A Bit of Literary Criticism

Spring                  Waning Seed Moon

“This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go. That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. There is my creed.”   D.H. Lawrence

And a damn fine creed at that.  I might just worship at this church.

I’ve noodled over a criteria for reading that Stefan put forward last Monday.  Something along the lines of If I don’t come away changed or with an altered perspective, then it’s not worthwhile.   He made this comment in relation to the Bill Holms’ essay, Blind is the Bookless Man.  Stefan found the essay too quotidian, too reportorial and, perhaps most important, too small.  The content of the essay concerned Bill Holms’ youth in Mineota, Minnesota and a couple of solitary Icelanders, friends of his family, who shaped his education, especially through books.

Holms’ follows a strategy I would call thick description, an almost ethnological narrative in which details pile upon details, in this case details about the homes and the reading habits of Stena and Einar.

I did not come away from the essay much changed, nor did I have my perspective altered.  Instead, I had my world expanded to include the early days of a young Icelandic boy growing up in unusual circumstances.  I now have Holm’s memories to include with my own.

Stefan’s criteria is a valid criteria for good literature, but not the only criteria.  Another criteria, also valid, gives us empathy, expands our sense of what it means to be human.   We may admit to our small clearing in the forest a god we had ignored.  We may see, for the first time, the god in another’s small clearing, clasp our hands together and say, “Namaste.”  Or, we may simply sigh, settle in to ourselves or to the quirks of another and say, “Well, interesting.”

I have a different reason altogether for liking the Holm’s piece.  That lies in the peculiar journey I have followed since college, that of a regionalist.  I did not set out to walk this ancient trail, that of one who loves the place of his days and dedicates himself to its expression in diverse ways.  But I ended up there anyhow.

The regionalist finds the universal in the particularities, the idiosyncrasies of their homeland.  Willa Cather.  Sherwood Anderson.  Henry David Thoreau.  Annie Dillard.  Wendell Berry.  Zane Gray.  Faulkner.  James Joyce.  Mark Twain.  Robert Frost.  All of these are either wholly or in good part regionalists.  Bill Holms.  Garrison Keillor.  James Whitcomb Riley.  Marquez.  Octavio Paz. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

This crowd often receives a gentle wink and a nod from the high literary crowd, but so what?  In the galactic context the whole of our planet is but a region.  All literature, all art must spring from some person, a person formed in some environment.  That some choose to focus their art on the way of the Mississippi River or the plains of Nebraska,  the ghettos of the Hasidim or uplands of Colombia is a matter for their heart.  Whether it speaks to you is a matter for yours.

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