Rvive Books publishes “great American books from the past” and The Salt-Box House: Eighteenth Century Life in a New England Hill Town, by Jane de Forest Shelton, is one of them. Shelton is an unsung pioneer in the tradition of microhistory, which focuses on a limited place, object, or time. In this case, she is writing about the house in Connecticut where her ancestors lived. Shelton’s family, and other families at that time, lived isolated and independent. She treasures the character of these families, relating it to the unfolding of uniquely American history. “[F]ear was not cultivated. To be brave, to be skillful in whatever one set a hand to, to accomplish everything undertaken, to surmount difficulty, gave life a perpetual goal. Nothing was more clearly demonstrated in the later conflict [the American Revolution] with disciplined armies than that he that had been faithful in little would be faithful also in much. That the hour of emergency must be the hour of triumph is one of the great underlying principles for the success of a venture or a country.” She describes in detail the life lived in the salt-box houses of New England and the temperament that grew out of such homes. “Simple and direct as the life was, it was also interdependent. …each life was a thread in a cable, and when the call to arms came, it was that …sense of individual responsibility, though standing shoulder to shoulder, each one acting as if he were the whole, that gave the untrained militia a power far beyond that of men who fear to step until they have fitted their feet to their neighbors’ footsteps.” An example of a highly trained militia was the arrival of troops led by the French Count Rochambeau, on their way to reinforce the troops of General Washington. The townspeople were spellbound by the “array of six hundred men with all the splendor of gold lace and nodding plumes, the horses bravely caparisoned.” It was “a rare sight to those whose knowledge of military display had been limited to the ‘training’ of one small company of men not even in uniform.” The Shelton boys, under the influence of their Tory family, “hardly knew which side would claim their allegiance under the beauty of French uniforms and the glitter of their accoutrements. It seemed far more like leading to a successful issue than a company of men in every-day dress supplemented by muskets and canteens.” The French soldiers had never seen tobacco, and “finally, with true French instinct, concluded it must be something to put in soup.” In 1900, when Shelton was writing the book, Connecticut was still full of farming communities living in salt-box houses heated by fireplaces, driving shays and carriages, communicating only by post or personal visit. She writes with an easy familiarity about many of the customs and objects in the book because between 1750 and 1900, daily life did not change much, and families remained rooted in place. Especially in the early days, each house was self-sustaining. Surpluses were exported through the local ship’s captain, whose ships sailed to the West Indies. Luxury items such as molasses, sugar, fine cloth, coffee and tea, and, later, chinaware, were brought back when he returned. For the clothes they wore every day, women spun flax into linen, and carded the wool from their own sheep. They smoked their own meats, churned their own butter, and grew their own vegetables. Church was where family and neighbors met. Hymns were tuned with a pitch pipe, then the tuning-fork was invented, giving place in the early 19th century to the bassoon and bass-viol, “until organs supplanted both.” The preacher, who was the community’s intellectual leader, stitched together his notes for the sermon with thread of linen or blue yarn. At first, children were educated by their mothers, using the Bible and a library of only a few books. Later, when town schools were established, the law required that slaves be taught to read and write (in the South, the law said that no slave should learn to read and write). Until the “invention” of the American dictionary by Samuel Webster, first published in 1828, spelling was phonetic, a matter of personal taste. Sometimes “kitchen” was spelled “Cichon.” Makes sense. For entertainment, they told stories and recited doggerel and verses which were passed from person to person. Mothers created balls out of unraveled stockings, tightly wound, and covered with soft leather. They were used to play a form of baseball called “four-holey-crack” or “round-ball.” The girls had homemade rag dolls. They played tag, hide-and-seek, blindman’s-buff, and fox and geese. They fished in areas of the nearby river formally allocated to each family, except for Saturday, when fishing was free to everyone. Idle hands led to mischief, and In the evenings they rushed chairs and made baskets, mops, doormats, and straw hats using cattails, local reeds, or corn-husks. The ladies had occasional “tea drinkings,” at which it was customary for each guest to bring her own cup and teaspoon. In the early years, these teacups had no handles. “A spoon left in the cup and against its edge, made a rest for the forefinger placed in front of it; while the other fingers, back of it, held the cup itself.” (Later generations enjoyed teacups with handles.) They ate off of pewter plates which shined “like silver.” (I have never seen pewter shining like silver, maybe because we no longer know how to shine it.) Houses stood far from neighbors and, perforce, solitude and hospitality were prized. Every passerby was granted shelter and food. It could not have been otherwise in a time of such great distances. There was a tavern in most towns which served multiple purposes, including post office, but out in the country, travelers had to depend on the hospitality of strangers. Slavery is never comfortable or preferable, but slavery was different in Connecticut than in the South. In the Shelton family compound, the slaves had their own house just a few footsteps away from the main house; they worked, ate, went to school, and attended church together. There was, in other words, slavery, but not segregation. After the American Revolution, Connecticut’s legislature declared all slaves born after 1784 free at 25 years of age, and gradually slavery disappeared altogether. In 1777, six hundred persons were ill with smallpox at one time in their town. Pest-houses were built and victims had to stay there until they were healed. By 1799, the population began to be inoculated with virus taken from a human being. Cows were not used as virus donors until much later. The mileposts of life were observed with rituals. Babies were christened immediately for fear they might die unprotected. Women embroidered, spun, and wove sheets, quilts, clothes, tablecloths, and other such for their dowry. (In my own mother’s time it was called a Hope Chest.) When a person died, everything in the house was covered in white linen, including pictures, and mirrors. The coffin lay on a narrow table and was born to the cemetery by pallbearers, even if a horse was available. If the cemetery was far away, there were relays of pallbearers. Today, we think of ourselves as so modern; yet there is much to learn from the people who lived in salt-box houses.
This book can be read on many levels – for a linguist like me, its linguistic observations were a blast of fresh air, for a historian it is rich with commentary, and for a writer or avid reader, the allusions are legion, including the title, which pays homage to the eponymous novel by Dostoevsky. (My upcoming book is entitled THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, an homage to Henry James, and the recent MRS. OSMOND, by John Banville, is an imagining of Isabel Archer’s life after the James PORTRAIT ends. Maybe we’re re-establishing the precedents of our literary canon after a long period of wondering where we really came from.) The Idiot is funny, but more than that, it is original in thought and execution. First, her language. She sneaks up on the reader, “The French director had died tragically, by falling off a barstool.” (That’s a funny enough situation, but there’s more…) “They say it may have been suicide.” Or “Every now and then, a book had something … in it, and it was some comfort. But it wasn’t quite the same thing as having an opinion.” Her metaphors are gloriously original “The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.” Or “This was an amazing sight. And yet, I didn’t know where to put it. It just seemed to sit there, like a fur hat whose apparatchik had been airbrushed away.” There is incidental philosophy, thrown into the middle of no place in particular. “I knew ‘midway the journey’ was supposed to mean midlife crisis. But to me it seemed that one had always been midway the journey of our life, and would be maybe right up until the moment of death.” Or “The adjunct instructor also said stupid things, but they were in Spanish, so you learned more.” Or “What was ‘Cinderella,’ if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?” I have never written a book review which was essentially written by the author, but the many délices in her book speak for themselves. Only once did I find a cheap haha, "On the table were a sign-in sheet, a dead spider plant, and a dead spider." Imagine reading a book where the quality of each sentence is so high that a single dud of an image (in my opinion) stands out! The book at times strays into something like the comedy routine of a very smart comedian, but that would not make it literature. There is an underlying theme and story which hang on a few characters; the protagonist Selin herself, her mother, tall, handsome Ivan, and her friend Svetlana. Other people with strange habits and even stranger names prance around, appearing, disappearing, each serving a purpose. The humor makes the profundity taste like sugar. Before the story begins, Batuman quotes Marcel Proust, “…but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.” Selin has a lot to learn. The story is a seemingly unending series of missteps, missed targets, periods of muteness when she should be speaking, of stillness when she should be moving. It becomes tiresome. How could she be so clueless? Especially regarding Ivan. She lets Ivan get away and we wonder, so what? Batuman daringly leaves the relief of resolution for the last few pages when a depressed and confused Selin reflects, “I still had the old idea of being a writer, but that was being, not doing. It didn’t say what you were supposed to do.” She cannot gather her feet under her after her disillusionment. “I lost the strength to go anywhere or do anything, or smile, or hold my mouth up in a normal position when people talked to me. My face just felt like a cake.” Selin and her mother visit a hilariously surreal golf course in Turkey, leaving this reader diverted from the point by outloud laughter, then the book ends with such integrity – no happy ending or banal philosophizing, she just admits that “I hadn’t learned anything at all,” which is the prelude, we all know this, to learning something.
Roxane Gay was transformed in the worst possible way by a gang rape when she was twelve. Her story interested me because people I know have been similarly transformed by callous manipulation of their bodies when they were children. The protective mechanisms -- obsessive physical and emotional privacy, a sharp reaction when touched, flashbacks -- are not always obvious, and Gay has made us more sensitive to them. Millions of people know how this works because violation of children is so common. Adults may deal with the death of a parent, neglect, foster care, illness or disability, war, forced emigration, poverty, beatings, but perhaps molestation is uniquely harmful. Gay’s case protective reaction has been to eat herself into an impermeable, outsize fortress, and once you do that, it is hard to go back to the way you were before. I personally know at least one person who has created such a outsize fortress, and then there’s Oprah, who was also molested as a child. Each episodic chapter, written in unremarkable sentences without attention to a narrative arc, outlines a separate area of suffering. Gay cannot fit into hospital gowns, clothes found in most stores, feminine clothes; she cannot stand for long, climb stairs, or walk long distances. She sometimes has trouble getting through doors. People make comments or say insensitive things about her weight. She folds in on herself to become invisible. Diets don’t work because she panics when the fortress thins out. She admits that she is essentially disabled in certain ways, though she functions at an unusually high level in many areas where others struggle. She tamps down her rage when a fellow airplane passenger questions whether she will be able to handle the duties required of people sitting in the exit row. She writes, "I was fat, but I was, and still am, tall and strong. It was absurd to imagine I could not handle the exit-row responsibilities." As Gay has taken pains to inform the reader, she has difficulty maneuvering, and it would take some doing to send her hurtling down an inflatable exit ramp; if she stayed to assist others, her bulk would hinder the easy passage of other passengers to the ramp. The man's question is reasonable, not personal. She complains bitterly that event organizers do not pre-plan to be sure that she can get up stairs and doesn’t have to stand too long. They often fail to provide a chair that will not collapse under her weight or squeeze her painfully. She is "morbidly obese," and even if an event manager were forewarned of that, how many would assume the requirements of her particular case? Instead of having a little advance conversation about her needs during a doctor's appointment, she doesn’t go to doctors at all. She is too self-conscious to ask for a chair without arms in a restaurant, though many would have such a chair somewhere. Her world is replete with insults and indignities which she could handle more adroitly, to say the least. In her fury, she makes false statements such as “black women are never allowed their femininity.” I have envied the flair of many a feminine black colleague or friend, and also remember the dynamic femininity of black women from Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong’o. Gay also writes that “no one wants to hear fat girl stories,” yet viewers and readers have been avidly following Oprah’s fat girl story for decades and hit television programs are based around fat people's stories. She didn't know how many books she would sell when she wrote that statement, but it has also been a hit. Ringers like these, manufactured from her rage, sour her case. Talk about sour -- she goes to a gym and sees thin white girls working out. “They know that they work hard and look good and they want everyone else to know it too.” Yes, they do, and so what? That is why they are at the gym, and why she is at the gym, too. To look good and to feel good. The reader is supposed to swing with it when Gay reveals that she cannot bring herself to demand “justice” for the perpetrator of the original rape, as wished for by her father and this reader. She Googles the heck out of him decades after his crime, and stalks him, calling his office, hearing his voice, then hanging up after listening to him breathe for a while. I advise her to blast his name in capital letters in Times Square. Just blast it. "JOHN DOE. From Roxane." The many readers who have read your book will understand, and he won't be able to sue you because you will not have accused him of anything. It will feel good, I promise. She has an unconditionally loving family, friends, lovers, a PhD and has established herself as a successful writer, speaker, and teacher. What is she now waiting for? I put down the book discouraged and unimpressed, though a little better informed about people I know who have been tragically transformed by a childhood violation. Unfortunately for all of us, there is little of the unusual in Gay’s story. The kicker is that Roxane Gay has just been given an advice column in the New York Times. I would that people "Do as she says not as she does.”
HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” is a cri de coeur commenting on the state of affairs in our country, where we are despairing of doing things that our country has frequently done better than anyone else in the world -- running honest elections, building bridges, educating ourselves, and being charitable to others less fortunate than ourselves. According to one Senator, and one assumes those he represents as well, we don't even have enough money to fund healthcare for poor children. We are giving up on the future, greedily consuming everything we have, tearing apart our greatest treasures for fear that the End is near. Or, in the case of J. D. Vance’s people, killing ourselves. A few years ago, a Ukrainian friend told me that when he goes back to Kiev people treat him like a tourist, though he looks like a Ukrainian. “Why?” I asked him, “Is it because of the way you dress?” “No,” he answered, “it is because I look like I have hope.” Hope is what Americans used to have, and still might have, though there is a big enough block of us that sees only “carnage,” and one fraction of that block is Vance's subject. His book is docu-literature, part history lesson and political commentary, part memoir. For life to become art takes a while; Vance’s story is about life. For literary merit, it does not compare to, say, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, by John Steinbeck, another story with a political point about a similar despairing community. Vance writes, “The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.” This is the first, and I hope the only, time I will read that becoming an opioid addict is the result of bad luck. In my opinion, their missing ingredient is not luck, it is hope. Vance’s beloved grandmother, Ma-Maw, threatens to shoot people because they have insulted her grandson. Fortunately, she doesn’t pull the trigger, and nobody calls the cops on her -- there exists a law of omertá among Vance’s people. By the end of the book, this reader came to respect Ma-Maw because, at great sacrifice to herself, she stuck with her addicted daughter and struggling grandson until her last breath. She might be a difficult neighbor, though, and I’m not aiming to imitate her brand of bellicosity. As one of the reviled “Americans” who, he writes, “call [his people] hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” I found myself jacking up repeatedly. I am the sort of “American” he objects to for their ignorance of his people’s plight, but I do not call anyone such names, but even if I did, what role would that play in the suicidal spiral of addiction and dysfunction that his people find themselves in? Vance has disdain for me, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out what ill I have brought to his people. Vance portrays himself and his family as emigrants from their homeland in Kentucky to an Ohio only a few hours’ drive away where they and their ways are strangers. He freely acknowledges that compared to other immigrants -- my mind wanders to the Rohingya of Burma, Africans forced from their homes by a ceaseless drought, or the Syrians whose whole towns, neighbors, and families were reduced to dust – they have had it easy. He acknowledges the flaws in his culture, but seems as baffled as the rest of us at its precipitous and devastating decline. Vance believes that simply telling the story will be helpful, and has become a spokesman for his people. The success of his book has made him a rich man, and to his credit he is using his wealth to be a force for good in the place he came from. Who better than Vance to know what they need? On visits to the South, I have heard a great deal about the haughtiness and self-satisfaction of “Yankees,” and when Vance refers to “Americans,” that is who he is referring to – the types he met at Yale. He is not criticizing cowboys in Texas or loggers in Oregon. Yankees have accepted the critique of a lot of books that reveal the underside of their own community, from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, to The Great Gadsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and numerous movies and television programs that are brutally critical. As a Yankee, I have been humbled and informed by these critiques, and there is no reason that I can think of why people like me would not become Vance’s allies as he tries to heal cultural wounds grave enough to make so many people kill themselves. Vance uses a few brushstrokes to describe his military service. It apparently made a man out of him. This reader, however, is disturbed that Vance feels his only path to making a living is going abroad to kill and disrupt the lives of people whose lot in life is worse than his. He doesn’t give enough information about his service to allow for intellectual engagement on this subject, but he does present it as his escape from hopelessness. For that American soldier, there is more hope in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Ohio. I hope Vance uses his passion and storytelling to keep us informed of what is going on in his Appalachian or ex-Appalachian community. After reading his book, I wash my hands of responsibility for their woes, which is what he seems to want, but retain an interest in their welfare nonetheless.