BC SealBoston College Magazine Spring 2005
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Linden Lane
Works and Days
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. Linden Lane
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A reader's notes

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Roots


National pastimes

Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870–1900

Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870–1900, by Julie Husband and Jim O'Loughlin MA'91 (Greenwood, 2004)

This 31st volume in a publisher's series on the facts of life in times and places ranging from Bronze Age Africa to the contemporary U.S. offers 242 pages of facts, lists, and tables on such topics as patent medicines and housekeeping practices, presumably for the improvement of writers of high school papers and Trivial Pursuit games. While this does not make for a narrative meal, there's pleasure to be found in the tasting menu, as in the observations on "Tom Troupes," several hundred of which traveled the country during the period under review, performing madly inventive productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, sometimes with elephants on stage or with two actors playing each part at the same time, an odd attraction known as "A Double Mammoth." As a writer, though, I was particularly moved by the tale of Edward L. Wheeler, who published 33 novels about the cowboy hero "Deadwood Dick" between 1877 and 1884, and then 97 between 1885 and 1894, in spite of the fact that, as the authors shrug, he "apparently died in 1885."

An excerpt from Daily Life begins here.

Awakening

American Ghosts: A Memoir

American Ghosts: A Memoir, by David Plante '61 (Beacon, 2005)

Plante, who has published 14 novels—nearly all of which would make a list of the best fiction by BC graduates—has produced a self-accounting that makes little mention of his literary career (he currently teaches writing at Columbia University). Rather, this story of religious and sensual longing, and of flight and return, rolls out not with the straight-line logic of passing time but with the manifold reasoning of a powerful and haunting dream about a Rhode Island "Canuck" parish in the 1950s, Yankee Boston, Thomistic Catholicism (and BC), and Europe, to which Plante escaped in the 1960s, and where he lived in exile for four decades with his "life partner," the late book editor Nikos Stangos. The book pivots on Plante's return—literally and figuratively—to America, where he is moved by the powerful and brilliant noodging of his friend the writer Mary Gordon to turn his sharp eye on the ghosts he'd fled in his youth. For Plante, awareness is a sacrament, and as in his novels, his pared-down literary style aims to capture what he calls "the inexhaustible secret" of the right word, the right sentence, the right phrase. On first meeting the gentle and cultured Stangos, for example, Plante has himself think, "oh, yes," which is a clichéd sigh worthy of a Dame Barbara Cartland heroine, but here, thought with simple reflexive hope by a lost and unhappy young exile about another man he has just met for tea in 1960s London, it rolls across the carpet like a child's toy and turns out to be a grenade only a second before it explodes.

Harvest

Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965–2005

Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965–2005, by Brendan Galvin '60 (Louisiana State University Press, 2005)

Some four decades after Galvin was (let us give thanks) derailed in his ambition to go to dental school after graduating from BC, this collection draws from 13 volumes worth of striking and grounded poems that have earned the author the kind of awards and publication credits that every American poet craves. While many of Galvin's poems are rooted in observations of the natural world (Cape Cod, where he's lived for decades, figures prominently), he is no more a nature poet than was Frost or Basho. Nature is simply the bait, and when the hook sets and we are drawn up and into the piercing light, it turns out this isn't about birches or cranes at all—as in this conclusion, from Galvin's "The Apple Trees":

So what if,
in the journey from root hair to branch,
the fruit passes through
knees and elbows and comes out
gnurled, unbalanced, nodal,
moon-dragged all one way? Don't those
tears in the heart of each apple
resolve to try it again,
over and over?

For all that the years of Galvin's worklife have been a difficult age for poetry, there is nothing apologetic or tentative in these lyrics. They were written down by a man apparently convinced that the world is worth praising in words that offer no turning aside from hard facts. A few years ago, in a chastising review of a pack of whelp poets who seemed to believe that ambiguity was the only appropriate artistic response to a postmodern existence, Galvin wrote, "Clarity is still the biggest mystery of them all." This book, this life in poetry, insist upon it.


Rootless

Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America

Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, by Todd DePastino '88 (Chicago, 2003)

The homeless American emerged from the Civil War as the tramp, became the hobo in the late 19th century, the migrant in the 1930s, the bum in the 1950s, and an existential hero in the 1960s. DePastino tracks this history right up to the homeless who've been in the streets of our cities for the past 30 years. His thesis: Washington's fear of unemployed, radicalized white males—e.g., Coxey's Commonweal (1894), the Overalls Brigade (1908), the Bonus Army (1932)—resulted in the likes of the WPA and the GI Bill. That Washington has not done as much to serve the dislocated of our own time is a consequence of the homeless comprising women, blacks, and Hispanics, in the main. He may be right, but he will not be convincing until he confronts and refutes other, less censorious, but more complex, possibilities.

Ben Birnbaum

 

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