Trumpery: Building Vocabulary with Wilkie Collins

The surest way to permanently limit your vocabulary is to never look up an unfamiliar word. Limiting your reading to contemporary news articles or popular books written at the fifth-grade vocabulary level is another way. Fortunately, I have loved reading Victorian novels since I was in seventh grade. At that tender age I had no patience in pausing to look up a strange word in the dictionary, preferring to glean meaning from the context for the sake of getting on with the story. With a Kindle e-reader all I need do is place the cursor before the unfamiliar word, and presto, the built-in dictionary calls up the definition.

Needless to say, Victorian novels are not written at the fifth grade level. They are a trove of new additions to my vocabulary and some archaisms that could be restored to common usage. I stumbled upon Wilkie Collins after watching a PBS broadcast of the BBC production of The Lady in White, his 1860 novel. Although I had heard of this novelist, contemporaneous with Charles Dickens, I had never read any of his books. I picked up his 1868 novel The Moonstone and could not put it down. It is a delightful whodunit that strikes me as obvious precursor to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Quirky characters like Gabriel Betteredge, who reads Robinson Crusoe as his Bible, and Drusilla Clack whose inveterate Christian proselytization and distribution of religious tracts add a layer of humor to the mystery that unfolds around a stolen diamond bequeathed to the lovely Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. Love interest, opium addiction, suicide, and class distinctions complicate the plot.

But on to my main thesis of vocabulary development through the reading of richly-textured Victorian novels. Numerous times throughout The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins uses the word trumpery. Here is  the definition from the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary:

n., pl. -ries 1. something without use or value. 2. nonsense; twaddle. 3. Archaic. worthless finery, —adj. 4. of little or no value; worthless, rubbishy. [1425-75; late ME trompery deceit < MF tromperie = tromp(er) to deceive (MF: to trifle, play with. orig. to play the trumpet; see TRUMP) + erie -ery)

As can be imagined, my mind quickly leaps to the trumpery on full display on the world stage and written across the headlines of newspapers and magazines at home and abroad. Of course, the infamous Trump family! The German immigrant Friedrich Trumpf (variant Drumpf) who listed his name on the 1910 US census record as Fred Trump had no inkling what future significance that change in the spelling of his surname would have. His grandson is now the quintessential example of trumpery in operation, speaking nonsense and twaddle, a person of little or no value in promotion of the welfare of his countrymen or the international reputation of the United States. He blows his own horn all the time, trumpeting his vainglorious delusions. All wind–just like a blowhard, an incorrigible windbag. Everything that issues from his mouth is useless and valueless. Trump is the trumpeter, trumpeting out trumpery for all to see and hear. He has caused the coinage of a new word–trumpism. This is the practice, the attitude, or the mindset to willingly accept lies as truth and to deny facts and scientific evidence in order to cling to unfounded opinions for emotional rather than rational or logical reasons. It is also the preference for and the tolerance for listening to incoherent babble–the twisted syntax and repetitious, low-level vocabulary of an ignorant man–rather than the desire to be uplifted and inspired by oratorical eloquence.

It is not surprising then that I am not going to listen to the trumpery to be broadcast tonight from the US Congress–the State of the Union Address. My time is more productively spent reading my next Victorian novel.



1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich

Nothing is more delectable than a 948-page book about books for a voracious bookworm. In his introduction James Mustich states that there is nothing comprehensive or authoritative about his list; in fact, he invites debate about his choices and his omissions. What can be said about his selection of 1000 books is that his list encompasses a spectrum from classical to contemporary authors that covers a wide range of genres including memorable children’s literature and is evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction. Mustich seems to have an affinity for the memoir, selecting many forgotten gems from that category. He does not neglect mysteries, science fiction, biography, nature, or travel books. The entries appear alphabetically by author’s name or by title if unattributed. A miscellany of special lists at the back of the book organizes the selections under such intriguing categories as: Read in One Sitting, LOL, Cities in Fact and Fiction, Offbeat Escapes, Novel Pleasures, Soul Food (to name just a few). Actually, there are more that 1000 references, because after each featured book he recommends similar books for further reading. In addition, he footnotes other notable works by the same writer. The general index includes every author and title either featured or footnoted. Reading his short essays on authors and their books is a pleasure in itself, possibly as delightful as reading the books he describes. He has a way of capturing the essence of the work, imparting his fascination with it, and providing more than one reason for reading that particular book. There is something for every reader’s taste in this mammoth compendium of worthwhile reading.

This book is a feast for the bibliophile. A younger bookworm might attempt the audacious task of reading all the books. At my advanced age, as I read through the delightful entries discovering books I had never heard of and enthusiastically reading what he had to say about books I had already read and loved, I compiled two lists: “To Read” and “To Re-Read.”  The books on my re-read list were selected because I had first read them when I was very young, and in retrospect, I do not think I appreciated them fully. Mustich’s commentaries made me feel I should give them another shot.

As a bookseller and a reviewer of both old and new books for the mail-order catalogue A Common Reader, Mustich is highly qualified to compile a list of 1000 books to read before you die. This book was more than ten years in the making and represents a life-time surrounded by books. After I heard Mustich talk about his list in a television interview, I knew his book was the one book I needed to buy next. Cozied up in the recliner, I have passed hours on end sampling this or that entry.  Mustich’s descriptions of books that he has enjoyed beg for re-reading for the sheer artistry of his graceful and fluid prose. His enthusiasms are contagious.  Mustich has written a resource for every book club looking for its next month’s selection.  It definitely has served as an invaluable guide to the creation of my own two lists for the rest of my reading life, particularly because I am predisposed now to read more of the enduring books of the past than to grab the latest best-seller off the shelf. Countless other readers have found those tried and true books illuminating; consequently, they have the potential of furnishing the greatest rewards.

Literary Ghost at My Table

During interviews prominent authors are often asked what dead writers would they invite to a dinner party at their house. If I were to be the hostess at a gathering of literary greats, the one notable guest I would want at my table is Walt Whitman. I would seat him at the head of the table.

I would interview him. He would do all the talking and I would do most of the listening as he responded to my main question: What do you think of America at the end of the year 2018?

I can only conjecture his responses and that would be an interesting exercise. Based on my re-reading of what is called his 1892 deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, I can speculate on what he would say. His thoughts on the state of the Union are particularly pertinent in the light of current events because he viewed himself as the quintessential unifier, the universal androgynous man, who heralded the promise of greater and greater democratic vistas. He sang the vigor and vibrancy of a nation stretching from sea to shining sea. He sang the virtues and the dignity of the common laborer, the builder and the shaper, of the future. He encompassed the vast panoply of Americans in his song of himself. Unity in diversity was his anthem.

Would his eternal optimism prevail in our tabletop talk? How would he see the current occupant of the White House contrasted with the serious Illinois rail splitter who could also laugh at himself–the man in the stovepipe hat who visited the troops at Antietam and the wounded in war hospitals?

“Mr. Whitman, will democratic institutions survive the assault on the rule of law and the freedom of the press?” I ask.

“Call me, Walt,” he says. His face is somber and sad like Honest Abe’s at Gettysburg. Walt’s old lips begin to move. “The man I loved said once: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time.'” He pauses and continues, his eyes assuming a hopeful glint. “Some of the people were bamboozled into thinking a fool could rule well.  The attacks on democracy like the secessionists’ attack on the Union cannot last, because the tide of history is not on the side of division. The reserves of sense and sensibility will yet arise from the depth of the American spirit to remove a despot and demand justice for all. It is our history; it is inexorable despite shipwrecks and drownings in our course. The alarums have sounded; there are those hurtling toward the breach to rescue democracy. I cheer them on; I yet sing them on to victory. They are brawny and brave, muscled and sinewed for the task. They have built our bridges, paved our roads, erected a great city on the Hudson, on the Potomac, along the Mississippi from Minnesota to New Orleans. They toiled in the blast furnaces of Pennsylvania; they have mined the coal in West Virginia; they have launched the rockets from Cape Kennedy, which I was not alive to watch but viewed from my perch above it all. Take heart, lift up your spirit, for there remain reserves of energy yet in this America I hear singing.”

“Then this is a temporary setback?” I say.

“Despots are not loved. Despots eventually are brought down by their own fatal flaws. Time and again we have seen this. So shall it be ever. Lies are snares that entrap the tellers. This I believe; this I proclaim, and so should you also. Look to the noiseless patient spider to learn that the web’s gossamer threads of the soul will extend and hold. The interconnections among all species, all climes, all ethnicities, all ranks and files, will be recognized. I found the common ground and so shall this generation. I endured four bloody years, tending the amputees and shell-shocked, wounded myself in soul, but through the turmoil and the sorrow, the nation was renewed and lived to flourish. The tide comes in; the tide goes on; on Paumanok Island I watched it roll. That is the way of the world; that is the assurance of survival, of life everlasting in the cradle of time. As it was then, so shall it be now. The nation will endure.”

“That is a hopeful message amid all the chaos,” I say.

“I saw chaos once too, and it departed, the shattered fragments reconstituting into a more perfect union–not perfect–more perfect, I repeat myself, and if I do, so shall it ever be. Endless cycles moving toward perfectibility. When all around is destruction, hold fast to the floating plank of hope. Thus spoke that lanky, dark-suited figure in his second inaugural address: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’  As we approach the year 2019, the task facing the nation 126 years after my body gave up my spirit to the ages is still to bind up wounds and unite our diverse population in the chant of freedom. Here again in this prosperous and bountiful land, we must rededicate ourselves, one and all, to the revivification and extension of democracy.”

I pass a serving plate to my guest, “Help yourself to more turkey, Walt.”

He chuckles. “You forget. I need no more food for the body.”

Then I thank my dinner guest for offering me his food for the soul. “Please come again, Walt,” I say.

“I shall. All you have to do is summon me. You will find me under your feet and in the blade of grass. I am here.”

The vision of his bearded face vanishes from the head of the table and I am left in peace, holding his volume of poems between my hands.

The Magic Mountain: A Novel for All Seasons

Over the last three months I have read this book through twice studying its multifarious meanings in the beautifully-wrought translation from the German by John Woods. The title was familiar to me, as it is frequently mentioned as essential to the western literary canon. My conscience pricked me when I realized, as a septuagenarian and a literature major, I was guilty of never having read Thomas Mann’s novel, hailed as the most influential work of twentieth century German literature. The Magic Mountain was first published in 1924. Mann received the Nobel Prize in 1929. It is a hefty tome that demands mulling over dense passages laden with symbolic and philosophic portent. The sense of humor that Mann injects into weighty themes is delightful, if at sometimes macabre.

What is magical about this mountain? That is the question that constantly ran through my mind as I read. The mountain is magical because time is obliterated there. The mountain air has a transformative and soporific impact on Hans Castorp, who visits his cousin in the Berghof sanatorium located in the Alps and lingers there for seven years. Is it the seven-storey mountain of legend? What wisdom does Castorp gain from his long stay? Questions like these bombarded my consciousness and persist.

The Berghof is populated with patients from around the world. In a microcosm of Europe it seethes with bizarre characters sick in mind and in body. The two doctors who head the sanatorium are as peculiar as the people they treat. The rivalries, the division of the tables into ethnic groups, the disputes, and rampant nationalism mirror Europe on the brink of the Great War. The stiffness, intellectualism, and militarism of the German national ethos receive special treatment in the twin characters of Hans Castorp the engineer and Joachim Ziemssen the military man. The disputatious philosophers–Settembrini the Italian and Naptha the Austrian Jew and converted Jesuit–represent another dichotomy. They fight for Hans’s soul, but he eludes being trapped by any one ideology. In miniature the seesaw relationship between life and death, between love and hatred, are enacted. With the outbreak of World War I, Hans can no longer retreat from the forces infecting Europe just as he could not escape being infected by the languorous isolation on the mountaintop. He joins the soldiers in the trenches. The open-ended conclusion, a graphic depiction of combat, leaves us to guess whether Hans dies on the battlefield or survives.

It is singularly propitious that I am reading this particular novel in light of events on the American scene and at the exact moment of the centennial marking the end of World War I. The day I write this is Veterans’ Day, originally celebrated as Armistice Day. The illness, a tubercular disease borne on the air, known as nationalism has re-infected the political environment at home and abroad. The cure is not to be found on a mountaintop, although it is appealing to flee from the flatlands of contention and political involvement. Relevancies to contemporary events pop up from chapter to chapter. Relevant to me personally is the fact that I live in a mountain retreat, presumably immune to civilization’s contagion. Here I have sought healing, peace, the solitude to contemplate and to meditate, to study and to read–I am a simulacrum of Hans Castorp.

The novel is divided into seven numbered sections and these sections are further separated into titled subsections. In the subsection “A Good Soldier,” the last one of section 6, Settembrini and Naptha engage in one of their long debates.  Settembrini’s statements in this passage remain the most memorable and relevant today for me:

For the man who loves his fellow man, there can be no distinction between what is political and what is not. The apolitical does not exist–everything is politics . . . .The social problem, the problem of human coexistence is politics, is politics through and through, nothing but politics. And the man who consecrates himself to it–and he who withdraws from that sacred task does not deserve the name of man–belongs to politics, foreign and domestic. He understands the craft of Freemason is the art of governance. (p.505-6)

The practice of any art requires dedication, education, experience, persistence, and character. When politics is viewed as an art, national leaders will appear again who practice politics as the noble profession it can be again.

A vocal opponent of Nazism, Thomas Mann emigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1944. Yes, he was one of those immigrants–targets of fear mongers today– who taught at Princeton University and who lived in Los Angeles until 1952. The Magic Mountain unavoidably reflects the political climate of the times. In this regard, for great writers the apolitical does not exist.

Happy Endings

I find myself curiously in need of stories with happy endings. Not the ones that end with “they lived happily ever after” in saccharine fairy tale fashion along the lines of the scullery maid marrying the handsome prince. I’m thinking of the kind that does offer hope, that enlightens, or inspires in a regenerative way.

Typical plot resolutions include:

  • The main character changes for the good through achievement of some self-awareness or improved fortunes.
  • The main character stays the same and the status quo is preserved. (At least he doesn’t kill himself but lives unhappily ever after.
  • The main character dies either of unnatural or natural causes.
  • The author affords an ambiguous or open-ended conclusion, meaning the reader guesses at the character’s fate. I like to call this the stalemate ending.

There may be other types of endings, or variants of these basic models. In any event, no others come to my mind. The benefit of an open-ended conclusion of a story is that it leaves room to write a sequel.  Or another author decades later can seize the opportunity to write a novel-length epilogue for that story. In this day and age, I prefer the happy first alternative. I crave to see the characters experience some light at the end of the tunnel and emerge into the sunshine. Oh, well, Pollyanna me!

My burning need for happy endings perhaps arises from the wish to believe that most people do learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are correctable. The question is how many mistakes does an individual have to make before he corrects course. The story of a bumbling idiot who never learns from his mistakes would veer toward a comedy. However, I am not in the mood for a lot of slapstick laughs nowadays. I am too chapfallen at the reality of a buffoon elected to high office in the United States. Consequently, my optimistic hope persists that a portion of the American electorate will learn from that mistake.

Disregarding the reason on the national scene to wish for a happy ending, there are other reasons to esteem happy endings in fiction. They nourish the soul; they lighten the load; they brighten our path when in our personal life we feel too dismayed and disheartened to cling to the hope that ultimately even evil can work for the greater good of the individual soul and the world soul. In times like this, I cannot feed on distress and disaster. I have to gorge on stories of courage and endurance. I want stories in which truth prevails over lies. I crave to read of spiritual growth and self-awareness triumphing over vice and ignorance.  This is not entirely fantasyland, for in natural disasters people do rise to the occasion to help their neighbors, acting more courageously and unselfishly than they ever had before. In dark times I need to be uplifted and inspired, so I must turn to writers who hold up a beacon, ones that restore my belief that nobility still resides in human nature, that illustrates that a man has a spark of the divine as well as of Mephistopheles.

If it is true people do choose what they want to believe, then concomitantly they choose to read what supports those predispositions to believe this or that. However, with self-reflection they can also achieve some self-awareness to realize that they are catering to their inherent prejudices and then choose to exercise more dispassion. A core disposition I have is that we possess an internal autopilot that signals us to change course when we realize we have made a mistake. Those who choose to ignore the warning and stay on the same course will have an unhappy ending. Those who heed the flashing red light choose to have a happy ending.


Literature as Religion

Harold Bloom uses the religious symbolism of the Kabbalah to link literature to the spiritual impulse. He views the nature of writing as a religious pursuit through which the writer delves into his own consciousness. In turn, the writing produced expands the consciousness of readers. In seeking enduring truths about the nature of humanity, the writer identifies the divine in mankind. Often founded upon prophetic visions, religions aspire to uplift and sanctify. Similarly, literature aims to enlighten, using flights of imagination to illuminate. Bloom groups the authors he discusses in his book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds, 2002, under the ten divine attributes, the genius of God, illustrated by rays of light both emanating and remaining within the divine center.

Furthermore, Bloom claims that writers are gnostics and that literature is the practice of gnosticism.  Bloom writes that “gnosticism has been indistinguishable from imaginative genius.” He contends that gnosticism is the religion of literature. It frees the creative mind from any theology except its creative self and the unquenchable thirst for knowing. Gnostics are intoxicated with creative consciousness. Gnosticism is the search for knowledge about the human condition and the revelation of the divine spark that animates creation. The act of creation is the primal force that religions attribute to the Godhead. To create, then, is to partake of the divine.

It can very well be said that the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom has pursued in his eight-seven years the study of literature as passionately as any theologian.  The correlation of literature and religion carries merit. As I became less and less dogmatic about religion and my attachment to the ultimate veracity of any particular faith, literature did assume the stature of theology in my mind. I pursued writing and reading as devotedly as Paul followed Christ. I accepted the credo that reading widely and expansively in the classics and the accepted canon of the world’s literature broadens vision, builds a life with greater meaning, and creates a sense of kinship with people of different races, nationalities, cultures, and epochs. It enlarges the spiritual capacity for sympathetic understanding. It makes possible forgiveness of our own and others’ limitations and errors. What could be more spiritual? What could provide more amplitude for the soul to grow than the bountiful garden of the world’s literature?

When Adam and Eve ate of the apple, the fruit of the Tree of Good and Knowledge, it metaphorically portrayed man’s desire to partake of divine attributes. In the Kabbalah, the Sefirot are depicted as tree branches representing the ten divine traits, which are in constant motion. Bloom lists the Sefirot as: Keter, crown; Hokmah, wisdom; Binah, intellect in a recipient mode; Hesod, love; Din, strict judgment; Tefiret, beauty; sefirah, God’s victory or endurance; Hod, splendor of prophetic force; Yesod, foundation or a fathering force; Malkhut, female radiance of God.  In Bloom’s estimation, great art induces greater consciousness or knowledge of nature. He states the use of literature is to “augment awareness.” The measure of art is the degree to which it accomplishes this goal. According to Bloom, great literature must go beyond entertainment. If it stops at entertainment, it is not genius. This strikes me as harkening back to Horace’s dictum that art should both delight and instruct. Bloom would agree, but he elucidates it further, asserting that the greatest art is that which also expands to the greatest extend the reader’s consciousness.


CD Recordings

Readers can now obtain CDs of my reading from my poetry books. Following is a list of the CDs:

  • Women at the Well. Selected poems. Eve, Cain’s Wife, Rachel, Leah, Zipporah, Miriam, Delilah, Queen of Sheba, Judith (Old Testament Women); Anne, Elizabeth, Sisters of Yeshua, Mary Magdalene, Sinful Woman of Capernaum, The Woman at the Well, Judas’s Mother, Lydia (New Testament Women)
  • Novenas for Grandmother. Entire collection. Grandmother Attends Grammar School, Grandmother Boards the Princess Alice, Grandmother Hears the Wolves, Grandmother Poses as a Cowgirl, Grandmother Tends the Grocery Store, Grandmother Takes English Lessons, Grandmother Kneads the Bread, Grandmother, Plants a Garden, Grandmother Attends Mass at St. Constance, Grandmother Buries her Husband, Grandmother Warns Alice Don’t Marry Him, Grandmother Visits Poland, Grandmother Babysits, Grandmother Remarries, Grandmother Goes to the Hospital, Grandmother’s Ghost Visits Me
  • Playground. Selected poems. Preface-Before the Subdivision, The Best Toy, Bat and Ball, Ben Franklin Store, Coloring, Dandelion Necklace, Exploring the Creek, Jigsaw Puzzle, Jump Rope, Lightning Bugs, Old Horses, Paper Dolls, Picking Fallen Pears, Reading in the Tree, Running in the Rain, Snow Creations, Statue Maker, Swinging, Wax Paper Music
  • Please Trespass Here. Selected poems. Afghan Beauty, After the Forest Fire, Bookworm, Brueghel Countryside, Cairn on the Trail, I Hear Walt Whitman Singing, Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom, In Heaven There Are No Books, Julius Caesar Returns from the Dead, Loss Like a River, Morning, Pieman in the Sky, Revisiting Brothers Karamazov, Running Eagle Falls, The Weeds of Revenge, Winter Fog, Tin Soldier Shop, Rise Up, Running On
  • Still Unrepentant. Selected Poems. Incorrigible, Penmanship, The Roads Mistaken, Forest Walk, Pack Rat, Tooth and Claw, Green Folding Chair, Connection, After All These Years Still My Brown Cow, Once Upon a time in College, Dogs, Cruise Ship, Vision Quest, When the Countdown Began, What to Leave, Morning Routine, Choose Illusions, To Mourn 20 Children Slain, History Repeats Itself, Mint Tea, Sonnets 14 & 15
  • Be Thou a Man: A Poetic Tribute to Saul Alinsky. Entire collection. Coming to America, Boyhood: West Side and West Coast, University of Chicago Years, The Criminologist, Back-of-the-Yards, Decade of the Forties, Decade of the Fifties, Decade of the Sixties, Incomplete Decade: Last Three Years, Missive from the Underworld
  • Al-Andalus. Two Discs. Entire collection. Disc One – Cide Hamete Benengeli, Juan of Segovia, Iza de Jabir, Isabella, the Queen, Boabdil’s Muwashshah, Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros, Alhambra Muwashshah, Alonso de Castillo, Mancebo de Arevalo, Mora of Ubeda, Tale of Carcayona, Charles V at Prayer, Philip II at Prayer, Francisco Nunez Muley, Farax Aben Farax, El Zaguer or Aben Jauher, Aben Humeya, Zambra Dancer’s Muwashshah. Disc Two -Zarcamodonia Morisca Warrior, Galera Muwashshah, Ignacio de las Casas, Morisco Scribe, Pedro Zagri, Beatriz de Padilla, Maria de la Luna, Philip III at Play, Margaret of Austria, Morisca Mother on the Dock, Gardener for the Duke, Ricote’s Muwashshah, Ana Felix’s Muwashshah, Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra
  • Land of the Four Quarters: A Poetic History of the Incas. Indian Woman Weaving, Quipuscamayo: Incan Account Keeper, The Stonecutter, Mamacona: Tour of the Temple, Huascar, Atahualpa, Virgin of the Sun, Francisco Huaman or the Falcon, Asarpay, The High Priest at the Stake, Indian Child Views the Conquest, Paullu Pizarro’s Puppet, Manco Inca, Cura Ocllo, Don Martin on his Deathbed, Manservant to the Priest, Tupac Amaru, Machu Picchu

To order email

Price: $3/per CD plus cost of mailing.

Another CD is forthcoming of selected poems from my eclectic anthology Geography of My Bones, first published in 2004 by Helm Publishing. This volume, which includes over 300 poems, represents the body of my work up to that time.