The Conversation that Built America
by Taylor Mata
As I stood in my kitchen making latkes this evening, I realized why I am constantly disillusioned with America. I am an American, and there are few other places in the world I would choose to live. I grew up as all of us in the American public school system did: saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning after singing the national anthem, America the Beautiful, or that relatively new one that nobody seems to know the name of but generally prefer to the Star Spangled Banner. I learned of American history starting way back with the history of the Native American peoples and the importance of diversity, the melting pot we take for granted, or as I prefer to call it, the salad bowl. I don’t have a problem with that.
I, and more literally the farm-to-table movement, have a problem with America’s near-complete disregard for the amount of work that goes into making a salad. Salads can have as many different components as you please, and dressings can get even more inventive. Some people like sweet, light salads, and others like them heavy and filling. Still, we can all agree on two things: a salad has a base vegetable and comes in a bowl. But what base ingredient do you choose? And where did the bowl come from? These are the questions we need to be asking.
Thankfully for us, the bowl was already there. One can argue for days about how the bowl itself got there, but we all know that bowls have to be crafted somehow. It didn’t just pop up out of nowhere into a perfect bowl-shape. It was kept in pristine condition by the Native American peoples for hundreds of years before Europeans even arrived here. America, the land that constitutes it, is our bowl, and good God, have we taken the liberty in filling it. In fact, our salad bowl started by stealing a bowl to make our salad in, dumping out the vast majority of whatever contents the true owners of the bowl had in it, and shooing them away. It alone doesn’t seem like a great salad at this point, and it wasn’t.
And then came the base ingredient, the greens. Greens don’t just magically appear in your stolen bowl, you know. They have to come from somewhere, planted and grown from seeds over time, and in this salad’s case, they came from words. The soil for the greens, chock-full of nutrients and moisture, came from a great literary farmer, giver of life to words, John Milton who called for a country without a monarch, a true republic in which people worked together on a quest for the best and truth. Milton campaigned for years for the cause of a more democratic England, and for a while, the possibility seemed quite real. In Aeropagitica, a speech intended for parliament, he fertilized the soil by calling for the removal of censorship. Milton’s words were rich and powerful, the kind of words that move mountains. His imagery caused the English people to think, spur them on in their own quests for progress. He fought the doubts of those who hesitated to till the soil in his reactive Eikonoklastes (or in layman’s terms, ‘breaker of the icon’), a reactionary piece written to combat the guilt-tripping and ill-founded arguments of the dethroned and executed King Charles I in Eikon Basilike (or, ‘icon of the King).
For a while, it worked. The English people were motivated for change, ready to work with this earth that Milton had laid. But some ideas are too new, and after struggling for so long, the English were not able to plant on the ground they had worked so hard to till. Milton watched in dismay as the English turned back to monarchy and his ground was barren. Yes, the soil had once been tilled by the English, but all-too-quickly was prevented from being planted in, and lay for over 100 years unused.
Then another literary farmer, Thomas Paine, came along and found this ground, its owner dead and gone, and started to revive it. He saw how rich the soil had been, how many nutrients were available for use, and he became the first to converse with Milton over the centuries. He tilled the ground once more, planted the seeds of revolution with his pamphlets like Common Sense and The Rights of Man, and stood proudly as people became attracted to the idea. Soon, everyone was reading these words and more and more people eyed the soil, seeing its merit. Our forefathers like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock tended these greens, evident in their addition to the conversation, The Declaration of Independence. The armies of George Washington harvested these greens, and the result was the first United States of American people, the greens, the base of our salad to be added to by those very same chefs and those who would come to seek this fresh salad bowl with so much potential.
And then came the real form of collaborative cooking. For hundreds of years we, the American people, have been adding ingredients and uproarious conversations have occurred about what can go into this bowl, what spot the ingredients can have in the bowl, just how prominent those ingredients are allowed to be in the bowl, and if the flavor really fits with the kind of salad we are trying to make here. Abraham Lincoln chided the American recipe for how much trouble it had brought upon the American people in his famous Ghettysburg Address. Then one hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for the recipe to be changed to include and represent all of America when he spoke in Washington D.C. and gave the uproariously popular speech, I Have A Dream. Even now, Americans are working hard to adjust the American recipe in their protests on inequality, not necessarily realizing that the words they preach have a lineage that reaches back further than America itself. This salad has been in production longer than we really acknowledge, and the same arguments about ingredient inclusion we are having today have happened before.
Perhaps this is why I enjoy cooking so much – probably even more than I enjoy eating which is hardly possible. Knowing where things come from is amazing. It makes everything that much more important. Chefs and psychologists alike have always said that the way to ensure a child will eat is to get them involved in the cooking conversation, to show them where their food comes from, because they will then be invested in the food. Greens are great, but when you know the where the farm is and what the farmer does and the how the workers brought those greens to rest in your bowl, isn’t that salad much more important to you?
It puzzles me that knowing this is not important to some. It confuses me that the words that created the base of our salad don’t matter to some, just the fact that there is a base and that there is a salad is enough. It doesn’t make sense to me that people believe the conversation of including ingredients in our salad has ended, was finalized ages ago, and they don’t want to continue. They just want to eat. Without the cooking conversation there would be no salad. Isn’t that important?
Looking at the foundations, I am far less disillusioned. When my salad speaks to me, and I speak back by adding the herbs I’ve grown, I come to actually respect something instead of taking it for granted. I am then proud of my salad bowl.
And so, as a person who used to want to be a chef, I’ve relegated cooking to my spare time to become an expert in the conversations that build, like the conversation that built America, the conversation that is still building America: words.
Of course, you might think it was only a matter of time.
Seriously, recent English graduate Adam Beardslee has a detective/suspense novel available via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. You can “Look Inside” to get a preview here. The murder doesn’t quite happen in the Writing Center, but the main character does seem to teach at UM-Flint!
Call for papers!
Interdisciplinary Creative and Critical
Writing Conference Friday, March 27th
(Time and Location TBD)
Looking for a way to practice public speaking?
Want to add something impressive to your resume?
Need conference experience?
Want to have fun and learn a ton?
Submit your paper for the Interdisciplinary Creative
and Critical Writing Conference this semester!
We welcome all submissions and encourage those to submit papers from
outside the English genre, such as:
or Anything Academic
All submissions require a completed cover sheet,
which is available in the English Department,
326 French Hall.
Put all submissions in the Sigma Tau Delta mailbox,
located in the English department.
Deadline: Thursday, February 26th
Any questions or concerns? Contact Edith Juno at email@example.com or inquire in
the English Department.
Sponsored by Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society
The Need for Dialogue Amongst Writers
by QuiAyejia Cooper
“There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is a lost art, both in our society and in our literature.
Centuries ago, literary giants were eager to converse and interact with their peers, oftentimes imitating their voice or duplicating their stories.
English poetry and drama (and those genres as a whole, for that matter) were largely built on a foundation formed by William Shakespeare himself. John Milton’s brand of epic would have been impossible without Homer and Virgil’s influence. Nearly all of medieval and romantic literature—works by Chausser, Dante, Keats and Shelley—can trace their roots back to classic mythological tales.
Today’s literary scene, on the other hand, paints an entirely different picture. With Romanticism came the concept of plagiarism. With Transcendentalism came the birth of self-reliance and individuality. With Modernism came a more vigorous resurgence of those same ideals.
Suddenly, writers became less interested in what their patriarchs had to say and more concerned with producing their own unique philosophies.
It wasn’t all bad, either. Individualism and non-conformity harvested numerous giants of their own, creating systems of doctrine and ideology that transformed the way we see art as a whole.
Yet, while so much was improved with the adoption of these notions, so much more was forsaken.
We gained confidence, independence and originality. We lost synergy, unity and respect.
We lost the art of conversation, the ramifications of which extend far beyond the pages of the written world, saturating our culture with attitudes of pretention and entitlement.
While I understand the importance of individualism to an extent, I can’t help but feel that we have aggressively over-idolized its influence.
We all have a distinct voice to offer the world—a song no one else can sing. But there is something to be said about the voices of the past and all they have to offer us.
They bring hope in times of trouble. They bring reason in the midst of uncertainty. They bring culture, travel, experience and history we wouldn’t otherwise experience.
They gift us with an overlooked, indispensable and invaluable commodity: perspective.
We should never aim to mimic or imitate these artists in such a way that our own voice is stifled, but to refuse to speak at all is a crime of the exact same caliber.
Their works—their stories—should never be an end to our travels, but a means to begin our own journey. And we are never fully equipped for such a journey if we have refused to experience those of our patriarchs… If we have refused to converse.
We need a revival of conversation amongst artist, amongst writers. Anything less is a disservice to our trade and a sacrifice that I, for one, am unwilling to make.
Writers of the world, we have lost the art of conversation.
We have an obligation to re-discover it.
The Literary Dialogue on Milton’s Satan
by Zach Scott
The above display—one created by the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Ministry—contains a blood-red serpent coiled around a satanic cross. Before the snake is a copy of Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels, and above it, surrounded by festive wreaths, is the phrase: The Greatest Gift is Knowledge.
The piece, lit by a spotlight, was displayed on the grounds of our state capitol building. It sat alongside a Christian Nativity scene, and it was installed just in time for Christmas.
Jex Blackmore, director of the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Ministry, said it was a manner of free speech:
“It’s a very important time to remind legislators and to provide and empower people who have beliefs that aren’t mainstream, this is an opportunity to have your voice be heard”
Reverend David Bullock, however, felt otherwise:
“Christmas is being hijacked by Satan . . . I understand that there is liberty. We have religious freedom, but there are limits to how these rights are supposed to be exercised.”
Both were probably unaware, though, that they were participating in a centuries-old conversation, one that includes poets and thinkers such as John Milton, William Blake, and Edmund Burke. It is a story of literary analysis that emerged from the witch burnings of 17th century England, took root in readings of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and was continued, developed, and argued through countless literary works to this day.
The devil was losing power in 18th century England. It was in 1684 that the last “witch” was executed in the country, and the persecution of supposed witches was made illegal in 1736. The influence of the devil was no longer feared to such a degree, and the last remnants of “Satanism” were found in what were called “rake’s clubs”. Members of such clubs regarded Satan as a figure of unbridled hedonism; they practiced public nudity, gambling, heavy drinking, and other “blasphemous” activities. The devil, to these groups, was little more than an excuse for their indulgences, and such “satanic” organizations gained little ground in English culture.
A depiction of a rake’s club painted by William Hogarth in 1733
Where Satan found a resurgence, though, was through the arts. By the late 17th century, the once-feared devil depicted in the German story of Faustus had been reduced to a joke by English dramatists. William Mountfort produced the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, made into a Farce, in 1684, and several other parodies of the satanic character followed. In fact, the defeat of Satan was even depicted in Punch and Judy shows.
These humorous depictions may have kept Satan alive, but it was through literary analysis—through a dialogue of several authors—that the image of Satan was able to gain power again.
It was John Milton’s Paradise Lost that inspired a new conception of Satan. The work, known as the last epic poem written in English, depicts Satan as the ultimate rebel. He leads a group of angels against God himself, and, when he fails to conquer heaven, he instead conquers humanity through his manipulations as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Following this fall, Adam and Eve are left to decide between sin and submission to the divine, and it is through their submission that they are granted mortality and eventual happiness in heaven.
Poet John Dryden was the first to assert in 1697 that Satan was intended by Milton to be the hero of the epic poem. Edmund Burke’s Enquiry, a treatise which describes the “noble picture” of Satan, began in 1757 to treat the devil with an awe and “sublimity” that would later dominate the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This approach was summed up by James Beattie in his 1783 response to Paradise Lost wherein he described the effect of Milton’s Satan as a sort of astonishing, almost guilty pleasure.
The result of this criticism and discussion, then, was a sort of smartening-up of Satan. Previous decades of debauchery and pleasure-seeking were replaced by a literary notion of the satanic sublime. One famous example of “Satanism” of this sort was found in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published from 1790 to 1793.
The engraving that served as the cover of Blake’s work
Included in Blake’s publication was a note on Milton’s epic poem:
Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.
Percy Shelley soon agreed with Blake. In 1821 he published a reflection on Milton:
Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil.
It is easy to see, then, that Satan had regained power in English culture. No longer a figure of black magic or superstition—no longer a figure of raucous and gratuitous sex—Satan had become a poetic symbol, one that was both sympathetic and powerful.
Were these literary figures correct in asserting that Milton viewed Satan as a hero? Poet Joseph Addison responded in 1712 that he did not believe Paradise Lost contained any heroes; he diminished Satan’s role in his criticism and focused instead on the characters of Adam and Eve. Readers of the epic poem will note that the majority of the work focused on these first humans, not Satan. It is Adam and Eve that are given the chance to reflect on the nature of sin and knowledge; they are dynamic, relatable figures that come to terms with their imperfections, their inevitable death, and their need to repent. Satan is merely the instigator of these realizations. It would be difficult to argue that he is the true hero of the work.
However, the image of the sublime Satan remains a part of our culture to this day. The same excitement described by Beattie is found by school children who dress as the devil for Halloween or summon demons in video games.
The Satanic Ministry draws on this excitement as well as the sort of “noble” rebellion described by Blake and others. The main tenets of modern Satanism, in fact, seem drawn directly from Milton’s portrayal of Satan:
Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the “God”) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves . . .
Satan to us is a symbol of pride, liberty and individualism, and it serves as an external metaphorical projection of our highest personal potential. We do not believe in Satan as a being or person.
Satanism remains a controversial movement today. The aforementioned satanic display on our state’s capitol was met with a great deal of criticism, and Capitol staff spent a portion of their holiday watching the piece via security cameras to prevent vandalism.
So, if Satanism isn’t your thing, don’t blame heavy metal music or Dungeons & Dragons. The real culprit is the silent, underestimated force of literary analysis. If your child is planning to head to grad school, a worn copy of Paradise Lost in his or her backpack, it might be time you sit down and have a talk. In fact, it may already be too late.
A more complete review of Satan as a hero may be found in Kenneth Allen Bruffee’s Satan and the Sublime: The Meaning of the Romantic Hero.
A Look at Conversation Between Authors
by Brian Gebhart
In the first season of the original series of Star Trek, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise unwittingly awaken Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered warlord, from cryogenic sleep. At episode’s end, after a series of battles of both wits and fists, Kirk and co. defeat Khan. But, the famed captain opts not to re-imprison the warrior; instead, Kirk chooses to abandon Khan and his cohorts to a hostile, empty planet. But when Kirk asks his foe if he thinks he could possibly tame the planet, Khan responds with a question of his own: “Have you ever read Milton, Captain?” It is a question to which Kirk says he understands. The oblique reference is explained later by Kirk to his crew: when Satan was cast into the pit in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, he declared it better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. For a quotation taken out of context, Milton’s is famous line, easily applicable to any scenario in which a proud man chooses a hell of his own over a heaven of another. For Star Trek, it makes for a famous scene, one that emphasizes the education and intelligence of both Kirk and Khan and amplifies their antithetical, but strangely mirroring, measures of intellect. To be sure, the writers of Star Trek may have not written that episode, “Space Seed,” with the original intent of including such a reference to the Biblical epic of Paradise Lost, but – as a subtle reference – the quotation works. It provides added depth to the characters of Kirk and Khan, and stresses that their interactions are just as much rooted in learning as they are confrontation. In extrapolation, such a scene reflects a recurring image and point of interest in the arts: the nature of quotation from one writer by another. In turn, a corresponding discussion of conversation arises – where, when, and how does one writer call another into conversation? As I recall the episode, these thoughts race through my mind – a fire certainly ignited by recent discussions with a class of mine. The question must be asked: at what point does a quotation used by one writer from another writer become conversation – that is, a dialogue or debate that attempts to understand or elaborate upon earlier contributions by writers to literature?
Such an idea is prevalent throughout Milton’s own work, and was a continued point of discussion in the class, “Milton and Spenser: Radicals Making a Tradition,” this past semester at the University of Michigan-Flint. As framed by Dr. Mary Jo Kietzman, our class discussions often swayed to the similarities between the two writers, and how – specifically – Milton seemed to be drawing upon the writings of Spenser. Our own conversations often led me to think about the nature of conversation among writers and artists – when, where, and why does one author comment upon another? For instance, when Milton introduces his audience to his cavalcade of demons in Pandemonium, one of his fallen, Mammon, appears to be drawn from the same well as Spenser’s own Mammon in The Faerie Queene. Spenser’s Mammon and knight Guyon’s descent into the underworld very much seem an influence in Milton’s description of hell, and appear to reinforce the idea of greed and materialism blossoming into personal, private hells. To go one step further, Mammon’s obsession with wealth and industrial growth provide contrast to the real focus of the first half of Paradise Lost: Satan, that figure who vacates servitude in heaven for a premier throne in hell – losing himself in the process.
Indeed, that same concept of conversing could be applied to the entire work of Paradise Lost: that it is Milton’s attempt to converse with the author of Genesis, to elaborate and expand upon the themes he believes are already present in the Bible. As Milton says himself in the introduction to his epic, he aims to “justifie the wayes of God to men.” But what of other works that try something similar? Milton is surely not the only writer to attempt conversation with his predecessors. A similar framework of inspiration and influence is visible in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound – which was Shelley’s attempt at elaborating upon the themes he believed most important in Aeschylus’ plays of the Titan. Specifically, Shelley emphasized the rebellion of the Titan of fire against the king of gods and “Oppressor of Mankind,” Jupiter. But Shelley, like Milton, was not interested in merely copying and pasting his inspiration. As Shelley says himself in his Preface, the “moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.” That is to say, the point of the story – in Shelley’s estimation – would be lost if he were to copy the myth wholesale, and if he didn’t – in his own way – emphasize the importance of Prometheus’s rebellion. For this reason, Shelley took his perceived focus of the Promethean myth and recast it for a new age, bringing to the surface a moral depth and complexity he believes was already there. Adding new fuel to an old fire, as it were. Indeed, not for nothing does Shelley compare his Prometheus to Milton’s Satan, saying that the latter is the closest fictional approximation to the former – initiating conversation, then, with Milton’s ideas of political rebellion, as framed by classical works.
But both of these poems, Prometheus Unbound and Paradise Lost, raise their own questions about the nature of imitation in art, and what separates it from supposedly new creation – a debate that stands on its own as much as it is informed by the apparent line between quotation and conversation. At what point does the quoting of something – as Star Trek quotes Milton, as Shelley quotes Milton, and as Milton quotes Spenser – become something else entirely in conversation? Surely it is not enough to name-drop a favorite work – there has to be more depth in speaking with literary ancestors. Milton himself superimposed dialogue into a Satan that he ripped from various stories from the Bible – does that somehow disqualify his ideas as being genuine, making them unoriginal? Or does Milton do enough with his Satan to warrant his own place among the canon of Western literature – has Milton found his own pedestal in the arts? His myriad influences would seem to suggest so. Shelley in that same Preface of his speaks about the inherent imitative nature of poetry, calling it a “mimetic art.” He goes on to compare the great writers and poets of Western civilization (Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, etc.) in a line of continuous inspiration and cultural formation; they are “in one sense, the creators, and, in another, the creations, of their age.” Their works and their thoughts do not exist in vacuums; inevitably, invariably, they will draw upon their surroundings and their influences. If this idea is to be expanded upon, perhaps conversation arises when those influences are used consciously and with intent – with purpose that springs from the mind of the writer but cast in the shadow of its progenitors. (Perhaps, though, “shadow” is not the right word here – maybe “light” works better in such a context.)
This, certainly – the concept of influence and commentary – was on the mind of Milton as he formed his poetic epic; not for nothing does he invoke the Holy Spirit in a manner reflecting Homer and the Muse; not for nothing does Satan seem to be cast in the role of Odysseus and Achilles. Influences abound in Paradise Lost – the conversation (along with the devil) lay in their details.
It makes one wonder if such conversations occur today, in contemporary literature. Surely they must – though few (writers and critics both) seem as sure as they once were. Without spending too much time on it (for, indeed, I could spend another thousand and one words on this subject alone), the theme of conversation appears as a cornerstone in Ray Bradbury’s science fiction masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451. This 1953 novel, in brief, is the story of a futuristic society, wherein books have been outlawed as contraband, and are burned by “firemen,” a branch of the government designed to incinerate ink and thought alike. While one might be tempted to say that the crux of the novel is censorship – and, to be sure, that idea plays a part – a stronger argument is to be made that this is not Bradbury’s vision of a society of just censored thoughts, but of no thoughts at all. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 was his visualization of what society looks like when it stops thinking. Bradbury seems to be striking at a concept that seems very much inspired by Milton’s own fears: the elimination of thought outright. The characters of the novel’s society do not care that books are burned. They care only for the readymade, easily digestible reality they are fed on a daily basis – the illusion of thought transferred to them via television (Bradbury’s pick of intellectual poison). But as the reader comes to learn through the novel, the government did not wake up one day and decide that books were evil, abhorrent things. Rather, the government merely reflected and followed its society, a society that had itself grown to distrust books over time. A society that, in turn, was made up of individuals that had come to fear what books said and what they held and what they could do to people. As the chief of the firemen explains in the novel, our culture is in orbit around feeling happy at all times – titillated by transient pleasures, and fearful of anything that might puncture that happiness. That’s what makes books dangerous – they threaten our illusion of joyful ennui with hard thought and hard reality. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.” the chief says. This is the world Milton feared and denounced, and the one that Shelley railed against as well; one that they hoped to combat with their writings. Can it be said that Bradbury was in direct conversation with Milton or Shelley? Perhaps not – they, admittedly, do not feature much in the novel, as far as direct references or quotations go. Yet the theme present in their works is continued in Bradbury’s: the idea of conversation as inherent, intrinsic – as utterly necessary – for meaningful literature (and good literature at that). Certainly the Bible (“Consider the lilies of the field…”) and Greek mythology (Antaeus, anyone?) play prominent roles in Bradbury’s piece. As one character explains to another in the story, the quality of information, the leisure to digest it, and the right to carry out actions based on what we learn, are the driving forces to literature – they are what fuel the very heart of humanity in literature, reflecting the very humanness of mankind. Was not this Milton’s focus? Books, or stories, can be good – objectively so – when they give man cause for thought. Thought – it should be added – not to censor or kill, but to converse with others, to examine one’s own worldview and morality and perhaps improve upon them.
Bradbury’s idea of what books were – what they were and are meant to be – was that they are ideas in physical form, ideas meant to be shared, discussed, and debated by writer and reader alike. It is an idea expressed in similar fashion by Milton and Shelley – the arts are meant to talk to each other, to talk to us. On a divergent note, this notion of conversation versus quotation – the difference between conversing with a past writer and merely copying or quoting them because such is useful – raises questions about our current state of literature. Can it be said that the appropriation of works today is used in the same way as writers did in the past? Perhaps this is a generalization far too broad for a mere blog post, but I posit that there is, on some level, a difference between Shelley’s reworking of Prometheus or Milton’s generating his own account of Creation and some of the postmodern tales told today, like the retelling of Beowulf from Grendel’s point of view, or Hamlet from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or The Odyssey from Penelope. Do such works have the same (or similar) ideas in mind as Shelley with Aeschylus or Milton from Genesis? Both men, along with Bradbury, emphasized the moral importance and imperative of their works; all three attempted to tease out the logical and moral implications of their characters’ decisions and wills – with, ultimately, a stronger understanding of human morality in the end. Can it be said that those novels by John Gardner, Tom Stoppard, and Margaret Atwood (among others) achieve the same end – are they even meant to? These are questions that may not have immediate answers – perhaps even comparing these works is not a worthwhile endeavor. That being said, there is something to be said about the seeming moral emptiness of some of those works – that postmodern sense of a reality that isn’t really there and truth that doesn’t really matter anyway. Milton never pauses in Paradise Lost to ask whether any of what he is writing is worth writing; Shakespeare, while great at subtle hints to powerful themes, never questioned if telling the story of Hamlet was itself a pointless endeavor. These men, to some extent, believed in their stories – not that their stories were literally true, necessarily, but that they had some kind of moral or social or spiritual purpose, that others may draw or benefit from them, either temporarily or for all time.
Ultimately, the difference between conversing with other writers and artists and quoting them appears to be this: in conversing, there is a genuine appreciation for the work, whether its flaws or acknowledged or not. There is a recognition, however overt or subtle, that the work being referenced has merit in its own right, as a piece of writing or literature or fiction worth deep consideration. Shelley and Milton took the story of Prometheus and the story of Creation and wanted to tell a new narrative from them; thusly inspired, they set out to make their own points known, taking what they believed was already present in the story and stretching it further. What these disparate points serve to make here is an attempt – on my part – to understand the nature of conversation of writers in literature. Conversation matters because conversation makes for a greater work, in that it builds off points brought up by others and makes something new. Things are refashioned and remixed – but respected as well – in such a brew: a new work rises from the mixture of the old. Quoting, meanwhile – quoting seems to be the lifting of a concept because it gels well with a point one is trying to make, but is not irretrievably linked to it – not fundamentally tied to its predecessor’s themes. To be sure, Fahrenheit 451 is chockfull of quotations and allusions and references to other writers; yet, Bradbury seems to be, in his own way, in conversation with these other writers – if not with the authors themselves directly, then with their themes, the ideas that drove them. Bradbury has nothing but respect for the power of not just narrative, but of story, of tales with meaning and purpose and inspiration. Rather than taking old stories and emptying them of their moral content, leaving them as either husks or filling them in with the passions of the day, Milton, Shelley, and Bradbury sought to reinforce what (they believed) was already there, strengthening the very themes that inspired them. In this does conversation become a vehicle for reciprocity – not just a mirror, but a microscope, expanding and focusing in on the same or similar image. The questions then fall to us: how do we, as readers, attempt to graft the themes of these works into and onto our own lives, incorporating their passages and their messages into our own personal languages and vocabularies, our own sense of who we are?
At any rate, though this post is hardly definitive as a point, and still at work as any sort of thesis, my time with my “Spenser and Milton” class has helped me better understand this concept of conversation. The professor and fellow students with whom I – to use no better word – conversed taught me much about the nature of conversing. In the end, it seems that conversation is – to return to the title of that episode of Star Trek – a matter of seeds. How those seeds are planted – whether they fall on paths for the crows to eat, or in shallow ground, or in thorns – that is what matters for conversation. Is the work you write speaking to, or with, someone else? If such a seed of thought falls into good soil, sowed by inspiration, and watered by others along the way, it may just grow into something that is, strangely, the work of many, yet of one – a product of inspiration, meant to inspire others in kind.
Perhaps, then, for this particular topic, one question needs answering before the rest: Have you ever read Milton?
In 1928 two cousins, Frederick Dannay (“Danny) and Manfred B. Lee (“Manny”), created Ellery Queen for a contest sponsored by McClure’s magazine and Stokes publishing house. The prize for creating the best new detective novel was $7500. The cousins won the contest, but McClure’s went bankrupt shortly afterwards, so they never collected their prize. Between 1929 and 1971 they published 46 mystery novels using the name of the protagonist as their pseudonym. The cousins also created Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine which is still influential in the mystery genre, publishing more new writers each year than any other magazine. The Mystery Writers of America honored Dannay and Lee by creating the Ellery Queen award for “an editor or publisher for distinguished support of the genre.” (post by Cathy Akers-Jordan)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, best known for writing The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, “On Fairie Stories,” and other seminal works of fiction, was an Oxford professor and linguist who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary, the translation of the Jerusalem Bible, and other historical literature.
After Tolkien’s death his son Christopher became his litarary biography, publishing his father’s drafts, notes, and unfinished work, much to the delight of Tolkien scholars. The most recent is the poetic The Fall of Arthur (pub. May 2013). Begun around 1934, Tolkien put the work aside in favor of publishing The Hobbit in 1937. Although Arthur remained unfinished, “in these notes can be discerned clear if mysterious associations of the Arthurian conclusion with The Silmarillion, and the bitter ending of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which was never written” (Amazon review). (post by Cathy Akers-Jordan)
Tolkien’s First World War revolver can be seen here.