Many know the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but few know of its underlying Puritan foundation, expressed in Daniel Read’s 1785 shape-note hymn, Windham, based on lyrics by Isaac Watts. As the first stanza proclaims:
Broad is the way that leads to death
And thousands walk together there;
But wisdom shows a narrow path,
With here and there a traveler.
Frost, in contrast, has none of that grim Calvinist view, one that leads the next stanza to open, “Deny thyself and take thy cross,” and builds to a closing plea, “Create my heart entirely new, which hypocrites could ne’er obtain, which false apostates never knew.”
I can say that singing Windham in a choir is a rigorous experience. And, my, it feels incredible to bite on that final phrase, self-righteous though it can be.
Others can debate which piece better expresses New England terroir, but in contrast to Frost and his leisurely stroll in autumn foliage, I’d say the ideal embedded in the hymn remains the road less taken. Winter here is a much, much longer season than the fleeting falling of leaves..
Textbook versions of history gloss over a lot of details, especially when it comes to the lives of common people rather than the powerful and rich. The biographies of great figures add to that top-down perspective.
One of the things I love about genealogy, especially in nonconformist traditions or ethnic subcultures, is the way it opens alternative understandings of the hopes, dreams, and struggles of life outside of the spotlight.
I look for it in fiction, too, as well as poetry.
My own novel What’s Left springs from that kind of investigation from a Greek-American experience. My new The Secret Side of Jaya adds three other takes from the agricultural prairie, the Ozarks, and finally Native American strands.
Maybe histories aren’t always told by the victors. Not if you look closer or take a longer timespan.
Millions of people ride the subways each day, and many of them read English. In fact, you’ll see many of them are deep into books as they’re transported. Yet I’m surprised how little writing reflects this experience. Where else can you see so much humanity sitting right in front of you or dashing past?
Well, my Subway Visions tries to convey my experiences, real and imagined.
Two significant nonfiction books are Jennifer Toth’s 1993 The Mole People, based on her year of reporting on the plight of the homeless people who took to living in the tunnels under Manhattan in the Reagan years, and Jacqueline Cangro’s The Subway Chronicles, a collection of essays by the likes of Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose, Calvin Trillin, and Lawrence Block. By the way, Block admits a fondness for including subway scenes in his prolific output of novels.
My survey of ebooks at Smashwords has added others to the list, not all of them in New York City. One tells of a year playing music in New York’s stations. Another of collecting umbrellas in Tokyo. There is a fondness for seeing the underground as the gates of hell, with one volume in particular standing out as a masterful fantasy that’s meticulously researched.
Word on the street reports that with all of this downtime, wannabe novelists have turned to the No. 1 topic of conversation as their prompt, and already literary agents and editors are turning off at the first reference to coronavirus.
My take? Besides the fact a reader can devour only so many volumes, even if interested?
I think it’s too early to tell the story. We’re only in the opening round of this affliction, which was supposed to drop off in the face of warmer weather. Only it hasn’t. Let’s see what happens around the corner, likely the real whammer come September.
Though, as one writing buddy suggests, that first book could be the beginning of a series, if you do it right.
When I was reflecting on genres for my novels What’s Left and Nearly Canaan, I found myself perplexed that Young Adult Fiction is geared mainly for preteens and early teens. Nothing adult about the books at all. What happened to Truth in Advertising? And that’s before getting to the reality that a preponderance of the books falls into romance, fantasy, paranormal, sci fi, or some mixture of them. The master John Green seems to be the big exception.
The genre Coming of Age is too cliché, especially when a work stretches into the main character’s 30s, but I am intrigued by what happens to many young adults in their years between college and raising children. For some, it’s a pretty intense struggle of establishing a career and a solid partnership, one where values also are in conflict.
That’s what I would expect of the New Adult category. Instead, it’s typically more romance, fantasy, paranormal, and sci fi, straight or blended. Especially Romance.
So where would the big books of broader content go?
As my reviews at my Jnana Hodson at Smashwords page reveal, I’m not averse to reading good entries in the genre – some are actually quite delightful and instructive. It’s just that I keep hoping for more that stretch higher.
My Yoga Bootcamp novel, and its earlier incarnation, Ashram, seem to sit in a rather slim niche on the bookshelf. There’s simply not a lot of fiction reflecting the experience. Devan Malore’s The Churning is among the exceptions.
Most of the books I’m finding are nonfiction, often dry doctrinaire texts from the perspective of a particular lineage. For that matter, relatively little is about the physical exercises, or hatha yoga.
With the fiction I have found, a handful books have yoga as central to the events, and each one is different. Not all of them head off to India, either. Some have a strong element of fantasy, while others are about living in the everyday world, often humorously. Well, and then there’s romance. I still think there’s more to be told, given the popularity of the practice.
In my four Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, Cassia’s father is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar as well as a noted photographer. There’s even a rumor he was accidentally reincarnated in Iowa rather than in the Himalayas.
In my survey of other ebooks at Smashwords, I’ve found a range of helpful books on Buddhism. Most are of the nonfiction variety, but some tell of personal experience more than textbook classifications. A few even go for flip, self-deprecating humor. Especially illuminating are the ones by Westerners who have long practice to draw on.
Of the lines of teaching, my bias has long been toward Zen, with its spare aesthetic, and Tibetan, which is far more liturgical, esoteric, and colorful. In fact, the more I investigate, the more I’m convinced that Tibetan is a lot like Greek Orthodox Christianity (as I intuitively assumed when drafting my first novel). Zen, meanwhile, is more like Quaker Christianity – something others have also noted.
Without getting technical, what I’ve found most informative in my recent readings is the much different nature of the Buddhism that headed from India into Indochina rather than the branch that headed north in China and then on to Tibet, on one side, or Japan, on the other.
As I’ve previously posted, social critic Tom Wolfe was perplexed that the hippie era didn’t produce any great novels. He’s wrong, of course, starting with Norman Gurney’s deceptively modest Divine Right’s Trip.
Reactions to earlier Red Barn posts suggested that many of the most influential books were nonfiction, including Wolfe’s own Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test but extending to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the Whole Earth Catalogs and a whole lot more.
But there was notable fiction, beginning with Edward Abbey, John Nichols, and Richard Brautigan.
More recently I’ve come across ebooks at Smashwords that attempt to reflect the wide variations in experiences of the era.
One, for instance, takes a hermit’s perspective in retreating to the mountains outside Los Angeles. Another, the trials of being an activist. Yet another, the life of sex and drugs. And then there’s the spiritual trip. We even have descriptions of living the life in the deep South. You get the picture. Hippies came (and still come) in many varieties. No one size fits all, and I doubt any one novel could cover the range.
Naturally, I have my own fiction entries yet to be considered.
I’ve mentioned the deep revisions What’s Left underwent on its way to its current incarnation. Most of the work was done entirely on the computer, but a few rounds on paper helped, too. Here’s a sample from maybe Round Nine.