Thursday, May 25, 2017

Oscar Wilde in Kansas?

Oscar Wilde
Can you picture Oscar Wilde scheduling a speaking tour in Kansas?  Yet, in 1882 he arrived!  This week's blog owes a debt to Charles Harmon Cagle, whose full article can be found at www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1981winter_cagle.pdf.  I have supplemented research found in Cagle's article with some of Wilde's quotes that I thought you would enjoy.

"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying."  

The population of Kansas rural areas has dwindled since the time of Isaac Werner and smaller cities have shrunk, leaving emptier rural landscapes and a few larger cities.  However, in the 1880s great curiosity about the "wide open spaces" attracted foreign visitors.  Even small cities built opera houses that accommodated performances of all sorts.  In 1882 the famous English writer and lecturer Oscar Wilde came to Kansas.  Not everyone was impressed.

Pessimist:  One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.

Oscar Wilde spent only five days in Kansas, arriving in Leavenworth on April 19, 1882, and departing following his final lecture in Atchinson on April 24.  The opinion of the reviewer in Leavenworth was immediately apparent from the headline:  "His Lecture Falls Flat."   The reviewer of another Leavenworth paper briefly described the lecture:  "The famous aesthete, Oscar Wilde, who lectured to and bored such a small audience ..."

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious."

After traveling to Topeka, Wilde was interviewed by a more sympathetic reporter, who wrote:  "Mr. Wilde has a handsome soft womanish face, around which his long wavy hair fell in the finest decorative art.  He is a very pleasant conversationalist, has a wonderful command of words, and expresses himself in a very clear lucid manner, much contrasted with the soulful utterances of his burlesquers."  However, as for the lecture, he called it, "...an unrelieved waste of words, words, words; like a great desert of sand with the edges all around touching the sky and no green thing in sight."

"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

In Lawrence the reaction was not hateful but clearly tepid, describing Wilde's delivery as a "...not disagreeable sing-song, perhaps what an aesthete would call rhythm."  The Atchinson newspaper, however, held nothing back, reprinting a Kansas City paper's description of "...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound, and trash, signifying nothing."  But adding, "People will, of course, continue to go to see him as they do to view sideshow curiosities and monstrosities."

"Those who find ugly meaning in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault."

A different Atchinson reporter suggested:  "Mr. Wilde should dress like a gentleman, cut his hair, learn to speak plain, stop calling everything 'lovely' and 'joyous,' or 'stoopid' and 'dreadful,' and so convince the world of the existence of the good stuff there really is in him, buried beneath a heavy weight of idle affection."

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

So, who was this Englishman that got such treatment?  Born in 1854, a decade after Isaac Werner, Wilde was a writer of great variety--novels, essays, plays, and poetry; however, he may be best remembered for his unorthodox dress and his clever commentary, as are indicated by the photograph and quotes scattered throughout this blog.  At a young age he became a spokesman for aestheticism, and even in college he attracted attention by decorating his room with peacock feathers, sunflowers (which became a symbol for aestheticism), and blue China.  Mocked as that era's equivalent of a "sissy," he surprised four fellow students who physically attacked him by defending himself effectively.

"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Wilde's trip to Kansas was only part of an American lecture tour which began in January of 1882.  His lectures were received more warmly in places other than Kansas, and the originally scheduled four months were extended to nearly a year.  His flamboyant appearance and his literary successes, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, are part of his enduring fame, but also the scandal of his personal life, which lead to imprisoment for two years 1895-1897, is part of his reputation.  

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."

After leaving prison he made his home in France, where he died in 1900.  He is buried outside Paris, having died of cerebral meningitis which may have been traceable back to the incredibly harsh treatment he suffered at Pentonville Prison.

"Memory...is the diary that we all carry about with us."

Isaac Werner must  have known of Oscar Wilde, although none of his books were mentioned among Isaac's library.

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."  

Isaac Werner believed in education, just as I do, but it is sadly true that we do seem compelled to learn some hard lessons for ourselves that past generations would have been all too glad to have taught us, had we only  been willing to learn from both their wisdom and their mistakes.

"Always forgive your enemies--nothing annoys them so much."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Books in Our Lives

Jefferson:  "I cannot live without books."
When I did the series on favorite children's books and ask readers of the blog to share the favorites from their childhoods, I was inundated with so many replies that it took several blogs to share all of your favorites.  Last week, I invited readers to share their favorite adult book titles, and only a few of you replied.  Since I know that so many of you were eager readers as children, and because educators believe forming the habit of reading in childhood will develop active adult readers, I expected to be inundated with adult book titles.  I'm disappointed, but I did receive some great replies!  

One of my foreign followers  loves reading history, so he began by admitting that he doesn't read much fiction.  However, he does like John le Carre (1931-    ) spy novels and named The Night Manager as his favorite.  He also enjoys Westerns, naming Ernest Haycox  (1899-1950) and, especially, Jack Schaefer (1907-1991) as favorites.  He warned against trying to take the easy way out by seeing movies based their books--pale imitations, in his opinion!

Edward Bellamy
I have another friend who enjoys mysteries and travel books, neither of which appeal to me.  She has shared some wonderful suggestions outside those genres that I have loved.   Our friendship really took root when we discovered we both had read The House by Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (1903-1987).

Two people responded to my call for favorite adult books by telling me we share a favorite.  LS chose To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1926-2016), which I think every aspiring lawyer should read.

SGR agrees with me about East of Eden being our favorite among John Steinbeck's novels.  She is a voracious reader and declined naming a specific favorite among all the books she loves.  However, she did share a favorite from  among books recently read, and her recommendation came with three reviews and an interview of the author as attachments.  Yes, she has tempted me to read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (1964-    ).

Life is too short to read all of the books I'd like to read, so I enjoy recommendations from friends who are readers.  Recently, JD recommended The Sympathizer, which I mentioned in last week's blog.  I would never have read it without his recommendation, and I'm so glad that I did.  In turn, I recommended All the Light We Cannot See, and he tells me he enjoyed it.

I do believe what we read shapes who we are, and for that reason I find no pleasure reading books that are no more than a way to pass the time.  Researching my manuscript about Isaac Werner, I felt that I came to know him from the books he chose to read.  He also led me to books being read during the populist movement, so that I came to understand what inspired and shaped working class people of that time.  Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1850-1898) was so popular that Bellamy Clubs, whose members sought to implement some of his futuristic ideas, were formed around the world.  Mark Twain (1835-1910) is still popular today.  Other books that he owned are no longer read, but I appreciated the immersion into that era that reading those books gave me.

Thanks to those of you who shared "the books in your lives!"

Thursday, May 11, 2017

What and How We Read

Steinbeck Home and Restaurant
Recently a friend we met on the John Steinbeck Retreat forwarded news that Steinbeck's childhood home, which had been operated as a lunch-time restaurant by volunteers (with a professional chef and helper in the kitchen) was closing because of inadequate funds to sustain its operation.   The day our group ate there, all of the tables were filled; however, that included 24 of us.  My husband and I ate there when we visited Steinbeck Country several years ago.  It is a wonderful part of the Steinbeck experience, and it would be a shame for it to close.

Mural across from Steinbeck Center
I suppose I am not a typical reader.  I have mentioned my Millennium Reading List, which I compiled at the turn of the century, consulting the lists of great books several publications printed at that time, supplemented with titles from other sources.  My intention to select 100 Great Books quickly expanded beyond the 1900s and grew to more that twice the intended number, and it continues to grow faster than I can keep up, encompassing both fiction and nonfiction.  My attitude is that life is too short to read everything, so why waste time reading junk!

Not all my favorite authors are dead.  I have a shelf of David McCullough histories, and I am a fan of Barbara Kingsolver.  I do read Best Sellers, but usually months after they were on the Best Seller lists, and only if reviewers (professional and friends) that I respect have recommended them.  It sometimes seems that each book I read leads me to more--by the same author, on the same subject, or to learn more about the history of the period described in the book.

Steinbeck Center
Those of you who regularly follow this blog know that I love Willa Cather, and now you know that John Steinbeck is one of my favorites.  I am a great believer in the importance of a literate citizenry necessary to support a great country.  I have shared a favorite quote from Einstein:  "If you want intelligent children, read them fairy tales.  If you want more intelligent children, read them more fairy tales."  Several of my past blogs have dealt with encouraging the habit of reading in our children.  Most adults who are regular readers of books learned that habit as children.

I fear that reading is a habit on the decline.  Even in her home state of Nebraska, the great Willa Cather is no longer on the required reading list of public high schools.  Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is still read in many schools, but it is often relegated to younger readers who may not fully appreciate it.  Too few readers get past Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," a great book but not the only one worth reading.  Despite the huge popularity of "Downton Abbey" on PBS, few readers explore the great English novels written in the 1800s, of which my favorite, "Pride and Prejudice," is only one.

Enjoying access to archived material
But I will continue to be a cheerleader for reading, and sharing time with others who love to read is a special treat for me.  The photographs in this week's blog were taken when our retreat group visited Salinas, California, Steinbeck's childhood home.  We toured the Steinbeck Center and enjoyed a special opportunity to view items from the museum archives not usually seen by visitors.  We had lunch in Steinbeck's childhood home, and we ended our day with a visit to the graves of Steinbeck and other family members.

My favorite Steinbeck book is "East of Eden," a challenging book that I first read about fifteen years ago.  I will close by sharing a conversation from that novel between Samuel Hamilton, who visited his younger friend Adam, to help select a name for the twin boys whose mother had deserted them soon after they were born. In his grief at having been abandoned by his wife, Adam neglected his sons, imposing fears about their mother's evil having been inherited by the boys.  Samuel tells him:  "I don't very much believe in blood.  I think when a man finds good or bad in his children he is seeing only what he planted in them after they cleared the womb."  Adam:  "You can't make a race horse of a pig."  Samuel:  "No, but you can make a very fast pig."    

Graves of Samuel & other family members
Just as Samuel believed in bringing out the best that was possible in Adam's sons, I admit that I believe that reading quality literature and learning from reading history can bring out the best in all of us.  I would love it if you took the time to share the titles of your favorite books with me.  The long-time readers of this blog will remember what a popular series of blogs resulted from your sharing of favorite childhood books, so sharing titles of favorite books you have read as adults should be fun too. 

It was Isaac Werner's love for books, and his amazing personal library, that drew me to him, after all!



(Remember, you can click on images to enlarge.)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Reclaiming Our Own Lives

Isaac B. Werner's Journal
We are the beneficiaries of a homesteader named Isaac B. Werner who kept a daily journal from 1884 through 1891 describing his daily activities and what was happening in the surrounding communities.  From his journal I learned about weather and implements and barn dances and illnesses and young deaths, and I have shared that on this blog.  I have also shared how communities built school houses, established newspapers, formed local organizations, and joined national organizations.  They slaughtered their own hogs, plowed fields one row at a time, sewed and mended their own clothing, built homes in dugouts, from sod, and with dearly bought lumber.  They fought prairie fires and built roads and bridges with their neighbors. From Isaac's journal we know that he and other ordinary people accomplished amazing things, day in and day out.

Homemade Sand Hill Plum Jelly
How did they manage?  We have the benefit of automobiles, microwaves, frozen dinners, ready-made clothing, hospitals, computers--tools, equipment, conveniences that they could not have imagined, and we have diversified labor so that we no longer build our own homes, sew our own clothing, build our children's school houses, grow our own food, fight our own fires or build our own roads and bridges.

Most of the things Isaac Werner and his neighbors did for themselves we no longer do.  And yet, how many of us complain that we are overworked and tired all of the time.  As hard as we try, we never seem to get everything we meant to accomplish finished at the end of the day.

A recent article in "Live, Write, Thrive," a writer's blog I follow, was intended as guidance for writers who struggle to find enough time to write, but I think many of you who read my blog will find some of the ideas meant for writers very applicable to your own daily lives.  The title of the article is How We've Ruined Our Brains in This Modern Era.

Quilt making--hobby or necessity?
When I was practicing law, I had a routine around which I organized my day.  It began the evening before, when I stacked all of the files I had to handle the following day in order of priority--the ones I absolutely had to attend to on the top, the ones that might be put off another day in the middle, and the ones I hoped to find time to look at on the bottom.  When I arrived the next morning I was able to focus my attention on one matter at a time, without being distracted by concerns that perhaps something else deserved my attention.

The point of the article How We've Ruined Our Brains in This Modern Era is that today many of us fail to prioritize and concentrate on one priority at a time.  We multitask!

Sod School House
In thinking about your own day, consider how many times you are interrupted by your phone.  Consider how you use your computer, turning it on to do one thing and realizing you have spent two hours jumping from one interesting distraction to another.  Consider how much time social media interrupts what you are doing.  Even when you think you are relaxing, do you take your phone when you go for a walk, work in the garden, go to the gym?

In the book, Disorder:  Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us,"  Larry D. Rosen, PhD, writes:  "The bottom line is we are all constantly self-distracting, whether you're in school, at your job, or just at home."

In "Live, Write, Thrive" the following statistics were cited:
Multitaskers experience a 40% drop in productivity.
Multitaskers take 50% longer to accomplish a single task than if focusing only on that task.
Multitaskers make up to 50% more errors.
Multitaskers take four times longer to recognize new things.
Multitaskers spend 40% more time switching tasks.
(The source for these statistics was not identified.)

When Ira Flatow on NPR's Science Friday interviewed, Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor and researcher, and author of the book, The Man Who Lied to his Laptop, Nass said, "People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy...They're chronically distracted.  They initiate much larger parts of the brain than are irrelevant to the task at hand...they're even terrible at multitasking.  ,,,they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused.  They're suckers for irrelevancy.  They just can't keep on task."

Main street:  Iuka, KS 
When I reflect on how Isaac Werner described his days, he did many tasks during the year, but he prioritized what was to be done, without jumping unnecessarily from one to another.  He planned work to match the seasons.  Crops had to be planted, weeded, and harvested when those tasks were essential at a particular time.  Homes had to be readied ahead of dropping temperatures by stuffing or plastering cracks and readying fuel if occupants were to survive the cold winter weather. Winter was the time for mending, repairing tools and sharpening shears, studying seed catalogues, and socializing.  The year Isaac was distracted by attending political rallies and taking photographs he failed to market his potatoes when he should have, and the price dropped from $1.25 a bushel  to a third or less.  He ended up feeding potatoes to his pigs.  Tasks that had to be done in town were accumulated so that the trip accomplished more than one thing.  Homesteaders multitasked in the sense of being able to do many things, but they learned how to stay on task and prioritize.


Not all of us feel as if we have "ruined our brains," but many of us agree that we are self-distracting by the way we allow ourselves to be interrupted.  Not only the distractions initiated by others cut into our days, but also our own choices.  Do you go online to check your e-mails and find yourself following links for two hours?  Do you allow yourself to half-watch television every evening when you could have been reading a good book or playing games with your children or having a real telephone conversation with an elderly parent or friend.  Do you start making a grocery list in the kitchen and wander off to put clothes in the washer only to return to the grocery list and spend five minutes rethinking where you were in remembering the things you needed.  Do you get sidetracked by the greeting card rack or the holiday display just inside the entrance when you run into a store just to buy aspirin?  
Gardening--hobby or necessity?

I came upstairs this morning to print something, and since I was at my computer anyway, I thought I would quickly check my e-mails.  I opened "Live, Write, Thrive," and decided a comparison of today's distractions and tasks with the distractions and tasks of Isaac Werner's times might be interesting.  My morning is gone and I didn't finish reading my  e-mails.  I did draft this blog, however, and at least I remembered to print the document that was the reason for my having come upstairs!