I read too fast — next book: The Gate of Heavenly Peace

Jonathan Spence’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution. I’ve been a China tear for the last three months (for obvious reasons), and having taken Spence’s class on Chinese history at Yale in the 70s, I turned to his account of the lives of several revolutionaries, intellectuals, and artists in China from the 1880s to the 1980s. Excellent, excellent book about a very complex period in world and Chinese history.

Spence writes like a novelist, but is probably the greatest living Western Chinese historian. The first person he profiles, Kang Youwei, is amazing.

What I am reading (read) — In the Heart of the Sea

I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea at the bookstore at Logan Airport and finished it before landing in Chicago. Excellent book which tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which in the 1820s was rammed by a whale some 2000 miles west of the South American coast, sank, and then subjected its crews to a horrific open-sea voyage of 93 days.

Cannibalism was involved. People in the 19th century liked cannibalism in their tabloids the way American’s today like Angelina and Britney and Whitney.

This tale inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, and was the most lurid tale in America in the first half of the 19th century. Philbrick is an excellent writer and historian. I think I enjoyed his descriptions of Nantucket more than the sea story itself. I worked on Nantucket for six years (summers, as a deckhand on the ferry) and while its fishy history has always been in the back of my mind, I had no idea about the social dynamics of the island, the strength of the women who ran the local economy while the men were off on their two to three year voyages, and the immense wealth accumulated by the Quakers.

Nantucket in the 19th and 18th centuries was the Silicon Valley of its day. Ship owners like Obed Macy and the Howlands of New Bedford were the venture capitalists of their time, seeking at least a 25% profit on their ventures — ventures which personified the meaning of risk. The crews and their captains were among the best traveled, culturally aware men of their time, discovering new islands in the south Pacific, as they chased the dwindling whales around the world, up into the Arctic.

Philbrick has me all fired up to turn Chatfield into a book.

You Can’t Go Home Again – Thomas Wolfe

I’ve been working my way through Thomas Wolfe’s last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, for the past few weeks, reserving it for flights to and from North Carolina as a way to while away the time. I just finished it and feel a sadness for having done so, somethingI haven’t felt for some time from a piece of literature.

The old clich√© of the “Great American Novel” comes to mind; Wolfe avidly pursued it, as no one has before or since, and in places, actually quite a few places, he manages to write it. His descriptions of New York City during the Great Depression rival, and outrank Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. His Whitmanesque elegies to the vastness of America, the rawness of the countryside, the power of the cities, the perspective an expatriate has of the nation looking homeward from a Europe poised on the brink of war, is a very fine thing indeed.

Time has not treated Wolfe well. Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway held their own through the decades following this Golden Age of American Literature, but Wolfe fell by the wayside, his reputation perhaps diminished by the perception that he was highly edited (by the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner, then Edward Aswell at Harper), unstructured, and completely autobiographical. The balls of the man, who threw his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina to the world, naming names as it were, in his first novel, Look Homeward Angel, is amazing, the quintessential proof that a novelist makes no friends in mining the stuff of his or her own life and relations in building their masterpieces.

There are so many great passages, so many great lines, it is staggering to consider that Aswell assembled You Can’t Go Home Again from an eight foot packing case of notes and 35 notebooks. The sadness of the conclusion and the foreknowledge of Wolfe in the conclusion, in predicting his own death, is wrenching:

“Something has spoke to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year, something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where.”

And so he died at the age of 38 of tuberculosis.