Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Few Words About the First American Memoirs

I've long enjoyed reading memoir.  I even copied out Gore Vidal's definition of memoir in Palimpsest once:  "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.  I've taken the memoir route on the ground that even an idling memory is apt to get right what matters most."(1)  I find memoirs very accessible (as are diaries).  As opposed to fiction, I like them because I appreciate knowing how other people really solve their problems ... what they really find when they visit a place or a state of mind ... how their epiphanies and realizations really come about.

So, though I was interested in the subject matter anyway, I paid attention when the author of a book I recently finished mentioned two mid-19th century authors (whom I'll name in a minute) who wrote what she called the first American memoirs.  (Or, in one case, a precursor of the memoir.)  One book definitely details the author's life during a two-year period (1845-1847) and even says on the first page, "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well."(2)  The author of the second book fictionalizes her life but, as the contemporary author writing about her says, "in many ways, even though it's a novel, in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir--the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet."(3)

The two authors are Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott and their "memoirs," of course, are Walden and Little Women.  The book about them is Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury:  Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau--Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.

Cheever relates, how, as a friend of Emerson's, Thoreau knew the writings of the Scotsman who influenced the Transcendentalist's thinking which was based on one's intuitive, spiritual experience.  This was Thomas Carlyle who spoke of an omnipresent God, present in the details as well as in the greater whole.  Thoreau even gave a lecture on Carlyle, after which his Concord audience (during the equivalent of their Q&A) expressed more curiosity about him than Carlyle.  Why was he living out there by the pond?  What was his life like?  Wasn't he cold, lonely, hungry?  So Thoreau began taking notes and eventually wrote his classic as an answer to these questions.  Cheever calls it "the first American memoir, the first book in which the days and nights of an autobiographical, confessional narrator are the central plot line.  Thoreau invented nature writing and memoir writing in one swift, brilliant stroke."(4)

Here's a sketch I made when sitting on the grass near the replica of Thoreau's cabin.

As for Alcott, Cheever relates how she put what we might today call "a good spin" on her life.  Rather than speaking of the family's miserable poverty which required them to move twenty times in as many years, Alcott describes what Cheever calls the family's "friendly penny-pinching."  Rather than writing of her sister's "horrifying and dreadful death" it becomes "a sweet and peaceful letting go."  Rather than labeling her father the misfit he so often seemed to be, she sends him away for most of the book.  So, as fiction, the book portrays a sweetness which her life most definitely did not reflect.  But as Cheever goes on to say, "It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman's life--cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk--can be as important a subject as a great whale or a scarlet letter."(5)

But there are even earlier works--tales of adventure--which would seem to qualify as well.  (These in comparison to Walden published in 1854 and Little Women published in 1868.)  Foremost would be Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast about his two-year sea voyage to California (1840).  Another would certainly be Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail which describes venturing west in 1846, then camping with a band of buffalo-hunting Oglala Sioux (1849).  Bret Harte drew on his own experiences to write about life in California mining camps (1868).  As for fictionalized renderings of one's experience (as Alcott), Herman Melville drew upon his two years in a whaling ship when he wrote Typee (1846) and Moby Dick (1851).

As a total aside, I was interested to learn about the dreadful medical practices of the day which, in fact, eventually killed Alcott.  When she was just thirty, in the early days of the Civil War, she went to work in a Washington, D.C., hospital filled with Union Army casualties.  She'd barely arrived when she came down with something that was diagnosed as being either TB or typhoid.  The practice then was to purge the ailing, to give them laxatives, purgatives, cathartics including one, a mercury compound, which produced such bad mercury poisoning that one was debilitated for life.  Hawthorne's wife suffered from this as did Alcott.  Then, to combat the pain, she became addicted to morphine and opium.  She lived with it for some time, however, then died at age 55 in 1888.

What Makes November November

Baked apples and spiced pears
Gingerbread and apple cake
Low-lit afternoons
A new knitting project for dark evenings
Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy!

Gore Vidal, Palimpsest, A Memoir:
(1) p. 5
Henry David Thoreau, Walden:
(2) p. 3
Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury:
(3) p. 192
(4) p. 125
(5) p. 192 (all quotations in that paragraph)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Celebrating November

The price of gold hovers around $1,750 an ounce.  But the gold that fills the landscape, glinting the hills, dressing the countryside, the streets, the lawns, is now raked up and bagged or left for the deer to walk on.  Blowing machines hum around town.  No longer obscured by leafy trees, road-side corners are easier to maneuver.  Low-lit afternoons reveal open spaces between the branches.

And in that low-light of even early afternoon, I walk beside the West River before the days become too cold and the wind whistling down the river, too fierce.  All is quiet except for a single crow and the inconsequential hum of cars.  Even the river is silent.  Only an occasional brown oak leaf floats along its placid, ripple-less sun-lit surface.  The corn field is now stubble.  If I were to paint what I see, I would get out tubes of raw sienna and raw umber.  A pewter grey for tree trunks and shadows.  All to render the prickles, twigs, fluff, seed heads, bare branches, bittersweet berries, dead curled leaves.

Back home, cup of tea in hand, I get out my poetry books.

November Night (Adelaide Crapsey 1878-1914)

Listen ...
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

Fall, Leaves, Fall (Emily Brontë 1818-1848)

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

And, in a more contemporary vein:


these cool blowy days
          rip time
shaking the garden bare above
shadows windful & aching with
          raw light
as whispers sit through moments
falling like my summer sleep

(I wrote that using those refrigerator poetry magnets)

Once above, now below

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Other Good Eats This Month

Yep, November equals turkey:  smelling it as it roasts ... sitting down with family, plates heaped high ... making turkey sandwiches with the left-overs ... sticking the bones into a big pot and concocting soup.

But.  Besides turkey, November presents us with pretty good eating the rest of the month, too.  Take winter squashes.  Butternut, acorn, delicata.  They're wonderful baked with a little butter and dollop of hot pepper jelly.  I'm not a hot-food fan, but pepper jelly works magic.  It's also fabulous when you sauté carrots or thinly sliced red cabbage. I heat a little olive oil in an already hot(ish) pan, drop in the veggies, stir, add a dash of water, put on the lid, shake the pan, let the whole thing steam/sauté, then mix in a spoonful of pepper jelly.  Soon, with a lid, it can be turned off to finish in a gentler fashion.
The carrots right now are perfect.

Leeks and potatoes are good now, too, and go together beautifully to make a delicious warming soup ... with a little grated cheese on top or a splash of half-and-half.

Then, too, I've come up with a really tasty meatloaf.  The secret is to mix ground pork with ground beef.  (You can even remove the casing from sausage and put that in.)  Here's how I make it.  Sauté diced onions and celery.  Add them to the meat along with one egg, some tomato sauce or bits of diced tomato (if canned, keep the juice for another dish), bread crumbs, oregano flakes, salt and pepper.  Or any other herbs that look good--chives, parsley, thyme...  Then, get in there and mix it with your hands. Nothing else does as good a job.  Spoon it onto an oiled baking dish, form it into a nice shape, and bake for an hour at maybe 385º.  Let rest 10 minutes.
Here's a slice next day, heated up as left-overs.

So, we have soup, veggie, and meat loaf.  A good carrot cake would be perfect for dessert.  Or gingerbread.  I don't have recipes that I can copy here, but they're easy to find.

And for drinks?  I have two excellent ideas.  One is a good mulled wine.  Again, there are recipes galore, but, basically, you need a bottle of a nice red, a sweetener (honey, sugar), brandy (or a fruit juice substitute), an orange, and whatever spices seem appealing--cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, ginger.  The key is to warm it slowly and let it simmer awhile.

The other drink is called Intoxicating Hot Chocolate--something we relished back in "the old days" at K.C.'s Restaurant and Bambooze Bar in the Thamel region of Kathmandu.  On cold autumn/winter nights, it warmed body and soul.  It was simple.  A mug of your favorite hot chocolate.  A jigger of rum.  A sprinkle of cinnamon.  I don't think it had whipped cream, but that would be heavenly, too.

I might end here, but I'm not going to because one of my absolute favorite meals to prepare and to eat (which is perfect this time of year) is to roast everything in one large baking dish.  (Bake for an hour at about 385º, then let rest 10 minutes.)  I made this supper a couple of nights ago:  a breast of chicken, oiled and seasoned with the last of my herb garden sage.  Fingerling potatoes, also oiled.  A delicata squash that I peeled, cut into chunks, oiled, and seasoned with a dab of butter and some pepper jelly.  An onion cut into quarters.  Salt and pepper all around.  As it baked, it smelled fabulous.  It tasted pretty fabulous, too. There was even enough to turn it into a two-night meal.  And all I had to wash was that one baking dish.
Delicata squash--peeled, oiled, with a dab of butter and pepper jelly
Here it all is, ready to serve--squash, potatoes, onions, and chicken breast

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Long Nights, Early Mornings

What was it W. C. Fields said?  "The best cure for insomnia is to get a good night's sleep." A family member used to toss that up to me when I'd get up in the morning, claiming little or no sleep.  So I have to remember that, for me, sleep issues aren't anything new.  I'm sure I can still put a few off onto age, though.  Actually, besides being awake for long stretches at night, my problem might be more a circadian rhythm thing.  There are certainly times when I feel my body is on mid-Atlantic time.  I know there are evenings when I've got my light out before my late-eating London friends have finished supper.  Everything for me feels speeded up.  I wake early (like 4:45 this morning), so I get up early.  Breakfast is a reasonable hour, maybe 7:00.  But I start getting lunch ideas around 10:30 though manage to hold off an hour.  Then I have to force myself to wait until 5:00 for supper.  Of course, after that the evening seems long.  I don't watch TV--what is there to watch?  But enjoying a good book, I often get in bed to read only to find my eyes closing.  So I call it quits early ... which then means I wake early.  Isn't that called a vicious cycle?

There was one absurd night when I put down my book and went to sleep around 6:30.  Lo and behold, I had a good night and woke at 8:30 next morning.  The sun was up, I was ready for the day.  But  ... gradually ... something didn't feel right.  I turned on my computer and read the date.  It was still the night before.  The sun was still up because it was the middle of summer ... it was, in fact, just going down.

And then a full moon throws a monkey wrench into things.  Despite window shades, it still seems to shine in.  All that lunar energy wriggling around, going zap, zap, like a magic wand, waking me, and then wanting me to stay awake!

So now here we are switching to Standard Time this very night.  As someone remarked, this bi-annual shift is a pointless aspect of modern life.  Some countries don't observe it--mostly in Asia and Africa.  And then our own Arizona has opted out.  I can remember years as a girl when we simply stuck to Standard Time.  Then people started fiddling with it.  The excuse was that we'd use less electricity.

As of tonight, we're going smack into dark evenings.  How are my confused Circadian rhythms going to handle that?  If my body wakes at what it thinks is 4:45, the clock will say 3:45 ... too early for those of us who aren't dairy farmers or meditators on retreat.  And the afternoon will seem like one long airplane trip going west across the International Date Line when you go for hours and hours and the time never changes.  With the lower winter light, around here, anything after 12:00 noon seems like a perpetual 4 P.M.  Looking out to that low light, I get the impression it's time to start thinking about making supper almost as soon as I finish lunch.  And cocktail hour is a long time coming.  Then finally--whap--the afternoon shuts down (around the real 4:00), I close the window shades, turn on a light, cook supper, and get out my knitting or a book, holding out as long as I can.

Early November when the low light takes over the entire afternoon.

Of course, there's tomorrow morning's clock-changing routine, too.  When adding them up, I find I've got a surprising number of time-pieces.  My computer, cable box, and cell phone change automatically.  But I also have wrist-watches, answering machine, 3 cameras, car clock, kitchen radio, etc.  Fifteen in all.  Most requiring pushing little buttons all with different mode-changing criteria.  (There are so few dials anymore.)  But changing 15 time-pieces is better than the 450 the poor Windsor Castle time-keeper has to adjust--a task that takes him16 hours.

So, between occasional insomnia, Circadian rhythm oddities, and that ole moon, it can be amazing to get through a night at all.  And this time change stuff doesn't help.