Her interest in people and other animals was warm, personal, and friendly. She always found something to excuse, and as a rule to love, in the toughest of them–even if she had to put it there herself. She was the natural ally and friend of the friendless. It was believed that, Presbyterian as she was, she could be beguiled into saying a soft word for the devil himself, and so the experiment was tried. The abuse of Satan began; one conspirator after another added his bitter word, his malign reproach, his pitiless censure, till at last, sure enough, the unsuspecting subject of the trick walked into the trap. She admitted that the indictment was sound, that Satan was utterly wicked and abandoned, just as these people had said; but would any claim that he had been treated fairly? A sinner was but a sinner; Satan was just that, like the rest. What saves the rest?–their own efforts alone? No–or none might ever be saved. To their feeble efforts is added the mighty help of pathetic, appealing, imploring prayers that go up daily out of all the churches in Christendom and out of myriads upon myriads of pitying hearts. But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for th pelain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
This friend of Satan was a most gentle spirit and an unstudied and unconscious pathos was her native speech. When her pity or her indignation was stirred by hurt or shame inflicted upon some defenseless person or creature, she was the most eloquent person I have heard speak. It was seldom eloquence of a fiery or violent sort, but gentle, pitying, persuasive, appealing; and so genuine and so nobly and simply worded and so touchingly uttered, that many times I have seen it win the reluctant and splendid applause of tears.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider. New York: HarperPerennial, 2013.
The cover displayed above is from the Deluxe Modern Classic (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) Kindle edition, published in 2011.
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the look-out for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling – something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim….
I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.
This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.
Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative. “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.”
She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.
Even their extraordinary problems are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.
Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”
She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”
If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are so important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.
Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”
And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.
She isn’t alone in liking her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies–or, as I see it, when she kills one–I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died. They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.
But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them–that seriously messes up my day.
Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.
In the book I’m reading now–I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you–Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and–if it wasn’t asking too much–‘not too heavy on religion.'”
He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.
But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.
And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.
I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.
Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.
If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.
*Experts (says an article on the web) say readers are attracted to lists with numbers in the titles. We’ll see.
**I have other possibilities. These are the ones I can see without getting up and crossing the room.
***I started this post last night but fiddled so long with it that I didn’t have time to read.
I’m still fiddling with it.
But tonight . . .
I love WordPress, but sometimes we disagree about formatting, mostly about position of photographs and about spacing. What I see here on the edit page isn’t always what both of us see on the published page. I have done my darndest to make it do what I tell it to do. At this point, I don’t care. If the post looks funny, please just read it and ignore the WordPress deficiencies. My deficiencies you are welcome to notice and even to point out.
Mark Twain is given official credit for this poem, but it was really composed by Emmeline Grangerford, whose family Huckleberry Finn met on his Adventures down the Mississippi River.
Below, Huck quotes Emmeline’s tribute to Stephen Dowling Bots, who came to a watery end. He also records what happened to Emmeline, whose compulsive rhyming finally led to her sadful demise.
This young girl kept a scrap-book when she was alive, and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head. It was very good poetry. This is what she wrote about a boy by the name of Stephen Dowling Bots that fell down a well and was drownded:
Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d. And did young Stephen sicken, And did young Stephen die? And did the sad hearts thicken, And did the mourners cry?
* No; such was not the fate of Young Stephen Dowling Bots; Though sad hearts round him thickened, ‘Twas not from sickness’ shots. * No whooping-cough did rack his frame, Nor measles drear, with spots; Not these impaired the sacred name Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
* Despised love struck not with woe That head of curly knots, Nor stomach troubles laid him low, Young Stephen Dowling Bots.
* O no. Then list with tearful eye, Whilst I his fate do tell. His soul did from this cold world fly, By falling down a well.
* They got him out and emptied him; Alas it was too late; His spirit was gone for to sport aloft In the realms of the good and great.
If Emmeline Grangerford could make poetry like that before she was fourteen, there ain’t no telling what she could a done by-and-by. Buck said she could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn’t ever have to stop to think. He said she would slap down a line, and if she couldn’t find anything to rhyme with it she would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead. She warn’t particular, she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her “tribute” before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker- the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme the dead person’s name, which was Whistler. She warn’t ever the same, after that; she never complained, but she kind of pined away and did not live long.
Mark Twain cared about words: Pa’s boot with a couple of his toes leaking out of the front end; the sow lying in the middle of the street looking as happy as if she was on salary; and Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on.
In his autobiography, he tells the story of a time his mother used the right words to teach him a lesson that lasted a lifetime.
There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing – it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—
“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”
It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last – especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.
In yesterday's post I wrote about Lynna Williams' story "Personal Testimony." Here are the first three paragraphs of the story.
“The last night of church camp, 1963, and I am sitting on the front row of the junior mixed-voice choir looking out on the crowd in the big sanctuary tent. The tent glows, green and white and unexpected, in the Oklahoma night; our choir director, Dr. Bledsoe, has schooled us in the sudden crescendos needed to compete with the sounds cars make when their drivers cut the corner after a night at the bars on Highway 10 and see the tent rising out of the plain for the first time. The tent is new to Faith Camp this year, a gift to God and the Southern Baptist Convention from the owner of a small circus who repented, and then retired, in nearby Oklahoma City. It is widely rumored among the campers that Mr. Talliferro came to Jesus late in life, after having what my mother would call Life Experiences. Now he walks through camp with the unfailing good humor of a man who, after years of begging hardscrabble farmers to forsake their fields for an afternoon of elephants and acrobats, has finally found a real draw: His weekly talks to the senior boys on “Sin and the Circus?” incorporate a standing-room-only question-and-answer period, and no one ever leaves early.
“Although I will never be allowed to hear one of Mr. Talliferro’s talks—I will not be twelve forever, but I will always be a girl—I am encouraged by his late arrival into our Fellowship of Believers. I will take my time, too, I think: first I will go to high school, to college, to bed with a boy, to New York. (I think of those last two items as one since, as little as I know about sex, I do know it is not something I will ever be able to do in the same time zone as my mother.) Then when I’m fifty-two or so and have had, like Mr. Talliferro, sufficient Life Experiences, I’ll move back to west Texas and repent.
“Normally, thoughts of that touching—and distant—scene of repentance are how I entertain myself during evening worship service. But tonight I am unable to work up any enthusiasm for the vision of myself sweeping into my hometown to be forgiven. For once my thoughts are entirely on the worship service ahead.”
Yesterday I wrote that the narrator of “Personal Experience” is eleven years old. When I discovered the excerpt, I was reminded she’s really twelve. I’ll correct my error. My narrator, however, continues to be eleven.
On my way home from work one night in the ’90s, I heard actress Judith Ivey on Selected Shorts, reading “Personal Testimony,” a short story by Lynna Williams.
The narrator is eleven-year-old Ellen Whitmore, a preacher’s daughter from Fort Worth, who is at Southern Baptist summer camp in Oklahoma. At evening services, when campers are expected to witness to their experiences of sin and repentance, Ellen demonstrates a talent that catches the attention of fifteen-year-old Michael. Although he’s reputed to be most spiritual boy in camp, Michael has what Ellen’s brother calls “Jesus Jaw”– he has plenty to say but can’t complete a simple sentence: “I just–I mean, it’s just so–I just . . .” He tells Ellen he wishes he could speak about his spiritual life as easily as she can speak about hers, so, following her mother’s example, she offers to help. Within days, she has a thriving business writing personal testimonies for older campers, a gratifying popularity, and a fat stack of bills stashed in her Bible at John 3:16. Her adventure in capitalism ends at the summer’s final service, when she sees her father in the congregation, realizes he knows, and makes one last and very public attempt to avoid his wrath.
I’ve heard that people don’t laugh aloud when alone. That’s not true. I sailed down I-35 guffawing and then quickly broke out in tears.
(I hate it when writers manipulate me like that. It’s just one more skill to covet.)
I’d been writing off and on for a few years but hadn’t produced anything even marginally successful. A small circle of friends and family liked the pieces I showed them, but they also liked me– most of the time–and they weren’t seasoned critics anyway. The writing was bad. I was frustrated. Not knowing what was wrong, I couldn’t make it right. Classes and workshops didn’t help.
The night I heard Judith Ivey read, all that changed. I didn’t experience an epiphany, per se, but there was a definite moment of enlightenment: My best work was bad because it had no voice. I had no voice. The nearest I could manage was a small-time literary critic in love with semicolons.
Listening to “Personal Testimony,” I heard Lynna William’ voice and knew what I should do.
My work should sound natural to my ear. Informal. Fluid. First person narration by a self-absorbed eleven-year-old girl with attitude, precocious in some areas and in others absolutely clueless. That comprised Enlightenment, Part I.
Then came Enlightenment, Part II: I’ve been hearing that voice most of my life. It’s the one I think in. I didn’t have to worry about copying Williams–it’s my voice, too. I’d just never recognized its potential.
Not long after hearing “Personal Testimony,” I allowed the eleven-year-old in my head to dictate a story while I wrote. Then she dictated another. And they worked.
My inner child is different from Ellen, as is only right. Mine is sharper, has more attitude. I have no idea why.
A year ago, my eleven-year-old suddenly morphed into a forty-year-old woman. She has so much attitude she’s scary. Now there’s a third voice, very different from the other two, stronger and scarier even than the forty-year-old. The third voice came as a relief. I’d wondered whether the pre-teen was all I had. What if everything I wrote came from the same source and sounded just like what had come before? The child is fun to listen to, for a while, but after a time, she can become wearing. I spend enough time with her as it is. Readers would soon get their fill.
There are some things that can’t be learned in a classroom. An instructor might have told me my work lacked voice, but he couldn’t have said how to find the right fit.
I’m indebted to Lynna Williams for helping me to hear a girl’s voice, and to recognize its value. She inspired hope. She showed me that if I listen, the eleven-year-old in my head will tell me what I need to know.
Having spent the week engaged in selfish pursuits, I wanted to do one good deed before midnight–less than half an hour from now.
I’ve chosen to share a story: Keith Olbermann reading James Thurber’s “The Dog That Bit People.”
I met Thurber in fifth grade, when all students, K-12, were herded into
the auditorium to hear high school students practice for an upcoming Interscholastic League prose reading competition. Cullen Myers Dauchy read “The Night the Ghost Got In.”
By the end of the first page, I was in love.
Five years later, I had the pleasure of preparing Thurber’s “The Dog That Bit People” for the same competition. Although I never read it in contest–it fell under category C, and for three years in a row, the contest manager drew A or B–I loved the story of Muggs, who sank his teeth into everyone except Mrs. Thurber–and he went for her once–and in old age, walked through the house muttering like Hamlet following his father’s ghost.
I can’t share Thurber’s drawing of Muggs, so I’ve posted a photo from Wikipedia. This dog looks sweet, not grumpy, and Muggs was “a big, burly, choleric dog,” so for the full effect, you’ll have to imagine him with wearing a frown.
Muggs lived in the house on Jefferson Avenue, also pictured here.
Dear March — Come in —
How glad I am —
I hoped for you before —
Put down your Hat —
You must have walked —
How out of Breath you are —
Dear March, Come right upstairs with me —
I have so much to tell —
I got your Letter, and the Birds —
The Maples never knew that you were coming — till I called
I declare — how Red their Faces grew —
But March, forgive me — and
All those Hills you left for me to Hue —
There was no Purple suitable —
You took it all with you —
Who knocks? That April.
Lock the Door —
I will not be pursued —
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied —
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come
That Blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame —
~ Emily Dickinson
Image of daffodil by Nanda93 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons