Saturday, August 23, 2014

Holling C. and Lucille Holling: The Book of Indians

From Walter Giersbach. You may also want to read Giersbach's essay on Holling and his Paddle to the Sea from April 2008.

The Book of Indians:
Working from Points of Authenticity

I’ve eagerly anticipated reviewing The Book of Indians.  But first I had to buy the book ($12, used, through Amazon).  And read it, pushing aside other commitments.  And doing some background investigation.

It’s necessary to begin by repeating that Holling and his wife Lucille were, among all their other qualities, authentic writers, illustrators, naturalists and historians.  After marrying in 1925, they traveled extensively throughout the Southwest.  (Holling’s first exposure had been a year-long stay in New Mexico after graduating college in 1923.)

Their work reflected their knowledge, as described by Hazel Gibb Hinman in her Master’s thesis in 1958.  She reports that in 1929, they stayed at the Nine Quarter Circle guest ranch northwest of Yellowstone Park, helping design the buildings.  Traveling that winter up to Alberta, Canada, they took a tepee for camping.  (Going to search for tent poles, they came back to find tribeswomen had already set up their tent.)  After returning to the ranch to finish their work, they went on to Lubbock, Texas, to paint murals.  Then it was out to California, sketching and writing, with their Coleman stove, tent and camping equipment.  Never staying overlong in one place, they drove back to Phoenix at rodeo time where they drew and painted, selling their work to finance their travels.  (Ms. Hinman notes that in 1934 Holling demonstrated his fire-making skills at a luncheon lecture, starting a fire with two sticks in just seven minutes and so impressing a club member that he asked Holling to design his restaurant.)

That was just the winter of 1929, and all the while Holling and Lucille were making notes and sketches for two collaborative landmark books, The Book of Indians, (published in 1935 by Platt & Munk) and The Book of Cowboys (published a year later).

The Book of Indians attempts a grand perspective on North American tribes people in 13 chapters:  An introduction into the “types of Indians living in different kinds of country,” four chapters about the home life of children and eight chapters relating their adventures.  The book is essentially divided geographically among People of the Forests and Lakes, the Plains, the Deserts and Mesas, and the Rivers and the Seas

There are six beautiful colored illustrations in the plein-art style of the Southwest, plus many, many  sidebar illustrations of children, their homes, tools and weapons, graphic artwork, and animals.  The sepia pen-and-ink style drawings make a reader linger and digest each detail of the small pictures in the margins.

A critical element of this children’s book is the cultural and historical distinctions made by the Hollings.  The Native American nations were as different as the European countries, and this is explained in the first chapter.  Most dramatically, the Plains Indians changed radically from planters to hunters when horses were introduced in the 1600s.  The horse might well have been the cultural equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

I believe we can forgive someone writing in the 1930s about misconceptions that today would be viewed as culturally suspect.  Columbus did not think he had arrived in India.  (The Spanish term might originally have been hijos in Dios—children of God.)  And when a tribes person died it’s insensitive to say “He went to the Happy Hunting Ground.”  But these lapses are rare in comparison to the facts that abound: how teepees are constructed and how they evolved, tool-making, housing adapted to the environment, and plant life that forms lifestyles.  Happily, the Hollings provide a glossary of 31 words any pre-teen child should be familiar with.

The Book of Indians is first and foremost educational — and of particular value to home-schooled children.  The writing is generally expository, with touches of drama to make the lesson more amiable.  The narratives of the children, who are the main characters driving each of the geographical sections, are somewhat two-dimensional.  In this, Holling’s narrative ability developed tremendously in the decade until Paddle-to-the-Sea was published.  However, the Indian children’s plotting and personalities do grow toward the end when Raven joins the whale hunt and almost drowns (pp. 109-110) and when the slave child Cedar Bough negotiates her freedom by finding a great cache of copper (pp. 115-118).

The success of Holling’s writing also lies in its simplicity.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea has a Fog Index of 6.9, meaning 91% of everyday words we use are more difficult to read.  His Flesch Reading Index score is 75.2, meaning 90% of other vocabulary is harder.  (A Flesch score of 90-100 means the writing is understood by an average 11-year-old.)  And no one complains because something is too simple.  Or because it lacks entertainment.  So generations return to Holling Clancy Holling’s remarkable writing — and his wife’s collaborative illustration — year after year.

July 7, 2014

Graham Greene's The Tenth Man

Walter Giersbach reviews Graham Greene. You can (will be happy to) find more writings by Walter Giersbach at

What Would You Trade for Your Life?

Graham Greene is a truly amazing writer for having “outlined” a novella — 30,000 words — that lay fallow from 1948 until it was discovered at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1987 and finally published.

“The Tenth Man” takes place in wartime France.  Thirty men have been imprisoned by the Gestapo, who insist three must die — the prisoners are to choose which.  Jean-Louis Charlot, the lawyer, trades his marked ballot in return for giving another prisoner his house and all his belongings.  Upon being released, Charlot drifts back to the home he once owned to find young Thérèse and her aged mother (the dead man’s sister and mother) occupying the estate.

Never admitting who he is, Charlot receives all the anger the young woman has for the man who bargained away her brother’s life.

Without reprising the plot — the criminal who appears claiming he was the rightful owner of the estate and who accuses Charlot of being the charlatan and two other characters who are simply plot devices — this story offers a tight examination of guilt and the search for absolution.  Greene presents a deep examination of remorse and redemption within a tightly written plot of accusations, deception and lies.  The writing is extremely tight, with no extraneous description that doesn’t move the plot forward.

A specific time period frames the story, when the Nazis still occupied France, but it is a universal story of fear and cowardice that leads to spiritual emancipation.

You will remember Greene, probably, for his “Our Man in Havana” and “The Quiet American,” both of which were made into movies with, respectively, Alec Guinness and Michael Caine.  It was while Greene was working on “The Third Man” under contract with MGM that he remembers dashing off the story line of “The Tenth Man.”  Thirty-five years later, MGM (which owned the copyright) had the book published, with Greene’s revisions.  Is it too late for MGM or another studio or film maker to put this story on the screen?  Like much of Greene’s writing, it is a timely story for our times.

MIkhail Epstein: Tranformative Humanities: A Manifesto

 I am beginning Mikhail Epstein’s Transformative Humanities for the second time. My plan is to write something about each chapter. Looking back to April 2013, you’ll find a post on Epstein's Chapter 6, entitled "Semiurgy: From Language Analysis to Language Synthesis,"chapter. But I am starting over again with the introduction. You can find Professor Epstein’s smiling and friendly face on the Web. At his Emory University Website you might sum up his areas of expertise, by using the old fashioned term Renaissance individual: “cultural and literary theory; the history of Russian literature (especially Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and 20th century poetry); contemporary philosophy and religion; Western and Russian postmodernism; new methods and interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities; semiotics; modalities; lexicology and neologisms; ideological discourse; ideas and electronic media.” Many of these interests, especially, Western and Russian postmodernism through to electronic media are evident in the “Introduction” to his work. Professor Epstein was born in 1950 in Moscow, and, according to his “brief biography” at, he graduated from Moscow State University in 1972. From 1978 he was a member of the Union of Soviet Writers specifically for literary studies and criticism, the founder and director of the  Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow. In 1990 he moved to the United States.

Something that comes across strongly in the opening pages of Epstein’s book is a sense of optimism not only for the humanities but maybe even for humanity.  In short, the humanities should be about becomings and initiations, rather than “a consummated past” (19).

Epstein considers the “crisis” in the humanities, and reviews some of its practitioner's more pessimistic prognostications. He suggests that alienation has long been a trait of humanists, who saw themselves as outside of a production and consuming, materialist world. Epstein suggests that this is no longer a meaningful stance to take, because we now live in a world where “ideas rather than material riches makes up the wealth of society” (3). [I’ll have to give this a little thought—we do claim to live in an information world, but consumption of and amassing of material goods is still very much part our society]. If this is the case, humanists gain nothing by cultivating a sense of alienation from the societies of which they are a part…what if humanities were viewed as fully integral parts of the societies  from which they have been in long opposition, what would that mean for the humanities? For the world?

Epstein calls out the humanities for having taken a turn away from the study of humans to the study of texts. “Humanities stopped being human studies and became textual studies” (2). Criticism rather than creativity became the focus. You could say that the humanities lost site of the power of texts to transform humans, to impart ideas that make us more human as we learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. If the text is the subject and the object, can there be transformation, can the world be changed?

While the humanities seek to, in some respects, imitate the sciences, the sciences, claims Epstein, are looking to concepts from the humanities. In coming to an understanding of the universe, in the development of artificial intelligence, in the exploration of consciousness, the sciences need the humanities for its fuzziness, metaphor, concepts of free will, language, investigation of ethical and theological problems, creativity, and intuition. How can one even begin to conceive of and describe the extent and nature of an infinite universe without imagination and metaphor? In considering the humanities' tension between criticism and creativity, he suggests a new term, techno-humanities, which would encourage a move toward the ancient Greek term techne, defined as craftsmanship. As such, techno-humanities aligns the humanities not with the sciences but with artistic creativity, with the power of imagination and the ability to create new concepts that will lead to new ways of thinking and newly constructed paths.  Thinking of creation as opposed to criticism, Epstein considers the manifesto. Manifestos propose something new, not yet realized. They are not written by scholars nor are they a result of scholarship, they are acts of creative inventorship that have the power to transform institutions, create movements, foment ideas, and lead to entirely new disciplines. As a rule, we are not taught to write manifestos in academia.

Techno-humanities and inventorhsip are two of Epsteins’ Futurlogisms: new words that embrace concepts that do not as yet exist. Some of the terms he offers up in the introduction are culturonics and pragmo-humanities, techno-humanities as already mentioned, and of course, transformative humanities. A futurlogism is a one word manifesto. In turn, Epstein tells us that a manifesto is a book length futurlogism.

Finally, Epstein does not see the machine as the enemy to humanities, rather it is a tool; a prospect for innovation.  Indeed, the mechanical manipulation of texts by scholars can leave the humanities still mired within the realm of textual studies, still missing the link to how engagement with texts can lead to the transformation of our understanding of self and human society.  The tools enable the scholar to “ask new questions” of the text, but where do the answers lead?  Epstein wants us to expand our language, create words that help us to envision new meaning and that lead us from ourselves to the rest of the world and back to ourselves. This journey should leave us transformed and make it possible for us to transform the world we live in.

Epstein concludes the introduction with the following questionsj (20):

What makes a theory interesting?
How can these criteria be equally applied to a work of fiction and to a work of scholarship?
What is the modality of humanistic discourse?
Why does the category of possibility acquire a new meaning in contemporary philosophy?
What is understood by research in academia and why should the acquisition of knowledge as its goal be complemented, in our professional orientation, with the value of conceptually creative and hypothetical thinking?