Friday, July 29, 2022

Solaris Farm by Milan C. Edson

Eccentric agricultural utopia
Milan C. Edson
Solaris Farm is a utopian novel by Milan C. Edson, about whom little is known. You won’t find him on Wikipedia, and this seems to be his only published book. According to his obituary, Edson was a Civil War veteran. He was born in Illinois, and died in Mesa, Arizona. In between he spent 35 years working for the federal government in Washington, DC.

The novel was published in 1900, but the story ventures into the 1920s. Solaris Farm is a cooperative agricultural community designed to elevate the quality of life of America’s farmers and working class. It is also the start of a movement intended to peacefully overthrow capitalism in the United States. The brains behind the operation is Fillmore Flagg, following in the footsteps of his deceased mentor. That mentor’s daughter, Fern Fenwick, is the project’s benefactress. Flagg manages the operation on the ground, somewhere in rural America, while Ms. Fenwick provides inspiration and funding from Washington, DC. Naturally, the two are also courting, but they refrain from indulging in romance and marriage until their grand project achieves success. Fern’s parents may be dead, but that doesn’t stop them from providing advice on the project, for she is a medium who can communicate with the dead. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edson was a firm believer in spiritualism. Based on references within the text, he also draws inspiration from the catastrophism of Ignatius Donnelly (author of a previous utopian novel, Caesar’s Column), the educational psychology of Elmer Gates, and the Enlightenment philosophy of Count Volney.

The tone of Solaris Farm is so relentlessly optimistic it defies belief, but its polyannish positivity is a big part of what makes it fun to read. Edson is also an able writer whose prose flows briskly and effortlessly. As Edson describes the cooperative community of Solaris, every aspect of the project is an absolute success, socially and financially. There are no problems, hardships, or setbacks. None of the settlement’s inhabitants are lazy, stupid, or selfish. There is no debate on the issues. Exposition consists of Fillmore pontificating on various subjects while his listener occasionally interjects a “Right you are, Flagg!” Fillmore and Fern are designed to be the perfect man and woman, a natural-born aristocracy within this community of equality. Their relationship is free of the slightest disagreement, and they often refer to each other as the “ideal lover.” Solaris is successful not only agriculturally but also technologically; every citizen is also an avid scientist. The community is almost entirely self-sufficient: quarrying its own stone, mining its own metals, manufacturing its own bricks. The only thing missing is oil. Edson fails to acknowledge that the success of agriculture rests largely on the land itself—its climate, soil, and natural resources—and not all farmlands are as heavenly endowed as those of Solaris.

Edson does make many good points on economics and politics. He effectively diagnoses the social ills of his day—monopolistic trusts, income disparity, the flight to urban centers and the death of rural communities—and provides practical, well-reasoned solutions. Overall, Solaris Farm passes the “Would you want to live there?” test for literary utopias, but just barely. Life at Solaris would be sweet and idyllic, but it does have its dark side. In addition to agriculture, Edson talks a lot about stirpiculture, a euphemism for eugenics. He acknowledges that peer pressure and coercion might be necessary to convince some reluctant citizens to toe the party line. Fern Fenwick’s image is worshipped in Solaris like that of Chairman Mao in his heyday. Such excesses frequently call to mind a cult or a fascist regime rather than a socialist paradise.

Solaris Farm is an interesting read but far longer than necessary. So long and repetitive, in fact, that occasionally I found myself regretting that I had ever started the book. For those who appreciate the quixotic audacity of utopian literature, however, it’s worth sticking it out to the end.

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Monday, July 25, 2022

The Big Money by John Dos Passos

The haves and have-nots in 1920s America
First published in 1936, The Big Money is the third novel in the U.S.A. trilogy by author John Dos Passos. Like the two previous books in the series, The 42nd Parallel and 1919, The Big Money is written in an experimental format merging fictional narrative with biographical sketches of historical figures, interludes of stream-of-consciousness prose, and verbal collages of newspaper headlines and journalistic snippets. These elements combine to form a vivid panorama of American society in the 1920s.

Dos Passos saved the best for last. The Big Money is not only the final installment of the trilogy but also its best. This is largely due to the three very intriguing characters that serve as the novel’s protagonists: Charley Anderson, a war veteran hoping to strike it rich in the aircraft manufacturing industry; Margo Dowling, an attractive young woman who pursues a career in show business; and Mary French, a social worker who selflessly devotes her life to labor activism. The two former characters exemplify the commercialism and depravity of the capitalist rat race, while the latter presents a melancholy portrait of martyrdom to the cause of socialism. The supporting cast includes several characters who were featured in the two previous books. Though the narratives of all three novels are rather open-ended, here Dos Passos does to some extent draw the intertwined lives of his ensemble cast together into some degree of closure.

The chapters entitled “The Camera Eye”—vignettes written in a stream-of-consciousness style bordering on prose poetry—are the least successful element in the trilogy. Dos Passos backs off on these a bit in The Big Money, making those passages fewer and farther between, which is to the book’s benefit. Instead, he devotes more pages to the biographical sketches, which really do enlarge the narrative by providing valuable historical context that is interestingly told through the author’s leftist perspective. Among those whom Dos Passos profiles in this novel are the Wright Brothers, William Randolph Hearst, Rudolph Valentino, and Isadora Duncan. The “Newsreels” chapters also seem less random in this book and more pointedly directed at showcasing societal ills, most notably labor abuse and the class struggle but also murders and corruption.

The anticapitalist message of the book is more subtly presented here than in the more blatantly propagandistic works of socialist writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Dos Passos spends most of the novel showing us characters struggling to survive and thrive within the capitalist system, chasing the brass ring and the almighty dollar. All the men seem to be alcoholics; all the women unfaithful gold-diggers, yet Dos Passos is not unsympathetic to these characters. These are regular people leading realistic lives in an oppressive system that drives them towards competition and exploitation. Only from the Mary French perspective does the reader ever get overt discussion of labor issues like miners in Pennsylvania and Colorado being gunned down for striking. The depiction of socialism is not entirely positive either, however, as Dos Passos often points out the greed and pettiness of those Mary French encounters within the movement.

The Big Money is a literary time capsule of an era in which America was rampant with income disparity, monopolistic trusts, and government corruption, yet somehow much of it feels uncomfortably familiar to the 21st century reader. What’s changed is that the labor movement and American socialism are neither as loud and visible nor as hopeful for change as they were a century ago. The societal problems that Dos Passos addresses appear to be unfortunately timeless, which will doubtless ensure the relevance of this exceptional novel for many years to come.
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Friday, July 22, 2022

Men of Maize by Miguel Ángel Asturias

Mayan myth for modern times
Miguel Ángel Asturias of Guatemala was the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974. His novel Men of Maize, originally published in 1949, was extremely influential to the succeeding generation of authors who became prominent in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s. Though not overtly specified, the setting of the novel seems to be in Guatemala from roughly the 1890s to the 1940s. The story heavily references Mayan beliefs and literature, and most of the characters are at least partially Native Mesoamerican Indians.

The novel is divided into six parts with different protagonists. On the surface these sections seem unconnected, but they constantly make reference to each other in a secret grand overall scheme. In the novel’s opening chapter, an Indian warrior named Gaspar Ilóm wages a rebellion against the Ladinos (Guatemalan Mestizos) who have encroached upon his ancestral lands to turn forests into cornfields. The ramifications of this battle echo through the rest of the book as generations of characters face karmic retribution for sins perpetrated against nature and the Native race. In Asturias’s view of Central American history, the formerly sacred practice of growing maize became profaned when man chose to grow the crop for profit, thus driving a wedge between mankind and holy nature akin to the expulsion from Eden in the Christian mythos. The farther man departs from his natural origins the more he succumbs to evil, discontent, and dehumanization. Another frequent theme in the book is that of women fleeing their abusive husbands, which further symbolizes the destruction of the family and the subjugation suffered by women in modern society.

The story frequently wavers back and forth between passages of modern realism and supernatural myth. In fact, one of the main themes in the novel is the creation of legends and how they compete with history. While much of the plot takes place in a lifelike representation of 20th century Guatemala, it is not unusual to witness a man transforming into an animal or vanishing into thin air. Much of part five is devoted to two Indians traveling with a hefty load of liquor in an absurdly protracted comedic sequence reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, while part six morphs into a sort of Dante’s Inferno built upon Mayan myths of the underworld rather than on Christian biblical visions of Hell.

Those looking for an English translation of Men of Maize may find the 1993 edition published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in association with Collección Archivos, Paris. Translator and editor Gerald Martin has tried to make this the definitive English edition by heavily annotating the text. The notes are sometimes helpful in pointing out parallels between the novel and ancient Mayan myths like the Popol Vuh and the Books of Chilam Balam. More often than not, however, Martin’s notes are merely expressions of his own opinions and worse, they often spoil the plot. Far more helpful for understanding Asturias’s cryptic novel is the critical essay by Argentine-Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, who does a fine job of clarifying the plot details that Asturias himself goes to such great lengths to obscure.

When the Old and New Worlds met in 1492, the initial contact of two alien cultures must have been similar to an encounter between beings from separate planets. The White Western reader gets a sense of that disconnect from reading Men of Maize, which is built more upon the religion and philosophy of the Maya than on the Western Judeo-Christian literary tradition. The disorienting atmosphere makes for a unique and fascinating reading experience, one that will appeal especially to those interested in Latin American history and Mesoamerican culture.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Technique of the Color Wood-Cut by Walter J. Phillips

Old-school secrets of Japanese artistry from a Canadian master
Color woodcuts has been around for almost two thousand years, but the art from is generally considered to have reached its apex of technical development with the work of Japanese artists beginning in the 17th century. In the late 19th century, European, American, and Canadian artists began to study the Japanese methods of printmaking and bring their techniques to the Western art world. Among these Western practitioners, one of the true masters of the color woodcut was Canadian artist Walter J. Phillips, a printmaker, painter, teacher, and author active in Western Canada from 1915 through the 1940s.

All woodcuts involve carving a design into a block of wood, which is then used to print ink onto paper. Multiple blocks are employed for multiple colors. What sets the classic Japanese style apart from typical woodcuts is the use of semitransparent watercolor inks, applied with brush in a painterly fashion and printed on wet paper. This method allows for very subtle and beautiful color effects, but it is a very exacting process requiring much technical skill and presenting many opportunities for error. Phillips was renowned for his craftsmanship and his sublime renderings of the Canadian landscape. As an expert on the subject and an arts educator, Phillips wrote The Technique of the Color Wood-Cut, published in 1926, to extol the virtues of this challenging art form and impart its secrets to aspiring printmakers.

If you have no prior experience with color woodcuts and you want to learn how to make them, this would not be the best instructional manual to consult. For one thing, it’s very brief. For another, Phillips expects some prior knowledge of the process from his readers. He repeatedly refers to recent books on the subject like Frank Morley Fletcher’s Wood Block Printing (1916) and Allen W. Seaby’s Color Printing with Linoleum and Wood Blocks (1925) as if he assumes the reader has already read them. Rather than attempting to write a comprehensive manual of the color woodcut, what Phillips provides in this book is essentially his personal techniques and variations on the textbook process outlined in the guides of Fletcher and Seaby. Because this was written almost a century ago, Phillips does everything from scratch: mixing his own inks, planing his own boards, sizing his own paper. It is hard to say how useful such information is now that most artists just by their wood, inks, and papers ready-made from a printmaking supplier like McClain’s. On the other hand, there probably are some diehard purists of the Japanese woodcut art form that choose to do all that work the old-school way, but likely very few. Nowadays the primary audience for this book is simply fans of Phillips’s art who are curious about how he created his beautiful prints.

The book is illustrated with a few color reproductions of prints by Phillips and other artists (Seaby, William Giles, Yoshijiro Urushibara, and others). There is also the usual demonstration of color separations showing the multiple blocks that go into making a print. In addition, Phillips has created a few black and white instructional illustrations of cutting tools, brushes, and such but nothing absolutely essential for anyone attempting a woodcut. The main attraction here is the text in which Phillips outlines his process, and there’s only about 36 pages of it. Nevertheless, Phillips is a good writer, and fans of his will enjoy reading what he has to say about art. Those fans would be better off, however, reading Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, edited by Maria Tippett and Douglas L. Cole, which can be found online with a Google search and downloaded for free in pdf format.

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Instructional illustrations by Phillips

Color frontispiece by Phillips

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, edited by H. P. Biggar

Captain’s logs from Canada’s Columbus
Jacques Cartier
French explorer Jacques Cartier made three expeditions to Canada in 1534, 1535-1536, and 1541-1542. While Europeans had been visiting Newfoundland for at least half a millennium, and perhaps a few fisherman or trappers had ventured further West, Cartier was the first White mariner to purposefully explore and map the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River. In that sense Cartier was the first European to discover “Canada,” which was the name by which the Natives referred to a region in what is now Québec. Cartier travelled as far upriver as the Native village of Hochelaga, which he renamed Montréal. Shortly after returning from his voyages, Cartier published accounts of his travels and discoveries in France.

The 1924 edition of The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, edited by H. P. Biggar and published by the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa, was intended to be the definitive volume on Cartier’s expeditions. Not only does the book reproduce Cartier’s accounts of his voyages, it also contains copious footnotes that compare and contrast discrepancies in previous editions and clarify the modern names of geographic locations. The volume also includes several appendices of related material, such as accounts of Canadian expeditions by Richard Hore (1536) and Jean François de la Roque de Roberval (1542), as well as ethnographic information on the Huron Indians of the region. Not surprisingly for a Canadian publication, Cartier’s narratives are printed both in French (at the top of the page) and English (at the bottom of the page). Consequently, though the book is about 350 pages long, each page often bears only one small paragraph of text in the reader’s language of choice.

Cartier’s chronicles of his journeys are surprisingly brief. His accounts leave much to be desired compared to the more detailed travelogues of later explorers, but the paucity of data is made up for by the excitement of first discoveries in previously unexplored territory, such as the French explorers’ first glimpse of smoking, first sighting of a walrus, and their initial meetings with the locals. On his first journey Cartier merely explored the coast of Newfoundland and ventured into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The bulk of the book focuses on his second journey, in which he discovered the mouth of the St. Lawrence and ventured up the river to interact with the Natives. His account of the third voyage is also quite brief, as he mainly revisited regions he had previously explored. Much of Cartier’s narrative deals with the geographic position of islands, the location of good harbors, and other information intended for future navigators. Of more interest to today’s readers, however, are the accounts of his dealings with the Native American or First Nations inhabitants.

For anyone interested in the history of Canada or the French colonial presence in North America, Cartier’s accounts are a must-read, and Biggar’s 1924 edition is as comprehensive a volume on the subject as one is likely to find in the public domain. Canadian patriots and anticolonialists alike can benefit from reading the explorer’s original accounts and drawing their own conclusions from the primary sources. One gets a fleeting glimpse of “pre-Cartierian” civilization in the North. Cartier was a kinder, friendlier conquistador than his Spanish counterparts in the South, but his imperialistic hutzpah is still very much evident. On the one hand this is a heroic story of intrepidity, valor, and perseverance. On the other hand one can see the beginning of a troublesome relationship between two cultures that foreshadows centuries of Canadian history to follow.

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