Saturday, October 24, 2009

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century / T.A. Shippey -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001

A couple weeks ago, I read The Hobbit, again. This was the first time I had done so after reading Tom Shippey's masterful work, The Road to Middle Earth. (See my review in this blog -- Aug. 22, 2009.) Shippey's analysis of Biblo Baggins rang true when I read The Road, but upon reading The Hobbit, I found it spot on. Shippey argues that Bilbo Baggins functions to connect the modern reader to the mythical, magical world of Middle Earth. Bilbo is in essence a respectable 19th century bourgeois man swept away on an adventure among a wizard, dwarves, elves, and a dragon, among other strange creatures. Without Bilbo, the modern reader would find the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, and the Lonely Mountain too alien to appreciate. It would be much like dropping into Wonderland without Alice to serve as the reader's anchor.

My appreciation for Shippey's analysis in The Road prompted me to another of his works, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, at least the section on The Hobbit. Sadly, Tolkien: Author covers very little that is not in The Road, but it was enjoyable enough that I continued beyond the chapter on The Hobbit and ended up reading the whole of the book. In retrospect, I wish I had read Shippey's two works in reverse order. Tolkien: Author provides a clearer and perhaps fuller analysis of the themes in Tolkien's main works, while The Road delves deep into the mythopoeic and philological roots of Middle Earth.

The themes Shippey explores in Tolkien: Author include Tolkien's maps, evil, eucatastrophy, allegory, and of course the way in which hobbits function to connect the reader to Middle Earth. Perhaps the most interesting insight is Shippey's application of Northrop Frye's distinctions among literary modes. Frye distinguishes five literary modes: myth, romance, high mimesis, low mimesis, and irony. Shippey identifies each mode in the Tolkien's work. This goes a long way in explaining the richness of the text and illustrating Tolkien's remarkable skill in integrating them all in a single story.

Tolkien's skill however was not born full-fledged with his first works. There is a stronge, even jarring, contrast between the irony and low mimesis of Bilbo Baggins and the romance and myth of the wood elves, Smaug the dragon, and Beorn the shape shifter in The Hobbit, while the various modes appearing in The Lord of the Rings are smoothly integrated. Notably, the lower literary modes are completely absent in Tolkien's Silmarillian works.

Shippey's chapter on Tolkien's followers and critics is among the most enjoyable chapters. Here we read criticism from the literati that so strikingly misunderstand what is at work in Tolkien's stories that it leaves you wondering if they had read anything written before the 18th century. Regarding Tolkien's followers, Shippey's account makes them all seem like dismal amateurs in comparison Tolkien's masterful understanding of the genre. Both assessments are probably close to the mark.

Forced to choose, I would recommend The Road to Middle Earth over Tolkien: Author of the Century. The former is perhaps the best work on Tolkien written. The latter is merely excellent.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Vol. 7 / Hermann von Holst -- Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1892

From 1889 to 1892, Professor Hermann von Holst of the University of Freiburg saw the publication of an English translation of his eight volume constitutional and political history of the United States. The first seven volumes trace events from 1750 to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in March of 1861. The final volume is an index to the work. Volume seven covers just the last two years of that period and consequently provides a hoard of fascinating details describing the collapse of any hope for avoiding the secession of the several Southern states and civil war.

Horst begins his work with an account of John Brown and his raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. He indicates that the overly excited reaction to Brown revealed a deep seated fear that the South was reaching the end of its ability to maintain control of federal institutions. His account of subsequent actions by Southern politicians makes a strong case. For example, the rabid reaction against Hinton Rowan Helper's book The Impending Crisis of the South indicated how tenuous the planter class felt their political power was over non-slave owning Southern whites.

Yet most of the Horst's work describes the efforts of Northern (or conservative) Democrats to placate the Southern radicals and the machinations of politicians of every party to advance their political goals. Central to these events were Constitutional interpretations related to the right to property in slaves and the right of a state to secede. His account of James Buchanan's view on secession is especially interesting. Buchanan held that while a state had no right to secede, the federal government had no right to use force to prevent its secession. Horst properly criticizes this view as incoherent, but does not make clear what Buchanan's motivations might have been for holding the view. At times, he seems to suggest that Buchanan was quietly encouraging the South to secede, but sought to avoid war while he was in office. At other times, it seems that Buchanan honestly believed that by taking a passive position on secession, prodigal states would soon enough return to the Union without war.

Other politicians (including some Republicans) seemed equally eager to accommodate the wishes of the Southern radicals in an effort to avoid war; however, the political division within the Democratic Party was too great for them to reach agreement on how to deal with slavery. Southern radicals sought to explicitly enshrine slavery in the Constitution, while conservative Democrats supported Stephen A. Douglas's doctrine of "popular sovereignty" in which states would be free to permit or prohibit slavery as they saw fit. These disagreements played out in a series of political conventions that ultimate split the Democratic Party and led to Lincoln's election by a Republican plurality.

What is most amazing was the unending efforts by politicians to reach a compromise and the willingness of many Republicans to abandon the slavery planks of their platform to head off war. The leading Republican of the time, William Seward, engaged in private negotiations prior to joining the Lincoln administration. According to Horst, Seward offered to accept slavery to avert the war; however, the inertia leading to secession was far too advanced to be stopped.

Horst's account is detailed and convincing and makes the reader wish Horst had continued the story at least to the conclusion of the war; however, one is consoled by the knowledge that this was only volume seven and that six previous volumes are likely to be equally engaging.