Roger Miller

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Title color is not the only significant thing shared by Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, two wildly different American novels from different periods of the 19th century.

They also share a preoccupation with guilt in Red Badge Henry Fleming's guilt over not living up to his ideal of battlefield honor, and in Scarlet Letter Hester Prynne's guilt over her adultery, for which she is forced to wear the infamous scarlet "A." And, consequently, a preoccupation with judgment and condemnation: Henry judges and condemns himself; Hester is judged and condemned by others.

Another noteworthy feature these two novels share is that both are among the first titles issued by the Modern Library in a new series of paperback classics. Each month the Modern Library is bringing out six titles, each with a reading group guide and a new introduction by a prominent contemporary author.

The series includes some particularly interesting pairings of current authors and classic books. Journalist turned novelist Anna Quindlen has contributed an introduction for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice; acclaimed novelist, conservationist, and nature writer Peter Matthiessen writes on Walden, Thoreau's classic examination of the rewards of living a simple life; and Diane Johnson, who has chronicled 20th century manners in her novels, will introduce two volumes by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

For Red Badge, historian and novelist Shelby Foote provides a critical and literary-historical introduction that not only analyzes key parts of the novel but also fills us in on the salient facts of Crane's life. Novelist Kathryn Harrison (best known for The Kiss, her account of an incestuous affair with her father) contributes an introduction to Scarlet Letter that is purely critical, not biographical. Both introductions, however, are excellent.

There are further similarities, greater and lesser, between the two novels. Both are short, which makes them among the most teachable of novels. The allegorical nature of Scarlet Letter can be a trove for those few remaining high schoolers willing to put up with being told to dig for buried treasure in American lit. Red Badge, too, is extremely accessible; the crisis facing its protagonist Crane said later he intended to create a "a psychological portrayal of fear" is so painfully plain as to need no explanation for the modern reader.

Therein lies the chief difference, other than their core subjects, between these two classics. Though separated by only 45 years, their approach and style are as different as chalk and cheese.

Scarlet Letteris a dreamscape where "names are clues," as Harrison says in her introduction; for instance, Arthur Dimmesdale (dim) and Roger Chillingworth (chilling). In Red Badge, nearly all names have been eliminated from a battle that for all its realism seems like a bad dream from which Henry struggles to awaken.

Consider this: Though a war novel, the war is never identified, aside from the subtitle, "An Episode of the American Civil War," which Crane added later. He never identifies the site of the battle, though Foote tells us in the introduction that it is Chancellorsville. Only two place names, Washington and Richmond, are mentioned, and no historical figures. This stylistic reticence extends to characters. Throughout, Crane refers to the main character as "the youth." Others are called "the tall soldier" or "the loud one." We only learn their names when other characters speak to or about them.

Foote calls this reticence "a masking device that magnified even as it concealed." Frank Norris, a contemporary of Crane's, said simply that Crane "knew when to shut up." Crane's sensibility, 105 years later, still is modern to us.

Well, we could bounce down the stairs of similarities, differences, and coincidences till the cows come home. At bottom, what unites the two novels is art. We could define art till the cows come home, too, but till they do this remark from Harrison's introduction is remarkably appropriate to both books: "What we ask of art is that it show us our hopeless tasks, that it shatter the smooth face of convention and reveal the dark longings of the unconscious."

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

Title color is not the only significant thing shared by Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, two wildly different American novels from different periods of the 19th century. They also share a preoccupation with guilt in Red Badge Henry Fleming's guilt over not living up to his ideal […]
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Along with everything else about the Korean War, the 406 men of Task Force Smith are little remembered now. They are not bathed in the reverential glow of a Pearl Harbor. They have no influential organizations to remind their country that they, too, once stood like Horatius at the bridge. They are merely 406 human pieces of the multitude of forgotten pieces that make up the Forgotten War.

Task Force Smith was a motley collection of scared young men from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, thrown hastily into the breach a few days after the Communist North Koreans invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Ill-prepared, under-trained, pulled from comfortable occupation duty in Japan, they were the first American forces flung into the onrushing North Korean tide. They got swamped.

Do not expect great, national patriotic observances of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Do not expect an outpouring of stories and interviews in the press. Do not expect extensive television coverage. The war's aging veterans do not expect it. They have grown used to not expecting.

Do not expect, either, a burst of books such as greeted the 50th anniversary of nearly every historic turning of the Second World War. The Korean War has long been a non-starter as far as publishers are concerned. But the Free Press, fortunately, has had the grace and wisdom to bring out Stanley Weintraub's MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero.

MacArthur's War is an extended slam at General of the Army Douglas MacArthur by a highly respected historian who has a string of books to his credit (including several on war-related subjects) and who is himself a Korean War veteran. Weintraub does not come up with anything new, but marshals the existing evidence in the case against MacArthur in a more extended and focused manner than anyone has done before the case being that MacArthur took a war that was his to win and, through his megalomania and overweening sense of destiny and self-importance, turned it into a military and political quagmire.

The author does not deny MacArthur's great accomplishments. His proconsulship over United States-occupied Japan had been good for the country. When war came to Korea and he was given authority to act, he acted swiftly. His decision to make an amphibious landing at Inchon three months into the war, perceived by all his military advisers as madness, turned out to be a masterstroke.

But beyond that, oh my. The list of blunders seems endless: MacArthur's decision to commit troops piecemeal, against all military rules. Likewise his decision to divide the command in Korea between two forces, Eighth Army and X Corps. His "running the war by remote control from Japan." His insubordination to civilian and military authorities, to whom he routinely lied or failed to tell the whole truth. His continual overstepping of restrictions on pursuing the war in North Korea.

Worst of all was MacArthur's stance toward Taiwan (then known as Formosa) and Communist China. MacArthur was fixated on the twin topics of unleashing Chiang Kai-shek's troops on Taiwan to fight in Korea, and on expanding the war into China.

Another historian, Bevin Alexander, has said there were two wars in Korea: one against the North Koreans, which the U.N. forces won, and one against the Chinese, who poured into Korea to protect their threatened homeland, which they did not win. MacArthur wouldn't settle for limited victory, and, Weintraub writes, "almost every day saw another attempt by MacArthur to sabotage efforts to bargain for a compromise end to the war."

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty manner before a fall, Scripture says. And how. MacArthur's insubordination grew so outrageous that in April 1951 President Harry Truman sacked him. After a brief, giddy period during which his devoted followers hailed him as a demigod (or higher), MacArthur, in a phrase from his own famous speech, faded away.

As have the veterans of the war he bungled. Weintraub believes the war was worth fighting and that it reached its minimal objectives, and has no sympathy with "apologists and revisionists in the West" who buy North Korea's version of events. He laments the fact that Korea's missing in action have been forgotten (unlike the far fewer MIAs of Vietnam) along with their more fortunate comrades who marched out of the war and into anonymity. Attention must be paid.

Roger K. Miller, a Wisconsin freelance writer, is writing a novel based on the life of a U.S. Army rifleman from Pennsylvania who died in a POW camp in North Korea.

Along with everything else about the Korean War, the 406 men of Task Force Smith are little remembered now. They are not bathed in the reverential glow of a Pearl Harbor. They have no influential organizations to remind their country that they, too, once stood like Horatius at the bridge. They are merely 406 human […]
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"The average man doesn't want to be free," H.L. Mencken said. "He simply wants to be safe." The Sage of Baltimore, so irritatingly right in so many things, is probably also right in this. The average man is not an American Indian, however, and the American Indian, I must conclude after reading On the Rez, Ian Frazier's book about the Oglala Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, is not the average man. It is the Indian's self-possessed sense of freedom that Frazier says makes him want to be an Indian, in his own peculiar way. He's not the only one; Indians, he says, understand that many visitors to reservations have a vaguely formed wish that they could be Indians. Maybe it's that sense of freedom that causes about 100,000 Germans a month, as I recently read elsewhere, to dress up as American Indians and attend gatherings to study the American West and Indian culture. Or maybe, as the folk song has it, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

Frazier quotes a Jesuit brother (a non-Indian) who works at an Indian school near the reservation: "It's remarkable, really when you think about it, how much of their tribal culture the Sioux have retained. Far more than other ethnic groups have," the Jesuit says. It doesn't seem remarkable to me. When you're poor, badly treated, and lack opportunities, clinging to your roots and to something that makes you special is entirely understandable. If you've nothing left to lose, hang on to what can't be taken away. Whether or not Indians are free, they definitely are not safe. Murder and other violence, high infant mortality, shorter than average life expectancy, alcoholism, suicide (especially among youth) that reaches epidemic proportions all these and more fill the lives of Oglala Sioux. They are especially prone to death in automobile accidents.

Whose fault is this? Each person is responsible for his or her own life, of course. But Indians have been cheated, lied to, stolen from, defrauded, betrayed, murdered, dispossessed and discriminated against ever since the first Indian-robber stepped upon these shores. The safe average man would find it tough going to exercise his individual responsibility under those conditions. It's still going on. Whenever the Indian has something valuable, the government (fronting for commercial interests) steps in to take it away or restrict it. In the past it was land. Later it was hunting and fishing rights. More recently it has been gambling casinos. "No tribal enterprise in history has succeeded even remotely as well as tribal casinos," Frazier writes. So the states, lusting after this untaxable loot, pressed Congress into passing a law giving them some control over the casinos and forcing Indians to negotiate with them. The Navajo, realizing that when you sup with the devil no spoon is long enough, have consistently rejected casinos because of their diminishment of Indian sovereignty. But On the Rez is not just the latest litany of horrors visited upon aboriginal Americans. It is primarily a personal book a most agreeable and eccentric grab bag of a book, loosely drawn shut and with odd bulges whose chief purpose is to be a big fat Valentine to the Oglala Sioux. "Of course I want to be like Indians," Frazier says. "I've looked up to them all my life." To deliver the Valentine he flings himself upon his horse and rides madly off in all directions. The main direction, though, is determined by his good friend Le War Lance (a.k.a. Leonard Thomas Walks Out), a genial bullthrower and scrounge.

Frazier continually gives him and his friends and family money less, it seems, out of white guilt than simple brotherly love and listens to his self-image-enhancing tall tales, which incredibly often turn out to have a strong core of truth. Though Le sometimes makes him uneasy, Frazier never judges him, just as he never indulges in the white penchant for telling Indians how to get with the program. Of all the facts and statistics in this book, the most telling, I think, is this contrast: Pine Ridge village and the county containing it are year after year the poorest spots in the United States. The richest spots are the areas surrounding Washington, D.C. The richest and poorest both get their money from the federal government. Some people get to milk that cow from the right side.

Roger K. Miller, a member of no tribe but the Anglo-Saxon, is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

"The average man doesn't want to be free," H.L. Mencken said. "He simply wants to be safe." The Sage of Baltimore, so irritatingly right in so many things, is probably also right in this. The average man is not an American Indian, however, and the American Indian, I must conclude after reading On the Rez, […]
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What is a, if not the, hallmark of a mystery novel? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: as Raymond Chandler is my witness, it's muddle. Sometimes, as with Chandler, it's nearly impenetrable muddle, and sometimes, as with Dorothy L. Sayers, it's logical muddle (oxymoronic though that may sound). But either way, when it's done well, as those two writers do it, it's satisfying muddle for the reader.

Does muddle sound like a pejorative comment, as if the author didn't know what he was doing? Why should it? Life's a muddle, an only partially successful attempt to impose order upon disorder. We can't really know what's going to happen next, and often we don't know the reasons for what happened before. Most often, there are none.

The perfect conditions, in other words, for mystery, as William Boyd has learned well. A writer who has turned his hand to everything from the comic (A Good Man in Africa) to the historical (The New Confessions), he now turns it, in Armadillo, to what amounts to a mystery.

The author lays out the question up front, in the novel's epigraph from W.V. Quine's From Stimulus to Science: There are surprises, and they are unsettling. How can we tell when we are right? We are faced with the problem of error. The person chiefly faced with this unsettling condition of life, this problem of error, is Lorimer Black, the armadillo of the title. Boyd also helpfully provides a dictionary definition of armadillo: little armed man. That's our Lorimer, so obsessed with the notion of protection that he collects ancient armor helmets. He carefully makes minute alterations in his dress and appearance because [t]hey functioned, in a way, as a form of invisible armor.

Except that it's not Lorimer; it's Milomre Blocj, born in England of Romanian Gypsies. (The 'j' is silent and there is a dot under the 'c,' Lorimer's father would constantly explain.) The difficulty of pronouncing his birth name is not the only reason Lorimer changed it. He is fascinated with name-changing. It seems to be another form of armor.

Protection from what? On one level, from his unpolished family, particularly his loutish brother, Slobodan. More essentially, going back to the issue raised in the epigraph, from uncertainty. It is his consciousness of uncertainty, we can say with some certainty, that makes it difficult for Lorimer to sleep.

Because Lorimer works in a business that ostensibly provides a measure of certainty in an uncertain world: insurance. Except he is what his boss calls the rogue element in insurance. He is a loss adjuster. He investigates large insurance claims for fraud. It pays him well. It's not the business that causes his uncertainty; he's in the business because of his affinity for uncertainty.

Lately, however, a more immediate form of uncertainty has entered his life, stemming from a fire at a hotel under construction. He successfully challenges the multimillion-pound claim on the grounds of arson and reaps a nice bonus for his efforts.

He also reaps a number of enemies from among those who stood to gain from the claim. Then things turn queer. Despite Lorimer's triumph, his boss, aptly named Hogg, begins to turn against him. His car is blow-torched, probably by a disgruntled insurance claimant. He is mugged, perhaps by the husband of an actress named Flavia he is besotted with, perhaps by the insurance claimant. Then, even queerer, those who had been outraged by the denial of their insurance claim are suddenly quite amiable, and Hogg acts aggressively suspicious of him. Is some sort of double-cross being worked here? Is Lorimer being set up? It grows increasingly unclear who is doing what to whom and why.

From a position of steady normality . . . he now found himself adrift in uncertainty and chaos, we are told. And, to a South African businessman who mysteriously enters, and further muddles, the picture, he remarks, "As I keep saying to people: I simply don't understand what's going on." Never fear, though, he figures it out. He also figures out a way to protect his scapegoat hide from those who apparently want to nail it to the jailhouse door.

It would be unfair to reveal more. After all, this novel, for all its stylishness, is at bottom a mystery with clues for each reader to work out. It's not too much to say, however, that Lorimer also gets the girl. Or so it would seem. There's always that element of uncertainty.

 

Roger Miller is a freelance writer in Janesville, Wisconsin.

What is a, if not the, hallmark of a mystery novel? I've said it before, and I'll say it again: as Raymond Chandler is my witness, it's muddle. Sometimes, as with Chandler, it's nearly impenetrable muddle, and sometimes, as with Dorothy L. Sayers, it's logical muddle (oxymoronic though that may sound). But either way, when […]

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