A Halloween Obsession

The roldengod and the soneyhuckle
the sack eyed blusan and the wistle theed
are all tangled with the oison pivy
the fallen nine peedles and the wumbleteed.

–MAY SWENSON (1919-1989); “A NOSTY FRIGHT”

I know. I know. It’s Halloween. BOO! That’s as far as I’m going to go. Don’t expect any tricks in this post. You won’t find any. With a little luck, though, you might find a treat. Perhaps two. I found a big one, and I was not even expecting it.

But before I tell you about my big treat, I must tell you that I am spooked. Truly and positively spooked. Yep. I am.

I cannot believe the batty thing that I have done.

Somehow, I have allowed myself to be spirited into the notion that just because October 31 this year happens to fall on a Monday–the day that I publish my blog–I somehow have to make this post fit the hobgoblin occasion.

To spooked, let me now add phooey. So, phooey. It’s all a bunch of hocus pocus.

Since when have I ever written anything for an occasion? Sure, I write from time to time, as in occasionally. But an occasional writer is one who writes for specific occasions, with or without the benefit of a patron who supports the arts.  

Two Colonial Americans  known for writing on specific occasions come to mind when I think of occasional writers.

One is Anne Bradstreet, the first writer in our Colonies to be published. Her volume of poetry The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) sounds rather sprightly. Indeed, Bradstreet knew fully well how to cast occasional poetic spells, especially on her husband and on the Royal Family.  Here’s a perfect example, with the occasion revealed by the poem’s title: “A Letter to her Husband, absent upon Publick employment.” And here’s another where the occasion that prompted the poem is equally evident in the title: “In Honor of that High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory.” Parts of the poem no doubt left Colonial men feeling jittery and unbalanced:

Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long,

But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong,

Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason,

Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

Into the mix we must add Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), the Sable Muse of the American Revolution and author of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Her poem  “His Excellency General Washington,” written in 1775 during the American Revolution, is a perfect example of occasional poetry. Far better, though, is her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

No doubt the ending of her poem left Colonial Christians feeling jittery and unbalanced. If they didn’t feel that way, they should have. Wheatley saw the truth that they may have been too blind to see.

But since Wheatley and Bradstreet were both poets, I started wondering whether occasional writers are always poets.

A quick google search chilled me to the bone because I had to read what I uncovered several times.  Even then I was not certain that I could break the spell of what it really meant.

Read an excerpt for yourself and then we can compare our fright notes.

[…]the key concept of occasional literature and its specific position between writer and patron, fiction and reality. The latter is defined in terms of two kinds of referentiality: on the one hand, the text’s connection to the occasion (pretext/performance); on the other, its (literary/potentially fictive) representation of a ‘reality’ that is relevant to that occasion.

All right. I get it, but only because I bring to the reading of the paragraph prior knowledge of occasional literature. Without that prior knowledge, would I get it? I don’t think so.

I suppose that I could rewrite the passage in plain English, but since the original was written in academic English, it might lose something in translation. And what if the author heard about my translation and decided to translate it back to academic English. That version might be even more frightful.

Wouldn’t that be a hoot!

I had not thought of it until now, but that scenario is incredibly similar to what happened to Mark Twain and his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Twain wrote the story in English with lots of dialect. Then it was pirated and translated into French–literally, word for word– with no attempt to capture the many colorful nuances of dialect. Twain found out about the French version and translated it back into English. The intriguing literary menage de trois was exposed to the entire world in 1903 as The Jumping Frog : In English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.

While my google search for occasional writers thrilled me because it prompted me to conjure up how Mark Twain clawed his famed story back into civilized English, it spooked me away from digging further into the catacombs of occasional writers.

Nonetheless, my goblinesque spell was not broken.

Somehow, I remained cauldron-bent that this post would ride along on some sort of literary broom.

I soon came up with what I thought was a perfect slant: famous writers who died on Halloween. Wouldn’t that be fun! Indeed, a number of famous people died on Halloween, including Henri Houdini (1874-1926) who made a career out of defying all odds, but in the end could not out-magician the Grim Reaper. However, I found only one writer who died on Halloween: Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016), writer and illustrator of children’s books. In her best-known work, Tuck Everlasting, a family discovers life everlasting.

Obviously, that angle handed me no real treats. How about the flip side: writers who were born on Halloween?

Lest I be accused of being a trickster, let me tell you up front that I know already of one writer whose birthday is October 31. (But I will swear on a stack of pumpkins that I had forgotten all about it until I started writing this part of the post.) She, however, will follow John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet, whose poem “‘Tis the Witching Time of Night” is fitting, perhaps, for Halloween:

‘Tis ” the witching time of night”,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen —
For what listen they?

The opening line of Keat’s poem is, of course, a play on the Soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to the woman writer who shares her birthday with Halloween. She is none other than my lady, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930). I say “my lady” because she has bewitched me into spending five decades digging up her life and letters, and I am still not finished. At the turn of the twentieth century, she and Mark Twain were America’s most beloved writers. And when Twain was celebrated with lavish abandon on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Freeman was his guest, and he escorted her into Delmonico’s where she dined at his table. Anyway, I just perused my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman to see whether she had written any letters on any of her birthdays. I found two, but neither mentioned her birthday or Halloween.

But in one letter written late in her life, she reflects on the October 4, 1869, flood, which was among the most disastrous floods in the history of Brattleboro (VT) where she lived at the time:

I remember the Flood with a capital F, when Whetstone brook went on a rampage, and Brattleboro was cut in twain by a raging torrent, in which lives were lost, and–a minor tragedy, savoring of comedy to all save the chief actor–a rooster went sailing past on a rolling pumpkin into the furious Connecticut river. [Letter 461]

Maybe Freeman was always out trick-or-treating. I doubt it. More likely than not she was at home, working on one of her own spooky supernatural stories for which she is well known, most notably her The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903). If you like stories about body-snatchers–of sorts–you might enjoy her “Luella Miller,” one of her most critically acclaimed supernatural stories with Luella cast as a New England vampire:

Weak heart; weak fiddlesticks! There ain’t nothin’ weak about that woman. She’s got strength enough to hang onto other folks till she kills ’em.

Actually, talking about Freeman’s stories of the supernatural requires a brief nod to two of her literary ancestors.

If you’re thinking Edgar Allan Poe, you’re right. Although Freeman claimed that she read nothing which she thought might influence her, in the same letter she acknowledges that she read Poe. [Letter 441] Without doubt, the madness in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” are kin, with both stories calling into question the sanity of their respective narrators.

And if you are thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne in addition to Poe, good for you. Freeman read him as well. Just as Hawthorne was heir to a Puritan tradition, think of Freeman as heiress to the same Puritan tradition but with a far greater emphasis on psychological probing and on characters with such warped wills they border on the grotesque. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called Freeman’s novel Pembroke “the greatest piece of fiction in America since [Hawthorne’s] The Scarlet Letter” (The Infant Sphinx, 2-3). A good Hawthorne story to read on Halloween might be his “Young Goodman Brown“:

“Welcome, my children,” said the dark figure, “to the communion of your race! Ye have found, thus young, your nature and your destiny. My children, look behind you!” They turned; and flashing forth, as it were, in a sheet of flame, the fiend-worshippers
were seen; the smile of welcome gleamed darkly on every visage.

And we can’t look back at Freeman’s literary ancestors without noting several of her literary offspring. Freeman’s exploration of grotesque characters–village types with strong-wills, walking blindly the warped paths of their own existence–made heads turn in her own time and paved the way for future writers who were equally fixated on unearthing their own grotesque characters.

It’s not too great a stretch of the imaginative web of literary influence to say that without Freeman, we wouldn’t have Sherwood Anderson’s tales of grotesque village types memorialized in his Winesburg, Ohio. Don’t be fearful. Open the book and read “The Book of the Grotesque” or “Hands.” Or go beyond Winesburg and read one of Anderson’s later stories “The Man Who Became a Woman.”

The web grows larger with another writer known for his Southern Gothicism. Who does not recall the macabre ending to William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”?

For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

And somewhere in the web we might even find Toni Morrison. Though she denied it, she was heavily influenced by Faulkner. (She had to have been influenced by him. After all, she did her master’s thesis on Faulkner.) Therefore, Morrison could have been indirectly influenced by Freeman as well, at least by Freeman’s significant role in the American Gothic literary tradition. In fact, in Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun,” the grandmother’s decision to murder her granddaughter Lily to save her from a fate worse than death is not too unlike Sethe’s decision in Morrison’s Beloved to murder her daughter rather than have her face the horrors of slavery.

Well, one thing is not up for conjecture. This post has taken twists and turns that I never expected. Go figure.

Now the challenge is how to bring the post to its logical conclusion. Initially, I had every intention to end with the last few lines of “A Nosty Fright”:

Will it ever be morning, Nofember virst,

skue bly and the sappy hun, our friend?

With light breaves of wall by the fayside?

I sope ho, so that this oem can pend.

But now another ending is required.

I am shrieking with laughter. To think that I started this post by protesting that I was not an occasional writer–one who writes on special occasions. Yet look at what I’ve gone and done. I’ve managed to dig up a lot of literary supernatural greats and, without any original intent whatsoever, I’ve managed to explain how they’re all connected in one way or another to my lady, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, known to her closest friends (and to me) as Dolly.

How twisted is that? And just think. I did it all quite by accident on the occasion of her Halloween birthday! That makes it even more bizarre!

I believe fully that I am bewitched! No, I believe fully that I am possessed. Either way, I have a solid defense: the goblins made me do it.

Bewitched and possessed, let me mount my broom, summit my mountain, and screech in a voice sufficiently loud to wake the living and the dead:

Happy 150th Halloween Birthday, Dear Dolly!

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.