Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three Novels by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) was a writer and what we might today call a political activist, although she seems to have expressed herself mostly in religious terms. Her novel Iola Leroy is said to be one of the earliest known novels by an African-American. For many years it was believed that she had written no other novels, but three more were discovered and republished in 1994. I haven't read Iola Leroy, but the set of three books impressed me so much that I wanted to blog about them.

They are not only fascinating for historical reasons, but also entertaining to read.

These novels were serialized in a religious magazine. The modern-day editor remarks on the fact that they had almost no proofreading or editing performed upon them (in fact, contemporary subscribers complained about the number of typos throughout the paper.) Nonetheless they are well written. I don't believe I have read better dialogue anywhere.

Harper was devoted to both women's rights and the rights of black Americans. These days, black feminists frequently complain that they feel as if they have to choose between one or the other . . . as if feminism is a "white thing" and racial solidarity requires no complaints about sexism. Harper seems to have felt no such conflict. It's interesting that she also displays no interest in working with white feminists.

Anyway, on to the novels.
  • Minnie's Sacrifice (first published 1869) - deals with "passing" and the Reconstruction era, a time of tremendous joy and disillusionment. Those who had lived to see the end of slavery, after so many years, discover that some things still have not changed.
    ". . . when Mrs. Hickman said, 'Well, Sarah, I really pity you,' I saw her dark eyes flash, and she has really beautiful eyes, as she said, 'it is not pity we want, it is justice.'"
  • Sowing and Reaping (first published 1876-77) - a temperance story. One noteworthy thing about it is that the race of the characters is not specified at all. I almost wondered if it was set in some future time when racial discrimination no longer existed but alcoholism was still a problem. It shows that Harper cared deeply about many issues.
  • Trial and Triumph (first published 1888-89) - Frances Smith Foster, the editor, suggests that there are autobiographical elements in this book. It is the story of an intelligent, socially rather awkward, but tender-hearted girl who wants to make her way in the world, despite relatives who misunderstand her and prejudice from society. I learned from reading this book that only white girls were allowed to work in factories - and now we think of that as being demeaning work.
    ". . . Nor did she lay all the household burdens on the shoulders of the girls and leave her boys to the mercy of the pavement; she tried to make her home happy and taught them all to have a share in adding to its sunshine. 'It makes boys selfish,' she would say, 'to have their sisters do all the work and let the boys go scot-free. I don't believe there would be so many trifling men if the boys were trained to be more helpful at home and to feel more for their mothers and sisters.'"
All of these novels are on Project Gutenberg. Check them out!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Derelict Art Deco

This is a building near my house. They are currently renovating it . . . hope they'll keep those tiles.

Update (7/3/09) another detail which I never noticed before:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

If I had written "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Once upon a time there lived a painter. One day he encountered a most beauteous youth. "My goodness!" he said. "You are the most perfect thing I have ever seen. I must paint you!"

"If I am already perfect, why do you wish to add paint to me?" the young man asked. But at length he was persuaded to sit, and the portrait was done.

When the young man saw it, he cried, "Alas! This picture will remain forever young, while I will grow old and lose my beauty."

"My dear boy," the painter replied, "Beauty comes from within. When people speak of 'radiant beauty,' it is the inner light they see. Cultivate that light, and your beauty will never fade, no matter what happens to your looks."

(It so happens that this painter had a friend, who prided himself on his witty sallies. When he saw the portrait, he remarked, "A pretty boy is like a melody." This nobleman made a point of cultivating a languid and thoughtless demeanor, as though his exquisite remarks were produced without any effort on his part. Unfortunately, in truth they required so much exertion that one day he strained an extremely important muscle. Upon his doctor's orders, he was sent to convalesce in a country where no one spoke English, and he himself did not speak any of their languages. Naturally, he was never heard from again.)

The reigning Queen of this country had many children. One of her grown-up sons was notorious for his appreciation of male beauty. Consequently, the painter presented the portrait to him. His Royal Highness soon expressed an interest in meeting the original, and in time the two young men became the best of friends. Neither of them ever married.

One unhappy day, the Queen was informed by some malicious tongue that, not only were the two inseparable, but that there was something unnatural about their friendship. She let it be known that this displeased her, and before many months had passed new legislation was introduced into the country, forbidding excessive intimacy between men. This was all because of the portrait of Dorian Gray.

Dorian chose to leave the country, and settled in France. Since nothing of importance ever happens outside of England, there is not much more to be said about him, except that one day the painter came to visit him and confessed:

"My poor boy, I was the one who blackened your name to the Queen, and what is worse I did it out of sheer jealousy. Can you ever forgive me?"

"Pray, Basil, do not trouble yourself. The weather is lovely here, and one's money goes so much further. I am quite happy. I only wonder if poor old Chumpers was allowed to keep my portrait. Ah! Once I wished that the picture could grow old, while I stayed young. But now I have no regrets. And after all, if it were to show all the marks of experience, it would be as if the portrait itself did all those things, and not me at all."

And so it goes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I don't think I've ever seen one before.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My Political Ideal

My analogy of good government is a traffic light. It gives everybody a chance to get where they're going and prevents us from crashing into each other. Of course, your destination is your own business.

I was briefly an anarchist when I was younger, but I've come to realize that we do need some order, and the rule of law. (Still like The Sex Pistols though.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Moon Poem

The moon says:

Everything that is not real
is real.

Everything that lives in darkness,
everything that lives in sleep.

The moon says

The sunlit life is only half a life.

Close your eyes and see
The radiance of the moon that shines within.

I wrote this over a year ago. (Somebody else wrote "by the light of the moon that shines within" and I borrowed it.)