Monday, November 11, 2019

The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White

Entertaining Michigan timber adventure
A popular subgenre of adventure literature in the late 19th and early 20th century was the resource exploitation romance. In such novels, a plucky young man in dire financial straits ventures into the wilderness to seek his fortune in mining, timber, oil, furs, or maybe even reindeer herding (see James Oliver Curwood’s The Alaskan). While still maintaining a respectable quota of backcountry thrills, these novels differ from your typical wilderness adventure, treasure hunt, or gold rush novel in that they focus less on the call of the wild and the love of nature and more on business matters, real estate deals, and stocks and bonds. Jack London wrote a few of these resource exploitation adventures (Burning Daylight comes to mind). Canadian author Harold Bindloss made a whole career out of them. Michigan-born author Stewart Edward White was a prolific author of adventure literature in the first four decades of the twentieth century. His 1902 novel The Blazed Trail, about the lumber industry in northern Michigan, is an excellent exemplar of the resource exploitation romance and an entertaining and educational read.

The hero, Harry Thorpe, comes from a well-to-do family, but his father disgraced the Thorpe name by embezzling funds and then died soon afterwards, leaving Harry to support not only himself but also his teenage sister. Being a member of Detroit’s idle class, Harry has no profession, so he decides to start a career in Michigan’s main industry: timber. He ventures to the Saginaw region to seek employment at a lumber camp and ends up being hired by the successful firm of Morrison & Daly. Thorpe starts on the bottom rung of the ladder and gradually learns the ins and outs of the business. In his first winter in the woods, working under an ineffectual boss, he learns many things about how not to run a lumber camp. After that camp closes, Thorpe decides to try his hand at becoming a lumber baron himself. He ventures into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to find his own piece of untouched timberland in hopes of finding a partner to help him finance the harvesting of millions of board feet of lumber.

Obviously, this story is written with the environmental consciousness (or lack thereof) of a century ago, which may seem a little off-putting now, but one can’t deny that lumber has been a big industry in Michigan’s history. The reader really learns a lot of fascinating detail about the cutting and transporting of logs and the hardships and dangers faced by the lumberjacks and woodsmen. Any worries that the narrative would get too bogged down in the business and financial details proved unfounded. It was really very interesting to learn more about the trade that some of my ancestors plied in the north woods of Wisconsin. White also manages to work in several fun and exciting adventure scenes, such as a breakneck race between two competitors to file a claim in the Detroit land office. Despite the tree-cutting subject matter, there’s also a fair bit of Thoreau-like appreciation of nature for its own sake, and the novel concludes with a good moral lesson.

Where the book falters is in its romantic subplot. The novel really takes a downward turn in Part IV: Thorpe’s Dream Girl with an overly saccharine, idealized love story. White is very good at writing the lives of men, but his women are rather two-dimensional and stereotypical. This romance, however, is almost an afterthought to the story, which concentrates more on Thorpe’s coming of age, his relations with his fellow men, and his contentious romance with nature itself. The Blazed Trail is a surprisingly exceptional read for this genre and demonstrates that White’s body of work deserves further investigation

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Children of the World by Paul Heyse

If Balzac were a freethinker
Paul Heyse
by Adolph von Menzel
German author Paul Heyse won the 1910 Nobel Prize in Literature, but his authorial career stretches all the way back to about 1850. His novel Children of the World was first published in 1873 under the German title of Kinder der Welt. Heyse’s work, and this novel in particular, demonstrate a transition in German literature from the Romantic to the early modern. While modern philosophical and social ideas are discussed, stylistically the book harkens back to the earlier, more romantic storytelling of a writer like Balzac. The latter author, in fact, gets a shout out in Children of the World, as a few of the characters discuss the literary merits of his masterwork Père Goriot. Just as that novel depicts the lives of an ensemble cast of characters in a Parisian apartment building, Children of the World likewise focuses on the inhabitants of a Berlin lodging house and their acquaintances in the surrounding neighborhood.

Edwin, a philosopher and tutor, lives with his younger brother Balder, a semi-crippled young man who ekes out a meager living in woodworking. The pair dwell in a small flat above a shoemaker’s shop. With such poor-paying professions, the brothers live a Spartan lifestyle, but the joy they find in each other’s company alleviates the squalor of their surroundings. A few good friends frequent the brothers’ austere salon, armed with contrasting philosophical views that make for lively intellectual discourse. One night, the gift of a theatre ticket gives Edwin a reprieve from this comfortable but limited social circle. In the theatre he spies a beautiful young woman and experiences love at first sight, even though he knows the aristocratic beauty is out of his league.

A big difference between Balzac and Heyse is that the former was a Catholic while the latter was a freethinker. Roughly half the characters in Children of the World, most notably Edwin, are freethinkers—atheists, materialists, pantheists, and the like. The title Children of the World refers to these freethinkers, as opposed to the believers in religion, the Children of God. The main plot of the book does not revolve around Edwin’s atheism, however. The novel is primarily a love story. In fact, there are so many love triangles in this book they practically interlock into a star of David, and this was the era when unrequited love would cause physical illness and even death. The freethinking theme is woven throughout the narrative as a simple fact of the character’s lives. Edwin and his friends express their distaste at how religion is forced upon them at every celebration of birth, death, or marriage. When Edwin’s godless views become public knowledge, his career as a teacher is threatened. For the freethinking reader, it is refreshing to read a novel from this era that treats atheism and the prejudice against it as a matter of simple fact. One of the villains in the story is a religious hypocrite who simulates piety for his own gain. Heyse also tackles the class system by pointing out the shallowness and hypocrisy of the nobility in contrast to Edwin and friends’ more secularly righteous working-class lives.

Be warned before starting, this is a very long book. When first published in English in 1882, it was split into three volumes. Later editions crammed it all into about 600 tightly packed pages. Once the reader gets involved in these characters lives, however, it is a pleasure to watch the story unfold. The book’s main fault lies in one of Edwin’s love interests, who is portrayed too idealistically and is prone to annoying emotional histrionics. Though the book is quite modern in its philosophical ideas, its treatment of romance is still very much rooted in whatever was the German equivalent of the Victorian Era. Nevertheless, this is still a very worthwhile read for lovers of classic literature, particularly for those who share Edwin’s godless inclinations.
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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson

A fine introductory text to applied Stoic philosophy
In the past few decades, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has seen a resurgence in appreciation as it has been rescued from the arcanity of academic philosophy textbooks and repackaged as a self-help program, which really was its original intention all along. British-Canadian psychotherapist Donald Robertson has distinguished himself as one of the current leading writers on Stoicism. His book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, published in 2013, is a volume in the Teach Yourself series published by Hodder & Stoughton. True to the self-educational mission of that series, this book is an instructional manual for readers with little or no knowledge of Stoic philosophy. In this well-organized text, Robertson defines and expands upon Stoic principles and guides the reader in their practical application to modern life.

Perhaps the most popular book in the recent Stoic renaissance (at least in the U.S.) has been William B. Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. While Irvine is a professor of philosophy, Robertson writes from the perspective of a psychotherapist. He repeatedly points out that ancient Stoic philosophy was the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and in this book you will often find excerpts from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius alongside quotes from the twentieth-century founders of CBT. Robertson points out, rightfully so, that Irvine’s conception of modern Stoicism is not entirely faithful to the ancient writings of the Stoic philosophers. Robertson is more of a purist who prefers to stick to the wisdom of the ancients as closely as possible. Of the two writers, however, Irvine’s text is the more accessible and more likely to make inspired converts of philosophically challenged general readers. Robertson is more methodical and systematic in his approach, perhaps because of the textbook format required by the Teach Yourself series, which sometimes renders the subject a bit dry and lifeless. Overall, however, both books are great introductions to Stoicism, and a novice couldn’t really go wrong with either one.

Because of its textbook format, the contents are quite repetitive. After Robertson discusses concepts in the main chapter text, those same concepts are then repeated in sidebars, instructions for exercises, and a list of points to remember at the end of each chapter. This repetition supports the book’s function as an introductory text, but it can prove tedious for those who have already put some study into Stoicism. Even for those readers already familiar with Stoicism, however, the book can serve as a useful reference and refresher course. One annoying thing about the edition I purchased is that Robertson states on a few occasions that those reading the ebook will get an extra bonus chapter dealing with the subject of death. First of all, I’m reading the ebook, and that chapter is not included. Secondly, if I were reading the print edition, I would feel ripped off.

Despite that editorial fault, this really is one of the best non-academic books on Stoicism that I’ve encountered and one well worth reading for curious beginners or well-read enthusiasts. (By “non-academic” I mean not intended solely for grad students in philosophy.) The lessons are clear, and the psychological exercises are genuinely useful. Those wishing to apply Stoic principles to their daily life will find this book a worthy practical guide.
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