Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (3), Novel reading and health

My second post in this Trove Treasures subseries shared some arguments against novel reading. I do have a pro-novel-reading post, but today I thought I’d go a bit lighter – I think it’s lighter! – and some of the ideas I came across discussing the impact of novel reading on health.

Novel-reading disease

Woman reading with cushion

I found two articles that discussed addiction to novel reading, going so far as to liken those in its thrall to drunkards. One goes back to 1855, and is in fact a Letter to the Editor (31 March 1855) of The People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator. What a title for a paper! According to Wikipedia it was published in New South Wales from 1848 to 1856, and advocated on issues of importance for the working classes. In fact, Wikipedia says that it was “the first colonial paper to demand that the workers, as producers of all wealth, receive a fairer share of labour’s produce”. Great stuff, but this is not the subject of the Letter to the Editor.

Written by F.R. Surveyor (of Shoalhaven River) it expresses concern, not with occasional novel reading which simply represents a “criminal waste of time”, but with habitual novel reading which Surveyor describes as “detrimental to the health and vigour of the body”:

Novel reading tends to inflame the passions, pollute the imagination, and corrupt the heart. Moral sense is weakened by the false sentiment which novel writers inculcate. Novel reading is objectionable, because it creates an unnatural and morbid taste. It frequently becomes an inveterate habit, strong, fatal, as that of the drunkard. 

In this state of intoxication, great waywardness of conduct is almost sure to follow.

It also “destroys all taste for solid reading”.

Sixteen years later, on 2 November 1871, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article from The Examiner, titled “The Novel-Reading Disease”, and does it go to town. It commences by stating that “physicians are familiar with a complaint which, although sufficiently specific, has yet no name of its own” but it is caused by “over-indulgence in three-volume novels”. The article then chronicles the progression of this disease, explaining that at first the reader is simply found reading “at unnatural hours”, like “the early morning, or in the middle of a beautiful summer’s afternoon”. In this stage, readers exercise some discrimination in their reading choices, preferring Trollope, for example, over lesser authors. But soon, “the taste becomes deadened and blunted, and all power of distinction and appreciation is lost. In this stage the unhappy patient can no more go without her novel than can a confirmed dipsomaniac without his drain”. (There’s the equating with drunkenness again.) Quality goes out the window, quantity is everything. Indeed, “in the worst stages” of the disease, “novels are got through at the rate of three or four, or even five, a week, or at an average, in a severe and chronic case, of some two hundred and fifty or three hundred a year”.

And what does this disease do to its sufferers? Well, “the conversation of the patient becomes flabby and limp” leading eventually to “the last stage – that of absolute imbecility” unless “very powerful remedies” are applied. By this point in the article, all reference to sufferers are in the female gender. Indeed, the writer then says:

It is curious and interesting to observe that as this comparatively new female disease has grown more virulent and intense the old disease of scandal talking has become comparatively rare. It is, of course, physically difficult to talk scandal and to read a novel at one and the same time. 

True! Finally, the writer suggests that the cause of all this is the same as that for why “some young men smoke and drink bitter beer”. It’s the “sheer want of something to do”. The solution?

What a woman needs is an education which shall enable her to read and follow the Parliamentary debates instead of the police and divorce reports; and, when women are thus educated, then feeble novels and feeble novelists will vex our souls no longer to the horrible extent to which they irritate us at present.

I wanted to believe this article was tongue in cheek, it’s so extreme, but I don’t think it is. At least the writer recognises that women ought to receive an education!

Novel reading and wrinkles

Now for something lighter. I was astonished – and, I admit, delighted – to find an article titled “Novels and wrinkles”. I found it in multiple regional newspapers from South Australia and Victoria, but I’m using the Euroa Advertiser (12 February 1909). The article opens:

Excessive novel-reading (says a well-known beauty doctor) is responsible for the bad complexions, wrinkled foreheads, and sunken eyes of many young women.

Why specifically novel reading, do I hear you asking? Well, here’s the answer:

Many young women cause premature wrinkles to form on their fore heads by reading exciting novels. They sit for hours, often in an imperfect light, their brows furrowed, and if the book is a thrilling one, expressing on their faces unconsciously the emotions it excites. 

Our unnamed “beauty doctor” continues:

In a tram or railway journey one can notice the different expressions of a man reading a newspaper, and a woman – or a man, for that matter – reading a novel. The newspaper reader’s face is quite normal; but the expression on the novel-reader’s face is quite different. 

Priceless, really. Anyhow, fortunately, our “doctor” does not try to stop people reading novels, but “strongly” advises against reading novels “for hours at a stretch”. Have a break, he (it’s probably a “he”) says, and “above all, do not allow yourself to get too much excited by the book you are reading”. You heard it here, folks!

Reading in bed

Here is one relevant to many of us. It appeared in the Richmond Guardian (22 May 1926) and is “by a Medical Officer of Health”. Essentially, our MO believes this is a bad habit:

Beds were made to sleep in. The healthy man or woman who has never formed the bad habit of reading in bed, but, on the contrary, the good one of going to bed to sleep, finds little difficulty in wooing repose within a few minutes of his or her head touching the pillow.

So, if you “woo sleep easily” you “should studiously refrain from cultivating the habit of reading in bed”. However, there are those (besides invalids) for whom the practice might be useful. These include the “large number of apparently healthy people who find great difficulty in allowing sleep to overcome them”. There are many reasons for this, and you should try to remedy them first, but if the cause is not so easily removed, like “business and domestic worries”, then reading in bed may be a good not bad habit! These brains need something to switch them “into a different train of thought”.

But, our MO does have recommendations – about lighting (it must not strain the eyes), about position (do not lie on your side which “imposes considerable strain on the eyes”), and about reading matter. On this he is not prescriptive, saying “the choice may be safely left to individual tastes” except it should not relate to what is keeping you awake.

Finally, no reading in bed for children:

Children should not be encouraged to read in bed. The healthy child should be a little animal, and the healthy animal soon sleeps.

Reading and death

And now, the biggie! Does reading cause death? I came across two articles addressing this issue. The first, sadly, concerned a suicide, and was reported in The Bowral Free Press (19 July 1884). Titled “Effect of reading trashy novels” it reports that a young 20-year-old man had committed suicide by “shooting and hanging”. It briefly describes the manner, before concluding:

The cause of his suicide was reading sensational and trashy novels, which unsettled his brain.

On what authority this was decided, we are not told. Meanwhile, we do hear from a coroner in Perth’s The Daily News (27 November 1909) which contained a similarly brief report of a death. Titled “Coroner on novels”, it concerned the death of an 18-year-old nurse “who died from poisoning by spirits of salts”. The par concludes with:

the Coroner, commenting on the statement that the girl was given to the reading of novels, said he did not know whether novel-reading was evidence of weakness of mind. The practice, however, was generally confined to people who had little to do and had not much mind.

Over to you!

John M. Oskison, The singing bird (#Review)

From Zitkala-Ša’s 1901-published “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers jumps a quarter of a century to 1925, and John M. Oskison’s “The singing bird”.

John M. Oskison

Again, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to the author, but it’s Wikipedia that is able to provide more detail. John M(ilton) Oskison (1874-1937) was, like our two previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born in Cherokee Nation to an English father and part-Cherokee mother. He went to Stanford University (where my friend who gave me the anthology went, in fact!) and was president of the Stanford Literary Society. Wikipedia says he was Stanford’s first Native American graduate. He apparently went to Harvard for graduate school but he left to become a professional writer after he won a short story competition.

By his death he had published novels, short stories and many pieces of journalism. A novel titled The singing bird was found in his papers in 2007 and subsequently published. Timothy Powell, writing about this novel, suggests it is “quite possibly the first historical novel written by a Cherokee”, and argues that it offers “an interpretation of indigenous history that stresses survival and empowerment over removal and despair”. It is set in the 1840s-50s, after the Cherokees had been removed to Indian Territory, and in it, Powell says, Oskison ‘skilfully blends fiction and reality, thoughtfully demonstrating how literature can rewrite the master narrative of “history” and bring to life moments in the past that remain outside the scope of the written records maintained by the dominant white society’. This sounds like the sort of historical fiction that is starting to appear in Australia, like Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (my review), novels that correct the colonial historical perspective that has been prevailed for too long. Oskison was, like our previous two authors, an activist.

Blaisdell focuses more on the story. He describes it as an “exciting, densely plotted story” but suggests the reader needs to “hold tight” because it is “dotted with odd, struggling phrasings that make it seem as if Oskison were translating it”. The title, he explains, refers to “cuckolding”, with “singing bird” being a term used by “full-bloods” for a “deceiving wife”. He suggests that ‘the issue of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is a messier theme’.

“The singing bird”

Powell says that it is not known when Oskison started writing his novel The singing bird. However, he does mention that this story was published in 1925 and wonders whether Oskison began to formulate the novel around this time. From Powell’s description of the novel, the characters names are different, it has a multilayered narrative structure unlike the story, and the narrative is very different, so let’s leave the novel there.

Wikipedia says of Oskison that “his fiction focused on the culture clash that mixed-bloods like himself faced”. “The singing bird” is interesting in this regard because, as Blaisdell suggests, a significant issue in the story concerns “full-bloods and half-breeds”. The story opens with Big Jim (Jim Blind-Wolfe) sending his wife Jennie away because it is time for the men to talk. They make up “the inner, unofficial council of the Kee-too-wah* organisation” and they are “self-charged with the duty of carrying out the ancient command to maintain amongst the Cherokees the full-blood inheritance of race purity and race ideals”.

This “council” is concerned about the “alarming late growth of outlawry in the tribe, an increase in crime due to idleness, drink and certain disturbing white men who had established themselves in the hills”. As they discuss this serious business, Oskison writes that “paradoxically … They would pass a jug of honest moonshine – but they would drink from it discreetly, lightly, as full blood gentleman should!” Nice touch!

Meanwhile, the ousted wife Jennie, takes herself to the “out cabin” with its “inviting pine-log room”. Here she awaits, we are told, Lovely Daniel who has already been introduced to us by the men, as their “wild half-breed neighbour”. Jennie, though, is expecting to “know shivery terror, the illicit thrill of the singing bird”. And so in the first two pages, the story is set up: Big Jim has sent his wife to the out cabin so that his little council can talk men’s business about half-breeds and white men, and that wife is waiting for one of those half-breeds to visit her in the cabin. Simple story of a dominating husband and unfaithful wife? Sounds it, but all is not as it seems. Oskison unfolds the plot well. We flash back to how Jennie and Lovely Daniel had come to know each other (including the development of his “wonderful plan, a credit to his half-breed shrewdness, if not to his name”), and to how enmity had developed between Big Jim and Lovely Daniel, before returning to the main narrative. There is a revenge theme to the story, one involving Lovely Daniel wishing to avenge having nearly been killed by Big Jim after a political altercation that had turned violent.

So if it’s not a simple unfaithful wife story, what is it? Well, it’s political. There is tension between the full-blood Kee-too-wahs and the half-breeds over whites, and the issue of leasing land to them. The full-bloods (through Big Jim) see leasing land as the thin end of the wedge, while the half-breeds (through Lovely Daniel) see the white man coming as inevitable anyhow. Big Jim, then, represents the Cherokees’ fight for their land, their fight “against “race deterioration and the decay of morale in the long years of contact with the White in Georgia and Tennessee”, while Daniel is the bad, wild man. As Blaisdell says, the theme of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is messy, particularly given Oskison was himself of mixed-descent. Perhaps we are intended to see this story – this conflict – more in terms of symbolism than realism, as a story about the primacy of protecting land and culture. (This suggests it’s an anti-assimilation story, though I believe there’s much discussion about Oskison’s attitude to assimilation.)

I found the writing a bit heavy-handed at times, but it also has an interesting tone. There is a sense in Oskison’s language, for example, that the full-blood Kee-too-wah men are not the whole answer either (as they sit “like remote, secret gods, in judgment on the conduct of a community”). And, although Jennie takes significant agency in the story, she is still expected, when it’s all over, to make breakfast for the men!

“The singing bird” is an intriguing story. It’s one that seems to raise as many questions as it answers, particularly when seen within the context of Oskison himself, of his oeuvre, and of course of his times – times I know little about.

* See Wikipedia.

John M. Oskison
“The singing bird” (orig. pub. Sunset Magazine, March 1925)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 25-39
ISBN: 9780486490953

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (2), Anti novel reading

Recently, I started a new Monday Musings sub-series, Trove Treasures. That first post concluded on a rear-admiral reading novels while waiting for a court martial, and I said that my next post “might be one on novel reading and men”. I still plan to do that, but I’ve decided to first share some of the wider arguments about reading novels that were raging in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

Woman reading with cushion

Novel reading, as I’m sure you know, was regarded with much suspicion from its first appearance. Indeed, negative attitudes led Jane Austen to defend the novel in her own first (albeit last published) one, Northanger Abbey (1817). Novels, she wrote, are works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language”. This did not, however, put the argument to rest, and we find the issue being discussed with enthusiasm and passion in Australian newspapers over the following century.

Why am I interested in this old chestnut, given we now accept the value of reading fiction? There are two main reasons. One is that I’m interested in reading culture and how it has developed. The other is that debates about literature provide insight into the thinking and values of the times. (Just think about what our current discussions about issues like diversity, own-stories, and so on, tell about the culture of our times.)

So, much can be learnt about colonial and early post-colonial Australia from discussions about reading. There’s deference to the thinking of (mostly male) British commentators, for a start. There’s the high moral tone taken about reading “serious” literature and not wasting time on light or sensationalist fiction. There’s concern about the impact of light – undirected reading – on the young, and on the uneducated (particularly, it goes without saying, on women). Articles abound in the papers so, as usual, I can only share a smattering from the many that my searches retrieved. Those I’m using were published over 55 years, between 1869 and 1924.

For some commentators no novel reading was good, while for others it depended on the novel. The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser argued that “constant, uninterrupted perusal of works of fiction” could be “injurious and demoralising”, but recognised that some fiction, like “good historical novels”, could have value. These sorts of novels “assisted the reader to realise the conditions of society, &c, at certain periods”. Therefore, they concluded, “the works of our great masters of fiction might be perused (occasionally, of course, not always) with pleasure and with profit by the intelligent reader”. So, very qualified – “great masters of fiction” could be read “occasionally” by “the intelligent reader”. Not a resounding endorsement.

For some, then, the enumerated ills came from all novel reading, while for others these were due to too much novel reading, or reading the wrong sorts of novels. Some ills concerned the impact on health and well-being, such as loss of memory, weakening the brain, unfitting men for the stern realities of life by giving either exaggerated or false views of life. Many commentators, like this one, worried about the impact of a diet of stories of love and murder:

“What sort of wives and mothers may we expect these young women to make?” We may cease to wonder at the frivolous demeanor and flaunting airs of the girls we meet everyday in our towns, when we remember the strange garbage that serves them for mental food, and the “gallery of portraits” that is fixed in their imaginations. They are positively unfitted for the noble work of home life, and we may expect that many of them will develop into sluts and slatterns, and others will speedily figure in the divorce courts …

“Sluts and slatterns”! This writer admits there are novels that may be read “profitably”, like those by Walter Scott and some of Dickens, but believed these didn’t attract the “girls of the period”. Scott, Dickens, and Thackerary, in fact, are regularly touted as acceptable novelists – by those writers who don’t condemn all novel reading.

Other identified ills concerned the time spent reading. For example, novel reading “causes people to remain away from church and chapel duties”. Or, as another wrote, “necessary and serious work” was “thrown aside for the charming story, that helps to rob the mind of its proper strength, and real life of its importance”.

An earnest letter-writer (“Another Reader”) to Hobart’s The Mercury argued that “for a man to confine his reading to novels is, especially in such times as ours, when social questions demand the attention and earnest study of all thoughtful men, to waste a considerable amount of time that would be far more profitably spent”. This writer concedes that it’s “very nice” to recline in a hammock in a quiet, secluded spot, and “devour a long account, generally slanderous, of human nature from a cleverly concocted novel” but asks whether this meets “the duty of mankind?” Hmm, novels being “generally slanderous”? And, must all life be about “duty”? He doesn’t insist on “total abstinence from novel reading”, but he does argue that spending all one’s time reading “is nothing more nor less than an intemperate love of pleasure, which is destructive in all forms”. Indeed, he suggests that reading biographies is more worthy than reading fiction, and returns to his point re the times, recommending “the study of the many problems that trouble the world at this time – Socialism, Theosophy, Religion (above all), etc.”

Concern frequently focused on novel reading by young men and women in particular, with some commentators exhorting parents to “exert a little wise control and careful supervision”. The Riverine Herald went a little further. Arguing that without a public censor, “it is the duty of the parents to wisely choose” their children’s novels, it suggests it would be even better “if the writers, publishers and book sellers” would write, publish and sell books of “higher standard”. A bit of self-regulation, in other words.

A certain Mrs Glover, however, speaking in 1924 at a conference of club, social and welfare workers arranged by the National Organisation of Girls’ Clubs, had a refreshingly liberal view, arguing, the report said, that

a girl had to go through a lot of “trash” before she found herself. The spirit of adventure in the girl must have an outlet. “I think girls ought to be thrilled. I think it is very nice to see girls in the tubes and trams who never look up from their books even when they pass the station. I think that is so much better than gossiping, or making eyes, that sort of thing. I went through a lot of awful trash myself and I really did thoroughly enjoy it. I think the girl has got to go through this before she finds herself. We want to let the girls read the very lightest form of sensational literature.

Okay, so only the “lightest form of sensational literature”, but this sounds like progress. The article concludes by damning not sensational writing but “novels of sentiment, novels of a pervading sickliness”:

From time to time perturbed moralists rush forth into the marketplace to denounce some book or other in which inconvenient or improper scenes occur. For my part I doubt whether all the books which contain passages such as a censor, a magistrate, a policeman can identify is undesirable, have done half as much harm as some volumes of sentimentality in which no one could fine a line to prosecute. The gush of facile emotion, the hectic talk confusing black with white, of which your novel of sentiment is composed, are very bad for heads which are not old enough to be hard, and hearts which are even softer. Such books seem to me the most dangerous trash, and they are to be found not only among the bestsellers but among the great works approved by the intellectuals.

Interesting … but s/he doesn’t give examples.

I’ll close here, because this post is long. However, it’s clear that engagement with the topic was keen, and that there were opinions on both sides. I’ll share some of the pro novel-reading arguments in another post.

Sources (in chronological order)

Your thoughts?

Zitkala-Sa, The soft-hearted Sioux (#Review)

Zitkala-Ša’s “The soft-hearted Sioux” is the second story in the anthology, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers, sent to me by my American friend. I posted on the first one, Pauline Johnson’s “A red girl’s reasoning”, a couple of weeks ago.


As he does for all the stories, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to Zitkala-Ša and her story. Also known by her married name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938) was born at the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. She was educated at a Quaker missionary school and then, because she wanted to be more than the presumed-for-girls job of housekeeper, she went to the Quaker-run liberal arts school, Earlham College. She went on the teach at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. As with Johnson, Wikipedia fleshes out the details. It tells us that she hated being stripped of her culture at the Quaker missionary school, that she learnt piano and violin there, and that when she graduated from it in June 1895, “she gave a speech on the inequality of women’s rights”.

Wikipedia chronicles her life well, so do read it if you are interested. I’ll just add here that, it introduces her work with: “She wrote several works chronicling her struggles with cultural identity, and the pull between the majority culture in which she was educated, and the Dakota culture into which she was born and raised. Her later books were among the first works to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread white English-speaking readership”. And it concludes that her “legacy lives on as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century”.

Regarding “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Blaisdell explains that “it is narrated by a young Christianised man who returns to his Sioux reservation as a missionary” at which time his father says to him that “your soft heart has unfitted you for everything”. In this story, in other words, Zitkala-Ša exposes some of the iniquities of colonialism.

“The soft-hearted Sioux”

According to Wikipedia, Zitkala-Ša had a fruitful writing career, with two major periods, the first being 1900 to 1904, during which our story was published. In this period, she published legends from Native American culture – which she apparently started collecting while she was at Earlham – and autobiographical narratives. “The soft-hearted Sioux” has an autobiographical element, I guess. The protagonist is male, and I don’t believe she returned from college a missionary, but she did go to a Christian school. Other stories published in this time were clearly more autobiographical: “An Indian teacher among Indians”, “Impressions of an Indian childhood”, and “School days of an Indian girl” (all in 1900).

The story is told first person. At the opening, our narrator is in his “sixteenth year” and is sitting in the family’s teepee with his parents on either side of him, and his maternal grandmother in front. The grandmother is smoking a “red stone pipe” and it is passed around as they provide him with advice. It is time for him to find a woman, to learn to hunt and bring home meat, to become a warrior. We then jump nine years. He had not, he tells us, grown up to be “the warrior huntsman, and husband” expected of him. Instead, the mission school had taught him that killing was wrong. For “nine winters” he had “hunted for the soft heart of Christ, and prayed for the huntsman who chased the buffalo on the plains.” In the tenth year, he is sent back to his tribe

to preach Christianity to them with the white man’s Bible in my hand and a white man’s tender heart in my breast.

He no longer wears the buckskin clothes and blanket on his shoulders as he does at the opening. Now, “wearing a foreigner’s dress”, he walks “a stranger” into his father’s village.

The story then is about the impact and implications of assimilation, the dislocation it causes for both individuals and society. Our young man, thoroughly inculcated with Christian thought, arrives home to find his father ill, and being tended by the “medicine-man … the sorcerer of the plains”. He is disturbed about his father’s “unsaved soul” and tries to banish the “sorcerer”. So begins his life as a missionary. He knows it will be hard, but is confident he will succeed. I’ll leave the story there, as you can read it online (link below) but, knowing who is writing this story and why, you won’t be surprised to discover that he doesn’t succeed. The story is sentimentally told, in the style of the time, but its subject-matter is strong and emotive. Zitkala-Ša uses the motifs of the opposing Native American and Christian cultures well – the dress and customs, the knife of the brave versus the soft heart of the Christian, with softness here, equating less with gentleness than with weakness – to make her points.

Zitkala-Ša, herself, of course, was Christian-educated like her protagonist, but she went on to use the tools of that education to fight for the rights of First Nations people. She did that in various ways, including through politically activism. She was involved with the Society of American Indians (SAI) which, says Wikipedia,”was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life while lobbying for the right to full American citizenship” and went on to found, with her husband, the National Council of American Indians. She also actively promoted women’s rights, through a grassroots organisation for women, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

But, an important part of her activism was through her writing. By publishing stories like “The soft-hearted Sioux” in majority-culture journals, like Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly, she hoped, I believe, to educate that culture in its impact on her people. The story is still worth reading today. Its style is dated, lacking some of the subtlety and nuance we are used to, but it nonetheless conveys truths that still stand and it provides us with a window on how long this fight has been going on. I’m loving being introduced to new-to-me writers and activists, like Pauline Johnson and Zitkala-Ša, through this book. They are women well worth knowing about.

“The soft-hearted Sioux” (orig. pub. Harper’s Monthly, March 1901)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 17-24
ISBN: 9780486490953
Available online at upenn

Monday musings on Australian literature: A letter from Mary Gilmore

Gilmore, by May Moore, 1916 State Library of New South Wales (Public Domain)

Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) is, I suspect, not well-known outside of Australia, but she was (is) a significant Australian poet – so significant that she earned herself a dame-hood! Wikipedia describes her as “an Australian writer and journalist known for her prolific contributions to Australian literature and the broader national discourse. She wrote both prose and poetry.” If you are interested in her, check out W.H. Wilde’s excellent entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Given my recent posts featuring AG Stephens, I will share though that Wilde tells us “she had a long-sustained correspondence with Alfred George Stephens of the Bulletin and was delighted to have her life and work featured in the ‘Red Page’ on 3 October 1903″. I have often thought about writing more about her because she was a mover and shaker in the literary world, as well as being politically radical. In fact, she was a member of the Australian Utopian colony that was established in Paraguay in 1893, about which I’ve written a Monday Musings post. I will write more about her – but today’s post is more personal.

As some of you know, I am in the throes of serious downsizing from a large family home to a three-bedroom apartment. With all of our nearest family now in Melbourne, we are making more trips there, so need to simplify our lives here. It’s a painful process, but there are delights along the way – and today I’m sharing one of them.

Way back in the 1990s, when my lovely mother-in-law downsized to a retirement village, we became the custodians of some family papers which included some from her father-in-law, Mr Gums’ grandfather. He was William Farmer Whyte, a journalist and author of some standing in his time. He wrote a biography of the controversial Australian prime minister, William Morris (Billy) Hughes. He was active in the literary scene of the day – and knew Mary Gilmore. Mary Gilmore was, apparently, a prodigious correspondent, and we have a letter from her to him. I read this letter when those papers were passed to us, but it came to light again during my current sorting. I thought I’d share it with you.

Hotel Wellington
Canberra, F.C.T.

Dear Mr Farmer Whyte,

How kind of you! And what’s more the article is a good one. I hate the sloppy or the feeble, and there is so much of that. Consequently, yours is doubly appreciated.

While I think of it I would like you to see Mr Watt’s letter on Hugh McCrae in the “S.M.H”. If you wanted a good subject Hugh is one indeed. We are pushing him forward into lectures of remembrances of other writers. So it might serve you something if you were to cut out Watt’s or any other letter on him just now. I have just posted one to the “S.M.H” which shd appear in a few days – unless they sit down on it. I had suggested to the Literature Society here that Hugh be asked up as their guest speaker, as they asked Brereton and me. They ought to ask you to give a pressman’s talk! I will suggest it if you will let me – or whether or no, as you can only refuse if you do not want to talk.

Am just awaiting Mrs Scullin and must hurry to end or be unpunctual.

Again thanking you

Yours gratefully

Mary Gilmore

A poem was also included with the letter, but I’ll save that for another time. I have tried to find the (non-sloppy, non-feeble) “article” Farmer Whyte wrote but so far no luck, even though the date is presumably late 1929.

Notes on names in the letter:

  • S.M.H.: The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
  • Hugh McCrae: Australian poet, 1876-1958.
  • Literature Society: possibly refers to the Fellowship of Australian Writers of which she was a co-founder in 1928 (see my Monday Musings on that).
  • (John Le Gay) Brereton: Australian poet, critic and Professor of English (1871-1933).
  • Mrs Scullin: wife (1880-1962) of Australian Labor Prime Minister, James Scullin.

The reference to Mrs Scullin is interesting but not surprising. Less than two months before Mary Gilmore wrote this letter, James Scullin had led the Labor Party into power, and Gilmore was a Labor Party stalwart. Regarding her dame-hood, Wikipedia says that “in spite of her somewhat controversial politics, Gilmore accepted appointment as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1937, becoming Dame Mary Gilmore. She was the first person to be granted the award for services to literature.”

A significant person and one I will return to.

Meanwhile, do any of you have any knowledge or experience of Mary Gilmore? Or, any letter treasures you’d like to share?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Passages TO …

I may as well continue my practice of talking about the weather! Here down under, autumn has started, and we in the nation’s capital at least have had a beautiful start with the warm, mild days we love autumn for. May it continue for some weeks given our non-summer. Now, to this month’s Six Degrees. If you don’t know how the meme works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. In March it is YET another book I haven’t read, though I remember it well, Gail Sheehy’s best-selling self-help book, Passages. GoodReads describes it as “a brilliant road map of adult life” so, what to link?

Alex Miller, Lovesong

Well, reader, I was challenged. The closest to self-help I’ve read is Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence but I’ve linked to that before. Perhaps, then, a book that spans adult life? Well, yes, I s’pose. That would certainly be doable, but, I’ve decided to go with author birth-date. Gail Sheehy was born in 1936, and so was the Australian author, Alex Miller, so it’s to his Lovesong (my review) that I’m linking.

Elizabeth Jolley, The orchard thieves

Now, another Australian author has also written a book titled Lovesong, Elizabeth Jolley. However, I read that before blogging, so I’m going to link to one of her books I have read since and reviewed here, The orchard thieves (my review). It’s a glorious book about a grandmother thinking about her children and grandchildren, about “little rogues and thieves” who “would, during their lives, do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling”.

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughter

Somehow, I’ve read a few books about orchards, and one of them is local author Karen Viggers’ The orchardist’s daughter (my review), which is set in northwest Tasmania and deals with two siblings who had grown up on an orchard, though they leave it at the beginning. It’s a strong story about life and tensions in a logging-based town.

For anyone who is up-to-date on Australian writing, the next link is so obvious I’m almost too embarrassed to make it, Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost (my review). This novel is set in a northeast Tasmanian orchard, and while it is not specifically about siblings, siblings do play a significant role. It also encompasses the issue of logging, though not as centrally as Viggers’ book does.

Book cover

Now, we really need to leave Australia, because, much as I love to promote Aussie Lit, I mustn’t be too ethnocentric about all this. So, my next link is on third novels. Limberlost is Robbie Arnott’s third novel. Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic stories for Punjabi widows (my review) is her third novel, so, short and sweet, that’s my next link.

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbia

My final link is on subject matter, as both Jaswal’s novel and Hanif Kureishi’s The buddha of suburbia (my review) deal in some way with subcontinent culture in London. Jaswal’s protagonist, Nikki, is born in England to Punjabi immigrant parents, while Kureishi’s Karim is the English-born son of a Pakistani father from Bombay and an English mother. Both characters, in different ways, have to make their way through the intersection of anglo and immigrant cultures.

So, we haven’t travelled a lot this month as we started in America with Passages, spent some time in Australia and then went to England! My author gender-split though has been 50-50 which I rarely achieve.

Now, the usual: Have you read Passages? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (#BookReview)

Where should I start my discussion of Robbie Arnott’s third novel, Limberlost? Perhaps with the epigraph. It’s by Gene Stratton Porter, and says, “In the economy of Nature, nothing is ever lost”. I have posted on Porter – on her essay, “The last Passenger Pigeon”. She was, says Wikipedia, an author, nature photographer, naturalist and silent-film producer.

Some of you will know her for her now classic novel, Girl of the Limberlost (1909). My mother adored it, and passed it on to me. I adored it too, and passed it on to my daughter, who adored it in her turn. It is a beautiful book about love of place (Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp) and a young woman, Elnora, living with a wounded, neglectful, widowed mother. It is about how Elnora obtains sustenance (physical and emotional) from nature. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, in the style of the time, but Porter won me over with her description of the Limberlost Swamp and with her young protagonist Elnora’s strength. (Oh, and with Elnora’s beautiful lunchbox, which, apparently, also impressed author Joan Aiken! I wanted one.)

So, Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost … it draws more than a little – but also not a lot – from Porter and her novel. It is about a teenage boy Ned who, though not neglected like Elnora, is living with a loving but stressed and often remote father. It is set in a stunning and beautifully-rendered-by-Arnott environment, in this case northeast Tasmania, in the Tamar River valley. There are enough similarities to suggest that Arnott also loved Porter’s novel. However, Arnott has taken this kernel – troubled teenager left frequently alone in a beautiful environment – and woven a more subtle story about, well, let’s talk about that now …

Fundamentally, Limberlost is a coming-of-age novel but one that also happens to tell a whole life from childhood to 90s – in just over 200 pages. That’s impressive writing. If you like family sagas, this is not for you, but if you are interested in what makes a life a life then Arnott has written just the book. In this case, we are talking specifically the life of a man. I have reviewed a few books over the years that explore manhood – Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review) and Sandy Gordon’s Leaving Owl Creek (my review), being two. Arnott’s book has its own take on this question.

He’d never felt so brotherless

The central narrative takes place over summer, near the end of World War 2, when Ned is 15. With his mother having died within months of his birth, and his two older brothers, Bill and Toby, being away at war, it is just Ned and his father on the family orchard, until big sister Maggie arrives to make it three. The core chronology follows Ned through summer, but the narrative shifts back and forth in time as events segue to other experiences in Ned’s life.

Ned is a sensitive, reflective young man. The novel starts with a scene from when he was 5. The community was awash with rumours and fears about a mad whale causing death and destruction at the mouth of the river, so Ned’s father had taken his three boys out in a boat to the eye of the storm, as it were. This little incident is key to the novel, because it is about facing fears, about checking the truth of stories, about memory – and about fathers and brothers. Throughout the novel, Ned struggles to remember what really happened in the various events of his life, starting with this one. Which brother had given him a coat that night when he’d shivered with cold? This bothers him, but what is more important is that “he remembered the warmth of the wool”.

It is perhaps the challenge of being the baby brother, but for Ned the struggle to feel competent – like his father, like his brothers – is ongoing. At 15, he dreams of having a boat, and he works hard to realise it, by trapping rabbits and selling the pelts. Achieving this dream would bring him two victories: “He’d have the boat, and he’d have people’s shock at the casual totality of his competence”. There is a guilty niggle, though, because his trapping for pelts looks “nobler” – providing pelts for slouch hats, while his brothers are at war – than he knows in his heart it is.

Limberlost, however, is not only about manhood and brotherhood. It is also a work of eco-literature (about which I’ve written before). The novel’s epigraph, along with the opening “mad whale” scene, clues us into this. Nature – the natural world – thrums through the novel – from the whale, the rabbits, and the quoll he mistakenly traps, to the beautiful giant manna gums (or “White Knights”) that Ned logs in a short stint on a logging crew. Many of the descriptions of the animals, plants and landscape are visceral in the way they act upon Ned’s emotions and consciousness. Ned’s relationship with this world is complex – at times it terrifies, at times it nurtures, at times he takes from it (such as logging and rabbit-trapping) and at times he gives back (such as returning the quoll), but it is always there. Arnott’s natural world is beautiful but fierce. It is also threatened – by man’s actions upon it – which Arnott shows graphically but not didactically.

There are many strong, dramatic descriptions of nature in the novel, but I’m gong to share a rare joyful one. It comes during Ned’s honeymoon, after he had experienced the true joys of lovemaking (in one of the best sex-scenes I’ve read for a while):

Afterwards he’d driven them across the plateau through white-fingered fog, through ghostly stands of cider guns, through thick-needled pencil pines, through plains of button grass and tarns, through old rock and fresh lichen, until the road twisted and dived into a golden valley. Here at winter’s end, thousands of wattles had unfurled their gaudy colours. As they descended from the heights their vision was swarmed by the yellow fuzz. Every slope, every scree, every patch of forest, every glimpse through every window was a scene of flowering gold.

The rolling, breathlessly joyful rhythm of this description is very different to that in the next paragraph where Ned’s old fears return, and the sentences become clipped, and staccato-like.

Arnott also refers to the presence of local First Nations peoples, to Ned’s awareness of their knowledge of the land. “At no point, Ned had heard, were they hungry” – not the way he and Callie were as they struggled to make their little orchard work. Some members of my reading group, with whom I read this book, felt this was anachronistic, but the Tasmanians amongst us argued that northern Tasmanians have long been aware of First Nations presence.

The final point I want to make concerns dreams and imagination. Ned, as I wrote above, feels guilty about his boat-dream when others think his rabbit-trapping is war-effort related, but it’s the dream that sustains him. When crisis comes and dreams are shattered – not in the way you are expecting so this is not a spoiler – Ned is devastated:

He wanted something to do, something to love. He had … nowhere to push his imagination, nothing to dream of … nowhere to turn his thoughts from reality … He felt cut loose from the anchors he’d been dropping all summer. He’d never felt so brotherless.

Limberlost is a great read. It is imbued with warmth for its world and characters, but it is not sentimental, nor simplistic, and no answers are given – except for one, the ties that bind, family. The novel starts and ends with father and brothers – but in between are real lives lived authentically in a vividly-rendered landscape that has its own life. Beautiful.

Several bloggers got to this before me, including Lisa, Kimbofo and Brona.

Robbie Arnott
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922458766

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 4, Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (2)

Last week I wrote about Canadian librarian, George Locke, commissioning Australian critic and journalist AG Stephens to compile the “best 100 imaginative Australian and New Zealand books” to be sent for exhibition in Toronto’s public library”. I ended on the commission having been completed, but I did not include his list because, not only had it taken me a while to find, but it then needed some editing before I could download it to share.

I’m not going to share the whole list, now, either. It is long, and probably not of core interest to most readers here. So, I plan to introduce the list, and then share selections – and, of course, I’ll give you the link so those of you who are interested can peruse the lot.

The list

After trying a few search strategies to locate the full list, I finally found it in Adelaide’s The Register (11 August 1923), in J. Penn’s “Literary Table” column. I’ve come across his columns before during my Trove searches, but have not yet found much about him. So, let’s move on. I’ve noted his name for further research, along with other mysterious by-lines I’ve seen.

Penn starts with some background. Stephens, he says, “was not required to display the historical course of literature”, nor “to include works of record, works of science, works of reference”:

His task was to choose works of literature identified with Australia or Zealandia, typifying Austra-Zealand character, suggesting life and thought native to Australia or Zealandia at the present day, yet readable and valuable elsewhere by reason of their art, by force of their genius. 

Penn suggests that “as a natural consequence of the change of environment, the character of Australians, and to a less extent of Zealandians, is gradually differentiating itself from the character of the parent British stock”. Some of the books in the list, he says, “exhibit this evolutionary change” while others reflect, in various degrees, “some of the qualities of world-wide literature”. Stephens, he continues, believes that the body of Austra-Zealand verse, which is “chiefly Scottish or Irish in origin”, is comparatively good. Regarding the rest, he quotes Stephens:

Austra-Zealand prose is good only in short stories. The best of the few long novels have been written by Englishmen. The list shows a distinct quality of English literary persistence, and a distinct preference of the Celtic mind for brief flights in prose and verse. Several books in the field of travel and description have a charming novelty. The juvenile books are excellent.

Interesting, eh? Not surprisingly, the list is verse-heavy. It is presented in categories …

  • Anzac (6)
  • Art and Illustration (8)
  • Drama (2)
  • Essays and Criticism (4)
  • Fiction (21)
  • Juvenile (11)
  • Reference (4)
  • Travel and Description (10)
  • Verse (34)

    … and is annotated with Stephens’ comments, which were presumably intended for Locke and his library.


    Book cover
    • 21. Becke (L.), By Reef and Palm, London, 1894. The first admirable short tales of the best East Sea writer since Melville. Neither Stevenson nor Maugham equals his graphic presentation of island nature and human nature.
    • 22. Bedford (E.), The Snare of Strength, London, 1905. An impetuous characteristic Australian novel, not shaped to gain its proper literary effect.
    • 23. Baynton (B.), Bush Studies, London, 1902. Short stories realizing with peculiar force and feeling the life they describe.
    • 24. Bartlett (A. T.), Kerani’s Book, Melbourne, 1921. In prose and verse the book of a typical young Australian.
    • 25. Browne (T. A.), Robbery Under Arms, London, 1888. Still the best bush story and the best long fiction written in Australia.
    • 26. Clarke (M. A. H.), For the Term of His Natural Life, Melbourne, 1874. Based on the records of the English convict settlement in Tasmania early in the 19th century. Picturesque, dramatic, and forcible at its epoch, it is moving into our literary past.
    • 27. Davis (A. H.), On Our Selection, Sydney, 1898. Lively humorous sketches of farm life and character.
    • 28. Dyson (E. G.), Factory ‘Ands, Melbourne, 1906. City life and character shown with brilliant satirical humour.
    • 29. Franklin (S. M.), My Brilliant Career, London, 1901. The first novel of a high spirited Australian girl- individual and characteristic.
    • 30. Furphy (J.), Such is Life, Sydney, 1903. Lengthy, slow, meditative, a lifelike gallery of bush scenes and bush people.
    • 31. Hay (W.), An Australian Rip Van Winkle, London, 1921. Personal and descriptive sketches are fully written and skilfully elaborated.
    • 32. Kerr (D. B.), Painted Clay, Melbourne, 1917. An Australian girl’s first novel, representing current fiction.
    • 33. Jones (D. E.), Peter Piper, London, 1913. The book of a typical Australian girl.
    • 34. Lawson (H.), While the Billy Boils, Sydney, 1896. Early collection of stories and sketches by the chief of Australian realistic writers.
    • 35. Lloyd (M. E.), Susan’s Little Sins, Sydney, 1919. Rare fertility of natural humour.
    • 36. Mander (J.), The Story of a New Zealand River, London, 1920. Best recent Zealandian novel, truthful and powerful.
    • 37. Russell (F. A.), The Ashes of Achievement, Melbourne, 1920. Placed first in De Garis prize competition of several hundred writers.
    • 38. Stephens (A. G.). ed. The Bulletin Story Book, Sydney, 1902. Many Austra-Zealand short stories permanently highly valuable.
    • 39. Stone (L.), Jonah, London, 1911. Keen observation, firm characterization, and witty exact description of city life.
    • 40. Wolla Meranda, Pavots de la Nuit, Paris, 1922. An Australian woman’s novel written in English, and first published in a French translation—a vivid story of sex in Australian scenes.
    • 41. Wright (A.), A Game of Chance, Sydney, 1922. One of the best books of a popular Australian writer of two score sporting stories. 

    So now, some thoughts. Remember that this was 1923. Many of our better-known early 20th century writers were just getting going. Katharine Susannah Prichard, for example, had written just three books by then, and Vance Palmer two. Others, like Christina Stead, M Barnard Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison had not quite started. Of course, some had, and are not included, like Catherine Helen Spence, as Bill (The Australian Legend) would say, and Price Warung, to name just two. Louise Mack is included, but in the Juvenile category – along with writers like Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner.

    Capel Boake, Painted clay

    People will always complain about lists. Indeed, I think an important role of lists is to get book talk into the public arena. I shared some criticisms of this list last week. I’m therefore going to leave that issue and look briefly at what Stephens included. There are books here, for example, that we still know today – those by Barbara Baynton, TA Browne (aka Rolf Boldrewood), MAH (Marcus) Clarke, AH Davis (aka Steele Rudd), SM (Miles) Franklin, J Furphy, DB Kerr (aka Capel Boake) and H(enry) Lawson.

    There are some surprises here – for me. Wolla Meranda is completely new to me, and I plan to research her for a future post. EG Dyson’s Factory ‘Ands, with its “brilliant satirical humour” also intrigues.

    As some critics complained (in my post last week), there is one by Stephens himself – but it is an anthology so is surely not, really, self-aggrandisement?

    Finally, his annotations. Love them. Some read a bit strangely – syntactically speaking. However, as well as reflecting his own preferences, of course, they are succinct, not bland, and they convey how the works meet that commission – to represent Austra-New Zealand thought and character in readable but quality literature!


    To avoid writing a tome, I’m now going to share a few from Drama and Verse. Of the two Drama works listed, one is by Louis Esson, who was critical of the list. Stephens includes his 1912 Three Short Plays and annotates it with “exhibits dramatic power as far as he goes”. 

    Verse contains quite a few “Zealandians” (to use the language of the time). Australian poets include many still known to us, like Barcroft Boake, Christopher Brennan, Zora Cross, CJ Dennis, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Henry Kendall. Several poets are noted (annotated) for their satirical or sardonic humour, which appeals to me. But I’ll conclude with one I don’t know, R Crawford’s 1921 The Leafy Bliss. Stephens’ annotation is “Awkward verse with astonishing aptitudes; the uncouth elf suddenly disclosing the high shining face of poetry”. (Should this be “uncouth self”? Anyhow, I love this annotation.)


    Picture Credit: Alfred Stephens, 1906, Public Domain, from National Library of Australia.

    Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series; 3. Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1)

    Pauline Johnson, A red girl’s reasoning (#Review)

    As some of you know, I have a close American friend, Carolyn, with whom I correspond weekly. We met in the early 1990s when I was living in California. During that time we started a reading group, so you won’t be surprised that our correspondence always includes reference to what we are – or are not – reading. What we recently realised is that we are not reading Native American literature. I was consequently thrilled to find Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers in my last Christmas parcel from her. I have now read the first three stories but today’s post is on the first one, “A red girl’s reasoning” by Pauline Johnson.

    Pauline Johnson

    The anthology’s editor, Bob Blaisdell, in his brief intro to the story, writes that Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was born on Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Her father, he says, was a Mohawk chief, and she was related to the American novelist, William Dean Howells, on her mother’s side. Wikipedia expands on this. It describes her as a Canadian poet, author, and performer. Regarding her parents, it says that “her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief of mixed ancestry and her mother was an English immigrant”.

    Blaisdell says that Johnson started writing fiction after her father died to support the family, but Wikipedia again tells us more, focusing on her significance. It says that her poetry was published in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain, and that she was “among a generation of widely-read writers who began to define Canadian literature. She was a key figure … and has made an indelible mark on Indigenous women’s writing and performance as a whole”. Unfortunately, as so often happens, her literary reputation declined after her death, but, Wikipedia says, there has been renewed interest in her since the late 20th century.

    If you are interested in her, do read the Wikipedia article because it’s reasonably thorough. Meanwhile, I will move on to …

    “A red girl’s reasoning”

    CanLit (where you can read the text online at the link below) says that “Red Girl’s Reasoning” was first published in Montreal’s Dominion Illustrated, in February 1893, and then, later that month, as “A Sweet Wild Flower” in Toronto’s Evening Star. Interestingly, CanLit’s online text, and the version in my anthology, both give it as “A red girl’s reasoning”. CanLit gives the author as E. Pauline Johnson. All details perhaps, but they do raise questions.

    So, what’s our red girl’s reasoning? The story concerns the marriage between Christine, who is mixed-race (our ‘red girl”), and Charlie, a young white man. It starts with Christine’s white father counselling his “brand new son-in-law” to “Be pretty good to her, Charlie, my boy, or she’ll balk sure as shooting”. Charlie, as any new husband should, reassures him that of course he will, “there’s no danger of much else”. And all goes smoothly – for a while. She’s an asset to him … but, hold this thought because I want to digress to something else Pauline Johnson wrote, an essay titled “A strong race opinion: On the Indian girl in modern fiction”. It was published the year before this story, in 1892 (and is also available online).

    In this essay, Johnson argues that people do not equate with their race, even though there are racial characteristics. “The American book heroine”, she writes, is allowed to be an individual. She does not have to have “American-coloured eyes” or an “American mode of dying”. She is allowed “an individuality ungoverned by nationalism”. This is not the case for “the Indian girl in modern fiction”. In an aside, she makes the point re “Indian”, that “there seems to be an impression amongst authors that such a thing as tribal distinction does not exist among the North American aborigines”. She continues:

    The term “Indian” signifies about as much as the term “European,” but I cannot recall ever having read a story where the heroine was describes as “a European.” The Indian girl we meet in cold type, however, is rarely distressed by having to belong
    to any tribe, or to reflect any band existing between the Mic Macs of Gaspé and the Kwaw-Kewlths of British Columbia…

    She wrote this back in 1892 – how much has changed? Anyhow, her point is well-made. Johnson then details the stereotyping of “the Indian Girl” in fiction. She is always “Winona” or a name that ‘has a “Winona” sound to it’; she never has a surname; and her father is always a chief (like, in fact, Johnson’s father.) Further, this “Winona” is often suicidal, even though “suicide is an evil positively unknown among Indians”. She is always in love with “the young white hero”, and will betray her own people, but he “never marries her”. There’s more, but I think you’ve got the gist. (She does provide an exception, Charles Mair’s Tecumseh, in which the Indian Girl Iena “is the one book Indian Girl that has Indian life, Indian character, Indian beauty” – but, like her stereotyped sisters, she is not allowed to live.)

    Needless to say, Johnson’s “red girl” does not have a Winona-sounding name and her white hero does marry her. Not only that, she stands up for herself when … but, I get ahead of myself. Before this, there is the wedding, which, Johnson writes, was not much, but fortunately groom Charlie didn’t mind:

    in his heart he was deeply thankful to escape the flower-pelting, white gloves, rice-throwing, and ponderous stupidity of a breakfast, and indeed all the regulation gimcracks of the usual marriage celebrations …

    This is significant to what follows, because the crisis, when it comes, is about Indian versus Canadian (western) marriage customs. Christine’s parents were married the “Indian” way, that is, there was a feast, but no other ritual. Charlie is aghast because he suddenly realises he has married someone “illegally born”! Her response – her “reasoning” – is that if he can’t accept that her parents are married by her mother’s customs, then she can’t accept that she and Charlie are married by his. And so the rift is wrought.

    The story’s progression from here is fairly typical of nineteenth century short stories, but to say more would spoil the plot. I will say, though, that Christine does not die!

    Blaisdell concludes his intro to the story that “while stagy” it “achieves some degree of pathos and delivers a strong comeuppance to Christian prejudices”. Yes, it is “stagy” (or, melodramatic, as I wrote in my margin) – but that’s fairly typical of its time. And it does deliver that comeuppance. But there is more to it. There is, for example, satire of white pretentious and superiority, a mockery of white storytelling even, in the way she uses the tropes of western rich man-poor girl stories:

    She was “all the rage” that winter at the provincial capital. The men called her a “deuced fine little woman.” The ladies said she was “just the sweetest wildflower.” Whereas she was really but an ordinary, pale, dark girl who spoke slowly and with a strong accent, who danced fairly well, sang acceptably, and never stirred outside the door without her husband.

    You can see the tongue firmly planted in Johnson’s cheek here.

    Johnson’s story made a great opening to the anthology. It is somewhat dated in style and terminology, but its core concern, cultural clash, still holds true, and it is told with a light touch and a warmth towards its characters that engaged me.

    Pauline Johnson
    “A red girl’s reasoning” (1893)
    in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
    Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
    pp. 1-16
    ISBN: 9780486490953
    Available online at canlit

    Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (#BookReview)

    I came across Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953-published novella, Maud Martha, on JacquiWine’s blog last year, and was confident it was a book for me – so I bought the e-Book version and read it slowly on my phone and iPad whenever I was out and about. This sort of reading doesn’t work for all books, but it did for Maud Martha because it is told in short vignettes (or “tiny stories” as Brooks’ called them) which cover the protagonist’s life from her childhood to motherhood. Her voice is so fresh, so honest, so real that I was completely captivated.

    Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a new author for me, perhaps because she was primarily a poet. In fact, Maud Martha is her only novel. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950) and the first African American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976), but these are just two from an honours-filled career.

    My edition of Maud Martha has an excellent introduction by the American critic and academic, Margo Jefferson. She ponders the novel’s disappearance from view, and posits that “it sank beneath the weighty canonical force of first novels by two of Brooks’s Black male peers”. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man appeared in 1952, and James Baldwin’s Go tell it on the mountain in 1953, the same year as Maud Martha. By comparison, Maud Martha “looks” slim but, in real weight, it is anything but. Jefferson quotes from Brooks’ memoir in which she discusses the autobiographical element of the novel: ‘It is true that much in the “story” was taken out of my own life, and twisted, highlighted, or dulled, dressed up or down.’ I read this as meaning that what she describes is “true” though not necessarily factual. It’s “a novel”, says Jefferson, “by a Black woman about working-class Black life in the twenties, thirties and forties”.

    “But dandelions were what she chiefly saw”

    The book opens with an exquisite description of seven-year-old Maud Martha. It introduces us to a young girl who has dreams but also has her feet on the ground:

    She would have liked a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese Iris, or meadow lilies—yes, she would have liked meadow lilies, because the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms, depending on who was by, rapturously up to whatever was watching in the sky. But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.

    And, she was happy with them, those “yellow jewels for everyday”:

    She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished! 

    These opening paragraphs are telling: we learn a lot about Maud Martha – as you can see – and we are introduced to Brooks spare, poetic style. It is because of language like this that Brooks can tell Maud’s story from the early 1920s to the 1940s in barely 100 pages. Jefferson describes Brooks’ style as “like a sonnet sequence, each story delights in sensory and emotional details and each reveals another aspect of Maud Martha. Poets take liberties with prose notions of a story arc”.

    So, through the stories Maud Martha grows up, questioning the real world while dreaming of New York, which is “a symbol” for her of “what she felt life ought to be. Jeweled. Polished. Smiling. Poised. Calmly rushing! Straight up and down, yet graceful enough”. She knows it’s a dream, but she stands by her right to dream. And, anyhow, “who could safely swear that she would never be able to make her dream come true for herself? Not altogether, then!—but slightly?—in some part?” This is a young woman, in other words, still with her feet on the ground but with imagination as well. 

    Meanwhile, life goes on. She marries Paul who is fairer than she, enabling him to “pass” among whites or, at least, be more easily accepted by them. She knows her darkness pulls him back, “makes him mad”, but she’s not cowed. She knows who she is and what she can offer.

    What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.

    And so she soldiers on through the bright moments and the disappointments, like settling for a kitchenette with a shared toilet when she marries Paul. Moments like these are universal. Other moments, though, are less so, because, of course, she faces racism – again and again – at the movies, while shopping for a hat, at a beauty parlour. A particularly painful occasion occurs when Santa Claus treats her little daughter Paulette differently from the white girls – and Paulette notices.

    Another occasion concerns Maud Martha’s taking work as household help, because Paul is out of work. However, the way her employer and employer’s mother-in-law assume her inferiority causes her to understand “for the first time … what Paul endured daily … as his boss looked at Paul, so these people looked at her. As though she were a child, a ridiculous one, and one that ought to be given a little shaking …”. She decides to leave the job. Her employer won’t understand, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s “a human being” too, and she will not be treated otherwise if she can help it.

    What makes Maud Martha special then is her – to use a cliche – resilience. No, it’s more than that, it’s her level-headed sense of self and a willingness to call what she sees. What’s remarkable in Brooks’ telling is the humanity and, often humour, with which she does it. Take, for example, Maud Martha’s description of her first beau:

    He was decorated inside and out. He did things, said things, with a flourish. That was what he was. He was a flourish.

    She was desperate to have a boyfriend, but not that desperate.

    Maud Martha is just delicious to read. It is deeply, distressingly insightful about Black American experience in all the horrific ordinariness of ingrained, oblivious, white superiority, but the combination of intelligence, dignity and humour with which Brooks tells her story takes your breath away.

    Gwendolyn Brooks
    Maud Martha
    London: Faber & Faber, 2022 (orig. pub. 1953)
    ISBN: 9780571373260 (e-Book)