I hadn’t read The Rise of Silas Lapham since graduate school, and I always remembered it as a bit of a bore. Howells’s realism couldn’t compete with Twain’s wit, Norris’s melodrama, Crane’s grit, or James’s psycho-social depth. But I assigned it to students this semester because it fit so well with the topic of the course, the theme of ‘the self-made man.’ When its turn came on the syllabus, I expected to skim it and derive quickly the points to cover in class. But from page 1, the narrative grabbed me. A 25-year-old graduate student suffused with deconstructionist theory and hyper-sophisticated interpretations understandingly judged Howell’s tale pedestrian and conventional. But a 55-year-old teacher dealing with family, money, and career saw something else in Lapham’s home, family, office, and bank accountnamely, an engaging moral drama filled with plausible people doing fateful things.
J. David Nolan
“The continued success of the Amish in transmitting their culture to the upcoming generation” has been Richard A. Stevick’s interest for years. His most recent book on the topic, a second edition of Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years (Johns Hopkins UP), focuses particularly on the challenges new information and social technologies pose to Amish communities.
The Rumspringa years are that time in a young Amish person’s life when he or she mingles with the world before either leaving the community completely or entering the church through baptism. Needless to say, these years tend to cause tension within the tightly knit family groups that characterize these German-speaking American Anabaptistswill the children return to the faith, or will they fall away into the excesses of the world? As things stand, the Amish retention rate is over 80 percent.
Stevick wonders whether this will change as the digital component to the illicit activities undertaken by these “Youngies” grows, and he’s not the only one. Amish parents and ministers worry too. The newness and expansiveness of the Internet, which techies laud, imperils the pedagogical priority of parents, and by extension the church and its authorities. For this reason, along with the fact that Stevick takes religious belief seriously in a way that many social scientists don’t, Growing Up Amish is worth reading.
I am reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. He describes how the invention of the telegraph led to a glut of irrelevant information: reports of far-off news that would shock even readers totally unaffected by it. The world daily produces a thousand outrages, and mass communication ensures that we hear of all the most delicious. But what can we do in response to all these horrors? Where I grew up, people prayed. Where I live now, people signalthat is, use the tragedies as an occasion to display their rectitude and concern (okay, there’s more than a bit of this in prayer requests as well). Such signaling is relatively harmless, but another response to our flood of information is to become an online activist. Much of this work is laudable, no doubt, but some of it, like Racists Getting Fired, is simply a way of demonstrating one’s own righteousness by punishing people uninitiated in campus speech protocols. If only our ability to solemnly deplore the wickedness of the world guaranteed our immunity from it.
At my high school graduation, Mr. Coffin, who had been my English teacher and mentor during those years, handed me a gift. It was the collected poems of Richard Wilbur. Wilbur wasstill is, I thinkone of his favorites; I distinctly remember his reading “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” out loud in class, his voice beginning to crack and his eyes beginning to well up as he neared the last line. The poem hung with my sixteen-year-old self, too, the transcendence of it. It is, as far as I can tell, about a person just waking from sleepnot entirely conscious yet, so that the women doing laundry outside look like angels. I’ve been going back to Wilbur’s poetry recently, but to this poem in particular, I think because it reminds me so much of how I see consecrated religious (and, to some extent, the Christian life in general)living, one might say, always in that moment between sleeping and waking, always “keeping their difficult balance.”