Bildungsroman

Now this is an interesting word.  I was wondering about its origin because it clearly does not sound like an English word. Like many other untranslatable words this one is also German – bildung literally means education and learning, and roman means a novel – and the word has come to mean a novel that focuses on the growth of the protagonist or simply a coming-of-age book.

The word was coined by German philologist Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770 – 1852) in the 1820s during the period of German Enlightenment. He first used the word when he was lecturing students at the University of Dorpat on the self-actualization that individuals realize as they navigate the journey from childhood to young adulthood. The book he may have been lecturing on was Johann Volfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), which now is considered the first novel of theis genre.

The first Bildungsroman: Goethe’s 1795 Novel

During the period of Enlightenment, the centuries old feudal system ended, and there was a burgeoning middle-class.  Artists and authors moved away from religious and aristocratic patronage and gravitated towards this middle class. This was a different, revolutionary era – individuals looked to themselves for their salvation, and personal journeys became of great importance. As a result, authors started writing narratives about personal, mainly spiritual, growth which eventually we now know as Bildungsroman.

When most of us think of American Bildungsroman literature, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer immediately come to mind. Another example is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Within the genre, there are subgenres –Erziehungsroman is the academic growth of the protagonist, Kunstlerroman is the realization of an artist’s potential, and Zeitroman is one in which the both the era and the protagonist develop together.  So there we have it – an in-depth look at a literary term we have all used when writing papers on Huck Finn!!

Mayflower

Methinks I see it now, that one solitary, adventurous vessel, the ‘Mayflower’ of a forlorn hope, freighted with the prospects of a future State, and bound across the unknown sea. I behold it pursuing, with a thousand misgivings, the uncertain, the tedious voyage. Suns rise and set, and weeks and months pass, and winter surprises them on the deep, but brings them not the sight of the wished-for shore. I see them now scantily supplied with provisions, crowded almost to suffocation in their ill-stored prison, delayed by calms, pursuing a circuitous route; and now driven in fury before the raging tempest, on the high and giddy waves. The awful voice of the storm howls through the rigging. The laboring masts seem straining from their base; the dismal sound of the pumps is heard; the ship leaps, as it were, madly from billow to billow; the ocean breaks, and settles with engulfing floods over the floating deck, and beats with deadening weight against the staggered vessel. I see them, escaped from these perils, pursuing their all but desperate undertaking, and landed at last, after five months’ passage, on the ice-clad rocks of Plymouth,—weak and weary from the voyage, poorly armed, scantily provisioned, depending on the charity of their shipmaster for a draft of beer on board, drinking nothing but water on shore, without shelter, without means, surrounded by hostile tribes.

Edward Everett, Plymouth, December 22, 1824

Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy – noahwebster.org).

Some literary humor for an otherwise dull day

This letter is a parody written by Nick Farriella in the style of Fitzgerald – something he might have written as he quarantined in the South of France during the Spanish flu of 1918. We recently read The Great Gatsby and I’m amazed at how wonderfully Mr. Farriella has captured Fitzgerald’s spirit in this piece of writing.

Dearest Rosemary,

It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter.

Outside I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I are stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

You should see the square, oh it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities the future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.

Faithfully yours,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

How absolutely brilliant!! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did.

Speedwell’s Song

Robinson Of Leyden
Oliver Wendell Holmes

HE sleeps not here; in hope and prayer 
His wandering flock had gone before, 
But he, the shepherd, might not share 
Their sorrows on the wintry shore. 

Before the Speedwell's anchor swung, 
Ere yet the Mayflower's sail was spread, 
While round his feet the Pilgrims clung, 
The pastor spake, and thus he said:-- 

'Men, brethren, sisters, children dear! 
God calls you hence from over sea; 
Ye may not build by Haerlem Meer, 
Nor yet along the Zuyder-Zee. 

'Ye go to bear the saving word 
To tribes unnamed and shores untrod; 
Heed well the lessons ye have heard 
From those old teachers taught of God. 

'Yet think not unto them was lent 
All light for all the coming days, 
And Heaven's eternal wisdom spent 
In making straight the ancient ways; 

'The living fountain overflows 
For every flock, for every lamb, 
Nor heeds, though angry creeds oppose 
With Luther's dike or Calvin's dam.' 

He spake; with lingering, long embrace, 
With tears of love and partings fond, 
They floated down the creeping Maas, 
Along the isle of Ysselmond. 

They passed the frowning towers of Briel, 
The 'Hook of Holland's' shelf of sand, 
And grated soon with lifting keel 
The sullen shores of Fatherland. 

No home for these!--too well they knew 
The mitred king behind the throne;-- 
The sails were set, the pennons flew, 
And westward ho! for worlds unknown. 

And these were they who gave us birth, 
The Pilgrims of the sunset wave, 
Who won for us this virgin earth, 
And freedom with the soil they gave. 

The pastor slumbers by the Rhine,-- 
In alien earth the exiles lie,-- 
Their nameless graves our holiest shrine, 
His words our noblest battle-cry! 

Still cry them, and the world shall hear, 
Ye dwellers by the storm-swept sea! 
Ye _have_ not built by Haerlem Meer, 
Nor on the land-locked Zuyder-Zee!

On July 23, 1620, the English Pilgrms who had been living in the Netherlands, sailed on the Speedwell. They were heading towards Sothhampton where they would meet up with the Mayflower, and togther the two ships would sail for the New World.

Ragged Old Flag

On this Flag Day, I wanted to honor the flag with this poem by Johnny Cash.

Ragged Old Flag

I walked through a county courthouse square
On a park bench an old man was sitting there
I said, your old courthouse is kinda run down
He said, naw, it'll do for our little town
I said, your old flagpole has leaned a little bit
And that's a ragged old flag you got hanging on it

He said, have a seat, and I sat down
Is this the first time you've been to our little town?
I said, I think it is
He said, I don't like to brag
But we're kinda proud of that ragged old flag

You see, we got a little hole in that flag there when 
Washington took it across the Delaware
And it got powder-burned the night Francis Scott Key
Sat watching it writing say can you see
And it got a bad rip in New Orleans
With Packingham and Jackson tuggin' at its seams

And it almost fell at the Alamo
Beside the texas flag, but she waved on though
She got cut with a sword at Chancellorsville
And she got cut again at Shiloh Hill
There was Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, and Bragg
And the south wind blew hard on that ragged old flag

On Flanders field in World War one
She got a big hole from a Bertha gun
She turned blood red in World War Two
She hung limp and low a time or two
She was in Korea and Vietnam
She went where she was sent by Uncle Sam

She waved from our ships upon the Briny foam
And now they've about quit waving her back here at home
In her own good land here she's been abused 
She's been burned, dishonored, denied, and refused

And the government for which she stands
Is scandalized throughout the land
And she's getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she's in good shape for the shape she's in
'Cause she's been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more

So we raise her up every morning
We take her down every night
We don't let her touch the ground and we fold her up right
On second thought, I do like to brag
'Cause I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag

(Images Courtesy Smithsonian.com, US Govt and War Archives Websites)

A Labor Day Tribute

The Statue of Liberty Soliloquy 
BY Jim Johnson 

Give me your poor, your mouth breathing, your drooling
Give me your tired masses.
I have floors to clean, tables to set, guests to feed.
Give me preferably your Scandinavians.
I have shoes to shine. So hurry up now, give me your Blacks.
I have laundry. Give me a few Orientals.
I have flowers, lawns to trim, fruit trees. How about some Latinos.
I have boats to unload. Give me some Irish then.
I have minerals to mine. Give me any from the
slag heaps of Europe.
I have this thin soil to till. So send me some serfs.
I have trees to cut. Finns will do.
Just give me your workers, your farmers. Give me your all.
I exclude no one ? not even democrats. Socialists,
communists, intellectuals excepted.
I have so much work to do.

This tribute to both immigrants and labor was written by 2008 Duluth Poet Laureate Jim Johnson.