Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Private Life"
by Jane Smiley

“Private Life” by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley is a third-person narrated account of the life -- from the age of five in 1883 to the age of 64 in 1942 -- of an accommodating, submissive woman, Margaret (Mayfield) Early, who must finally, out of necessity assert herself. I felt that Smiley’s narration, a consequence of Margaret’s compliant nature, lacked excitement until maybe a fourth of the way into the book when she marries her husband, Captain Andrew Early, an egotistical astronomer and physicist. I empathized more and more with Margaret’s character as her dissatisfaction with Andrew progressed.

People late in life tend to judge their past lives in terms of accomplishment and fulfillment. Margaret’s judgment becomes one of bitterness, toward those who have manipulated and controlled her and toward her own cowardice of accommodation. Accomplishment requires courage. Fulfillment requires contentment with outcomes and with oneself as a human being. Throughout most of the novel Margaret lacks the courage to forge her identity and determine her future. She has allowed stronger-minded individuals to control her. Her enjoyments result from her associations with strong-minded yet considerate acquaintances: her eccentric, exciting sister-in-law Dora; Mrs. Lear, a neighbor and wise advisor at Mare Island Naval Base, Calfironia; Mrs. Wareham, a compassionate boarding house landlady in Vallejo, California; Pete Krizenko, an adventurous, mysterious Ukrainian entrepreneur for whom Margaret feels an emotional and sexual attraction; and the Kimura family – the aging father, an exquisite painter; the mother, a tireless, traveling midwife; and the daughter Naoko, a trustworthy midwife and housekeeper.

At the beginning of Part One of the novel we learn that Margaret, living near St. Louis, Missouri, has repressed her memory of a public hanging that her older brother had taken her to witness when she was five years old. Both of her brothers die during her childhood. Margaret’s father, a physician, kills himself. Margaret’s mother Lavinia moves her family to her father’s nearby farm where they reside until her three daughters marry. From an early age Margaret learns resignation.

Lavinia considers Margaret, at age 23, to be lazy because she is content to read books rather than assert herself to attract suitors. Daughters of several of Lavinia’s friends have taken school teacher jobs in Idaho to find husbands. Margaret tells Pete Krizenko fairly late in the novel: “I was the third sister even though I’m the oldest. There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.” Lavinia places her daughters Elizabeth and Beatrice in social circles where their attributes attract eventual husbands. Margaret appears destined to be an old maid. However, Mrs. Jared Early, a rich, seemingly generous, well-educated widow and elitist member of high St. Louis society, befriends Lavinia, and, ultimately, Margaret. Her son, Andrew Early, educated at Columbia and the University of Berlin, and recently a professor at the University of Chicago, visits St. Louis. Mrs. Early arranges for Lavinia and Margaret to spend a fiercely cold winter night at her residence. Andrew is present. Margaret had met him by chance briefly several years before. Margaret experiences “the distinct feeling of staring into her own future … The play had begun. The customary ending was promised. Her own role was to say her lines sincerely and with appropriate feeling. At her age, she thought, she should know what those feelings were, but she did not.”

In the spring of 1903 Mrs. Early arranges to have her son and Margaret tour the exposition grounds of the 100th year celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. Margaret recognizes that “he was not exactly like other mortals—he knew more, saw more. His mind worked more quickly and surveyed a broader landscape.” Submitting to the wishes of her mother and Mrs. Early, Margaret persuades herself to believe that, unlike other couples, they could share a unique life. He leaves St. Louis to spend several weeks in Washington, D.C. Afterward, he travels to Arizona and California. Lavinia advises patience. Eventually he returns and proposes. Thus begins their unique, increasingly unhappy marriage.

Years later Margaret discovers several letters that Mrs. Early had written to Andrew about the purpose of the marriage.

"Our thoughts about certain persons here in this town may not have come to anything (though the girl and her mother still seem receptive enough), but there are other girls and other mothers. My very least favorite thought is that of you solitary and alone, with no companion and no one to care for you. … No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent, quiet without being mysterious (though I think there is more to her than meets the eye), but what do you want in a wife at your age? [He was 38, she 27] … I do not, frankly, think that you could abide a rival or even a young woman who considered herself your equal and spoke her own ideas back to you with any sort of self-confidence. … This girl is a well-made young woman with proper instincts and reasonable connections. Her mother has trained her to take care of household matters."

Telling Margaret’s thoughts, the author narrates: “in the end, Mrs. Early carried her point—she had chosen the local old maid, harmless but useful, to marry and care for her darling son” and that Lavinia had been “in on the plot. … Not only had he [Andrew] entertained doubts about her, he had tried her out, seen that he could have her, and then doubted and hesitated and suffered before taking her as the least of evils.”

Margaret learns that Andrew is actually two men. “When he was wondering [his greatest talent], he was a likable, congenial, and sociable person. When he had stopped wondering and was convinced that he knew the answer, he became stubborn and stern.” Before their marriage, while he was at Columbia and Chicago, he had challenged his superiors’ theories and made enemies. Married to Margaret, forced thereafter to work independently of academia, at a naval observatory at Mare Island, California, he spends most of the next three and a half decades of his life seeking to achieve scientific world acclaim. He writes numerous newspaper and scientific journal articles; he makes speeches; he writes lengthy books about the universe. “Private Life” is as much a portrait of an unstable genius who, craving adulation and not receiving it, becomes delusional and callously destructive as it is the portrait of a not remarkable, submissive, but decent woman who must defy her deep-rooted passivity to take command of her life.

Margaret’s and Andrew’s dual stories weave through many important historical events: the San Francisco Earthquake, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Pearl Harbor, and the internment of Japanese American citizens.

Early during my reading I considered not finishing the novel. “The pace is slow,” I complained to my wife. A fourth of her way through the book, while I was writing the first draft of this review, she disagreed. “It’s not slow at all.” I persevered and was amply rewarded. This is a thought-provoking book. In strategic places Jane Smiley’s excellent command of language stirred powerfully my emotions. I conclude this review with this example, the death of Margaret’s jaundiced baby.

"Alarm and guilt surged in her, burning upward from her feet, enveloping her head, her brain, her mind in a fever of knowledge. … Alexander started to make a noise, high-pitched and distressed, and to arch his back. It seemed to her that he was crying for help, so she picked him up and went to the door of the room and opened it. Naoko was in the hallway. She looked at her, and without Margaret’s saying a thing, the girl ran out the front door. Margaret closed her door and carried Alexander over to the bed. She sat down and readied herself to nurse, but in that short moment, the moment between her sitting down and her putting him to the breast, he lost even that ability—Margaret felt it. It was a feeling of something dissolving. She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Early Life

In Capital Square in Richmond today stands an equestrian statue of George Washington.  A tourist would notice six figures mounted at the base of the statue.  Chances are he would recognize instantly the importance of three of the figures: Patrick Henry, the orator of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Marshall, the famous Supreme Court Justice.  But the other three figures about the statue – George Mason, Thomas Nelson, and Andrew Lewis – might mean nothing to him.  Seconds later he would probably walk away, intent upon seeing another historic monument in historic Richmond.

Mason, Nelson, and Lewis were important leaders.  To the general public, however, they are anonymous patriots, their significance overlooked or underemphasized by the biographers of the giants of American history.

Thomas Nelson is the subject of this new series of posts.  He can be taken as a test case of the importance of obscure Revolutionary War leaders.  If he had not died relatively early, he would probably have been an important national political figure.  Even so, his life was full and his contributions substantial.



In describing the seaport town of York to Sir Henry Clinton shortly before the beginning of the American Revolution, a British officer wrote: “The people in and about it, influenced by the family of Nelson, are all Rebellious” (Riley 22).  If the officer had remained in the town longer and inquired about the Nelson family, he might have left contemplating just how far beyond the boundaries of foolishness this rebellious family might go.  They were merchants, the first in York, one of the wealthiest families in the colony.  If the existing breach between the political and economic interests of Great Britain and her colonies should expand to the point where neither antagonist could reverse course, if the ultimate solution to this clash of interests could be none other than a clash of arms, the Nelsons stood to lose economically far more than most Americans.  Yet, from the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the family’s history is one of consistent loyalty to colonial principles.  The British officer might have explained all of this with the thought that many men lose their senses in times of strife, but a crisis can also inspire the employment of rare qualities of character, one being courage.

Thomas Nelson, the founder of the wealthy Virginia family and the grandfather of the subject of this post, came to the colonies from Penriff, near the border of Scotland, shortly after the turn of the Seventeenth Century.  He established himself in York as a merchant, married a Miss Reid of the neighboring county, and had two sons and one daughter.

Thomas Nelson’s two sons, William and Thomas, upon reaching their adulthood, also settled in York.  Both men took an active role in Virginia politics.  Thomas -- Thomas Nelson Jr.’s uncle -- was secretary of the governor’s council for over twenty years.  William became a member of the House of Burgesses from York County in 1742.  In 1744 he joined his brother in the council and later became its president.  Due to the length of time both men held these positions in the council, they came to be called Secretary and President Nelson.

Importing goods from the merchants of Philadelphia and Baltimore, then in their commercial beginnings, William Nelson acquired a large fortune.  After the death of Governor Botetourt, Nelson was acting governor of the colony from October 1770 to August 1771.  While he was “the right hand of George III,” he remained loyal to colonial ideals.  His letters to merchants at this time reveal his indignant opposition to onerous acts passed by the British Parliament, unwarranted impositions, he believed, legislated upon colonial rights and privileges.  Bishop Meade wrote that he left “none to doubt where he would have been when the trumpet sounded to arms” (Meade 209).

William Nelson married a Miss Burnwell, a pious and conscientious woman.  All of their daughters died before they reached the age of twelve.  Of their six sons, one burned to death and another damaged his brain in a fall from an upper story of the Nelson house.  These tragedies turned Mrs. Nelson ever closer to her religion.

She was particularly attentive to the religious training of her children.  She taught them to be punctual and conscientious in their daily prayers, set for them an exemplary example, and prayed for them often.  Equally concerned with their children’s religious upbringing, William took the lead in affairs of the local parish.  On Sundays, generous as well as pious, he had a large dinner prepared to which both rich and poor were invited.

Thomas Nelson, Jr., the eldest son, born December 26, 1738, had the qualities of courage, generosity, honesty, and leadership – so apparent during the Revolution – instilled in him in the Nelson home. 



At the age of fourteen Thomas Nelson, Jr., was a rather high spirited boy, energetic enough to give his father uneasy moments.  The boy had become old enough for President Nelson to consider sending him to England for a formal education.  It was the custom of many wealthy seaboard Virginia families to send their eldest sons to London for that purpose.  In a year, or perhaps two, Thomas would be ready.  Then, one Sunday morning while strolling about the outskirts of York, father Nelson’s aristocratic soul was rudely shaken.  He had come upon his son playing in the streets with several of the little Negro boys of the village.  Realizing the delicacy of such an association and the difficulty of preventing future ones, Nelson decided quickly that it was time for Thomas to begin his English education.  A vessel stood anchored in the harbor ready to sail.  Thomas found himself aboard it the next day.  He would not return for nine years.

President Nelson placed Thomas under the care of two friends: a Mr. Hunt of London, and Neilby Porteus, then fellow of Cambridge University, later to become a bishop.  Nelson needed six years of preparation before he entered Christ’s College at Cambridge in 1758.  He was then placed under the care of a Dr. Newcome at the Hackney School, in the village of the same name near the outskirts of London.  He then entered Cambridge under the private tutorship of Mr. Porteus.  In letters to Hunt and Porteus, President Nelson shows his pious concern for the improvement of his son – “in all things, but especially in morals and religion.”  Thomas’s spirited nature yet troubled him.  He had exhibited behavior unbecoming a gentleman of his station by associating with Negroes.  What form might his behavior take now that he was older?  Nelson requested of his friends that during the vacation seasons Thomas be placed under the supervision of an eminent scientific agriculturalist, so that “the temptations incident to young men during the vacation” resulting from “a disposition to idleness and pleasure” be avoided.  Additionally, when Thomas returned to America, he would be able to make adequate use of the soils of Virginia (Meade 206).

Regardless of what President Nelson may have wished, Thomas’s activities were not devoted exclusively to the studying of books and soils.  Nelson saved a man from drowning.  Ironically, the man was a kinsman of Lord North, Prime Minister just prior to and during most of the Revolutionary War.  In appreciation of Nelson’s heroic deed, the Lord presented the young man a gold snuff box containing a fine miniature of himself (Davis III 119).

After three years of tutorship by Mr. Porteus, Thomas was ready to return to York.  However, due to his father’s great concern for his spiritual upbringing, Thomas’s departure was delayed several months.  The elder Nelson had learned that two young Virginians, whose habits he feared, though they were sons of the first families of the colony, would be aboard the ship that Thomas was scheduled to take.  Thomas, therefore, was ordered to remain in England until another ship sailed for Virginia.

A blue-eyed, light-haired youth of twenty-two, exhibiting a ruddy complexion, finally returned to Virginia at the close of 1761.  His father was happy to find a general improvement in his son, but regretted that he had adopted the bad practice of smoking tobacco – “filthy tobacco,” he wrote his friends in England.  The elder Nelson also complained that Thomas ate and drank “more than was conducive to health and long life, though not to inebriety” (Meade 217).  If the reunion of father and son had given the President some cause for feeling a bit surprised, it gave Thomas far greater cause.  While Thomas was still on his voyage home, his name had been entered, undoubtedly by his father, as a candidate to the House of Burgesses from York County.  Thomas was greeted at the dock with the news that he had been elected a burgess.

Sources Cited:

Davis III, Edward Morris.  “Historical Silver in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1941) XLIX.  Print.

Meade, Bishop.  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891)Vol. I.  Print.

Riley, Edward M. “Yorktown/During the Revolution.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (January 1949), Vol. 57.  Print.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

This year I will be posting fewer articles – no more than two or three a month instead of the usual five or six.  I need to resume writing my second novel, tentatively entitled “Alsoomse and Wanchese.”  It will be about the lives of certain Algonquian natives mostly of Roanoke Island prior to and immediately after their first encounter with English explorers sent to North America in 1584 by Walter Raleigh to locate a desirable site to found a colony and base for privateering operations.
I will post occasional updates about the writing of my novel, review American historical novels that I have recently read, and pass along other information of a historical nature that I wish to share.
This month I will begin a series of posts about the life of Thomas Nelson, third governor of Virginia and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  He was the subject of a graduate history term paper that I wrote many years ago while attending UCLA.  My professor, historian Charles Page Smith, asked me about whom I would want to research.  I told him, “Thomas Nelson, a direct ancestor on my mother.”
“Oh,” he said, surprised.  “So, apparently we are related.”  I discovered later that Professor Smith was a descendent of John Page, a prominent Virginian in the late 18th Century and Thomas Nelson’s cousin. 
Professor Smith granted me access to the famous Huntington Library, which contains a substantial collection of rare books and manuscripts concentrated in the fields of British and American history, literature, art, and the history of science.  Wikipedia states that “use of the collection for research is restricted to qualified scholars, generally requiring a doctoral degree or at least candidacy for the Ph.D. and two letters of recommendation from known scholars.”  That definitely was not me.  At the time I wasn’t fully aware of the privilege he had bestowed.  I was able to locate collections of correspondence between Nelson and very important contemporaries including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  Here also were rare 19th Century biographies, microfiche newspaper articles, and other valuable sources of information.  The months I spent researching and writing my term paper were among the best of my life.  I discovered that I enjoyed research and that I had sufficient discipline to persevere in the struggle to organize my findings and express them cogently.  The experience served me well when I began teaching, and my teaching eventually led to my becoming a writer of historical fiction.
Years later when I delved into my mother’s ancestral past, I discovered that I was not related to Thomas Nelson, as my mother’s mother had thought.  I was related to Peter Nelson, the pastor of the church that Thomas Nelson attended during his final years of life. 
Thomas Nelson’s name will not be found in high school American history textbooks.  In books about the American Revolution his name might be found in several indexes with maybe two or three page numbers following it.  He is a member of the second tier of American leaders whom the general public would not recognize and without whom our nation in its struggle to win independence would not have prevailed.