A Journey Away from Youth

“The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje is a story about an 11-year-old boy who boards a ship to England and encounters many adventures along the way. In the beginning of the book the narrator, Michael, seems to be describing a disconnection between who we were as children and who we have become. In the opening paragraphs he says, “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was,” suggesting that he is perpetually traveling further away from his childhood.
By attempting to remember this younger person, Michael may be reflecting on choices he has made throughout his life. Looking back would he like the person he became? Would he recognize the person he was as a child and would they still have anything in common?
A passage later in the novel suggests that falling in love is dangerous and it is something you should be saved from. This comes from a letter from Perinetta to Emily years after their time on the Oronsay.

“Where are you, dear Emily? Will you send me your address, or
write to me? I wrote this to give-to you during our time on the
Oronsay. Because, as I said, I had become aware that like me
in my youth, you were under someone’s spell. And I thought I
could save you. I’d seen you with Sunil from the Jankla Troupe,
and it seemed you were caught up in something dangerous.
But I never gave it to you. I feared . . . I don’t know. All these
years I have wondered about you. If you got free. I know that I
became for a while dark and bitter to myself, till I escaped that
circular state. “Despair young and never, look back,” an Irishman
said. And this is what I did.
Write to me,
Perinetta”
The letter from Perinetta signals a shift in the novel. The letter is written years after their journey on the Oronsay, instead of living the journey as children they are making sense of what they saw on the ship. Falling in love is a sign that you are moving away from childhood and beginning a new chapter in life. In her letter Perinetta says that she wonders it Emily ever “got free,” as if love is something that traps her. When Perinetta quotes an Irishman saying, “Despair young and never, look back,” it is indicating that when you lose youth never look back which would suggest that coming into adulthood is something to look forward to. However, the author has placed punctuation between the words “never” and “look” which create two different thoughts entirely. By separating the two thoughts the reader could come away thinking that the Irishman meant, never lose youth and look back often. If that were indeed what the author meant to do it would tie the reader back to the first paragraphs where the narrator reminisces about the boy who was on the ship.

Who is Charles Dickens?

The New York Review of Books article, “Who is Charles Dickens,” by Robert Gottlieb, reviews several biographies of Charles Dickens. This reading caught my eye immediately because it was easy to relate to a discussion we had in class. In one of the opening paragraphs Gottlieb states:

“There are a few writers whose lives and personalities are so large, so fascinating, that there’s no such thing as a boring biography of them—you can read every new one that comes along, good or bad, and be caught up in the story all over again.”

Gottlieb makes a remarkable statement about Dickens in that paragraph. In class we joked that in order to be a good writer you must live a boring life. Good writers typically spend their time writing which limits their ability to do anything worth writing about in a biography, one would think. Gottlieb’s statement, however, depicts Dickens as being so extraordinary that even a poorly written biography about him is worth reading. Gottlieb quotes Longfellow who wrote after Dickens death that

“I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning” […]“It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”

For Longfellow to say an entire country is grief-stricken because of Dicken’s death is a huge compliment, but it nevertheless sounds overblown. The placement of the quote from Longfellow and the paragraph above is phenomenal. Reading about how interesting and well-respected Dickens was engages the reader and makes them question why he was such a fantastic person to write about; it makes you want to read on.

Yet Gottlieb also reveals that Dickens may not be the loveable, joyous man that England portrayed him to be. After his death Dickens own daughter Katey stated in a letter to George Bernard:

“If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.”
Why would Dickens own daughter make such a request? Some answers to that question may be found in Dickens character David Copperfield. Gottlieb says,

“Forster told the world much that it did not know, most startling the story of the twelve-year-old Charles’s degrading (to him) employment in the blacking warehouse off the Strand to which his family’s near destitution had condemned him. He adapted this experience for David Copperfield, but no one not even his children had known that it was autobiographical.”

The public viewed Dickens as a Robin Hood of his time; he wanted to help the poor and advocated against slavery. In the public eye he was an outstanding citizen and a phenomenal writer. Dickens toured the United States making speeches expressing his opposition to slavery and his support for additional reform. However, the public did not see the person Dickens was behind closed doors. Dicken’s novels, although fictional, reveal a lot about himself. Dickens faced many challenges in his life, and although he was a successful writer, most of his personal relationships were strained and he suffered many loses most notably the death of his daughter. After his daughter’s death Dickens separated from his wife; these events accounted for a shift in his writing. Dickens writing began to reflect a darker world view; perhaps the way he truly viewed the world. A letter to Dicken’s daughter Katey says,

“All I can tell you is that your father was neither a storyteller like Scott, nor a tittle-tattler like Thackeray: he was really a perplexed and amused observer like Shakespear.”

Dickens observed the world and recorded how he perceived things. Dicken’s did not tell stories based on fiction, he wrote from life experiences and his characters reflect who he was; the person he hid from society.

Coming to America

The third letter written in Letters from an American Farmer explains what it is to be an American. Going into the letter I formed an opinion about what I expected to be reading about. I had all the modern day views of what it means to be an American. When I think America I think freedom, democracy, huge cities, Wall Street, fast food and human rights. In this letter I was brought back to the basics and it really made me think about what people had to go through to get us to where we are today. The letter described America as it was when we first got here. There was no government, no kings to answer to. There were no industries to provide us with work. There were no buildings to live in. Letter 49 says,
“The difficulty consists in the manner of viewing so extensive a scene. He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered”
That passage describes America at the beginning, a whole new world; it describes the challenges and excitement people face when they moved to America.
The letter goes on to talk about the mixture of people who were now known as Americans. I think that is something that was very different from what people were used to. The author talks about how the poor and the rich do not seem so set apart now that they are not in Europe. I can’t imagine living in a world that didn’t have any kind of separation of classes. I am sure that there was some distinction between classes when people first settled in America, but really everyone was on the same playing field. It was a chance to start over and a way of making a new and better life for themselves. Letters from an American Farmer explains what it means to be an American; to live equally in a world where everyone has a voice.

Imagination as Truth

John Keats: Letters as Criticism

My initial thought when I read the introductory paragraph before the selections of letters was how surprised I was that Keats was an apprentice to an apothecary-surgeon at the age of 15 It is very impressive that at such a young age Keats was able to understand medical terminology and assist in medical procedures. I was also surprised that Keats left the medical field to become a writer. Keats left the medical field demonstrates how much he loved poetry and writing..
Keats’s letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817 starts off by testifying that he cannot write about a subject because he has not had the proper number of years to study it. I am still unsure of about the subject he was asked to write about, but refusing to complete the assignment shows Keat’s commitement to present information as thourughly and acturatily as possible. Keat’. Keats goes on to say that he is certain of nothing but the truth in imagination. This proclamation may be controversial because it seems as though he is suggesting that imagination and love registers more truth than the dictates of religion.
In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats describes imagination as truth proclaiming that he has yet to find truth in logic. “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning—and yet it must be—Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections—However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”
. This reminds me a lot of the saying that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Keats describes dreams as things that can actually occur in real life, but people need to use their imagination and follow their hearts to achieve their goals. He also makes a valid point that nothing would be accomplished if everyone followed the rules and did everything they way everyone else thought it was suppose to be. If everyone was in agreement that building houses with lights that turned on and off with the flick of a switch, and if nobody ever ventured to try and make electricity a reality, we would still be living by candlelight.