Monday, February 24, 2014

Ladies, Lawyers, and Literature

A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba, Flagrant Conduct and Literary Taste: How to Form It weren't anything one particularly needs to write home about, although A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba is a series of letters written home, and Literary Taste was the best for what it was. But I have not, these last days, been inspired to new heights of literary rapture. Not every book is another Lulu and the Dog by the Sea.

I read A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba by Mrs. Cecil Hall with my ears while I was walking to work and back last week. You can read a lot with your ears when you enforce a two-hour commute upon yourself for the purposes of ear-reading. A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba \would have been better titled A Lady's Extended Vacation on a Farm in Manitoba or A Lady Visits Manitoba and Thinks It's Great but Returns to London After a Few Months. This is one of the old-fashioned books where everyone's name is obscured by means of initials, so it is the collected letters of H- who goes with her sister E- to C- Farm to visit their brother A- who's immigrated to Manitoba and invested in some land together with Messrs. H- and L-. As someone with a train ticket back to London, the privations of life on the Northern prairie did not strike H- to the bone the way Ma Ingalls or Mrs. Woodlawn might have looked ahead to surviving winter and doing the whole thing over again next summer. H- and E- were friendly, roll-with-the punches, roll-up-their-sleeves women and I liked them a lot. They arrived in Winnipeg in May with snow still on the ground and A's farm sixteen miles from town. The supply steamer from Chicago had been delayed by an early winter and all of Winnipeg was doing without. The roads were ruts, and the ruts had massive potholes. This book drives home how late Canada was settled. Rupert's Land only changed hands from Hudson Bay Company to Canada in 1870; Winnipeg, neė Fort Garry, was incorporated in 1873; and H- travelled there in 1882. This was a land newly settled by agrarian white people. H- and E- get right into cleaning their brother's house and doing laundry that no one's touched since September. A late frost kills L-'s early cabbages, and H- tells him that he made a mistake of growing them outdoors instead of inside on the living room carpet. While in Manitoba, H- and E- try their hand at driving the plow, gathering eggs, making the weekly mail run, and camping out. Mosquitos eat them alive. The horse runs away with the carriage while H- is out visiting. But the sky is so clear it reflects Winnipeg's gaslights, the air is wild and healthy, and there is a nonstop stream of visitors. Mrs. Hall includes some figures, added later, on wages and profits to encourage immigration, as this book was published as a guide for immigrants, but, honestly, A Lady's Life makes Manitoba sound like a great place to visit but no place to stay.

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter, went a bit long. If you remember, Lawrence v. Texas is the 2003 Supreme Court decision declaring anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested in Lawrence's apartment for having consensual sex with each other under the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law and their Class C misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200 went all the way to the Supreme Court. (One of the shockers in Flagrant Conduct is that Lawrence and Garner were not having sex. They were not even canoodling. They may have been in different rooms when police burst into Lawrence's apartment.) Interestingly, Texas' laws proscribing fornication, adultery, and heterosexual sodomy were stricken from the books in 1973, leaving homosexual sodomy the only sexcrime in Texas. Queer activists argued that anti-sodomy laws led to a perception of all homosexuals as potential criminals. But to overturn a law you need a case to appeal and anti-sodomy laws were rarely enforced, so when Lawrence and Garner were arrested by a Harris County (Houston) officer who had a history of arresting people for minutiae, Lambda jumped and contacted Lawrence and Garner, who wonderfully agreed to let Lambda take their case through the appeals courts. At the first court date, at Lambda's request, the Justice of the Peace kindly raised the mens' fine from the $100 he had initially imposed to $125, allowing Lambda to appeal. Lawrence v. Texas becomes a courtroom drama, but not "I believe the murderer is in this very room" courtroom drama. There is interesting discussion of the legal arguments related to Lawrence v. Texas and Bowers v. Hardwick, the previous Supreme Court ruling upholding Georgia's anti-sodomy law. Texas put little work into the defense of its own law throughout and, in the end, made a hash of its Supreme Court defense. Lawrence won, but Flagrant Conduct could have been better edited. Not all non-fiction needs to run three hundred pages.

Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennett is delightfully didactic for us smart people. "You occasionally buy classical works, and do not read them at all; you practically decide that it is enough to possess them, and that the mere possession of them gives you a *cachet*. The truth is, you are a sham." Yes, you are, you great goof, but Arnold Bennett has something of a programme to solve that, which is different to other programs, because Arnold Bennett knows that you said to yourself, "I am going to read ten pages of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire every day" and you failed. Arnold Bennett's program is halfways to "...surround yourself with books, to create for yourself a bookish atmosphere. For the present, buy—buy whatever has received the *imprimatur* of critical authority. Buy without any immediate reference to what you will read. Buy! Surround yourself with volumes, as handsome as you can afford." Then you can begin to read the classics. "A classic is a work which gives pleasure to the minority which is intensely and permanently interested in literature." He presents a plan for reading enjoying, with Charles Lamb as a gateway drug and Wordsworth as a waystone. But: "You need to think about what you read and apply it, otherwise reading is just a useless past-time that will not transform you." Arnold Bennett ends his essay with a comprehensive list of classic books one can purchase for the total cost of £26 14s 7p and, "When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, *with enjoyment*, you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed; and you may pronounce judgment on modern works which come before the bar of your opinion in the calm assurance that, though to err is human, you do at any rate know what you are talking about."

1 comment:

  1. I hope you keep your eyes open to things around you when walking. A recent ploy by criminals around the U is to call a ped over to your car to ask directions and when they get close grab them & the other guy gets out, comes around a robs them.

    Be safe Emily and stay warm.