Charles Dickens to The Times — I Stand Astounded and Appalled

Charles-Dickens

On November 13, 1849 a crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside a prison in South London to witness the public execution of Marie and Frederick Manning. Marie and Frederick, a married couple, had recently murdered Marie’s wealthy former lover, Patrick O’Connor. Given that this was the first married couple to be hanged in over a century, the publicity was intense, and it became known as “The hanging of the century.” The event also attracted the pen of Charles Dickens, who shared his opinion with The Times and its readers.

Devonshire Terrace,
Tuesday, Thirteenth November, 1849

Sir,
I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over. I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself. I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly— as it did— it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not a time to think of this one, and to root it out.

I am, Sir, your faithful Servant.
Charles Dickens

This letter and many others can be found in Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.

The Future of Writing In the Age of Information

David Foster Wallace remains both loved and hated. His wisdom shows itself in argumentative writing, ambition and perfectionism, and perhaps one of the best, most profound, commencement addresses ever. He’s revered, in part, because he makes us think … about ourselves, about society, and about things we don’t generally want to think about.

In this interview from May of 1996 with Charlie Rose, Wallace addresses “the future of fiction in the information age.” His thoughts highlight the difficulties of reading in an age of distraction and are worth considering in a world where we often prefer being entertained to being educated.

On commercial entertainment for the masses and how it changes what we seek, Wallace comments:

Commercial entertainment — its efficiency, its sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses — changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment, it changes what an audience is looking for. I would argue that it changes us in deeper ways than that. And that some of the ways that commercial culture and commercial entertainment affects human beings is one of the things that I sort of think that serious fiction ought to be doing right now.

[…]

There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world …

What’s tricky for me is … It would be one thing if everybody was absolutely delighted watching TV 24/7. But we have, as a culture, not only an enormous daily watching rate but we also have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV … Now TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV. There’s a way in which we who are watching a whole lot are also aware that we’re missing something — that there’s something else, there’s something more. While at the same time, because TV is really darn easy, you sit there and you don’t have to do very much.

Commenting on our need for easy fun he elaborates

Because commercial entertainment has conditioned readers to want easy fun, I think that avant garde and art fiction has sort of relinquished the field. Basically I don’t read much avant garde stuff because it’s hilaciously un-fun. … A lot of it is academic and foisted and basically written for critics.

What got him started writing?

Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.

I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.

​​(h/t Brainpickings)

David Foster Wallace on Argumentative Writing and Nonfiction

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

In December 2004, Bryan A. Garner, who had already struck up a friendship with David Foster Wallace, started interviewing state and federal judges as well as a few key writers. With over a hundred interviews under his belt by January 2006, he called David to suggest they do an interview. So on February 3, 2006 the two finally got together in Los Angeles for an extensive conversation on writing and life that offers a penetrating look into our collective psyche. Their conversation has been captured in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

Very few things get me more excited than reading one smart person interview another. I mean, we’re not talking TV puff pieces here, we’re talking outright depth with an incisive look at culture.

For context, Garner is the author of a book that, admittedly, I have a hard time not opening on a weekly basis: Garner’s Modern American Usage, which helps explain some of the insightful banter between the two.

When asked if, before writing a long nonfiction piece, he attempts to understand the structure of the whole before starting, Wallace simply responded “no.”

Elaborating on this he goes on to say:

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.

If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know— and people are always interested and want to know what you do— most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Were it me, I see doing it in the third or fourth draft as part of the “Oh my God, is what I’m saying making any sense at all? Can somebody who’s reading it, who can’t read my mind, fit it into some sort of schematic structure of argument?”

I think a more sane person would probably do that at the beginning. But I don’t know that anybody would be able to get away with . . . Put it this way: if you couldn’t do it, if you can’t put . . . If you’re writing an argumentative thing, which I think people in your discipline are, if you couldn’t, if forced, put it into an outline form, you’re in trouble.

Commenting on what constitutes a good opening in argumentative writing, Wallace offers:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

Garner, the interviewer, follows this up by asking “Do you think of most pieces as having this, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end—those three parts?”

I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is, how much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act . . . a three-part structure.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other— and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument— and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

Why are transitions so important?

[pause] Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating. My own guess is that at just about the point where that amount— the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort— becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof. Right?

But one of the things I end up saying to the students is, “Realize your professors are human beings. They’re reading these things really fast, but you’re often being graded down for reasons that the professor isn’t consciously aware of because of an immense amount of reading and an immense amount of evaluation of the quality of a piece of writing, the qualities of the person producing it, occur below, just below, the level of consciousness, which is really the way you want it. And one of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it— the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

One of the things that makes a really good writer, according to Wallace, is they “can just kind of feel” when to make transitions and when not to.

Which doesn’t mean such creatures are born, but it does mean that’s why practicing and paying attention never stop being important. Right? It’s because we’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.

In case you’re wondering, it was Tense Present, DFW’s review of Garner’s book that sparked their friendship. The full article, before Harper’s cuts, appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Quack This Way is an insightful interview by two terrific minds.

John Keats on the Quality That Formed a Man of Achievement: Negative Capability

John Keats coined the term negative capability to describe the willingness to embrace uncertainty, mysteries and doubts.

The first and only time Keats used the phrase was in a letter on 21 December 1817 to his brothers in reference to his disagreement with the English poet and philosopher Coleridge, who Keats believed “sought knowledge over beauty.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

From Wikipedia:

Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.

This concept of Negative Capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature. He demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason, and to not seek absolute knowledge of every truth, mystery, or doubt.

The origin of the term is unknown, but some scholars have hypothesized that Keats was influenced in his studies of medicine and chemistry, and that it refers to the negative pole of an electric current which is passive and receptive. In the same way that the negative pole receives the current from the positive pole, the poet receives impulses from a world that is full of mystery and doubt, which cannot be explained but which the poet can translate into art.

Although this was the only time that Keats used the term, this view of aesthetics and rejection of a rationalizing tendency has influenced much commentary on Romanticism and the tenets of human experience.

For the twentieth-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, negative capability “was the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.”

If you’re still curious, I recommend reading this thesis on Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness.

My Life In Middlemarch

middlemarch

Rebecca Mead has written a book like no other I’ve come across. My Life In Middlemarch is an irresistibly creative story about how her favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, changed her and perhaps more importantly, changed as she read and re-read it over the years.

Commenting on how books were a part of her identity, Mead writes:

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. … Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch—with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling.

On her fascination with Middlemarch, looking back she writes:

I admired the little I knew of George Eliot’s life: her daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan preeminence, a good story to hear if one is an anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town. I was intrigued by her adoption of a masculine pseudonym, by which she continued to be known throughout her life as a novelist, even after her identity was revealed early in her fiction-writing career. I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for who it was written.

Commenting on the value of re-reading, Mead says:

Middlemarch was one book I have never stopped reading, despite all the distractions of a busy working life. I went back to it as a student … I read it again in my twenties … In my thirties, trying to establish myself as a serious writer, I was struck with new, poignant force by the story of Lydgate—the ambitious would-be reformer who becomes, instead, a society doctor known for a treatise on gout, “a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side,” in Eliot’s pointed observation. The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it and by my early forties it had come to have yet another resonance. In a far from singular crisis, I had recently become consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternative lives unlived: work I might have done, places I might have moved to, men I might have married, children I might have borne. In this light, a book that had once seemed to be all about the hopes and desires of youth now seemed to cover a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade.

Being a journalist for years had shaped Mead. Armed with a better sense of nuance and questions to ask, she once again took up the cause to look at something “familiar from an unfamiliar angle,” wondering what she would find.

Cloaked in this quasi-objective spirit of inquiry was another set of questions, these ones more personal, and pressing, and secret. What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? and what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things and surveyed where I had come from, and then thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?

The book is full of interesting stories. Like the one on how Charles Dickens suspected that George Eliot was, in fact, a man. When Eliot’s first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, was published, Dickens wrote to the publisher, noting, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman since the world began.” A short time after Adam Bede, her first book, was published her identity was revealed. Dickens commented, “‘Adam Bede’ has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.”

Commenting on the value of reading, Mead writes:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.

My Life In Middlemarch is part memoir, part mini-biography of the great Victorian writer George Eliot, who was born Mary Ann Evans, and part homage to great literature.

Stephen King On Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Lovecraft & More

Stephen King speaks on a number of topics and takes questions from students, faculty and others in a “Master’s Class” at UMass Lowell.

I sometimes think that people don’t challenge themselves very hard to read stuff that’s a little bit more textured or nuanced. … And then sometimes I think that the people (who) are defenders of what they call literature, feel like a book has to be a ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers.

Mark Twain on New Year’s Resolutions

Mark Twain’s Letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Jan. 1863

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

Antigone

antigone

I recently picked up Sophocles’s Antigone. Sophocles wrote more than 100 plays in his lifetime but only seven complete tragedies remain.

In Antigone, Polynices, son of Oedipus, went to war with his brother, Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes, for control of the city. These two kill each other and their uncle, Creon, assumes control of the city.

Creon regards Polynices as a traitor. Accordingly, he denies his body a decent burial. He warns that anyone ignoring this edict shall be put to death.

Creon’s position is understandable. He’s trying to establish order, punish a traitor, and gain political authority. Yet he proceeds in ignorance, in the sense that he does not see the possible outcomes that may arise from his edict.

Antigone is the sister of Polynices and Eteocles. She’s clearly upset with this and defies Creon’s order to give her brother a proper burial. Antigone is convinced that Creon is wrong. To her he’s defying the authority of the gods and overstepping.

Antigone is arrested and confesses. Creon orders her death by sealing her in a cave, entombed alive.

Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns Creon. “Think, thou dost walk on fortune’s razor-edge.” He predicts that if Creon doesn’t change his mind and permit the burial of Polynices, the gods will curse Thebes. Disaster, of course, will naturally follow.

Creon recognizes the error of his ways and realizes he made a mistake. He orders Antigone to be freed and Polynices a proper burial.

Alas, this wouldn’t quite be a tragedy if things worked out so neatly.

Antigone has already hung herself. Her fiancé, who also happens to be Creon’s son, blames his father for her death. He tries to kill his father but accidentally ends up killing himself. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears of her son’s death and commits suicide.

So what exactly can we learn from all of this?

Creon is reluctant to change from the status quo. While he may not have foreseen Antigone’s reaction or its consequences as warned by the prophet, he refuses, until it is too late, to change his mind. He’s powerful. He’s the ruler. He needs to be seen as decisive and he likely views changing his mind as a loss of status rather than a gain of compassion. Yet it is more complicated than this.

“Should Creon change his stance and lose authority and influence,” he would have committed an error of commission, weighted more heavily, ceteris paribus, than doing nothing, and having bad things happen,” explain Devjani Roy and Richard Zeckhauser in their paper Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature.

If you’re curious, I’d recommend you give Antigone a read. It’s short, only 50 pages or so.