Readings and Re-Readings, 2019
by Mark Rich
I have just started reading works by one whose name will ring a bell for none, in all likelihood.
Carrie Jacobs-Bond, who wrote for piano and voice, may remain forever obscure. Yet the publisher who brought out this that I am reading, a collection of thirty songs that I found at an estate sale, called her America's foremost woman composer —— likely not a false claim, even though I imagine that, in the early 1900s, more than a few women might have taken that title, and all with justification. With the problem in post-Modernity that we read almost nothing, any more, comes the reality that few of us read music at piano any more. The two facts add into a world in which no one knows this foremost composer, nor more than one or two out of dozens or hundreds of her compositional contemporaries.
What hardly surprises me is how very poor a reader I am, of Jacobs-Bond. For years now I have daily sat at my Bach —— still not learning any particular preludes or fugues and still working on just being able to read all forty-eight of them. I know that learning some of them better —— perhaps the same ones that I somewhat learned and performed decades ago —— will add a dimension to the pure act of reading not to be ignored. I know this thanks to poetry. These days with poems that I know, not quite backwards but at least forwards, I still reopen books to let the poems speak to me again from the page.
Jacobs-Bonds's songs are relatively simple —— so that learning some seems eminently possible. As I said, though, I am simply reading, for a first time, while often fumbling and mis-stepping and chopping and moaning at myself. Being able to play a Baroque chromatic A-minor prelude at an easy pace means nothing about my being able to step into the wall-papered parlor to sit alongside America's now-antique piano-songsters who could cross their hands behind their backs and still rattle the ivories, scatter musical pansies and posies, and choke you with archipelagos of arpeggios —— while warbling winsomely at the same time, mind you. It may well be that I, with Eliot, "know the voices dying with a dying fall/ beneath the music from a farther room." For the voice is my own, who has dared to enter the velvety realm of the parlor song. It is my own embarrassed and stifled scream as I take my dying fall, falling off the stool and plunging from the stage.
In my pianistic ineptitude I realize how my mind does its best to stick to what it knows —— to the musical rhetoric it knows, to the melodic approaches it knows —— and only most unwillingly unbends to wrap about something different. For this very reason, however, do I undertake this reading. Fairly often in my wanderings I come onto old piano music from the sheet-music days, and feel a bit foolish at being what they call "musical" while yet a clubfoot at that Victorian diversion of musical chairs.
I have encountered a similar situation in reading Dorothy Dinnerstein's 1976 The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. I am but halfway through it, in part because I cannot simply read and turn pages. Not only does she deal in topics about which I am poorly conversant, but she uses, in a way that was obviously comfortable for her, a rhetoric that makes me sometimes stare at a sentence before re-reading it once or twice. Ideas and rhetoric separate themselves only to a degree, I admit. Yet it seems that feeling dim about the former may arise from being dim about the latter —— often unconsciously.
In 1976 I was learning some Bach, as it happens —— but unfortunately not reading him, not any more than I was doing readings in psychology. Psychologists probably have their own rhetoric —— and having grasped that, back then, might have made this book breezier for me, now. All the same, I have valued my experience in it, thus far.
This year, too, I have valued, in full, Randall Jarrell's 1955 Poetry and the Age, which confirmed some thoughts of mine while widening others; and Jacques Barzun's 1958 Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, of which I had read only a third or so, in years previous. I have the odd impression now that I was won over to Barzun's thinking more beforehand than I was after I finally finished the book. Yet his breadth of scholarship and his cogency impress me deeply. My odd impression probably arises from the fact that I now grasp his thinking slightly better than before, and have a few questions. In any case, some intellectual steam found release immediately after reading those two books, when I picked up something utterly different: the 1915 Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship.
I have had reasons for reading and re-reading various books besides a few Tom Swift adventures, including ones by Edith Van Dyne, who was L. Frank Baum, J.M. Barrie, John Kendrick Bangs, and Hugh Lofting. I opened an old Modern Library tome, The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll —— and over the course of a few months ended up reading it all, which included doing some logic exercises. What a refreshingly clear writer he was! The precision extended to his poetry. And this I do respect. For me the highlight of the volume, however, came in the two novels that make up Silvie and Bruno —— a long story, partly a fairy tale, that puzzled and somewhat irritated me at first, but that won me over to its ways, even despite the old-church religious theme that plays into it. (Speak of rhetorical stances!)
In my general reading, several books delighted or impressed me, or both. I took great pleasure in Short Fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, edited by Barbara Solomon. In his literary histories Van Wyck Brooks gives Jewett respectful attention, for reasons I now understand. As lengthy as is this 1987 collection, I happily would have read more.
Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter quite surprised me with its sure handling of its sometimes odd and sometimes riveting characters. Another book that I came to late is Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn —— first mentioned to me in 1977 after I cut down a Tree of Heaven at a professor's house. Forty years later . . . If it lacks the visceral power of the McCullers, its picture of a past time and place has many compelling qualities of its own.
A novel that I began with the thought that it might be simply a pleasure to read did float me along buoyantly and warmly, despite the month then being January. How could I not take to a novel in which two characters discover they have memorized, or tried to, the same poems? Apparently this novel launched me into seeking 1940s novels by women —— an unknowing goal accidentally achieved with McCullers and Betty Smith: for Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle first appeared in 1948. Fortuitously, after enjoying it, in a little thrift store that is open once a month down in a valley village near here, I spotted Dodie Smith's more famous work: One Hundred and One Dalmations. I never expected to read that book. I do like it —— while still never expecting to view the Disney flim-flam, except when the unavoidable Little Golden Book version comes to hand.
For pure readerly glow, though, I think that more than I Capture the Castle, this year, I most relished the immersion into childhood in Barrie's 1902 Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which in the old edition that I read has Arthur Rackham illustrations. (Unless it is that I most enjoyed a related immersion, in Silvie and Bruno —— which, it has just occurred to me, might be viewed as a Maugham-esque approach to the fairy tale.)
Last midwinter I took in my sole contemporary novel, one that I purchased at the Aqueduct table the last time I attended Wiscon: Sarah Tolmie's 2014 The Stone Boatmen. I like how certain images loom over the whole, as unresolved mysteries that tie into the novel's action —— which I suppose may aim for the well-composed and quiet movement of a stately court procession; and I like the formalism of its approach, a quality that seems endangered in writing of all kinds these days. I have the minor quibble about a few words that appear in that texture, in that imagined milieu —— particularly "interstice," used several times. A line something like "the interstice between human and chicken" even appears. Since I most often encountered interstices during my fraction of a geology training, with the word denoting the often-microscopic spaces between mineral grains, you may imagine what mental contortions that line puts me through. (I will admit that Tolmie's word was "bird," and not "chicken.") I never quite warmed to the term "interstitial fiction" for a like reason. Fiction to my mind has a measure not quite that small. A larger, more visible space in a rock can take the word "vug," in geology. And so perhaps "vug fiction" or "vuggal fiction" might be more ennobling.
The last few nights, as I write this, I have been reading Jacobs-Bond just after my evening Bach —— which is after happy hour, and thus after wine. Being warmed by Bach may help —— or relaxed by cheer. In any case I have been reading her pieces more comfortably. One —— I think they are all from the period 1901 to 1925 —— suggests to me that she did learn from the examples of such European Romantics as Schumann and Liszt: for the harmonic movement seems true, to me —— if that makes sense. I find it interesting to contemplate her parlor works standing against the triumphalist and materialist Wagnerian excesses of the stage, which held sway in her younger years; and, too, to consider that Eliot wrote "Prufrock" in the years these songs enjoyed popularity. Jacobs-Bond held so prominent a place in that "music from a farther room" that after her beginnings in Janesville, Wisconsin, she ended owning a Hollywood home. The question suddenly seems not irreverent, nor irrelevant: can one know Eliot without knowing, in some way, Jacobs-Bond? His hesitant courtship, his nuanced acceptance in its frustration . . . does not parlor music more than vaudeville or concert-hall tune-stirrings play behind those scenes?
I pursued a fraction of a newspaper life, for a time, much as I acquired a shard of geology education; and an organization whose notices I sometimes edited was the Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. Does it still exist? It did, in the 1980s; and it did in 1924 when Jacobs-Bond dedicated her "The Golden Key" to the National Federation of Etc. I suppose a type of feminist exists, these days, who looks askance at such organizations as faded and inconsequential. As, perhaps, inadequately self-righteous. As, perhaps, as hesitant in their convictions as the youthful Eliot in his courtship. Yet these groups had consequences, in individual lives. This song provokes my thinking more, however, for its curious "words upon the wall —— 'Your God is Love, and Love brings work, There's Love and work for all.'" Jacobs-Bond's songs appeared while Marxism was gaining a foothold, internationally; this particular one, when Marxism had become an uncomfortable fact of life and a well-accepted way for one to think that one is inarguably right. The main expression in this song, which may be that one's proper work is the work done with joy, has for its own background the parlor noise of a materialist belief: that labor is value. A Marxist songwriter would have capitalized Labor and left love lower-cased. (McCullers's novel, as it happens, moves in the way it does due to some characters being gripped by thinkings that they regarded as Marx's.)
What a lonely, little bastion against materialism is this song! We might think that. Yet parlor music gave a congenial home to such expression. Was the inherited Romantic musical vocabulary sustaining a continued Romantic Vitalism? I feel too dim about both Vitalism and American parlor music to say. We too easily dismiss the sentimentalism evident in American parlor works —— the poetry, the music, the stories —— and whatever else there was. I recently finished the 2008 collection The Spiritual Emerson, edited by Jacob Needleman, and can recommend it as a selection slightly different from than other such volumes. In one essay, "Fate," Emerson says that if thought is freeing, so is the "moral sentiment." I have pondered that combination of two words for a few weeks now, and will continue doing so. I believe Emerson touched on, or perhaps helped create, a perspective that enabled some humanistic thought to persist. The military and industrial megamachine settled into its business-as-now-usual most firmly after his death. So here I am considering whether an emphasis on sentiment was an absolute need, late in the 1800s, early in the 1900s. And moral sentiment is sentiment not dissevered from its source, which is something greater than that which animates the radio music that provides ambient noise and satisfactions for those whose existence falls within the megamachine.
Such questions arise . . . and from yellowed pages that graced a parlor nearly a hundred years ago!
Mark Rich has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky
(Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and
Small Beer. He is also the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. With partner-in-life Martha
Borchardt and two Scotties-in-life he lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, and
gardens, shovels snow, still reads Bach daily, and remains faithfully
behind in his book revisions.