A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path: Excursions into the lesser known works of classical authors

By Margaret McMillan

The pathway into the oeuvre of a famous author begins differently for every reader. Our unique experiences or timing shape what we take and what we leave. The first work that we read by an author is really a first handshake. Like any initial impression, certain features of an author’s work may stand out, only to be confirmed by future encounters. Other features startle at first, only to gradually fade away. Is the handshake firm? Supple? Do they look you in the eye when they speak?

Unlike a personal introduction, first impressions of authors depend much upon the individuality of the reader. We aren’t confronted face-to-face, but rather we follow along behind – picking up the bread-trail of a writer’s life. We also get to choose what work we read, and this choice in turn often defines how we think about an author’s legacy. What is it that Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference?” Although we can continue deeper into an author’s thicket of works, when we read that first novel, or poem, or play, we have taken a certain path from which there is no going back. Fortunately, there are twists and turns that allow us, if we’re diligent readers, to revise our preconceptions. Yet, that first work, that first handshake, remains as a powerful impression nevertheless.

It’s a great misfortune that most pathways to classical authors begin in the driest of settings; the high school classroom. Reading a heavily annotated edition of a classic work under the duress of assessment is like trying on prom gowns in an ill lit dressing-room stall. As an English teacher, I realize the challenges of cultivating a good first impression, and try my best to choose works with the realization that this might be my student’s first encounter with an author. I cross my fingers that it won’t be their last. Paving the way for a good first impression is a tall order. Do you choose works that are emotionally accessible or formulaically recognizable? Or do you prioritize the daring or progressive work of an author’s oeuvre? Do you take a risk on the wacky or eclectic, with the hope that students will want more? What exactly makes a work important?

But I find myself rambling away from my intended path for this essay – what happens when we dive deeper into the works of one author? Fortunately for avid readers, first impressions often don’t deter us from returning for more. Part of the joy of reading emerges within the protracted encounter with a single author. When we read multiple works by the same author, we begin to form a relationship that allows us to explore what is really singular and spectacular about their work. Reading the span of an author’s lifetime allows us to understand writing as a process that requires diligence and practice. What a shock to discover a masterpiece that post-dates the accepted zenith of a writer’s career! How humanizing and comforting to stumble upon an earlier novel that’s underwhelming. Discovering the lesser-known works of an author allows us the opportunity to revise and deepen first impressions. I find this particularly true for classical authors whose popular reputation rests upon one well-read book (there’s that prom dress again). I wanted to take the opportunity to share some gems that I discovered by classical authors that are off the beaten path. You probably won’t find them on a high school syllabus, or on your shelf at the local box bookstore. Some of these texts are a footnote in an author’s legacy. Each one offered a new insight for me on an otherwise widely-known author. But, who am to say? For me, these were the paths not taken. For you, they might have been your entry-point.

piazza-talesHerman MelvilleThe Piazza Tales. I’ll begin with Melville because I had the misfortune of a very bad first impression. My experience with Melville began as an undergraduate, reading his bizarre, critical flop, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. As a late teen, the labyrinthine plot, with its Freudian undertones, defeated me. I didn’t return to Melville until graduate school, when a nagging feeling that as a scholar of American studies I probably should give Moby Dick a chance finally prompted me to pick up a copy at an airport kiosk. From there, our relationship was rekindled.

If anyone has the misfortune of being labeled a one-hit wonder, poor Herman Melville certainly would take the literary prize. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, tends to eclipse the rest of his contemporary legacy like a super moon. Ironically, at the time that he published his heavily philosophical story about the white whale, Melville actually experienced a decline in popularity from a readership more interested in his earlier – decidedly lighter – adventure novels and travelogues. This all changed after the 1920s, when literary scholars began to salvage Melville’s legacy, and along with it, the wreck of the Pequod. Now you can pick up a copy anywhere (as proof, see my anecdote above).

For a man whom some scholars designate the first American novelist, it’s no surprise that his lengthiest masterpiece is also his most read. But Melville was a much more versatile writer than Barnes & Noble gives him credit for – he tried his hand at travelogues, short stories, and poetry, including an 18,000 line epic poem in iambic tetrameter. For a taste of Melville that displays his talents in a different light, take a look at his short story collection, The Piazza Tales. The story of Bartleby, the Scrivener puts Melville’s unique humor on display, while Benito Cereno sends chills down your spine and proves that although Ishmael can talk your ear off, Melville doesn’t necessarily require page length to impress.

dred.jpgHarriet Beecher Stowe. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Stowe clearly suffers from a similar tragedy as her contemporary, Melville. Characterized by her most famous (or infamous?) work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe has been pigeonholed into an important but over-simplified role in relationship to American slavery. Despite Stowe’s pro-emancipation sympathies, her sentimentalized portrayal of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since received castigation by numerous scholars, including the African American novelist James Baldwin. However, to view Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Stowe’s one thesis on race is to do a tremendous disservice to her legacy as the most prominent abolitionist of her time.

The tucked up edges of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unravel under the pressure of the political and social complexities explored in Dred. Naïve racial characterization is abandoned for a more sophisticated understanding of African American identity. And at the center of the novel, the problematically submissive figure of Uncle Tom has been replaced by the powerful, prophetic voice of an escaped revolutionary.

captainsRudyard Kipling. Captains Courageous. A book by this title, written by a British Victorian, immediately summons comparisons to Treasure Island. But, Captains Courageous was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson but a more unlikely novelist. Best known for his short stories about India, Rudyard Kipling remains most beloved as the author of The Jungle Book. Luckily for his English-speaking cousins on the far-side of the sea, Kipling also wrote a children’s classic about Americans that resembles the coming-of-age novels of Mark Twain.

As the son of an American millionaire, Harvey Cheyne Jr’s posh lifestyle is interrupted by a storm that washes him overboard during a transatlantic voyage. He is subsequently rescued by a fishing vessel but when he fails to convince the captain of his status, he must spend the rest of the summer catching cod and learning the meaning of real work. The tale’s moral conclusion comes across as authentic rather than heavy-handed, and Kipling’s use of dialect to capture the fishermen’s unique speech patterns adds color to his portrayal of maritime life.

cape cod.jpgHenry David Thoreau. Cape Cod. Usually readers first encounter Thoreau in one of two places; on the banks of Walden Pond or in jail. But, as Thoreau himself admits in his numerous essays, he enjoyed a good long walk, and he sometimes would travel great distances by other means in order to take one. Cape Cod describes several such walking excursions to what Thoreau describes as the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”

For even aficionados of Thoreau, Cape Cod might still be off the beaten path, simply because this work was published posthumously and has received limited critical attention until recently. During his lifetime, Thoreau lectured on a wide variety of topics, including this trip. According to newspaper accounts, his description of Cape Cod kept his audience in stitches. Despite Thoreau’s admiration of the Romantic poets, Cape Cod might be considered a satire of picturesque nature writing. Thoreau’s sardonic observations about the harshness of coastal life provide a more complex picture of the hostility of nature than Walden. Despite the irony, Cape Cod contains some of Thoreau’s most poetic descriptions – in particular, his account of a lighthouse. Reading Cape Cod further clarifies Thoreau’s perception of the natural world, and man’s place in it.

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Margaret McMillan just finished an MA in American Literature, where she spent some quality time with our good pal Ishmael. Now, she’s enjoying staying home with her toddler and reading lots of Llama Llama Red Pajama

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