modesty proscribes penetrative contemplation.
“Study” published in The Mississippian 21 Apr 1920. Driven by well-executed meter and rhyme. An ode to the perennial collegian’s lament about the conflict between the necessity of studying for exams and procrastination. But again we find here Faulkner hung up on a few simple words and their repetition serving in place of a breakthrough into more creative elaboration. A clumsy construction or two are further stumbling blocks: “While I can think of nothing else at all / Except the sunset in her eyes’ still pool.” (One pool or two?) “Trembling gaspingly as though in fear; / Where the timid violet first appear.” (“Gaspingly” is gristly hard enough to swallow, but is the timid violet a flower or an evening’s hue, and in any case oughtn’t it be “appears?”)
“Alma Mater” published in The Mississippian 12 May 1920, later in The Marble Faun. A sentimental and generic end of the year paean to the old school, probably penned in ten minutes or less.
“To a Co-ed” published in the University of Mississippi yearbook annual Ole Miss, end of the spring semester (circa May) 1920. Transfixed by a lovely girl, the moment preserved in vapid verse.
Books and Things column, The Mississippian. Published 10 Nov 1920, in a few paragraphs Faulkner reviews In April Once by WA Percy. In a passage Faulkner singles out and cites as being “the nearest perfect thing in the book,” he unwittingly argues against either pursuing Percy’s collected works or trusting to Faulkner’s judgment of poetry, although it is evident enough why this particular passage might be resonant with the reviewing poet in question. Apparently In April Once concerns itself considerably with the Great War, the great cauldron of Modernity. It is striking that Faulkner, held up as a model Modernist, should say of Percy: “he is like a little boy closing his eyes against the dark of modernity which threatens the bright simplicity and the colorful romantic pageantry of the middle ages with which his eyes are full.” One is struck, reading these words, that Faulkner is as yet unaware that his own poetry is overwhelmed with a desperate clinging to a mythic Grecian past. It will only be when he yields to “dark modernity” in prose that his writing will begin to improve.
Books and Things column, The Mississippian. Faulkner’s review of Turns and Movies and Other Tales in Verse by Conrad Aiken, published 16 Feb 1921. Turgid, esoteric, pompous writing full of comma splices, but so be it: Faulkner raves about Aiken while chastising all other contemporaneous American poets in the most severe manner.
“Co-education at Ole Miss” published 4 May 1921 in The Mississippian. “Thy fair face fills my bean ― O.” Nothing more need be said.
“Nocturne,” published in the University of Mississippi yearbook annual Ole Miss, end of the spring semester, circa May 1921. Section II of “The World and Pierrot. A Nocturne.” appearing in Vision in Spring.
Books and Things column, The Mississippian, Faulkner’s review of Edna St Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo: a Play in One Act, published 13 Jan 1922. Faulkner continues to mock contemporary poets, occasionally lauding Miss Millay’s play, and bemoaning Modernity: “for about all modern playwrights and versifiers offer us is a sterile clashing of ideas innocent of imagination.”
Books and Things column, The Mississippian. Faulkner’s praise of Eugene O’Neill, published 3 Feb 1922. Faulkner’s insufferable pretension goes on and on. And on and on. But “America,” Faulkner baldly states, “has no drama or literature worth the name,” and later in this little essay: “A national literature cannot spring from folk lore . . . America is too big and there are too many folk lores: Southern negroes, Spanish and French strains, the old west, for these always will remain colloquial; nor will it come through our slang, which also is likewise indigenous to restricted portions of the country. It can, however, come from the strength of imaginative idiom which is understandable by all who read English. Nowhere today, saving in parts of Ireland, is the English language spoken with the same earthy strength as it is in the United States; though we are, as a nation, still inarticulate.” It is encouraging that he is flirting with some potentially fertile thoughts: what would make for an important American literature? And how would one go about trying to achieve it? These questions appear to be on his mind.
“The Hill,” a prose sketch, published in The Mississippian on 10 Mar 1922, later modified for A Green Bough. Faulkner ventures hesitantly, still somewhat orotund, into the prose arena. A man comes over a hill and semiconsciously considers the prosaic hamlet in which he passes his days with little to show for his labors. It’s tempting to think that, given his recent thoughts about an American literature, that Faulkner is rethinking his poetry and all that he has accomplished ― or not ― to this point.
Books and Things column, The Mississippian. Published in two parts (17 and 24 Mar 1922), Faulkner holds forth on “American Drama: Inhibitions.” Continuing to bemoan the absence of American culture which makes expats of its most promising artists. But look here: “We have, in America, an inexhaustible fund of dramatic material.” Again he considers the promise of American English, contrasting it with the British version, “melodious but slightly tiresome nightingales in a formal clipped hedge.” Whether he recognizes it or not, Faulkner is sliding in the direction of Modernism.
“Portrait” published in the Jun 1922 issue of the Double Dealer, having already appeared in Vision in Spring. Not the worst sample of that collection.
Books and Things column, The Mississippian. Faulkner’s essay on three novels by Joseph Hergesheimer, “Linda Condon―Cytherea―The Bright Shawl,” published 15 Dec 1922 . . . Let’s just say Faulkner doesn’t care for Hergesheimer and let it go at that.
And there is this important gap in time for Faulkner’s published material: 1923 and 1924, when he was working especially on The Marble Faun and, presumably, engaged in self-assessment and reassessment.
“On Criticism,” published in the Double Dealer, Jan/Feb 1925. Still a preachy tone about the absence of culture in America and on how artists are powerless to get the better of their critics; still, Faulkner comes across with a little more maturity and restraint than we’ve seen before.
“Dying Gladiator” published in the Jan/Feb 1925 issue of Double Dealer. One Roman immortal reproofs another for her too unseemly mourning of fallen mortals, whose lives after all pass away so soon. Not badly written; nor is it a terribly original theme.
“Verse Old and Nascent: a Pilgrimage,” published in Apr 1925 Double Dealer. How Faulkner crucially came across Swinburne at age 16. Claims his original forays into verse were to promote philanderings and to set himself apart in small-town Oxford. Faulkner gets off some striking lines here instead of his former purple prose. “With a man it is . . . art for art’s sake; with a woman it is always art for the artist’s sake.” “When the co-ordinated chaos of the war was replaced by the unco-ordinated chaos of peace I took seriously to reading verse.” “The beauty ― spiritual and physical ― of the South lies in the fact that God has done so much for it and man so little.” How, once he’d read Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, he knew he must break with the past: how a new road into his own future writings was revealed and beckoned before him. He concludes: “Is not there among us someone who can write something beautiful and passionate and sad instead of saddening?” This is not the child-Faulkner we have known before now.
“The Faun” published in Double Dealer Apr 1925. Meter and rhyme: excellent. May’s dryad eludes pursuit by the laggard faun, March. Forest leaves are rippled and ringed, not unlike the surface of a fishy pond. Well, perhaps the faun shall try again when the next year rolls around.
Richard M McMurry’s Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (copyright 2000, University of Nebraska Press) is an exceptionally good book.
Recounting the story of the chess game played by William T Sherman and Joseph E Johnston between Chattanooga and Atlanta, McMurry’s deft touch insures that all the significant moves, and many of the more subtle feints as well, receive their just due. Given the tremendous impact of this particular campaign on the history of the Civil War, and on Lincoln’s re-election bid, and on the fate of slavery and of the United States, too often these particular stories are given short-shrift elsewhere. McMurry corrects that oversight in this concise yet detail-packed slender volume.
McMurry successfully holds at bay the legends and myths of the men involved, devoting considerable time to their foibles, personal limitations, and strategic and tactical errors and outright blunders. No more is this more evident than in his treatment of both Sherman’s and Johnston’s behaviors and choices during the campaign. But there is no sign that McMurry has a personal axe to grind. He is more interested in divesting the myth to reveal the raw and dirty facts of the fight than he is to advance the agenda of either side over the other.
Often in books of Civil War campaigns we are told merely what happened, which direction some army or other elected to travel on a map. McMurry refreshingly always provides insight as to what informed these often pivotal decisions: for this reason alone this book is superior to about ninety percent of its competition in the genre, and all writers in this arena would do well to seriously consider emulating the model presented here.
Also worthy of mention is McMurry’s consideration of the influence of politics and personal foibles that significantly impacted these events. For example, Sherman later claimed he launched the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain because he was concerned about his army becoming rusty from not fighting. McMurry shows that Sherman was also feeling political pressure to have a fight even if he doubted he could win it, and one is reminded of similar actions by Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou and in the early fruitless attacks on the stronghold of Vicksburg. Also, I’d long been mystified by the strange Federal failures at Utoy Creek, and McMurry illuminates the scandal of John Palmer’s dereliction of duty on the field which led to a crisis here and subsequent loss of life.
This isn’t a difficult book to read, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to breeze through, either. This is a book that requires some degree of concentration, but it rewards that attention in abundance. Rarely would I give a book like this such a high rating, but McMurry has done a superb job with his subject, and his book deserves the highest praise and recommendation.