O Pioneers!

You know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I mean, traveling through strange lands without so much as a highway rest stop; building their own houses out of sticks, mud, and whatever forest parts they could chop to fit; having to live with their entire families in one or two rooms, with no escape from the children – that sounds horrible.

We say, “I’m going out for a beer.” They could only say, “I’m going out to be attacked by a bear.”

But this is a writing-themed blog, so in literary terms, you know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I’m speaking of all the literary pioneers who wrote books before the age of the word processor. It’s a wonder books were written at all. Up to about the Mark Twain era, they didn’t even have typewriters, and even typewriters seem like some sort of torture device to the modern writer.

Munitions workers count typewriters to be shipped to Europe and dropped from bombers over Nazi Germany.

If I had to write a novel with a pen, it would be the length of a post-it note. That’s when my hand starts cramping. I suppose I could write one post-it note’s worth per day. I can fit about six words on the standard post-it; upwards of three of them are legible.

I guess the literary pioneers had tougher hands than I do. But it’s not just the physical aspect that amazes me. How do you cut and paste on notebook paper? Yeah, you can cross out a word and write a new one overtop, but what happens when you’ve got to move paragraphs around? What happens when you made a continuity mistake five chapters ago and you’ve got to rework all that plot? I think I’d rather build a house out of sticks and mud.

Here’s another thing to think about. Back in the day, many novels appeared as serials in journals. I don’t know the details of this process, but I have a suspicion they wrote the chapters as they went. That is to say, chapters 1-5 were already printed and read while chapter 6 was being written. Imagine writing a novel where you can’t go back and fix the stuff that doesn’t work anymore with the direction you want it to take. You’d have to have a pretty clever mind to make it all mesh without the Delete button.

I’ve been known to have some fun critiquing classic fiction – you know, picking on people who are too dead to defend themselves, because that’s the way I roll.  Beneath those playful jabs is a reverence that inspired me to read all those classics. Can they be wordy and meandering? Yes. For all that, they are still amazing accomplishments. Give me only a pen, paper, and some friends with typesetting equipment and maybe I would become accomplished enough to get mauled by a bear.

I’m not saying my reverence for the literary pioneers will stop me from poking fun at them, but my sarcasm is forged from love. Just ask my kids.

 

 

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My love-hate relationship with James Fenimore Cooper

I’m not sure what to make of James Fenimore Cooper. Unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose books I loved, despite their flaws, Cooper is an author whose books I wish I could love.

There’s a little boy deep inside to whom Cooper is magic. Growing up in Upstate New York, keenly interested in colonial history and Northeastern Indians, put me right in line for devouring Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It also made me wish he had done a better job writing them.

Cooper could spin a yarn. He was imaginative, and there is enough drama in his books to keep you turning pages. The problem with Cooper is there are far too many pages to turn. I don’t mind long books. I just don’t like needlessly long books.

Cooper was profligate with the English language. He thought words grew on trees, which is not a good thing for a writer whose stories take place in the forest. Cooper grabbed handfuls of words from the nearest low-hanging branch and tossed them willy-nilly. Adverbs, adjectives, whatever he had in hand; there must be something lying among the twigs they could be used to describe.

The only time he was able to restrain himself from putting in more than his two-cents-worth.

The only time he was able to restrain himself from putting in more than his two-cents-worth.

If you can weave your way through the superfluous words, the other thing that might grab at your ankles is the flawlessness of the hero. No matter where Natty Bumppo points his rifle, he is sure to hit the head of nail. On his off days, he shoots easier things, like deer, Indians, and Frenchmen, who sometimes need to be shot but hardly pad his resume as a marksman.

Natty never brags about his marksmanship. He is famous for not bragging. He repeatedly avoids self-congratulation while talking up of his exploits until his humility becomes annoyingly boastful. Bumppo is a thoughtful, taciturn man who seems always to be talking at somebody. By contrast, Tarzan was exceptional at swinging through trees, but he didn’t waste all your time not bragging about it.

A rare scene in which Natty's mouth is closed.

A rare scene in which Natty’s mouth is closed. (Artist: E. Boyd Smith)

There are a surprising number of upper-class, young women traipsing through Cooper’s wilderness. Natty Bumppo is never tempted by them. Maybe he’s too wise to get tangled up with impulsive women who can’t quell the urge to visit the far side of a border war. More likely, Natty is too pure. Naturally, when a man who has been alone in the forest for ages finds a beautiful woman in his path, it presents a wonderful opportunity to spew his backwoods philosophies at her.

If Natty Bumpo had missed his target once, or at least shut up about how un-noteworthy his “gifts” were, he’d have been a lot more interesting. If he’d entertained one lustful thought, he would have been more believable. In the end, he was just a guy who could get you through the woods, if you didn’t allow yourself to get trapped in a conversation with him.

Having said this, I admit to reading all the Leatherstocking Tales. If lost volumes were discovered, I would read them too. Cooper snared me with his subject matter. His writing frustrates me, but what can I do? There aren’t a bunch of people running around New York during the French and Indian War besides Natty Bumppo.

So here’s to you, James Fenimore Cooper; you may not have done it the best, but you did it the most, and that should be worth something.

 

He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.

Learned from Jules Verne: A successful hero knows when to cry

Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne is a 19th century adventure novel. It’s less well-known than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or A Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I liked it better. I don’t remember much about those novels.

Michael Strogoff is a special courier for the Czar. The Tartar hordes are invading Siberia, and the Czar needs to get a message to Irkutsk warning of a traitor plotting to sabotage that city’s defenses.

The Czar's man in Irkutsk.

The Czar’s man in Irkutsk.

Michael Strogoff would be a typical adventure, with its prerequisite, larger-than-life hero, except for two characteristics. First, it made me root for a Czar and his military forces. I’m no expert on Russia, but I have a notion Czars where not the most sympathetic characters. Nor does the image of Cossack cavalry inspire me with warm fuzzies.

Second, Michael Strogoff is not your typical action hero. In my youth I read 24 Tarzan novels, and I don’t recall Tarzan ever shedding a tear. Mr. Verne never comes right out and admits Michael was crying, but there was clearly something in his eye when he was under duress at the hands of his enemies.

Here’s the situation: the Tartars have captured Michael and his mother. They might decide to do some bad stuff to his mom at any moment. Meanwhile, they are going to make Michael go blind, which, I guess, is what Tartars do sometimes. They pass a red-hot blade before Michael’s eyes, in the Tartar custom of blinding prisoners.

In the tradition of bad guys everywhere, the Tartars grossly underestimate the hero and eventually let him go (because he’s helpless, right?). The blinded Michael, and some girl he hooks up with, struggle across the steppe just in time to save Irkutsk. There, Michael kills the traitor in a sword fight. That’s right, a sword fight. How is blind Michael able to do this? Guess what? Michael’s not blind! He never was.

Everybody (except the reader) is shocked to discover this. Even his girlfriend, who led him across versts and versts (old Russian kilometers) of countryside, was hoodwinked by his blindness scam. It’s anybody’s guess why he couldn’t let her know, in a private moment, he wasn’t really blind. Maybe he was using her pity to coax back rubs out of her.

Anyway, here is the inspirational reason Michael was able to escape being blinded by the hot blade passed over his eyes: he was crying at the time. Mr. Verne doesn’t use the word crying; that might be unbecoming a classic hero. Michael was upset with worry about what the Tartars might do to his mom (they ended up letting her run free too) and there was just a little layer of water covering his eyes when the hot blade passed by. This little bit of water insulated his optic nerves from the heat, or something like that. Consult Dr. Verne for the technical explanation.

Paging Dr. Verne.

Paging Dr. Verne.

This series of events is a great comfort to me, because if Tartars ever come after me with a red-hot blade, I guarantee, even lacking endangered relatives, I will be bawling my eyes out. My optic nerves will remain cool and calm under my pool of tears. I just have to make sure to walk into some stuff afterward so they’ll think the procedure a success and let me go.

Even if he didn’t cry us a river, Michael certainly got teary-eyed. I’d have preferred it if he saved his vision through some more clever means, and then, after wreaking his terrible wrath upon the Tartars, took a moment to get misty-eyed about his poor mama. I don’t mind heroes having a sensitive side, but I don’t like them to cry their way out of trouble; toddlers shouldn’t even be allowed to do that. I want great heroes of literature to hold their tears until some serious bad-guy ass has been kicked. Is that too much to ask?

I shouldn’t make too much of the crying. I did enjoy the adventure. Besides, if shedding a few tears would have helped me defend Irkutsk, when I played Risk as a boy, I would have let them flow in a heartbeat.