Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith]

Rambling about the works of Oliver Goldsmith, the reader may never be astonished at a spectacular vista but does enjoy a consistently picturesque one, punctuated with insights, apt images, and clever turns. Goldsmith may not take the reader swooping up toward the sublime, but he offers the more steady reward of well-crafted rhetorical architecture and a humane and penetrating voice, scintillating with wit. To read Goldsmith is to realize that the world may, for those of a certain turn of mind, be redeemed by language alone.

His friend Dr. Johnson wrote an eloquent epitaph for his grave, using Latin since he did not care to “disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription.” [1] This brief encomium attests to Johnson’s as well as to Goldsmith’s literary skill and sums up the latter as author with such succinctness that it is worth quoting (though here, in a concession to our age, rendered in the vulgar vernacular).

"Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant."

Goldsmith’s limits are implied in the adjective “gentle,” for no one would call Homer or Dante or Shakespeare gentle. The praise of his style as “clear, elevated, elegant" suggests craft and competence rather than the “sublime” Johnson allowed to his friend’s “genius.” Boswell had been disturbed to hear Goldsmith remark, “As I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the taylor, so I take my religion from the priest,” but the reader is justified in thinking that he got his literary standards in the same way, by accepting the pre-existing norms and working deftly within their limits.

Goldsmith had economic motive for his writerly professionalism, as it was for him essential to make a living with his pen. The son of an Anglican priest, he was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he barely graduated. [2] He then made a tour of Europe, though his was not so “grand” as those of his wealthier classmates. Goldsmith walked great distances and sometimes raised cash by playing his flute on the street. Upon his return he sought to make a living as a hack writer and managed to impress Johnson and others enough to be admitted to membership in “The Club” which met to dine at the Turk’s Head in Soho. Still he was chronically in debt, in part due to his gambling habit, and in Boswell Johnson tells of finding him “in great distress” unable to pay his rent. Johnson instantly sent him a guinea and found when he arrived that Goldsmith had already spent it for wine. Finding he had the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield completed, Johnson (the tastemaker of the day) took it to a printer and received immediate payment. [3]

He was considered odd by his contemporaries, often awkward in company even among his intimates. According to Boswell he once told a clergyman that his brother was Dean of Durham in order to puff his own importance. When Johnson composed his dignified Latin tribute, other members of The Club composed burlesque epitaphs, and the actor Garrick contributed a memorial of the writer’s social unease.

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith for shortness called Noll,
Who write like an angel, but talked like poor Poll.

The essays he wrote to pay his rent provide perhaps the purest access to Goldsmith’s essential tone built of civility, wit, and contemplation. He is regularly amused rather than, like Swift, indignant at human failings, in the same way that he is decent rather than demanding in morality and conventional rather than innovative in style. When he does propose an original idea, it is likely to be more show than substance, as he strove (with, apparently, less success than Wilde) to formulate paradoxes meant to be clever but which struck observers as ridiculous. For instance, his “On the Use of Language” suggests that “the true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.” Yet so loose is his hold on the potentially provocative point [4] that he slides from it into complaints over his observation that those in no need of hospitality and of loans are least likely to be offered them, a discussion which will recall the author’s own penurious circumstances.

His embryonic Romanticism is reflected in “A City Night-Piece” [5] in which he muses in dark solitude and, seeing the homeless, complains of “this heart of mine formed with so much sensibility.” He returns to familiar thematic ground for the conclusion which condemns those who seek vice when night falls, saying of the respectable men who may “talk of virtue all the day,” that they then steal out to brothels. “He has passed the whole day in company he hates, and now goes on to prolong the night among company that as heartily hate him.”

Johnson called him a “naturalist” in the day when natural philosophy was studied and practiced by philosophers in general. Though he was never responsible for actual research (such as Goethe and Benjamin Franklin did), he did produce references such as An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. In “The Sagacity of Some Insects,” he marvels at the spider and concludes with real pathos for an aged arachnid.

His criticism is spirited, though lightweight; he took little interest in literary theory and wrote either with an eye to fictionalizing style or a wholly impressionistic critical standard. Indeed, in “Upon Criticism” he declares “I have assumed the critic only to dissuade from criticism.” To him every common reader makes a critic superior to the connoisseur. As with the consumer, so the producer: “let us,” he says, “instead of writing finely, try to write naturally.” In general his positions are today commonplace. Few contemporary critics would dissent from his preference for “laughing” over “sentimental” comedy, his defense of subjects in his day considered “low” by the fastidious, or his acceptance of the excellence of modern works against those who would honor only the classics. One work advocating for the literature of his own day is “A Resverie” which imagines writers as traveling in various “stage-coaches,” associated with pleasure, industry, fame, and riches and bearing well-known appropriate writers.

That essay verges on being a short story just as many of the chapters of The Citizen of the World are very like essays. This satiric series, with little or no over-arching structure, represents the view of Britain to a Chinese philosopher, allowing satire of all areas of life, but, in Goldsmith’s loose treatment, allowing as well for disquisitions on virtually any topic including literary criticism, the sketchy creation of a backstory for the supposed author, and the interpolation of narratives such as the story of the “beautiful captive.” As always, Goldsmith is casual, current, and conversational.

Perhaps the greatest single essay, “A Resverie at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap” is entertaining, even memorable and, in parts, moving. Goldsmith’s appeal survives though the essay reads like a series of smaller pieces. The tone is established at the outset. Saying that while young he much enjoyed reading Cicero on old age, but that having “declined into the vale of years,” he finds that “Cicero is no longer pleasing.” Falstaff, he finds, “with all his faults, gives me more consolation than the most studied efforts of wisdom,” and thus he drinks until closing time and after passing out dreams even of interviewing Dame Quickly, the tavern’s resident genie. In her narration the Boar’s Head becomes the seat of sensuality, not just intoxication but gambling, sexual desire, and vanity as well. Human weakness according to her never changes. “You will find mankind neither better nor worse now than formerly.” In the social realm the church is depicted as utterly hypocritical while in general “those that labour starve, and those who do nothing wear fine cloaths and live in luxury.” The place was occupied throughout its history “by adventurers, bullies, pimps, and gamesters,” in other words by human beings, who, in their occasional recoils from sensuality, fall into equally ridiculous religious or political enthusiasm. Listening, the author at last rebels against this unrelieved display of human foolishness, declaring that he had expected from her “a romance,” and that in future he is “determined to hearken only to stories,” that is to say, to fantasy. What can one do but drink?

Goldsmith’s poetry is clever and natural like conversation. He excels at little occasional pieces to friends such as “Verses in Reply to Dr. Baker’s invitation” or “The Haunch of Venison.” His facility with heroic couplets serves him well in his longer poems.

“The Traveller,” which is dedicated with real warmth to Goldsmith’s brother, reflects on the writer’s European experience which he refers to as “my prime of life in wand’ring spent and care” during which he found “no spot of all the world my own.” To compensate for this restless instability he assures himself that “to repine” is “affectation all, and school-taught pride.”

And wiser he, whose sympathetic mind
Exults in all the good of all mankind.

With enlightened tolerance, he guesses that in the various countries of the earth, for all their differences, “the bliss of all is much the same,” though he does recur to some standard ethnic generalizations when he details his impressions. To him the Italians, though “surely blest,” are too sensual, and the French are given to “vanity” and “ostentation,” the Dutch to “love of gain.” He finds an ideal in the mountain-dwelling peasants of Switzerland because they are “content,” are “calm” and “cheerful,” but concludes with a patriotic encomium on English “freedom.” But even at home he finds corruption in his belated times and fears that in the end “as social bonds decay,” Britain itself may be “stript of all her charms” and sunk to one low level of “avarice.” Already he sees that “laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” Citing the dreadful threat of the thugs of state power,

The lifted ax, the agonizing wheel,
Luke’s iron crown, and Damien’s bed of steel,”

he finds that “bliss . . . centers in the mind,” and that “our own felicity we make or find.”

“The Deserted Village” is an admirable example of the eighteenth century topographical style, like Pope’s “Windsor Forest” combing landscape description with political comment. Unlike Pope in “Windsor Forest” or Denham in “Cooper’s Hill,” though, Goldsmith takes the part of the poor, contrasting beautiful and idealized images of a pre-industrial provincial world with the immoral rapacity of the owners of his own day. He unforgettably portrays evicted families, many of them victims of the Inclosure Acts, trudging toward London where they will only encounter “profusion that he must not share,” (312) while losing their daughters perhaps to prostitution as well. (333) Some even emigrate to the New World where they are likely to find “the various terrors of that horrid shore.” (348) The political point remains a righteous one, as Goldsmith’s contemporaries such as Thomas Spence, the radical activist, realized. Even to a self-avowed conservative like Goldsmith, the aristocrats were immoral who abandoned a paternal role as landlords and expelled workers who had lived for generations as faithful tenants in order to indulge their fancies with extensive parks and decorative gardens or to turn over the land to grazing with an eye to trade.

The author’s moralizing is well-served by the abstract Augustan vocabulary and the balanced rhetorical periods that had earlier been used so adeptly by Pope: “Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey/ The rich man’s joy’s increase, the poor’s decay.” (267-268) “Hoards, even beyond the miser’s wish abound,/ And rich men flock from all the world around.” (271-271) “The man of wealth and pride,/ Takes up a space that many poor supplied.” (277-278) His final appeal, to “Poetry, thou loveliest maid” to “teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain” (426) is pathetic in its ineffectuality.

Goldsmith’s most enduring work, his only novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1761) tends to relax into essays about literary or dramatic taste or politics, or criminal justice reform when it is not providing accounts of the highest emotional intensity fancied by those fond of the “sentimental novel.” Throughout the author counsels modest personal tastes and voices suspicions of high life, yet the wealthy and virtuous win out in an exceedingly unrealistic romance version of Job complete with his final restoration to prosperity. The good Dr. Primrose even has an apparently deceased daughter returned which bests what Jehovah did for Job. It is for good reason that the priest feels faith in a benevolent Providence through all his misfortunes that rivals that of Voltaire’s ever-optimistic Pangloss in Candide (1759).

She Stoops to Conquer is an amusing farce, and an amusing face is a worthy thing. Moderns who enjoy its absurd situations will readily assent to Goldsmith’s defense of “laughing” over “sentimental” comedy. Here Goldsmith invokes the principle social polarities in a spirit of pure play. Male and female, rich and poor, town and country, virtue and vice are all reconciled in harmonious and proper marriages as though their apparent contradictions were all in fun. Suddenly Tony’s irresponsible roistering, Charles’ intrigues with lower status women, George’s plans to elope surreptitiously with the family jewels are as harmless as Mr. Hardcastle’s nostalgia and his wife’s wish to be fashionable.

The character of Goldsmith’s oeuvre is epitomized by his Life of Richard Nash. Especially in an age in which (as in Plutarch’s time) biography was often exemplary, one might wonder why he chose to memorialize this gambler and womanizer for whom his most frequent epithet is “dissipated.” There are, of course, sufficient prudential reasons. “Beau” Nash, the unofficial “master of ceremonies” at the baths, was, in his day, not unlike the figures that grace the tabloids, “famous for being famous.” A good many anecdotes, of greater or lesser veracity, circulated about him, and he was himself an all-but-incessant reteller of his own legend, so there was doubtless a brief but bright efflorescence of interest in the superannuated celebrity when he died. It is then natural that a hack writer would foresee a likely market.

Surely, though, Goldsmith (himself socially awkward) felt a deep interest, compounded perhaps of envy, sympathy, horror, and fascination, with this man whom Goldsmith describes as capable of appearing much wittier than he was in fact due to his charismatic aplomb. Though the depiction of an aged and poverty-stricken fop makes the account a morality tale in the end, Goldsmith is not as critical of his subject as his reader may be. Nash was a self-conscious hedonist who challenged Wesley when he came to Bath [5], yet Goldsmith makes every allowance for him, placing him in a middle character, neither “truly great or strongly vicious.” A modern might not be as indulgent of a man whose bons mots included ridicule of another’s appearance, but we may accept Goldsmith’s word that he did many good works: saving gamblers from “sharpers,” and young women from those who might take advantage of them, that his benefactions were so open-handed as to be even ruinous of his own interests. Though openly irreligious and flouting social proprieties, he nonetheless seems have taken his role in Bath quite seriously, carefully organizing the dances and dinners and strictly enforcing his own set of rules by force of personality alone. Goldsmith must have liked as well the way that Nash insisted on mixing the aristocracy with the haute bourgeoisie in a way unacceptable to some of the aristocrats.

The book is fundamentally an easy read, as genial and likable as its author was by the accounts of his friends, an oddball of whom it may be said that, like Nash, “his virtues were all amiable” and whose weaknesses were excusable. Reading Goldsmith, one feels as though one is walking alongside one of the more charming of men, one whose conversation consumes the hour pleasantly. One can hardly afford to spurn such rewards. Goldsmith’s response to life is warm rather than hot. Just as he habitually insists that a man of modest means who is satisfied is both rich and wise, he offers no startling revelations, but rather makes do on a simple humane decency and acceptance, lit by wit and delivered with the fluent confidence of a professional writer. Indeed, any more extravagant returns from literature of any sort, while perhaps more thrilling, must surely prove less dependable. Goldsmith may never attain the heights of sublimity, but he is altogether comfortable dancing with grace on the lower plateaus of Parnassos.

1. Nonetheless, his Latinity was impugned in a lengthy article “On Epitaphs” in the Classical Journal during 1816.

2. Apart from poor grades, he was involved in a “riot” outside the Marshalsea debtor’s prison.

3. Mrs. Piozzi offers an livelier account of the incident with bailiffs besieging Goldsmith’s lodging and the author roaring drunk and “enraged.”

4. Has Goldsmith been enlisted by the Deconstructionists?

5. Cf. Gay’s “Trivia” which likewise records nocturnal wandering in urban neighborhoods.

6. Wesley, followed by a crowd of Methodists, held his own, but, after Nash had departed and Wesley had begun to lead prayers for him, hostile members of the crowd “hollowed and hissed us.” (Wesley, Letters 1739)

The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution

November 15, 2016

It has been only a bare week after the election of the most authoritarian-minded president in American history, an unapologetic bigot to whom immigrants, Muslims, gay people, women, and minorities are lesser beings, an avaricious businessman whose career illustrates the very worst of American capitalism, enriching only himself while short-changing workers, contractors, and consumers. Those across a broad spectrum of political opinion, those with any humanity at all, must lament the elevation of Donald Trump and struggle to prevent progress from being rolled back in every arena of public life.

Yet at this time in which fascists and racists are assuming high governmental posts, a time when, if ever, a popular united front seems required, I choose to present a critique of the history of the left. I used to hear that even some conservative Italians used to vote Communist because the Communists were the only politicians who were not corrupt. We have not only our program but also our honesty and our candor to distinguish us from the selfish reactionary opportunists. We have as well the record of centuries to testify that steady organization and pressure from the masses can move history forward. First the aristocrats, then the middle class, and finally the laborers have gained power along with a greater share of what they produce. We have eliminated slavery, child labor, and prohibitions on homosexuality and have granted women the vote and workers the right to organize. No step forward in human society has ever occurred at the urging of conservatives; rather, progress has always come from those at first labeled radical, then liberal, then mainstream. This pattern will not be readily ended.

Yet the history of the left is not entirely noble. The student of Greek history will note that “tyrants” arose from the popular party and that autocrats throughout history often enjoy high levels of support. “Democracy” fails when the majority chooses to oppress the minority. We have just witnessed in America the very first candidate who doubts the value of democracy, who forms mutual admiration societies with dictators, who fears education and celebrates white supremacy. Why, then criticize the revolutionaries? Because we can afford to be more honest. The facts and the trends of history still favor us even after the rise to power of a hateful and ridiculous man.

I have always called myself a revolutionary socialist. The qualifying adjective does not imply that change can come only through an armed uprising, but only that to be effective the revolution must be radical and thorough-going, not the patchwork ameliorations of European social democracy. What is required is social ownership of the means of production; anything less could provide only symptomatic relief for the problems of capitalism. I do believe that a ruling class will never cede power if another viable choice exists. Many factors short of bloodshed can constitute sufficient force: an army that will no longer obey a tyrannical regime (as in Portugal in 1974), the increasing financial cost of maintaining the status quo (probably the major motive for Britain’s giving up on empire), or, everybody’s favorite, massive and well-organized resistance that makes governing impossible (as in Tunisia in 2011). Frederick Douglass was right when he said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”

I cannot claim to be a pacifist (though I admire pacifists) because I think I would be justified in resisting an assault on me or on my loved ones (ineffectual though my resistance might be). If this is allowed for an individual, how much more it must be for a society when the well-being of multitudes is involved. Oppression and institutional violence deprive people of the lives they deserve no less than physical brutality. The slave may be fed daily, but who would doubt his right to revolt?

Indeed, evidence seems to point to the potency of blood when argument has proven futile. John Brown declared with action his belief in the Biblical principle that “without shedding of blood there is no remission [of sins].” [1] One may regard Old Ossawatomie as an extremist, but Abraham Lincoln said very nearly the same in his eloquent Second Inaugural Address: “If God wills that it [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"

Would the United States have become independent without war? (Canada, of course, did.) Or the French have rid themselves (temporarily) of the Bourbons? The executed martyrs of the Easter Uprising in Dublin, after plunging into an unwinnable military contest, enjoyed vastly multiplied influence in death. And, in the USA, who can deny that the deaths of children in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and of college-age volunteers during Freedom Summer in 1964 hastened the progress of civil rights? Or that the violence in America’s cities stimulated the so-called War on Poverty”? Surely the deaths at Kent State advanced the struggle against the war in Vietnam. At a state-sponsored correctional services seminar, I was told that only after Rockefeller’s murderous assault on the inmates of Attica in 1971 were inmates granted twenty-six of their twenty-seven demands.[2] These are only a few examples of an all-but-self-evident principle.

Yet the very efficacy of blood as a catalyst for social change testifies to its dangerous power, equal, as Freud came to believe, with that of sexuality, in the unconscious. Any human can feel the blood boil as provocation mounts, and most any human may, in the heat of the moment, act with unjustifiable force. Anarchists like Sorel and Malatesta celebrated violence, as did some in the IWW and later in the Weather Underground. If such figures seem to occupy only the fringe of American political thought, one need only cite the homage paid to military veterans, revered specifically for their use of force, by mainstream opinion.

The invocation of such a formidable psychological force is highly hazardous. The pacifists would have us believe that the practice of violence itself brutalizes the sensibility and the oppressed may easily become an oppressor after a bloody victory. Again history offers countless examples. Hundreds of thousands at any rate died in la Terreur and the suppression of the revolt in the Vendée that followed the French Revolution. The Irish Free State in its attempts to consolidate its position killed more combatants than had died in the War of Independence. Even among partisans of socialism (indeed, especially among us) the monstrous crimes of Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge and the lesser betrayals of self-described people’s regimes in Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere must be admitted, examined, and analyzed. Yet each of these struggles was fundamentally just at the start; each overturned a violent and viciously backward regime.

What then is to be done? One warning sign of a wrong turn is the rise of cult of personality. In political groups as in religious movements one does well to beware any leader touted as irreplaceable and superior to all others, with the guaranteed answer to any question. [3] Yet many throughout history seem to seek such leaders, to voluntarily cede individual decision-making and to become instead units in a larger system. This is the distinctive appeal of the dictator and the cult-leader; it must be no part of the left. No person is always or predictably right; no country owns virtue. This is not to say that distinctions do not exist. They do, and the responsible citizen will often select the least of evils.

Secondly, the left must realize that the people’s interest is almost always for peace. While a mortal struggle may on occasion seem unavoidable, it must remain a genuine last resort, used with the greatest caution. It is wise to abandon the romantic appeal even of violent poses. Suffering is bad and thus war is bad and only in the rarest cases might it be less bad than peace.

Even in our present state of submission to the plutocrats it is necessary to recall the history of people’s movements, glorious and hopeful, but on occasion dismal as well. Though progressives have led all social advances achieved by our species, they have also proven all-too-human in victory. American radicals have at times emulated the authoritarian model of Stalinism, mindlessly enlisting their best efforts in support of tyrants and murderers. While many have selflessly pursued a vision of betterment, those in leadership ranging from union leaders to heads of state have sometimes sought self-aggrandizement no less than those on the right whose philosophy explicitly values selfishness. It can never be wise to cede one's own discernment to a "great man" however charismatic. Great disasters have arisen from those who claimed to represent people's power. It may seem far from reality to warn in these reactionary days against excesses from revolutionaries, but every share of actual power brings new hazards and pitfalls. The broadest human self-interest is given form by socialism, but its advocates must always guard against the darker regions of the backbrain. These will never vanish, but we can cultivate our gardens, making vegetables out of earth and sweat and tending with equal care our solicitude for all others, including opponents.

1. Hebrews 9:22. The passage is describing the earlier Mosaic practice of animal sacrifice and its replacement by the higher order sacrifice of Christ.

2. The only unsatisfied demand was that rebels might be allowed to travel to a sympathetic foreign country. (Algeria was a refuge for some Panthers and for Tim Leary at the time.)

3. Apart from leadership from the Comintern or from the Fourth Internationale, one may note such personality cults as those around Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The Double Plot of Salem Chapel

Many readers have observed that Mrs. Oliphant’s [1] Salem Chapel combines two rather ill-sorted narratives. The satiric story of the naïve young Nonconformist assuming his first pastorate among middle-class people is interwoven with a far more unlikely lurid tale of abduction and attempted murder. The wry and witty, though always warmly indulgent, observations about pride, ego, and class differences in the account of the relations of Mr. Vincent and his flock contrast with the highly pitched rhetoric of the episodes describing the events associated with the criminal cad Col. Mildmay. These strains of plot contain, however, one element in common: the strength of the power of shame. The lower register concern with reputation and approbation that motivates the newly hired minister suddenly seems inconsequential when the sexual purity of the virtuous Susan is cast in doubt, but in both cases the horror is largely focused on what others will think.

The literary development of the novel as a form corresponds to the rise of the bourgeoisie and many of the genre’s practitioners and consumer were, from the start, middle class. [2] The quarrel of the Salem Chapel crowd with the Established Church (like that of their predecessors who emigrated to Plymouth centuries earlier) was as much political as religious, signaling a dissent from the ruling class and a people’s determination to make decisions for themselves rather than simply obey orders from the traditional elites.

The verisimilitude of the depiction of the chapel and its congregants is a part of the broad movement toward greater realism in fiction during the nineteenth century. The middle class attributes of Mr. Tozer, Mr. Pigeon, and the others (which trouble the Cambridge-educated clergyman) are emphasized by their consistent identification with their businesses (“the butterman,” and “the poulterer”). The church-goers’ expectations from their minister are those of an employer and are expressed in mercantile terms. They are confident of their doctrinal convictions, but the church seems far more a social institution than a divine one, and tea-parties and pastoral visiting emerge as among their principal concerns. They share, though, with their spiritual shepherd an acute concern for the opinions of others.

The dominant tone of the realistic and satirical aspect of Salem Chapel is not far from Trollope or a good many passages of Dickens: a mild, tolerant acceptance of the foibles of humanity in which a wide range of characters are seen as alike hapless and sometimes weak, blind to their own limitations which the reader can so easily see. People in this arena regularly err, but they are not vicious. The deacons are upright and responsible, if narrow, and the reader who feels superior to them in intellect and taste will likely admire their character hardly the less. The head layman, Mr. Tozer, though as mundane as any of his co-religionists, rises to heroic stature in his plain-spoken sympathy and defense of Mr. Vincent.

The villainous Mildmay provides what might be considered the romance element in the story, departing from the initial plot and requiring extraordinary coincidences while introducing themes of seduction, abduction, crime, and madness. While the action centering around Mr. Vincent and his flock getting acquainted might be regarded in the old Freudian shorthand as occurring in the realm of the ego and superego, this new element is enacted deep within the id. While most people never find themselves confronted by monstrous crime, stories of violence and sexual exploitation have been popular from ancient tragedies through medieval romances and broadside ballads to the detective stories noted by this week’s New York Times Book Review.

The fact that such stories have long been popular is, of course, itself sufficient reason to push a writer dependent on income from sales toward such themes. The fact is that “sensation novels” were enjoying a particular vogue at the time of the book’s publication in 1863. [3] Though Oliphant was ambivalent about the use of “shock,” she recognized the “remarkable quickening of public interest” in books that employed it. [4] The reason at the base of the appeal of sex and violence is, of course, the simple fact that passions and anxieties associated with love and death are the most powerful emotions of human life.

By including two registers of plotline, Oliphant mirrors her readers’ psyches and her own. We each live our lives in continual pursuit of self-respect and community approbation, yet everyone encounters as well the more tumultuous forces of desire and fear. Whereas a good deal of the social realm is, to one extent or another, within the control of the individual, the demands of eros and thanatos are non-negotiable. Though ratiocination may serve well in the struggles of the ego, it has far less influence in affairs involving sexuality (and pleasure in general) or mortality (and pain in general). Far from having created a monstrous fiction like the one imagined by Horace with a horse’s neck and a human head, Oliphant has accurately reflected what is the universal human life experience. Discordant it may be, but no more so than our daily lives.

1. I confess to a weakness for these usages, though I am aware that they seem to others obsolete or even disagreeable. Mrs. Gaskell, Dr. Johnson, Lady Mary Wortley Montague. After this initial declaration, though, I shall observe current usage of the surname only.

2. The outsize contribution of women to the ranks of both readers and writers of fiction is another indication of the lower social status of the novel. Even in novels written by men, the representation of a female perspective is often prominent as in works of Defoe and Richardson.

3. The fashion is evident in parts of Charles Dickens’ work and more obviously in that of Wilkie Collins. Women were prominent among the practitioners of sensation fiction. Though many are unread today, authors like Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Evelyn Benson and Elizabeth Caroline Grey were once best-sellers.

4. See her article “Sensation Novels” in Blackwood’s Magazine, May 1862, pp. 574-80.