Reading New England Challenge Wrap-Up

One of the highlights of my 2016 blogging year was participating in the Reading New England Challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review. I read 12 books from specified categories, including one from each New England state.

I only started book blogging the previous September and was still getting the lay of book-blogging land when I saw the announcement for the challenge. I thought it would be a good way to read some classics I’d missed along the way.

I could not have chosen a better first challenge. Not only did I finally read Little Women and The House of the Seven Gables, I forced myself to read a horror novel and a book by someone I’d never heard about. I even bought a map of New England to track where the books were set!

One of the benefits of doing a challenge like this is being introduced to writers with whom you are unfamiliar.  If you were to tell me when I started one of my favorite experiences would be reading the aforementioned horror story, I would have called you daft. Or, that The Country of the Pointed Firs, a book by an author I’d never heard of would end up my favorite book of the challenge, I’d have been stunned. But both are true. I will be reading more of H.P. Lovecraft next year (during daylight hours, of course 🙂 ) and I have already read a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett (“A White Heron”) that was beautiful.

Other highlights for me: “Our Town,” Little Women, getting to know Nathaniel Hawthorne through The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, discovering one of my favorite films “The Haunting” was based on a book, The Haunting of Hill House and enjoying it as much as the film, and while I had mixed feelings about A Separate Peace I now know why a close co-worker finds it to be his favorite book.

 

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Thank you, Lory, for all the work you put into this. It was a great experience with lasting effects!

Here is what I read:

January: New Hampshire
A Separate Peace John Knowles

February: Fiction
The Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

March: Maine
The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett

April: Poetry and Drama
Our Town Thornton Wilder Thornton Wilder

May: Vermont
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

June: Nonfiction
Hawthorne Henry James

July: Massachusetts
Little Women Louisa May Alcott

August: Children’s Books
The Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare

September: Rhode Island
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward HP Lovecraft

October: Speculative Fiction and Mystery
Looking Backward Edward Bellamy

November: Connecticut
The Three Weissmanns of Westport Cathleen Schine

December: Readalong or free choice
Summer Edith Wharton

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

My Edition:herland.jpeg
Title: Herland
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover Publications
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1915
Pages: 124
For a plot summary

There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly and what was ‘womanly.’…When Jeff said to Celis, “Women should not carry anything…they are not built for heavy work. Celis looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road they were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her. “I don’t understand, are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?[i]

 

I was so disappointed by Edward Bellamy’s depiction of women in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, that I found myself pining for a more positive view. I remembered I had Herland on my shelf and pulled it off only to find in the introduction the author was inspired by Bellamy! Charlotte Perkins Gilman was already known for her autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper, which exposed the chilling and harrowing methods of the ‘rest cure’ forced on some women when depression and the inability to cope made living impossible. Surely, she had a more affirmative and supportive concept about women in her utopia?

Happily for me, Herland presents a stable and progressive environment, a well-planned framework for a new way of life. The novel, in a parallel to Looking Backward, is based around conversations, in this case, between the three male explorers and their three female teachers.

The plot is simple enough. Three young men, Terry the rich boy, Van the sociologist and Jeff the doctor and friends since college have joined an expedition somewhere in Central or South America, the exact location is not made clear, where the native guides tell tales of a land of women high up in the mountains where there are no men or male children. One of the guides shows them a piece of cloth made with extraordinary skill that looks nothing like the work of local people. The three men vow to come back and find this land which they do a year later.

And the tales they heard are true. It IS a land of women, who have created a country of beauty, peace, culture and education without the aid of men. And poor Terry, who is certain the women have been waiting centuries for him spends the entire trip trying to prove it, but to no avail. Van and Jeff are eager to learn and understand the history and society of the country and it is through conversations with their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel that we learn how the land came to be.

Two thousand years ago, after a series of wars, though they built fortresses and had skilled warriors, the men were unable to stave off attacks from other tribes and all were killed. This left women, young girls and old slave women as the only inhabitants when the final blow, a volcanic outburst, sealed off the pass below and penned them up against the mountains. There was no escape. After the initial despair where some women suggested suicide, the majority made the decision to live. The slave women taught them invaluable skills and they learned to work the tools and equipment of various trades. They had records and archives with their history, which they learned and added to as the centuries went by.

But the question had to be asked: if there were no men for two thousand years, how did they populate? For about 10 years after they were sealed in by the volcano, the remaining women plucked up the courage to plan a future as best they could. They cleaned up the land by working together and grew strong and wise and more and more mutually attached, until a miracle occurred: one young woman bore a girl child… a direct gift from the gods, they believed. She bore four more—all girls. The miracle continued as each woman, upon reaching the age of 25, bore her first child, until she, too, had five. But as the centuries passed and overpopulation threatened the land, the process settled on one child a piece.

“Babies are raised communally after a year spent with their mother, though even then, the mother is never far from her child. School and education is an environment calculated to allow the riches, freest growth….”[ii]

The children grow up in a system of education that draws out their talents and abilities to things they love and are good at so when they enter the work force work is a delight and a joyous contribution to the nation. This notion that education is for discovering what we’re good at and love is like Bellamy’s system, except that his excludes women, whose highest contribution to society is to procreate, with ‘careers’ only auxiliary, not part of the needs of the nation.

I should mention here that in Herland, motherhood, too, is lauded as the supreme achievement with babies loved and adored by the whole community. However, it is acknowledged that not every woman will have or want to have a child, a decision that is honored and respected. In Bellamy’s new world as in his real 19th century world, a woman who does not want to have children is looked on with derision, even suspicion.

It may be that Gilman’s perspective on motherhood is also a reflection of her ideas about women and work and the insistence that women have choices over their life. This may have also been a reaction against the criticism Gilman received when she gave up her daughter to be raised by her first husband so she could concentrate on her work. He remarried her best friend and the three were close, but the act of voluntarily giving up her child for such a “selfish” reason was looked upon as extremely “umotherly.”

Gilman also explores femininity in Herland. The women here are not ‘feminine’ in the way Terry, Van and Jeff are accustomed. It is confusing enough for them that society functions just fine in every area without men and Gilman uses this as a platform to explore this new womanhood. The three are educated about Herland for months together and individually by their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel, whom they affectionately call “The Colonels.” The lack of sexual dynamics and their notions of femininity are confusing to the men. That the women of Herland created a land of peace and plenty, built streets and edifices, figured out food sources and methods of feeding 3 million people, developed laws and education without the guidance and organization skills of men, is an almost impossible concept for Terry, Van and Jeff.

Van: “Here you have human beings…but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics…but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine….The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”

Terry, with sarcasm, “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”

Jeff: “But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember?”[iii]

What a blow to Terry who is observing a land where he is not needed and that frankly works better without men!

And in fact, Terry, the prized catch of manhood in his former life has the most difficult time. I think Gilman uses him to illustrate every sexist and chauvinistic word men ever said about women! Even after the men are accepted into society, learn the language and are educated on the history of the county, Terry refuses to accept that a country can actually exist without men and that in truth, the women MUST have been waiting just for him. As imagined, he causes the most problems, cannot accept what he sees and longs to get home to ‘real women.’ In a remarkable observation Van says, “those feminine charms we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.”[iv]

Gilman explores many aspects of society, including religion

…they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion….They applied their mind to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.[v]

And relationships, because of course, there is romance! But between whom and whether they stay in Herland would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: Poor Terry….

That this beautiful, stable, evolving world exists because women are cooperative with each other, that they are smart, are able to take their talents and abilities both physical and mental to their highest potential, have created culture and art is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer and feminist, was working for in 19th/20th century America. It is hard to remember women once had to fight for the right to be smart and capable, to freely take their talents and abilities as far as they could, to create whatever kind of life they wanted.

It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys—nothing else, three audacious impertinent boys—butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women—why, they would be no obstacles at all.[vi]

Was Herland a reaction to Looking Backward? Or Gilman’s singular attempt to design a world where women were not only safe from the violence of men, they were also physically competent and smart and educated enough to build and care for their own society? Looking forward, taking the best from both, they have the potential to create a good decent society where each person is valued for their individuality, yet part of the whole.

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[i] p. 79.
[ii] p. 87.
[iii] p. 49-50.
[iv] p. 50
[v] p. 8.
[vi] p. 18.

 

Looking Backward 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1888)

My Edition:lookingbackward
Title: Looking Backward
Author: Edward Bellamy
Publisher: A Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1888
Pages: 222
For a plot summary

 

In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes…Instead of these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favorable conditions of physical life; the young are carefully nurtured and studiously cared for; the labor which is required of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigor, and is never excessive; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle for life—all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more.[i]

Julian West is a young well-to-do Bostonian with a good life and marriage on the horizon. Living in luxury on the accumulated wealth of his great grandfather, his only pursuit as he tells it is on “the pleasures and refinements of life.” Typically, for a man of his social status, “he is supported by the labor of others and does no service in return,”[ii] which is the way his parents and grandparents before him lived.

There is only one chink in his otherwise comfortable and rich life: his insomnia is so bad he has to enlist the help of the mesmerist Dr. Pillsbury, who comes to his home some nights and hypnotizes him to fall asleep. While the procedure is complicated, the waking up process is not, so Dr. Pillsbury has taught West’s man-servant that procedure and is instructed to wake him up the next morning. On that fateful night of May 30, 1887, something goes awry and the servant does not or cannot wake him up. As West slowly comes to, he finds it is not the next morning, but 113 years later and is found fully intact and functioning in his bedroom by the present occupants of the house after a rainstorm flooded their basement crumbling away the walls of a previous building housing James West’s bedroom.

Looking Backward, is basically a long conversation between James West and Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter Edith as they orient West into the America of the year 2000. Only a few generations away from West’s time, their education has given them knowledge enough to understand the Boston of the 19th century and compare the great changes in governance, education, employment and vision that West will find in 20th century Boston. The book is a primer, from Edward Bellamy’s point of view on how to create a just, economically equal, safe and well-mannered society. While there are a few excursions to eating establishments and to product distribution centers, most of the book takes place in the Leete home between the Dr. and Mr. West.

West learns of the bloodless economic revolution that occurred shortly after he went to sleep where the nation took over all means and manner of the production of goods and services, doing away with small businesses and large corporations, which only engendered competition, waste, and the great divide between rich and poor. Now, society is run by the people, with total financial equality as the hallmark of the new system. There IS no rich or poor, since each citizen is paid exactly the same amount, no matter their occupation. The class divide, the bane of all societies that causes the greatest imbalance of power has now been done away with. Therefore, there is no crime, since no one has less than his or her neighbor; no poverty, because regardless of occupation each is given a living wage; no feeling of alienation because all people and occupations are valued. Some features of this new society:

Education-teachers and parents observe a child’s talents from an early age so they can guide him or her into their chosen occupation.

Employment-everyone enters the work force at age 24 and retires at 45 and is on call for emergencies until 55, when their work life is over and leisure life begins.

Money-There is no physical money. Instead, everyone is issued a credit card that is filled each year. At every purchase the cost of the item is debited from the card.

Goods-clothing or furniture is stocked at distribution centers in each ward (neighborhood). There is enough stock for everyone, because no one over buys in this society where the desire for wealth or ostentation by material possessions no longer exists.

Dinner-each ward has a restaurant building, where every family has their own dining room. Minor meals are taken at home.

Domestic servants have been done away with, as has most household work. Clothes are washed at public laundries and mended at public shops, and electricity takes the place of lighting fires and lamps. Houses are no larger than needed and furnished with simplicity, which make them easy to keep up.

Technological advances-during rain storms a waterproof sheet is let down covering sidewalks so people can walk to dinner or shopping without an umbrella; music is piped into bedrooms and living rooms with the press of a screw.

Political parties during West’s time tried to right the unequal wrongs, but were not strong enough to change the whole of society, since their focus on class discrepancies was too narrow. Once a higher ethical basis for the rearrangement of industry and society was recognized the national party rose up. Taking that name to nationalize the functions of production and distribution, moved Americans into a union, a family with a common life; the most patriotic of parties, raising patriotism from instinct to devotion “by making the native land truly a father-land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”[iii]

The book has much to offer as a construction of the ideal state for that time. I say, “for that time,” because it fails on the role of women. Granted, Bellamy was writing in the late 1880s and gender binary ruled the day. Still, this is a book about the future. He couldn’t use his imagination and take the present day women’s reformers and suffrage movement to their obvious next level? Instead, he kept women in their proverbial place using the same attitudes about their physical and emotional sphere as they did in the 1880s. Only men rise to a higher consciousness in his future while women are only thrown a bone: they are ‘permitted’ to work, but only amongst themselves and as an allied force not integral to the actual importance of society. Continues Dr. Leete:

Under no circumstances is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as to kind and degree of labor, to her sex. Moreover, the hours of women’s work are considerably shorter than those of men, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor. [iv]

And just when I thought Bellamy was advanced for his day by at least acknowledging the innate desire of women to contribute to society through work, my hopes were soon dashed when through Dr. Leete he says:

In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers, and I assure you they are very happy. Women are a very happy race nowadays, as compared with what they ever were before in the world’s history, and their power of giving happiness to men has been of course increased in proportion.[v] * (See below)

Ah, the old ‘separate but equal’ was alive and well in the year 2000.

This is a short book, but is packed with political and social theory. The flimsy tale of James West’s arrival in the future is a device for Edward Bellamy’s dissertation on the perfect and just society. Due to this main objective, however, the book is short on a wider picture of his future world, for example there is no discussion on modes of transportation, what entertainment looks like, what is the style of dress for men and women, and so forth. I realize Bellamy is not a science fiction writer, but a little more creativity would have enhanced the story.

As it was, Looking Backward made a huge impact on many people and at its publication the book sold some 200,000 copies. By the end of the 19th century, it had sold more copies than any other book published in America besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The utopian society created by Edward Bellamy struck a chord and a movement was started to spread the ideas of his book. When Bellamy was asked for his blessing on these clubs and the ‘Bellamyites’ he wrote: “Go ahead by all means and do it if you can find anyone to associate with. No doubt eventually the formation of such Nationalist Clubs or associations among our sympathizers all over the country will be a proper measure and it is fitting that Boston should lead off in this movement.”

Although the movement all but vanished by 1900, at its height at least 165 Nationalist Clubs existed  all over the United States.

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*Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blythedale Romance, published in 1852, decided his utopia would keep its gender boundaries in the area of work when Zenobia declares, “we women will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,–to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,–these, I suppose must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by perhaps when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go a-field, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen” (pp. 43-44). Written 45 years later, Edward Bellamy’s women sure didn’t move very far.

[i] P. 146.
[ii] P. 6.
iii] P. 166.
[iv] P. 167-168.
[v] P. 170.

 

This book qualifies for my Classics Club Reading List, Back to the Classics and Reading New England.