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Who Owns England, Defining Frederick Douglass, and Sylvia Plath’s Religion

Also: Claim about married women in new book debunked, and more.

Does England need to remove land from the aristocracy and nouveau riche and give it to locals? Guy Shrubsole thinks so, but Charlie Pye-Smith is not so sure: “Shrubsole suggests that the democratisation of landownership would lead to more sustainable farming practices and he approvingly quotes the green campaigner George Monbiot, who claims that aristocratic estates ‘tend to be 500 acres of pleasant greenery amidst 10,000 laid waste by the same owner’s plough’. The truth is that some landowners do mistreat their land. Others, however, go to considerable lengths not only to farm sustainably but also to look after nature. And small is not necessarily beautiful. I have seen plenty of poor husbandry and unsustainable cropping practices on small farms. There was a time, some thirty years ago, when I was much taken with the idea of land reform as a way of tackling inequality and saving wildlife. Like Shrubsole, I was strongly influenced by the writings of such campaigners as Marion Shoard, whose The Theft of the Countryside was one of the great environment jeremiads of the 1980s. In those days, my ideas grew out of the reformist zeal nurtured in conservation studies, but I began to think differently as I spent more time talking to, and writing about, people making a living from the land. No doubt land reform could reduce the inequalities in landownership. However, other measures are needed if we are to address the problems associated with poor agricultural practices, habitat destruction and the loss of wildlife. It is what we do to the land, rather than who owns it, that really matters.”

Andrew Taylor reviews Joseph O’Connor’s new novel Shadowplay: “‘I am very, very pleased,’ murmured Queen Victoria in 1895, when she dubbed Henry Irving, Britain’s first theatrical knight. He and Ellen Terry, who so often played opposite him, were international celebrities. Bram Stoker was their intimate friend and associate. He managed Irving’s Lyceum Theater for 27 years and spent much of his career in their shadow. More than 100 years after his death, however, Stoker’s name is almost certainly more widely known than theirs, solely because of his most famous creation, Dracula (who is believed to have been partly modeled on his employer). In Shadowplay, Joseph O’Connor focuses on the three-cornered relationship between Stoker and the two actors. In terms of structure, the novel purports to be a collection of diary entries, notes, transcripts and fictionalized fragments put together by Stoker near the end of his life. At its heart is the rambling, leaking world of the Lyceum, both sordid and glamorous.”

Another day, another false claim in a new book debunked: “Last week, a shocking claim about happiness made the rounds in the press, from the Guardian to Cosmopolitan to Elle to Fox. The claim? Women should be wary of marriage — because while married women say they’re happy, they’re lying. According to behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, promoting his recently released book Happy Every After, they’ll be much happier if they steer clear of marriage and children entirely. ‘Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: f***ing miserable,’ Dolan said, citing the American Time Use Survey, a national survey available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and used for academic research on how Americans live their lives. The problem? That finding is the result of a grievous misunderstanding on Dolan’s part of how the American Time Use Survey works.”

Matthew Walther reviews Chris Arnade’s Dignity: “There was something on nearly every page of Chris Arnade’s Dignity that could have made me angry. The insouciance, folly, and sheer wickedness of our leaders has never been laid before us with such clarity. On the whole, however, I would not describe it as an angry book. In fact, I have rarely read anything that left me feeling more hopeful.”

New Orleans legend, Dr. John, has died. He was 77.

Who was Frederick Douglass? “We take our birthdays for granted, but for Frederick Douglass one of the many evils of slavery was that it denied to slaves that basic fact about themselves. On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot Country, Maryland, where Douglass was born, few slaves, he wrote, ‘knew anything of the months of the year or of the days of the month,’ let alone their birthdays. ‘Masters allowed no questions to be put to them by slaves concerning their ages. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of impudent curiosity.’ Since, as Douglass put it, ‘genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves’ he made up his own birthday—July 14—but found out just a year before his death in 1895 that he was actually born in February 1818. Not knowing these basic facts was infuriating and humiliating to a man as accomplished as Douglass, who began his life as a slave, emancipated himself, dedicated his life to ending slavery and fighting racism, and became the most celebrated African-American of his time. In our own time, Douglass is enjoying something of a scholarly renaissance, timed with the recent celebration of his bicentennial. Yet the quest to define Douglass—his personality, his political convictions, and his legacy—remains as contested as ever.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Hudson Review, Karen V. Kukil writes about Sylvia Plath’s early years at Smith College and the religious overtones in her story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”:

“Sylvia Plath was hungry for new experiences when she returned to Smith College as a junior in the fall of 1952 and wrote ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.’ Over the summer she won a $500 prize in the Mademoiselle fiction writing contest with her short story ‘Sunday at the Mintons’.’ When this psychological story was later featured in the Fall 1952 issue of the Smith Review, a literary journal Plath helped revive, it earned her the respect of Mary Ellen Chase, a successful author of novels, critical writings, and commentaries on Biblical literature who became Plath’s trusted mentor. In recommending Plath for graduate school, Chase wrote that in her twenty-seven years as an English professor at Smith she had not known a more gifted ‘literary artist.’ Professor Chase contributed the first article to the Fall 1952 issue of the Smith Review—a definition of Smith College: ‘the one thing we are afraid of is apathy and indifference toward learning and toward life.’ In ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth King­dom,’ Plath reinforces Chase’s criticism of complacency when Mary’s traveling companion remarks sadly that others on the train ‘are so blasé, so apathetic that they don’t even care about where they are going. They won’t care until the time comes, in the ninth kingdom.’

“Unlike the bored passengers on the train to the ninth kingdom, Plath was excited to explore college life and new academic challenges at Smith during the fall of 1952. She learned advanced creative writing techniques in her upper division course English 347a Studies in Style and Form taught by Robert Gorham Davis, who wrote fiction, articles, and book reviews for The New YorkerHarper’s, and the New York Times. As an honor’s major in English, Plath also read Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Dante in a rigorous Medieval Literature Unit taught by Howard R. Patch, which included other religious and allegorical texts such as The Confessions of Saint AugustineCity of God, and Le Roman de la Rose. Professor Patch collaborated with former Smith College presi­dent, William Allan Neilson, in editing Selections from Chaucer, which was the main textbook for the course. Plath thought Chaucer’s stories were ‘as fascinating as poetic fairy tales & as spicy as Boccaccio,’ while Patch maintained there is ‘a kind of mysticism in the Canterbury Tales’ in his On Rereading Chaucer. Chaucer read Dante and translated Jean de Meun’s unflattering portrayal of feminine temperament in Le Roman de la Rose but was able to anticipate some of the freedoms of the modern woman in his Wife of Bath character, who was Plath’s favorite pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales because of her emancipated joie de vivre. By contrast, when Plath finished reading The Divine Comedy on December 2, 1952, she wrote to her mother who was brought up in the Catholic faith by her Austrian-born parents: ‘I almost wish I’d had a Catholic background, as you have, so I could under­stand the heavenly logical faith of it. Unlike God, I can’t be happy with souls suffering in hell!’[2] Plath was an active Unitarian at this stage in her life and refused to dwell on the terrors of hell. Similarly, in Plath’s short story, Mary Ventura pulls the emergency cord as the seventh kingdom station approaches to stop the train before reaching the ninth kingdom, a place probably similar to Dante’s frozen ninth circle of hell, where Satan and the worst sinners suffer in eternal darkness and cold. Like Dante with his poet guide, Virgil, at the end of the Inferno, Mary Ventura, in a kind of metaphysical rebirth, eagerly climbs the steep rock incline ‘to return into the bright world.’”

Read the rest. 

Photo: Kunkovice

Poem: Karl Kirchwey, ‘Cabin in the Woods’

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