Democratic Vistas: 1871 versus 2022

The 2022 mid-term elections looked like race horses running neck-to-neck down the track. The political pundits, stop watches in hand, counted the colors red or blue as the racers passed over the finish line. Many commentators viewed the stakes of the contests across the country as the survival of American democracy framed 250 years ago.

All of this made me remember Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas written in 1871 during the Reconstruction period in the aftermath of the horrific Civil War. Whitman had witnessed its terrible toll, tending the dead and dying in hospitals. The choice of the word vistas is not accidental because it implies the long view. Whitman finds democracy in its “embryo condition,” its future dependent on the good character of individuals and a moral consciousness.

How does Whitman view the future of democracy then? Not any better or worse than historians and political scientists view it today. He identifies the same causes for skepticism about its durability that exist in 2022. He states “I will not gloss over the appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States,” and cites the “crudeness, vice, caprices of the common voter.” Yet in another place, he enjoins the citizen to inform himself and always vote but to “disengage from parties” because they are “savage” and “wolfish.”

Whitman could be describing current conditions in this passage:

The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration, and the judiciary is tainted.

The two ingredients he sees essential to democratic progress are diversity and the full play of freedom that will provide equal opportunity regardless of “unequal rank, intellect, virtue, or station.” Whitman understands that the United States is a study in contradictions. While lamenting the greed of the captains of industry, he acknowledges that the success of the democratic experiment depends on the prosperity of the general population; otherwise, unrest and dissatisfactions will erode its foundation. Inherent in diversity is the tendency to divisiveness and unbridled freedom, corruption, materialism, and self-interest detrimental to the general welfare. The antidotes to these negative effects are education and spirituality unbound to established churches.

Whitman does not hesitate to severely criticize the hypocrisy and mediocrity in American politics and decries the “lack of first-class captains and leaders.” Without an infusion of conscience and spirituality, America is on “the road of the damned.” From my perspective, in the last eight years a large portion of Americans and their elected officials have been willing to turn a blind eye on lies, venality, crass opportunism, and failures to act as public servants. Corruption, nepotism, conflicts of interests, and profiteering form public office have been rife. Is this scene so different from what Walt Whitman views in 1871?

From Whitman’s pessimistic vista, he rescues some hope for the future. He writes that great literature can offset the worse effects of a self-interested, materialistic society. Great literature also needs readers. He implies public education will create that education, and collaterally, a cultured society. Whitman could not foresee that consumerism, the entertainment industry, and the mass media might act as countervailing forces.

My hope also resides in the salutary effect of literature as the art form that expands individual horizons and opens vistas to realize greater brotherhood in an imperfect democracy.

November 21, 2022

I Hate Poetry

“I don’t like poetry.”

“I don’t read poetry.”

I have heard these and similar refrains spoken by my book club members.

I remained mute, respectfully silent, to these bold, proud assertions. Should I defend my passionate love for the beauty of words artistically arranged to illuminate sound and sense, reflecting off each other amorously as in a lover’s tight embrace?

Would I dare to suggest reading a volume such as the Iliad or the Odyssey or a contemporary book of narrative verse such as Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser or the Victorian Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King? Craven timidity prevented me from the mention of the ten books of poetry I had the temerity to write.

Ours is a prosaic society. My suggestion of good poetry books may have resonance in Poland or Russia – the Slavs love poetry. Poetry is widely read and enjoyed in these countries. They can boast of the popularity of Eugene Onegin and Pan Tadeusz. I admit my reticence to defend the value of poetry was cowardly.

Americans have largely ceded the poetic ground to the academics. More people write poetry than read it even though some may confess that in great rushes of emotion, they have written a poem to express powerful feelings.

Should I admit in parody of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous lines: “How do I love you? Let me count the ways” (leaving out the archaic thee) that I really love poetry?

I fancied poetry since elementary school and never outgrew my first love, although most students leave poetry behind after high school. So why does it continue to speak to me?

Because poetry can say in fourteen lines what prose can take four hundred pages to express.

Because it crystallizes ideas in images that at once make me hear, sense, and see their meaning.

Because connotation and denotation reverberate in a poem’s compact lines.

Because the compact lines ascend to the rhythm and cadence of music, the art of communication with sound, but poetry synthesizes language and sound into a unified art form.

Because I adhere to the adage that brevity is the soul of wit. Nothing sticks like a well-turned phrase; even better, one that is rhymed.

Because poetry fosters memorization. The decline of memorization in schools parallels the decline in the love of poetry and its appreciation.

Because poetry rises on the tongue like a prayer.

Because in great poetry I discover wisdom.

And last but most importantly, because reading tastes reveal a lot about personality and values. This is also true of a society in general. Poetry requires the reader to pause, think more deeply, and savor language. Mass popular fiction today permits the reader to cruise along, often skimming the surface and missing nuances in the same way that the media allows an audience to view complex issues simplistically. Prose glides; poetry dives.

Let us make America pause and ponder again through reading more poetry; thereby regaining respect for the use of language. Those who dominate the air waves daily abuse and corrupt language in ways that George Orwell warned would produce a brainwashed totalitarian society.

I love poetry because I love the concise, beautiful command of evocative language to express eternal truths of the human condition. In few words, it says so much – more than a million tongues can utter.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

As the Russian despot Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, I turned the last page of this novel in which the narrator’s grandmother relates decades of war in Vietnam. I have read non-fiction accounts of Vietnam and novels from the American soldier’s perspective, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Written by a Vietnamese woman, The Mountains Sing is exceptional because it tells the story of the ravages of war from the perspective of ordinary families caught up in the maelstrom of foreign occupation, famine, land reform, and violence. The novel depicts North against South, brother against brother, comparable to the brutal carnage of the American Civil War.

The Ukrainians will resist and fight to the death for their homeland as the Vietnamese did against the French, the Japanese, and later the American interventionists in a domestic conflict aimed to unify the country. The novel begins in Hanoi during the 1972 bombing of the city. The grandmother flashes back to 1945 and 1955 as she relates her life’s story to her beloved granddaughter, and then flashes forward to 1975. The reunification of the family parallels the reunification of North and South Vietnam as the grandmother recounts the fate of her parents and her six children. One of her sons joins the fight on the side of the South and never returns home. Another son returns home, having lost his legs. Her youngest son fights for the North and survives the war to become a staunch Communist Party official. His mother says he has been brainwashed by propaganda.

The wise grandmother who struggles to survive after her land is confiscated and her house in Hanoi is destroyed says: I learned then that, in time of war, normal citizens were nothing but leaves that would fall in the thousands of millions in the surge of the storm. Throughout history, it seems that catastrophic wars occur because one despotic leader does not care how many people die in his quest for territorial expansion.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s great storytelling weaves an intergenerational plot with many twists and turns, often ending chapters with a cliffhanger and switching to another period, but all threads are eventually tied together through the image of the wooden bird her father carved for his daughter. Stories within stories underscore why people feel the need to tell them and why we bother to read novels in the first place. The grandmother affirms their importance, saying: If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.

The Vietnamese sprinkle proverbs into everyday conversation – one of the delightful aspects of this novel told from the viewpoint of a North Vietnamese family. The author uses short, simple sentences laced with compelling imagery that vividly captures their suffering and the horrors of war. The grandmother picks up each grain of rice left in the rubble of her destroyed house as if they are jewels. That night the survivors of the bombing share a meal of rice mixed with dirt and blood. Huong, the granddaughter who narrates her grandmother’s stories, learns that the world is indeed unfair, but like her grandmother she must also know how to survive in that unfair world.

The wooden bird is the sign that Huong’s father, a war casualty, sends her to bolster her belief that love and beauty endure despite suffering and separation. This novel reveals how political leaders in nefarious ways propagandize and perpetuate divisions. The Vietnamese grandmother knows not to put faith in those leaders to save and protect her family. She must find means to do that herself. Nguyen Phan Que Mai conveys mankind’s universal desire to love and nurture their families, live in peace, obtain an education, and provide adequately for their physical needs.

The grandmother’s wisdom triumphs in the end. She distills the essence of a life well-lived in these words: But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion. So the grandmother in all cultures speaks to her descendants.

Written in English, The Mountains Sing restores and uplifts, giving light to our shared humanity. If you have not read either a fictional or non-fictional book about Vietnam, start with this novel. It humanizes the history spanning the years 1945-2017.

Visit author’s website

On the Road Again With Don Quixote

To appreciate the manifold forms the novel can take today, the reader should turn to Miguel Cervantes’ novel, Part I and Part II of El Ingenioso Hidalgo de la Mancha. I have returned to it many times, first as a Spanish-language student at Northern Illinois University where I took a semester course dedicated to each part. That was 1965. At age 74, I return to it once again in the English translation by Edith Grossman. A great book continues to offer new delights and insights upon each successive reading. This time my fascination focused on the treatment of the Moors and the theme of playacting in the novel.

Cervantes says that the source of the story of Don Quixote derives from an Arab text written by Cid Hamete Benengeli, which he has translated into Castellan. Why does Cervantes use this subterfuge? Clearly, he has an interest in the Moriscos and Islamic culture. The Moorish presence is felt even then when his book is published in 1609. That year King Phillip III decrees the final expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain. Cervantes includes the stories of Zoraida, the Moorish woman, and of Ricote, Sancho Panza’s Morisco neighbor who is forced into exile. Cervantes witnessed first-hand ethnic cleansing. Although he may recoil at its cruelty, he probably recognizes that it was implemented to prevent collaboration with the Turks threatening the Spanish coast. On the surface, it appears he does not oppose their forced removal but considers it a necessary measure because they are a suspected third column within the country. Yet it is not so simple as Cervantes also writes with compassion for Ricote who is separated from his daughter Ana Felix. Love knows no ethnic bounds for Don Gregorio, a Christian, follows her to North Africa. Certainly, Cervantes’ participation in the Battle of Lepanto and his imprisonment in Algiers must have given him some understanding of different cultures and a greater sensitivity to the commonality of all mankind. Has the Spanish Crown’s pursuit of purity of blood and of religion begun to strike him as an absurdity?

On this reading, the idea occurs to me that Don Quixote could have been playacting all along. If other characters think to play tricks on him, maybe he in the end is the greater trickster, making others believe he is crazy when he really is not. Maybe all along he knows full well he is playing the knight errant for his own amusement. Does the old man sense death approaching and want to inject some adventure and excitement into his quiet, sedate life as a country gentleman? Does he feel his existence dull and the company of his niece and his housekeeper stultifying? Time is short, so he takes to the road in a sort of a last fling. Mad for adventure, he mounts Rocinante and enlists his sidekick Sancho Panza to experience some of the thrill and danger he has only read about in books; in short, to go in search of real life and not the imagined life of books. I wonder if the Duke and Duchess’s pranks fool him. Does he play along with the farce in order to continue his role as knight errant?  He is not deluded yet his pretended delusion requires him to delude Sancho Panza, who is the willing accomplice in the play.

I believe that Cervantes wanted to illustrate that we all suffer from illusions, willingly or unwillingly. We persist in believing what we want to believe. To support those delusions we let others lie to us. We are fools only because we choose to be fools. Love is just another delusion just as foolish an obsession as the pretense of being a knight errant. Thus, all the tales of deluded or foolish lovers appear in the novel. Good intentions, such as Don Quixote’s aim to right wrongs and rescue the distressed go awry.

Sancho Panza assumes a larger role in Part II. In his simplicity, he shows more wisdom than his master, because he soon disavows the governorship that he covets is not the great prize he thought it would be. The burdens of leadership are more troublesome than his humble life as a peasant. He yearns to return to his wife and daughter. At the same time, he is clever and ably plays along with Don Quixote. He successfully concocts a plan to administer the self-flagellation required to free Dulcinea from enchantment by striking under the cover of darkness, tree trunks instead of his buttocks. The sound of the lashes will make Don Quixote believe he has fulfilled his duty.

Both master and squire are given to reciting proverbs. Although Don Quixote admonishes Sancho frequently for the use of inappropriate proverbs, he himself shows the same predilection for proverbs. The dialogue between Sancho and Don Quixote provides some of the funniest parts of the novel. Indeed, the book is as funny as it was the first time I read it, and at some points strikes me more hilarious than I remember. The playful language is more apparent. The digressions to lengthy side stories are not as irritating but the source of newfound parallels and juxtapositions with the main plot. Each encounter with this book is rewarded with a deeper, richer reading.

The old hidalgo goes home to die in his bed, bequeathing his worldly wealth to his comrade in arms Sancho, his niece, and his housekeeper. Don Quixote’s death assures the author that no false sequel to his book can ever be written. In truth, no other novel quite like Don Quixote has ever appeared, although Cervantes paves the way for the novel to develop in multiple forms across Europe and beyond, showing glimmerings too of the emergence of South American magical realism.

Explore my books at Mountain of Dreams Books.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Published in 1966, this novel appears on Modern Library’s and TIME magazine’s list of best books of the twentieth century. I had been attracted by the intriguing title of this novel for years—and being the book sleuth that I am, finally read the book to see if it merits placement on those lists.

Although Rhys had written earlier books, none received the claim this one did. This slim novel of less than 200 pages is packed with meaning. Everyone word counts; everyone line of dialogue is to be chewed over and digested. Rhys outdoes Hemingway both in style and thematic substance. She treats of cultural identity, the impact of environment on character, race relations, slavery, colonialism, gender inequality, and sexuality. In this sexually-charged tropical setting, practitioners of voodoo and black magic lurk in the lush foliage. Rhys creates a haunting, mysterious mood through compact, highly evocative prose in which understatement exerts incredible power.

The setting assumes the stature of a brooding character, first in Jamaica and Martinique then in the English mansion where Antoinette is trapped at the conclusion. The English environment is so dark and oppressive that it can drive someone mad—and it does. One of Rhys’s great accomplishments is to capture in small increments how someone descends into madness. The tropics have a deleterious effect on Rochester, but Antoinette revels in her element on the Caribbean Island, loving the flora and fauna of her birthplace. To Rochester, who comes to the island for a marriage of convenience with Antoinette, the island is alien and incomprehensible. He is sucked into its mystery and loses his bearings as if he were spinning in a gyre. From the start, the reader knows something bad is going to happen, and in the end, it does.

The Sargasso Sea of the title conjures up the gyre, just as ocean currents cause masses of seaweed to collect and swirl in this area of the Atlantic. Myth has it that ships are becalmed and trapped in this floating morass of seaweed, but in actuality no ships have perished in the Sargasso Sea. Rhys used it to suggest the characters spinning through their own gyre of misunderstandings, caught between truth and lies, and unable to relate to anything strange or different.

Rochester is a prisoner of his own time and culture. He lives the double sexual standard of early Victorian England, holding to the model of a subservient wife who is beautiful but without sexual appetites comparable to his libido. When Antoinette exhibits such an appetite, he is repulsed. Legally, he can dispossess her of her property and control all her money. As has been documented, cases exist of husbands in the nineteenth-century gas lighting their too curious wives, and actually having them committed to insane asylums, claiming they were uncontrollably hysterical. Rhys imagines that the Rochester, the lord of the manor in Jane Eyre was not the abused husband actually caused the madness of his wife Bertha, who he confined in the attic.

There are many spin-off books written based on prior novels. They testify to the power of their characters and plots of those earlier novels to capture the imagination of readers and inspire them to invent sequels and prequels. Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’s brilliant prequel to Jane Eyre.More importantly, her purpose in writing it is to depict relations between the races, between the sexes, and between colonizer and the colonized. Implicit in the narrative is the indelible effect that climate and place have upon character. From birth to age sixteen, until she left for England, Rhys lived on the island and absorbed its flavor and culture. In England, she experienced a stark contrast in the temperament of the population, climate, and natural surroundings.

Wide Sargasso Sea deserves a place on a list of novels worth reading. Its themes can be extrapolated to contemporary life. The legacy of slavery and racism persists. The world still deals with the fallout from colonialism. Certain segments of the American population continue to treat people of other races or ethnic groups as not fully human and due equal rights and opportunity under the law.

Maybe many of these themes will escape the reader. Maybe the reader never read Jane Eyre and doesn’t see the genesis from Brontë’s novel. Maybe so, but what the reader will gain from reading this significant book is a masterful creation of mood, an element of fiction that does not always draw a lot of commentary in reviews. The reader’s senses are enveloped by a heady aroma of flowers, a sultry taste, and a pervasive aura of black magic working on the heart and soul.

Explore my books at mountainofdreamsbooks

My Detoxification Program

A toxic environment can pollute the body and soul. In an effort to cleanse my mind and spirit of the American politics of division and deceit, I embarked on a program of spiritual reading at the beginning of this year. I was exhausted, depressed, and oppressed by the lack of humility, commitment to public service, truth, and intellectual honesty. I was appalled at the outright instances of evil that the media daily reported. I craved role models that contributed to the improvement of society and not to their self-aggrandizement.

The older I get, the more the tapes of my mother’s truisms play in my head. Surround yourself with smarter, brighter, and better people than you are. You will be judged by the company you keep. Birds of a feather flock together. When you lie down with pigs, all you get is dirty. During the last six months, I have found good friends in books to help me rise from the mud.

A lot of dirt had seeped into my psyche through my diet of politics-watching. To replace the toxic material, I determined to cleanse my mind with spiritual reading. I began with Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness, which tells how she found a better alternative to political activism through her work in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, moving from communism to Catholicism.

Next, I sought the biography of Thomas More. Enmeshed in the political machinations of the day, he strove to live a virtuous and contemplative life amidst the intrigues of King Henry VIII’s court. He formulated a vision of a better political milieu in his book Utopia, which I read along with Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More.

I looked for twentieth-century figures able to navigate the rise of Nazism and discovered Simone Weil. Her essays suggest no political solutions to the problems of social injustice, war, suffering, and oppression but afford a mystic’s vision that love is the only cure for affliction. She writes: But the only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation, in other words, subjection of the ego. Further, she writes: Politics to me seem a sinister force. She saw the true madness of mankind as the push to power and contended that the emphasis on rights rather than obligations – man’s duty to respect and love his fellow man – was responsible for the crimes of humanity. She was a philosopher who left the halls of academia to work in a French auto factory.

From Weil, I went on to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who in 1933 spoke against Hitler in a radio broadcast, landed in prison, and was executed just as the war was ending in April 1945. He put into practice Christ’s message and paid for his discipleship with his life.

Mother Teresa is the contemporary exemplar of what it means to serve one’s fellow man no matter how unlovable or disease-infested. Her life’s work was to minister to the poorest of the poor, opening homes for the destitute and dying in India and around the world. Her book Come Be My Light collects extracts from her diary chronicling her own sufferings.

I wished to learn about other women mystics through history, so I read Julian Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love. Carol L. Flinders’ book Enduring Grace gave portraits of seven women mystics, including St. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. From reading about these mystics, I delved into Thomas Merton’s poetry. I couldn’t ignore the great Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton and read his Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, amusing myself with a few of his Father Brown detective stories too.

Other books on spirituality await my rereading, such as Mere Christianity and A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. But just picking up a biography that recounts the life of some man or woman who contributed to the improvement of society or the alleviation of the suffering and downtrodden would serve the purpose of healthy spiritual reading.

I’ll end with Simone Weil again because her ideas resonate today. In The Need for Roots, she writes:

A democracy where public life is made up of strife between political parties is incapable of preventing the formation of a party whose avowed aim is the overthrow of democracy.

She argued for the abolition of all political parties because they are essentially totalitarian. Parties replace critical thinking with groupthink; they exert collective passion on their members; and their goal is to increase their own growth and power to the exclusion of other parties.

As a result, I cannot put complete faith in politics as a force to save the world because politics is only as good as the men and women who serve as our nation’s leaders. Unfortunately, we have had a dearth of principled officials and a plethora of unscrupulous ones – and I dare say, evil men in positions of power. I still retain the faith, along with Václev Havel of the Czech Republic, that politics can be a noble profession. Meanwhile, I have accomplished a cleansing of my beleaguered brain through reading that uplifts, inspires, offers hope, and contributes to my psychic peace.

I’ve written a sonnet that voices my resolve to cease denunciation of those who are evil and begin to praise those who are good.

In Praise of Good Women and Men

Sing of those who deserve to be sung of.

For too long the venal have strode the stage,

The shrill spewers of hate, spurners of love.

A psalmbook of praise opens in this age

For hewers of wood and shapers of clay,

The wordsmiths and dabblers in paint,

Thinkers who dared the beliefs of their day

And in thought and deed strove to be more saint

Than sinner ascending above the base,

The grosser instincts that govern the flesh,

At once the seekers and granters of grace.

In them purpose and will perfectly mesh.

Heroes and heroines I conjure near,

Command scoundrels and fools to disappear.

Web Site at

The Fiction of Writer’s Block

The perennial question that successful authors receive at any session they conduct for aspiring writers is: “How do you deal with writer’s block?” The question assumes that they do occasionally experience the phenomenon.

I contend it does not exist. If it does, it is a figment of the imagination. If it does, there are multiple ways to make it not exist at all. There are means to make it ephemeral at best.

If I wake up and after my morning rituals proceed to my desk to begin my routine of writing (the first task on my daily agenda) to realize the well of ideas has run dry, I go for a walk. I carefully observe every item along the way, cracks in the pavement, birds in the sky, junk cars in the driveway, and the oak tree with the tire swing; up, down, and around I observe. I note the drift of the clouds, the jet overhead—bound for where? Who is aboard? The imagination takes flight as it surely should for the writer’s observant eye and mind. I smell the vegetation, the resin oozing from the pine. I touch the blade of grass and bite, tasting its white end. All senses are engaged, the mind intent on the why and wherefore behind the tennis shoe left on the shoulder of the road. The back story emerges.

Settled in my comfortable chair again, I write, describing everything I saw, heard, touched, smelled, and thought on my walk. The details pour out, because so much happened on that walk in the woods, around the neighborhood block, or down that country road. So much happened too that I didn’t see that happened before I arrived on the scene. The past and the future inhabit the shuttered clapboard house I passed.

Next I enter the haunted chamber of memory. I visit the house in which I grew up and search each room, gaze upon each shelf, and fondle my favorite stuffed animal for a moment. In my mother’s china cabinet is an heirloom teapot. I select that object to contemplate longer and then begin to write all that it evokes, everything it means to me, how it touched our family. Maybe I broke the cherished end table lamp and my father glued it together. You can choose anything from your childhood home and construct an elaborate story around it.

Or turn on the news. Write your reaction to the earthquake in Indonesia, famine in the Sudan, or the last school shooting. Write why you hate listening to the news or why you dislike television and why you prefer a good science fiction movie. Write what your life would have been like if you had married your high school sweetheart or the horror it really was because you married the man from Mars.

Responding to prompts is another way to flex your writing muscles. Many books and websites on the craft provide writing prompts. I developed this method in an adult education course I called “Writing Aerobics,” which I taught at a community college. I give the students a seed of an idea—the prompt—for a piece of writing. For instance, I tell them to think of their mother’s favorite bromide such as “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” and write a story or poem around it. I throw out an image such as “the hobbyhorse in the attic” or “the wedding cake on the sidewalk” to use as a jump-start for their imagination.  Playing a piece of instrumental music also provides a good writing exercise. I ask the students to write down everything that comes into their mind and every concrete image the music evokes. New Age, synthetic, or classical are the best kinds of music for this exercise.  I use selections from the Narada collection and David Arkenstone., and South American group Inti Illimani group. The strangeness of the music helps to release imagination.

If all else fails, just start writing anything and everything that pops into your mind—bad, inconsequential, absurd. I guarantee something will catch fire and you will run with your hair all aflame to carry that idea to its magnificent conclusion in an essay, story, or poem. But it doesn’t have to be the Great American Novel. Just keep dreaming; keep imagining.

Explore my books at


Do I Like Hemingway More Now Than When I Was Nineteen?

I decided to read a good sampling of Ernest Hemingway’s writing before watching “Hemingway,” the latest Ken Burns’ documentary. I had read several of his novels and short stories in young adulthood, and his writing then had impressed me as boring, monotonous, and uninspiring, leaving me with the thought, “What’s the point of all the gloom and banality about life and death and the merry-go-round of drinking in French and Spanish cafes? I recall not liking at all The Old Man and the Sea.

At nineteen, I preferred more florid prose, rich with complex sentences and subordinate clauses, an interesting latticework of interconnected ideas, the type of composition the good Catholic nuns taught me. Hemingway’s simple declarative sentences mixed with his long stream of them compounded by “and,” sounded flat in my ear. I needed more imagination and age perhaps to fill in the gaps.

During the past few weeks, I read his first novels–The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Of the three, I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls best because it gives more of a back story on Robert Jordan and the characters such as Pilar, Maria, and Pedro are more fully drawn. He goes beyond the simple declarative “iceberg” style of the first two books. There’s more description of setting, another of my preferences. I acknowledge the poignant tragedies of the plots. I don’t find the romance between Maria and Robert ridiculous as does Mario Vargas Llosa in the Burns’ documentary. Maria is emotionally wounded and the tender sexual encounter with Robert is her path to healing after a brutal rape. When I first read Hemingway, I had never been in love, never married, had never been emotionally scarred–so of course I had difficulty responding to the unstated, the nuances, of his portrayal of male-female relationships.

I also read A Moveable Feast and twenty-six of his short stories. His style achieved greatness in the short story, but I find it ill-suited for the expansiveness of the classical form of the novel. When it comes to novels, there are many greater novelists in English and other languages, partly because he restricts himself to one main theme–the inevitability of death and the need to confront it as a man. Maybe as a woman, his manly pounding of the hairy chest, is what wearies me so about Hemingway. “Give me a break,” I want to cry.

In my late forties, I had the experience of hunting, of shooting a deer for food. I realized then that I am a carnivorous animal too–preying on other animals. Yet even so, I have a hard time relating to Hemingway’s glee in killing a beautiful lion or African buffalo. His list of animals killed on his safari was revolting. Like Hemingway, I have enjoyed fishing, the thrill of reeling in that big one, and dining on trout and tuna. His African stories are as much about killing animals as they are about hurting, in countless ways the woman or man in your life. His mastery of complexity in simplicity assures his stature in American literature. I agree with my many critics that “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are probably his finest stories. In 1954, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for The Old Man and the Sea, an extended short story or novella, rather than for a novel. The critics bashed the later novels.

The biography of the man is more interesting to me than his writing, and the Ken Burns’ documentary makes this point also. Hemingway created an oversized image of himself, and eventually he could not separate myth from reality. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the dying American hunter Harry thinks: “It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.”

Hemingway said he always searched for one true sentence. In this passage he states the truth about himself. His life was always about seeking the next adventure.  The next adventure always kept him from killing himself and gave him something to write about. With alcoholism aggravating underlying manic depression, he had to kill himself in 1961 because he could not write anymore.

Is Hemingway’s writing the stuff of greatness, of genius? I don’t know. I think it is a tragic personal story. A final eulogy may be that Hemingway brought the reporter’s style guidelines of The Kansas City Star to full flowering in twentieth-century fiction.

Explore my books at Mountain of Dreams Books


New Website Mountain of Dreams Books

Two writers living in the same house? Is that even possible? The answer is yes! Star Meadow, a place in the mountains of northwestern Montana where I and my husband Rod Rogers create our fictional worlds. Surrounded by the Flathead National Forest, I send these blog posts into the world. Please explore our enchanted forest of books to satisfy diverse reading tastes at

Why I Write

I thought an artist’s statement was something graphic artists composed and posted at an exhibition of their work in a gallery, so when my sister-in-law, who is carrying my books in her gift shop, requested that I write such a statement, I was at first perplexed. I certainly could write a biographical note, but an author’s statement in the manner of a painter or sculptor, confounded me.

But I began to ponder why I write. After mulling over the question for the next several weeks, I formulated my answers and writing philosophy. It was not difficult to do when I considered where my impulse to write began and what I hoped to achieve by pursuit of the art. Here are my reasons for the urge and why I can’t purge it from my soul:

I write to reflect upon my life, events, and the cultural climate around me. It is an effort at making sense out of human experience in all of its manifestations either in history, in contemporary society, in other people’s lives, or in my own experience. What I write must have spiritual value. I want it to broaden the reader’s perspective and uplift in some meaningful fashion. I do not write to entertain. If my writing entertains, it is a side benefit. I write to gain knowledge. Through research and probing into my subjects, I work to know intimately my characters and to express that each human life has meaning.

Art is a way of giving form to emotions and thoughts in a pleasing form. In that, the art object has intrinsic value. In the creative act, the artist imitates the divine act of creation of the universe, because the artist pours all her love into making something beautiful and pleasing to herself. The urge to create manifests the divine in human nature. As such, art assumes a religious aspect.What form, then, does my creative impulse take? The two currents that run strongly through my writings are an interest in history and in human motivation. How are we inheritors of what has come before us? How do we transcend our origins? How does what happened before influence who we are today? Psychological exploration plays an integral part in my writing process.

Beyond these concerns, I enjoy shaping language and playing with the multiple meanings a single word may carry. I am interested in metaphor and symbol. The human brain searches for signs and symbol in the environment. Language, the peculiar ability of the human animal, is symbolic and the ultimate tool for expression. I strive to embody ideas and emotions in the most pleasing linguistic shape. This propensity leads me to prefer poetry. Of the various genres or forms of literary expression, poetry strikes me as the highest, the most quintessential realization of language because of its compactness, concision, and sound effects. These elements combine to create the purest and most beautiful verbal art form.

I started as a teenager with writing poetry—a typical progression of many prose writers. I derive more personal satisfaction from crafting a well-wrought line of poetry than composing a prose paragraph. Little becomes more in poetry. I see the best prose carrying poetical traits such as parallel structure, alliterative passages, symmetry, cadence, and grace. After writing twelve novels, I don’t care if I ever write another one, but I do care to write some good poems before I die. I may be done writing novels, but I will never be done writing poetry.