Essential Knowledge: Part X

Note: I’ve taken a bit of break on these posts because they take a bit longer than a normal post and I’ve been busy on other projects. A normal post is maybe a half hour of writing and another half hour of re-writing. If I feel like proofreading it, then maybe another fifteen minutes. These Essential Knowledge posts require a little more thought and they require me finding the relevant links. The demands on my time meant a short hiatus, but I’ll try to get back to doing one every two weeks at the minimum.

We left off the literature portion of this series at the Romantic period. I’ve never been a big fan of this period in English literature. I think I can make the case that William Blake is history’s greatest monster. There are some writers worth knowing about and some works that a modern reader can enjoy. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, especially for Rush fans, are easy reading and the sort of thing an educated man can sprinkle into a conversation to impress the ladies down at the rest home.

The Romantics were big into poetry so the big names are mostly poets. If you feel you must, then pick an anthology and sample the names that seem familiar, like Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Keats. These things are a matter of taste and maybe you are the sort that enjoys this type of literature. My view on literature is that you should aim to be a specialist on what you enjoy, but a generalist on everything else. That means having some anthologies around to poke through when you are looking for something to read.

There is some good stuff in the Romantic period. Jane Austen is not terrible and you should read at least one of her novels. Pride and Prejudice would be my recommendation, but you can download her complete works for a dollar, so take your pick. Robinson Crusoe by Defoe is a good read. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding is not bad. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most famous work from this period. My favorite from this era is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a fun read, even if you hate Romantics.

The Victorian¹ period is an embarrassment of riches, in terms of English literature. This was also when Americans really started to contribute to the English canon. Even better, the great talents of the era tended toward prose, so you don’t have to suffer through a lot of poetry. The big names on the poetry side are Browning, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Swinburne and Tennyson, but the way to go is with a decent anthology. Of course, you can just read your kids, or grandkids, Jabberwocky and leave it at that.

The prose side of the house is where things get fun. This was a prolific period in English prose and some of the giants of our culture wrote in this era. For the ladies, and the men with a desire to get in touch with their feminine side, you have the Bronte sisters. Jane Eyre is considered one of the top-20 novels of all time, but I’ve always been partial to Wuthering Heights. You can get the collected works of the Bronte sisters for a song. If you still need that feminine touch, then read Middlemarch by George Elliot.

Now the good stuff. I don’t think you can be a literate man without having read Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers is great, even if you are not comfortable reading hard fiction. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities are also on the list of must read books. You can get all of Dickens for a buck on kindle. The same is true of the collected works of Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland is a great read even if you have seen all of the Hollywood treatments.

I think Oscar Wilde is an overrated degenerate, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great book. It’s also a great movie, as long as you stick with the 1945 version. This period was not just the great flowering of the novel. The short story was mastered in this era. The two names most associated with the development of the form are O. Henry and W. Somerset Maugham. I’m more of a fan of the latter, than the former, but that’s a matter of taste. As an aside, I’ve always thought the short story is the perfect format for modern audiences.

This is also the age when fantasy literature and science fiction came into existence as serious literary forms. Dracula is a great book, even if you have seen a million movie versions of it. You should get the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson so you can read Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, if you did not read them as kids. I recently re-read Treasure Island and it still works for me. Then, of course, is H. G. Wells. I’ve read Time Machine half a dozen times in my life and it just gets better each time.

The trouble with the Victorian era is it is big and not everyone agrees on the exact start and end points. This is especially true of the late Victorians and the American writers that were influenced by their English cousins, but had their own style. I’m going to cover American literature in a separate post so that makes the cutoff a little easier. Even so, there’s a lot of summers at the beach worth of reading just in that 60 year span. It’s fair to say that it was the peak of the English Empire and probably the peak of English culture.

¹I’m lumping some eras together here for the sake of brevity. Read “Victorian” as “post-Romantic up to the 20th century.”

56 thoughts on “Essential Knowledge: Part X

  1. For free audio versions of books that have passed the copyright window check out
    Not all of Zmans recommendations are there but many popular novels can be found. Pride and Prejudice is on there for sure. Along with many of HG Wells works.

  2. I have never really been avle to appreciate “poetry”, The fashioning of clever rhymes and rhythms Seems merely that, a clever verbal gymnastic. I’ve always preferred prose. Thee are a few significant exceptions, particularly Kipling, and some Eliot. And my senior year in high school I read the collected works of A. E, Houseman for a senior paper. I recommend “To An Athlete Dying Young”.

    • And how am I to face the odds
      Of man’s bedevilment, and God’s?
      I, a stranger and afraid
      In a world I never made.
      Housman, “Last Poems”

      He was the real deal.

  3. “Big names on the poetry side are … Carlyle, Wadsworth …” ??? Carlyle’s big name is from his prose — not aware of any poetry. Who’s Wadsworth?

  4. Bram Stoker’s Dracula,superb read. It led me to another of his, The Jewel of Seven Stars. The Brits had been cracking open ancient Egypt’s mysteries for over a decade when he wrote it,and it is steeped in then contemporary Egyptology. Evocative and spellbinding,as readable today as it was then.

  5. A side thought from Ol’ Remus’s Woodpile:
    What defines truly great art?

    It captures a time, and a place.
    (That is, or soon will be, no more.)

  6. I’ve been reading fiction since I discovered the circular rack at my local candy store when I was twelve, and keeping a favorites list as I go along.

    Here’s my current Top Fifty:

    1. Cry The Beloved Country, Alan Paton
    2. The Oxbow Incident, Walter Van Tilberg Clark
    3. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
    4. A Room With A View, E.M. Forster
    5. So Long, See You Tomorrow, Wm. Maxwell
    6. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
    7. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
    8. The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
    9. Madam Bovary, Flaubert
    10. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
    11. The Woman of Andros, Thornton Wilder
    12. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
    13. The Anti-Death League, Kingsley Amis
    14. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
    15. Shane, Jack Schaeffer
    16. For Whom The Bell Tolls, Hemingway
    17. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
    18. Jude The Obscure, Harding
    19. The Magic Mountain, Thoas Mann
    20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
    21. High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes
    22. Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austin
    23. Sense And Sensiblity, Jane Austin
    24. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
    25. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
    26. Laughing Boy, Oliver LaForge
    27. Treasure of the Sierra Madre, B. Travern
    28. Tender Is The Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
    29. A Death In The Family, James Agee
    30. King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov
    31. A Farewell To Arms, Hemingway
    32. The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa
    33. The Good Earth, Pearl Buck
    34. Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
    35. The Americans, Henry James
    36. Wait Until Spring, Bandini, John Fante
    37. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
    38. Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
    39. The Wanderers, Richard Price
    40. Ethan Fromm, Edith Wharton
    41. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
    42. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
    43. Silas Marner, George Elliot
    44. Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell
    45. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
    46. Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote
    47. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
    48. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
    49. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
    50. 1984, George Orwell

    • Age of Innocence, yes!
      Then you had to ruin it with Mockingbird and Cry, My Beloved. Dastardly!

      Melville fan here. His scathing humour and quiet rage at the Protestant destruction of the South Pacific islanders is a wonder.
      They were the SJWs of their time.

      • Melville’s endless passages about how whalers whale made me want to choke him. Apropos of this, when an interviewer asked Elmore Leonard why he didn’t write long descriptions of nature, etc., he said “I leave out the parts that people don’t read.” It’s all subjective as I believe you’d agree. BTW, Age of Innocence was a killer movie. Scorsese can do it all.

  7. I’m troubled by the Blake reference as well. Oddball for sure, but I’ve never read a biography. The “Songs of…” still hold up well.

  8. I could never get a handle on the poets. I know they were supposed to be great, but there is just so much effort I’m willing to invest in a work of art. The payoff on poetry is generally too meager for the work involved. There are exceptions: John Donne, George Herbert come to mind (I know-not Romantics). Dracula will scare the pants off you. Frankenstein is Just. Plain. Awful. “Of Human Bondage” by Maugham has always been one of my favorites.


  9. I keep a complete works of Robert Frost on my nightstand. It’s wonderful reading.

    Always thought somebody missed a great opportunity to write a book about our 44th President called Jabber-Baracky.

  10. A genre of books that few folks read deals with the HISTORY of mathematics.

    It is simply astonishing that much of the math that we learned in JHS/HS algebra – you know, the basic, easy stuff, literally took mathematicians hundreds or thousands of years to figure out.
    Even our number system – based on the number 10 – took a few thousand years before someone figured it out. And we think now, “oh, it’s so obvious,” etc.

    Uh, no, it is not. Recall Roman Numerals? Imagine having to multiply, divide, etc., using Roman Numerals. Now think of all the engineering feats they built – all using their crazy (to us) number system. And the Roman Empire lasted 1000 years.

    Another number system that was used for several hundred (a thousand?) years (somewhere in a present day arab nation or thereabouts) was based on the number 6 which served as the basis of our 24 hour/ about 360 days of the year. Imagine doing basic multiplication using a base 6 number system.

    The basic takeaway from reading some of this stuff is that even basic, simple math is not obvious at all; until you know the answer. If it was obvious, it would not have taken a thousand years to figure out.

    This “retrospective” view of things (that is, once you know the answer or know what happened) is where humans have a tendency to think they know more than do; where the “experts” are queried to provide an explanation of what happened.

    But, frankly, much of what they say it total bullshit. Think of the fall of the USSR. All the experts came out of the wood work to explain to us morons what occurred and why. Yet not one of them, even a week or so before the main event, predicted what was to occur.

    Experts are very good at devising plausible explanations of what happened, but are terrible at predicting anything (Trump for president?? Ha, ha, no way! or “the housing bust will not affect the overall economy, which is sound and robust,” as stated by the MIT PhD and Princeton Professor of Economics, and Fed Reserve Chair, Ben Bernanke, just a few short months before the world’s financial system went into the toilet bowl).

    Getting back on topic, I recently read Pride and Prejudice; a book that I never imagined I would read (I saw the movie first, which prompted me to read the book). Jane Austen’s ability in using the written word is simply astonishing.
    She literally can use the most eloquent phraseology ever written just to tell someone that they are an asshole and to just go and F off (e.g., Elizabeth’s dressing down of Mr. Darcy). And Austen did not even use one off-color word to do this.

    Other books of interest I’ve read deal with native Americans and early white settlers.
    In the historical fiction category, ” Last of the Mohicans,” by James Fenimore Cooper is a great read.
    Because this was written way before the cancerous plague of political correctness contaminated our nation and you can obtain a good idea of what early life in the colonies (and the incredible savagery of the indians) was really like.
    Also there are several books written before, say, 1950 or so, detailing the true life experiences of white folks captured (anywhere from the 1700s to mid-1800s) and raised by American Indians or detailing the experiences of US soldiers who actually fought and interacted with indians.

    You will find that the notion of “noble savage” is really more savage than it is noble (yea, I realize that white settlers/soldiers took an “eye for an eye,” but they did not tie up Indians to wagon wheels, set them upon an open fire, and watch the screaming victims eyeballs and head explode as they cooked, nor did they slice open a victims abdomen, yank out their intestines and wrap them – the intestines – around a tree to secure the victim to the tree. Yep, the Indians really enjoyed torturing their victims ).

    Speaking of “noble savages”, the Pueblo Indians did not live in high rise condos ( with no elevators) just to enjoy the view (a thousand years before the “white imperialists” showed up).

    Next up on my reading list is ” The Great Terror,” by Robert Conquest dealing with Stalin’s mass exterminations.

    • Life on the New England frontier was hard and dangerous.
      Here’s an excerpt from an article in the New Yorker about Milton Bradley,
      the game inventor. It details his ancestors’ run-ins with the ‘noble savage’.

      “The young Milton Bradley, too, believed that “the journey of life is governed by a combination of chance and judgment.” His game works the same way: there’s what you spin, and there’s where you choose to go. The Checkered Game of Life is a game of destiny checked by strategy.

      But Bradley came from a family ruled, for generations, by nothing so much as an angry God. The Bradleys had been in New England since 1635, when Daniel Bradley, an apothecary’s son, settled in Salem, Massachusetts. Their sufferings were Biblical. Daniel was killed by Indians in 1689, six years before Abenakis captured his fifteen-year-old son, Isaac. In 1697, another son, his wife, two of their children, and three more Bradley children died in an attack on Haverhill in which Hannah Bradley, the wife of still another of Daniel’s sons, was taken captive. She escaped, only to be captured again in 1704 and carried to Canada; on the journey, she gave birth to an infant who was killed when her captors poured hot embers into its mouth. Her husband, Joseph Bradley, trudged after her through waist-high snows, with his dog, to pay her ransom and bring her home. The next time an Indian came to her door, Hannah shot him. (She lived to be ninety, but her old age was probably more haunted than happy.) In 1739, two of the next generation of Bradleys, Samuel and Jonathan, were cut off in their youth in an ambush in New Hampshire. By the time Jonathan’s direct descendant Milton was born, nearly a century later, and given the name of the Puritan author of “Paradise Lost,” the family’s fortunes had not gained much against adversity….”

  11. Maugham’s “The Outstation” is probably the greatest short story in the English language. It is set in Borneo shortly after WWI and gives you a fabulous idea of British colonial life at the peak of the Empire…with dark forebodings of the coming decline.

    • When I was in my twenties I read every word Maugham wrote. Then I read his biography and discovered that he was every bit the degenerate that Oscar Wilde was. The tales of a drunk old Maugham picking up and paying young french sailors in the south of France and what they got up to surprised me.

      Then I had to re-read the whole lot of Maugham again to see if he too was an “overrated” degenerate and to look for homosexual projection in his work.

      Overrated? Yes, a bit, no doubt thrust forward by the homosexual lobby, which makes the Zionist lobby look ineffective. Degenerate for sure.

      Homosexual projection in his work? Yes, some, less than I expected and less than many modern straight authors put in their work so as to appear politically correct and curry favor.

      All in all, still a very good writer

      • I knew all this, but didn’t mention it because I respect his work. Maugham was actually worse than you suspect: he was a pedophile. Read the Morgan biography to get an accurate picture of his life. It’s worth the effort and very enlightening.

      • I did. I downloaded his stuff from Kindle where it was free or close to it. I haven’t been able to get into it yet, but I’ll keep trying.

  12. why the shade thrown on Blake? what was his sin so great as to be deemed, in your opinion, history’s greatest monster?

  13. I’ve been told that your feelings about the Romantics are set by the age at which you read them. If you catch Shelley and Byron when you’re 16-20, they seem to have the key to the universe. Younger than that and they’re incomprehensible; older, and they seem like the world’s most talented sophomores. I got both the Romantics and Nietzsche in my early teens… thank god for repressed memory syndrome, as I shudder to think what a pretentious little dork I must’ve been.

    • I can believe that. I read Frankenstein as an early teen so I have good feeling towards it, but most of the other stuff I read later and hated it.

  14. Percy Byshe-Shelly’s “Ozymandius” was always one of my favorites. Spoiler-alert, it actually helped with the latest Aliens movie.

  15. One literature period could never find a really strong anchor point and ended up gravitating to Wells, Stevenson, Conan Doyle etc because my parents gave me anthologies when I was very young. Could never master the poetry, possibly because the one course I took in it was taught by an awful professor whose odd last name we used to joke as “”Inane” spelled backwards. Though American, always thought Ambrose Bierce was a master of the short story genre. Read his “Tales of War” at an early age because his war service was largely in the same battles as my g-g-grandfather and I could read Bierce’s “Killed at Resaca” and then my grandfather’s account of the battle in the memoirs he wrote after the war.

  16. O. Henry was American, not English. His novel cabbages and kings (title stolen from Lewis Carroll) is good right up there with nostromo.

  17. thezman:

    Which is the one novel you read the most times?
    And the one non-fiction book while we’re at it?

  18. Rudyard Kipling.
    Greatest writer in the English language until Gene Wolfe.
    The best stories of the Gilded Age.

      • I knew I’d blown it as soon as I hit send.
        So typical of a fanatic, I know, I know.

        PS- you continue to astound me as to how uncultured and uneducated I really am. Kudos!

    • Amen. Still see people quoting The Gods of the Copybook Headings, If. Jungle Book. Just So Stories. Captains Courageous. The Man Who Would Be King–Michael Caine said it was his favorite movie. He and Sean Connery were able to recreate the colonial attitude marvelously. There were still a few men like this around when I was a kid in Rhodesia. Former British military. They’d manage their farms and enterprises during the week, play polo crosse on Saturday, get drunk Saturday night, be in church Sunday if they weren’t too hung over, and cried like babies if their favorite horse broke a leg. Would have beaten both the Soviet Union and China in the war with one fucking ounce of help from the West, too.

    • Agreed. Kipling is phenomenal.

      I keep seeing grne wolfe’s name crop up but have never read him. What work would you recommend?

      • JB, he writes science fiction. *Difficult* science fiction. His most famous is the four vol. Book of the New Sun (the origin of my stupid internet handle, BTW – I was reading it when I needed a handle back in the early days of the ‘net, and I guess I’m stuck with it).

        • 5 volume- ‘Urth of the New Sun’ wraps it up, with both the trial and origin of the Conciliator, and ends with the coming of the New Sun. Mustn’t miss!

          Gene Wolfe is magnificently literate; he, like conversation, seems to meander, but he knows exactly where he’s going.

          Also recommended is the 2 volume ‘Soldier of Arete/Mist”- a soldier of Phillip of Macedon’s time. He awakens each morning unable to remember who he is. That, and he can see the gods.
          Lyrical, beautiful, profound.

          As to Severian’s handle- well, my own, the analeptic alzabo, is “the beast that, when it eats the flesh of it’s victims, speaks then for a time in their voice.”
          (“Mommy! Open the door! It’s getting cold out here!”)
          Also a New Sun reference.

          And as to Kipling- sorry, fellas, Zman threw me with the reference to H.G. Wells.
          Uncultured, fanatic, illitrit, an’ all that.

  19. I am surprised to see Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in a list of Romantics? It can’t be chronological . . . and I can’t figure any thematic connection. I must be missing something essential.

    • I’ve always been told that Swift and Defoe were proto-Romantic because they influenced that period. That’s probably just out of conveniences as there’s no name for the literary period just before the Romantics.

      I have to put them somewhere. You’ll also note I tend to list authors alphabetically by height and sex.

        • That’s right. Funny, but I wanted to say they were in the Georgian period, but then recalled having been told that there was no such thing. Your post jogged my memory. The mistake is calling that period “Georgian” when the correct term is Augustan.


  20. I liked Robert Southey’s “The Inchcape Rock” and “God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop”. I read them back in the 70s in Jr. high.

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