The first four chapters of The Adventures of Augie March introduce us to Augie and his family and the immigrant, Jewish world of his section of Chicago. Augie, the narrator and main character, declares in the opening sentence that ‘‘I am an American, Chicago born . . . and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way.’’ Augie introduces his ‘‘simple-minded’’ mother, who has very few teeth and poor eyesight; his ‘‘idiot’’ brother, Georgie; and his older brother, Simon. His father is apparently dead, and Augie knows next to nothing about him. Ruling over the household is Grandma Lausch, who is not really a relative but instead a willful boarder who hopes to make something of the March boys. When Augie is beaten up by neighborhood boys, who appear to pick on him because he is Jewish, Grandma begins his worldly education, telling Augie that the beating is his own fault and he should not try to fit in with whomever is . . . Read More
Published in 1953, Saul Bellow’s sweeping, comedic novel The Adventures of Augie March, was heralded by many reviewers as an instant classic, and it established its author as a major voice in American fiction. It is a bold, ambitious novel that claims that the story of a young, poor, fatherless, Jewish man belongs at the center of American literature as well as at the center of the American experience itself. In the course of the novel, Augie seeks to find his place in the world, and his desire for what he calls his ‘‘better fate’’ leads him on dozens of adventures, some tedious, some exhilarating, from selling coal to training an eagle to stealing college textbooks. Intertwined with these many occupations are numerous romantic escapades with chambermaids, heiresses, actresses, and others, through which Augie strives to find both true love and amorous excitement.
Centered in Chicago, the story is told from Augie’s point of view in a seemingly endless torrent of . . . Read More
The word surreal has entered the everyday vocabulary of English and is often used to mean ‘‘odd,’’ ‘‘unusual,’’ or ‘‘unexpected.’’ Originally, however, it was derived to denote an artistic movement called surrealism. The word joins realism to the prefix ‘‘sur-,’’ which generally means something like ‘‘over’’ or ‘‘above’’; thus, the word surmount means ‘‘to overcome.’’
Surrealism was an artistic movement that tried to identify and capture a higher psychological reality. It explicitly rejected logic and rationality in favor of artistic forms of expression that emphasized the irrational, illogical movement of the mind as it encountered experience. The movement became popular after World War I. That war, which left millions dead and wounded, came to be regarded as a kind of madness that represented the inevitable outcome of Western rational thought, in particular because war planners used science to find new, more efficient . . . Read More
Normally, readers do not think about traditional grammar when they read poetry. Poetry routinely bends the rules of traditional grammar to create new and interesting verbal effects. Such is the case with Simic’s ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances.’’ The poem, consisting of four four-line stanzas, comprises a single sentence, but the sentence is incomplete, for it lacks a predicate. (The predicate is the part of a sentence that expresses something about the subject, usually consisting of a verb and an object or objects.) Accordingly, the poem is made up entirely of a sequence of phrases, each anchored by a noun. The noun in the first such phrase is grandmothers, whose activity of wringing chickens’ necks is contained in a subordinate clause. (A subordinate clause cannot stand alone, because it depends on the previous phrase for its meaning.) Similarly, the old nuns’ activity of pulling the ears of schoolboys is contained in a subordinate clause. In the second stanza, the noun is . . . Read More
‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is a poem that does not lend itself readily to thematic analysis. In the first place, the poem consists of just a single sentence, and the sentence is not even grammatically complete. Thus, it never really makes a statement. Rather, the poem consists of a series of images. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern the glimmerings of a theme. One theme that links the images is that of old age. The first word of the poem is grandmothers, followed by a reference to old nuns. Later, the evangelist is said to be shuffling, suggesting the slow, hesitant walk of an elderly man. In the final stanza, reference is made to ancient lovers who are dancing. The very topic of the poem, classic ballroom dances, suggests something from another age or another generation. These references to age have a counterpoint in the references to schoolchildren; the nun is said to pull schoolboys by their ears, and a . . . Read More
Grandmothers who wring the necks
Of chickens; old nuns
With names like Theresa,
Marianne, Who pull schoolboys by the ear;
The intricate steps of pickpockets
Working the crowd of the curious
At the scene of an accident;
the slow shuffle Of the evangelist with a sandwich board;
The hesitation of the early-morning customer
Peeking through the window grille
Of a pawnshop; the weave of a little kid
Who is walking to school with eyes closed;
And the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,
On the dance floor of the Union Hall,
Where they also hold charity raffles
On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November.
Unlike many poems, ‘‘Classic . . . Read More
Charles Simic has come to be regarded as one of America’s most important poets—a remarkable achievement given that English is not his native language. ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is the title poem in Simic’s 1980 collection of poems, Classic Ballroom Dances. The collection won the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award and the Poetry Society of America’s di Castagnola Award in 1980. Like nearly all of Simic’s poems, ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is brief, consisting of just sixteen lines, and is written in simple, straightforward language. Its purpose is not to outline a point of view, tell a story, or develop a situation. Rather, its purpose is to evoke an image by drawing a number of implicit comparisons between the people’s activities and dancing.
It can be difficult to classify or attach a label to contemporary poets like Simic, including the broader category called Modernism, given that most draw on a wide range of poetic traditions for their inspiration. . . . Read More
In Shakespeare’s time, medicine was little more than trial and error mixed with a great deal of superstition. Little was known about proven treatments, and disease and germs were not understood. Sanitation and hygiene, even among the upper classes, was rudimentary at best. Streets were filled with garbage and raw sewage, which spilled over into the rivers and lakes. Rats and vermin abounded, and no one made the connection between these conditions and the sicknesses that killed people. Typhoid, syphilis, influenza, and plague exacted a toll on life expectancy, as did poor nutrition, which led to life-threatening anemia and dysentery. Many upper-class women covered their faces with white make-up, which contained high amounts of lead. The make-up poisoned, and even killed, many of them.
Because these health dangers were not understood, the work of physicians often included astrology. Astrologers and doctors, such as Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzano (Shakespeare’s possible . . . Read More
In Shakespeare’s time, marriages were usually arranged. A love match was unusual, and even more unusual was a woman choosing her prospective groom. Bertram’s objection to marrying Helena is rooted in these traditions. Because he is a count, he would have expected to marry someone of a similar status, not a commoner with neither wealth nor property to her name. A man would base his opinion of his prospective wife on the extent of her dowry, or marriage portion, which would include any land, money, or other goods, such as jewelry, which would become the husband’s property upon marriage (as would his wife). Helena had none of these, so Bertram considered her an inappropriate wife, regardless of her talents and personality.
As for the marriage ceremony, the king in All’s Well That Ends Well dispenses with tradition, which would have necessitated the Crying of the Banns, a public declaration of the couple’s intent to marry on three successive Sundays in their respective . . . Read More
Shakespeare based much of All’s Well That Ends Well on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of one hundred novellas wrapped around a frame story. Boccaccio was a Florentine writer of the fourteenth century who wrote in the Italian vernacular, thereby making the Decameron popular among the middle class, as opposed to scholars who shunned anything not written in Latin. The Decameron, which means literally ‘‘ten days,’’ is ostensibly the tale of ten people (seven women and three men), who are hiding out in the hills above the city of Florence during an outbreak of the Black Plague. Each day, they take turns telling stories in order to pass the time. Many of their stories are retellings of folk tales.
Boccaccio’s Decameron influenced many writers, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, also a fourteenth-century writer, who adopted some of the Italian writer’s ideas for The Canterbury Tales, which is commonly acknowledged as the first work of poetry written in . . . Read More