Sin and Civilization: Reading Deeply into the Summer

There is an old adage that the summer vacation was a time for buildings to be empty, not the mind.   So, let salt air, sin, and the fate of civilization fire up the imagination over the coming weeks.

Most readers expect that the tone and pace of a summer book should mark a shift from the measured routine of Autumn, Winter, and Spring. Even for those no longer at school, there is an assumption, a hope that summer will somehow be marked by danger, the unknown, and adventure. Running parallel to our internal rhythms and visceral longings, we expect our summer reading to deliver at least an indirect experience of trial and triumph. What stories might best satisfy such longing?

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
I cannot help but state the case again: Treasure Island is every youth’s best summer book, whether that reader is ten or one hundred. Most individuals think they know the story already—a pirate tale told from the perspective of a boy; a tale soaked with blood and rum, hot with the reek of black powder and the malarial vapors of the tropics. Some assume that its popularity must be attributed to the psychological chord struck in the reader, who quietly pores over a tale of leaving home—separating, though tearfully, from one’s chores, the everyday humdrum of life, and even (perhaps especially) one’s own mother, and taking instead to the world of taverns, tall ships, double-crossings, and life made intense by the close hovering of death.

There is truth in all of that, but I rather think that the deepest chord struck is the realization (or the reminder), that a single man counts, a single boy counts, a single person with determination and a good character counts. The adventures of our lives are never quite what we expect. If they were, they would hardly be adventures. Like young Jim Hawkins, we sit and watch our plans go awry and spend our days “almost a prisoner, but full of sea-dreams and the most charming anticipations of strange islands and adventures.” Literature helps us deal with that charming anticipation, it refines it and often times creates it, so that we—like Jim—are struck at how very unlike and yet like our adventures and our dreams are. Yet the high and noble point of Treasure Island remains this: that in a world marked by sin and folly, a good heart can still prevail and make all the difference.

Recommended edition: Scribner Illustrated Classics/Athenaeum Books (unabridged), Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.

The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Of course, there are other moments for mature readers, where the clear moral memory of Treasure Island does not speak to their situation. There comes the time of gloom and wild doubts. There comes the time when one realizes the deep degree to which the innocent suffer and all humans seem tangled in a black shroud of sin. There comes a time when we cannot summon the power to believe in a golden age anymore; even as the sun shines on our garden, we see rather the shade and dark recesses in the woodland beyond. There comes inevitably the summer rain. For such melancholy moments, Hawthorne is an ideal companion—if you wish to work your way out of melancholy by wandering through it.

The Marble Faun is fantastic novel about four individuals whose fates are tied together in a tale of romance and murder, all vividly set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Rome and the Tuscan countryside of Monte Beni. At the center of the tale is the relationship between the mysterious Miriam, whom gloom follows like a sad bridal train, and Donatello, an Italian aristocrat whose jollity seems bound up with his alleged descent from the fauns of the lost, classical world.   Two American artists, Hilda and Kenyon, try to puzzle out the mysteries of Miriam and Donatello while shouldering the burdens of their own souls. During his lifetime, The Marble Faun was Hawthorne’s best-selling novel. It is not light reading, but rigorous prose and the kind of storytelling that conditions the reader to face hard questions. At the height of his brooding powers, Hawthorne proposes to us that at least some of life’s thorniest questions must be lived with, not answered, and that we best proceed through light and gloom equally, free from the ephemeral thought that rationalism can explain the human condition.

Recommended edition: Houghton Mifflin edition of 1892 with photogravures by A.W. Elson, or simply the Dover Thrift Edition.

Greenmantle by John Buchan
There come times in the summer neither golden nor gloomy—times which call for focus, energy, and decision, when we need an interior jolt to set us upright again. Such a jolt may be supplied by John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Buchan, one the founding fathers of the modern spy novel, is best known for his The Thirty Nine Steps, which introduced readers to Richard Hannay, Scottish-born son of the British Empire who is reluctantly drawn into breaking up a vast conspiracy calculated to demolish the all that he holds dear. As will often prove the case in counter espionage thrillers, the hunter and the hunted are not stable roles in this, or subsequent thrillers.

Greenmantle is the second Hannay novel. Set about a year after The Thirty Nine Steps, the novel opens with the hero convalescing after the battle of Loos (fought between Sept 25th-October 14th, 1915, with nearly 60,000 casualties on the British side). Hannay has more than earned his stripes and is finally at home in England with some leisure.   The book opens with the wonderful line, “I had just finished my breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant’s telegram.” Buchan masterfully evokes how heroism arises from ordinary weary situations, and tough long-lasting decisions must be made at the most inconvenient times.   The moment of peace Hannay so longs for is again and again threatened by peril.   Hannay’s peril is the perpetual peril of civilized order, ever beset by creeping hatred and conspiracy.   Greenmantle’s particular danger is the sudden possibility that the Islamic world will be united by “some tremendous sanction—some holy thing, some book or gospel or prophet from the desert” that will engulf the British empire in flames. Someone must trek across enemy territory, through Europe and into the Middle East to discover the secret that will spark the Islamic world into total war. Hannay is not the only man for the job, but he is the man picked. Much of the novel revolves around Hannay’s glimpsing and reflecting on happiness, and his having a recurring decision forced upon him: on the one hand, a life among everything he knows—pleasant and secure, on the other hand—a mission: grim, uncomfortable, and quite likely to end in shame or death. Along the way, Hannay meets up with the best, motley troop of friends imaginable. If you seek some inspiration, what better than a reminder that western civilization was built and defended by an alliance of weary and comfortable men, who saw something higher—who rose up from their ordinary circumstances and accepted each day to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Recommended Edition: A tattered old copy from last century if you can find it, otherwise the David R. Godine four volume set of Hannay adventures offers the best value in paperback; the Birlinn Ltd. edition is part of a fine series of reprints of the Hannah novels; and the Wordsworth Classics edition has a handsome cover.

(Note: This review follows upon Mr. Fitzpatrick’s earlier list and shall be followed in the hot days of later summer by two further essays by Mssrs. Fitzpatrick and Fahey—WEF). The image above titled “Rome” was painted by Franz Theodor Aerni. 

William Edmund Fahey

By

Dr. William Edmund Fahey is President and Fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

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