Wednesday, April 08, 2015

`More Worthy Than Mere Craftsmanship'

The poet and teacher Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856-1935) was born in Waverly, Md., then a rural village called Huntingdon, now a neighborhood on Baltimore’s north side. In 1866 it was renamed after Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverly (1814). The chapter titled “Books” in Reese’s A Victorian Village: Reminiscences of Other Days (Farrar & Rinehart, 1929) opens with a memory of hemming handkerchiefs at a church in Waverly while her godmother read aloud to the girls as they sewed. Reese doesn’t identify the book but says: 

“This was my first introduction to literature, for, although I did not know it, the tall lady was leading us along the path of good, sound English prose. . .my godmother’s reading made literature an affair, a function. Other than this, and if you can call it teaching, I was never taught literature.” 

Reese spends the next twenty-five pages remembering the books she read growing up in Waverly. What’s noteworthy is how closely her bookish C.V., assembled in the second half of the nineteenth century, resembles mine, though I was born ninety-six years later. She starts with Mother Goose and The Pilgrim’s Progress, as I did. The latter, Reese says, was “almost too real a book to me,” which is how I remember the Valley of the Shadow of Death. She read Dickens, starting with Pickwick Papers, as I did. “I at once fell in love with Dickens; I love him still.” My infatuation was less permanent, though I still reread Pickwick and, occasionally, Our Mutual Friend. (I couldn’t reread A Tale of Two Cities on a bet.) Reese remembers learning of Dickens’ death in 1870: “And his readers everywhere had that sense of permanent loss. For there was then a sort of family feeling between an author and his readers.” 

She read Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray (“the great god of the century”), Trollope (“an almost unearthly faculty for divining the noble-ignoble motives which influence average mankind”), the Bront√ęs and Hardy. I’m surprised by the absence of Defoe and Swift. She says: “I read a good deal of history, not, I declare, in order to add to my hoard of facts, but on account of its connection with women and with men. I read Gibbon, Merivale, Motley, Macaulay. Outside of a dozen chapters of Gibbon, I cared for Macaulay most of all.” I didn’t catch up with them (and Carlyle and Ruskin, whom she also mentions) until years later. Not even the kind of kid I was could be prepared for that curriculum. About poetry, Reese is amusing. She read Shakespeare (“I was familiar with the sound of him long before I understood his meaning”--ditto), Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning (“He was a perfect godsend to those people who loved to read what they did not quite understand”). She read Poe, Whittier and Emerson. All of Jane Austen, The Rise of Silas Lapham, “The Turn of the Screw” and Huckleberry Finn. George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Christina Rosetti. No mention of Stevenson. Reese’s sensibility straddles eras. She remains partially Victorian well into the Modernist age. We're reminded that the reading of novels was once at the core of many an education, literary and moral (who put the Bildung in Bildungsroman?). Near the conclusion of her “Books” chapter she writes: 

“The Victorians had a full cup and it spilled over. I thank that this is the reason that their faults, worst among which were their overelaboration and sentimentality, are so apparent. They had so much material on hand, so much creative ability, that at times and too often they were mastered by them. If they had been poorer in either, they might have had fewer defects. Their conventions, also, were really a part of their ideals. Their initial thinking was straight, but somehow in many cases grew twisted toward the end. There was a very madness for instruction. To judge their poetry and prose a critic must have historic sense, and a sense of humor.” 

In 1910, H.L. Mencken, a native and champion of Baltimore, reviewed Reese’s A Wayside Lute in the Smart Set. The review, pointed out to me by Terry Teachout, Mencken’s biographer, is a happy pretext for Mencken to digress on some of his favorite hobbyhorses, but his appreciation of Reece’s verse is genuine. After quoting “Tears” he writes: 

“It is a vain thing, of course, to attempt to point out the beauties of a work of art when they must be patent to any sane observer, but in the present case I can’t resist calling attention to the fine simplicity of this exquisite sonnet, to the quite remarkable beauty of its phrases, to its haunting rhythms, to the noble dignity which lifts it up and certifies to its author’s possession of something rarer and more worthy than mere craftsmanship.”

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