3.11.2009

The Wheat and the Cream

I've read a lot of books by now. If the list that follows seems a little indulgent, keep in mind that it feels to me like I've earned it. Here are my top ten favorite sentences in 19th century American literature, #1 being my favorite (I post these even understanding that almost all of them lose their mojo when taken out of context):
10. Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque. (Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat")

9. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall--to picture to ourselves the sickness, and diziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. (E.A. Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym)

8. These things took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter. (Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)

7. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her. (Kate Chopin's The Awakening)

6. For this: that, with some minds, truth is, in effect, not so cruel a thing after all, seeing that, like a loaded pistol found by poor devils of savages, it raises more wonder than terror--its peculiar virtue being unguessed, unless, by indiscreet handling, it should happen to go off of itself. (Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man)

5. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freed-men’s sons by Atlanta University... [and] this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal,--not to earn meat, but to know the end aim of that life which meat nourishes. (W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk)

4. Silence is the only Voice of our God. (Herman Melville's Pierre, or, The Ambiguities)

3. ...behind most [of the faces on the insane in the asylum in church that Sunday], an inferr'd arriere of such storms, such wrecks, such mysteries, fires, love, wrong, greed for wealth, religious problems, crosses--mirror'd from those crazed faces (yet now temporarily so calm, like still waters,) all the woes and sad happenings of life and death--now from every one the devotional element radiating--was it not, indeed, the peace of God that passeth all understanding, strange as it may sound? (Walt Whitman's "Sunday with the Insane," from Specimen Days)

2. It was that dismal certainty of the existence of evil in the world, which, though we may fancy ourselves fully assured of the sad mystery long before, never becomes a portion of our practical belief until it takes substance and reality from the sin of some guide, whom we have deeply trusted and revered, or some friend whom we have dearly loved. (Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun)

1. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indfferent as his God. (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)

I recognize some shortcomings here: #1) I have underrepresented the esoteric or marginal literature of the 19th century. But trust me, I looked at Richard Henry Dana and Sarah Orne Jewett and Jones Very, etc., and it seems there's a reason we still recognize genius in some of the old canonical names. Objection #2) Nothing from Huck Finn? No "Call me Ishmael," no Emerson? Nothing from Thoreau about marching to the beat of a different drummer? Those are all great, but they all kind of grind on me, probably from teaching them too much, and leave me feeling flat. Objection #3) My aesthetic seems mixed or inconsistent: some of these seem lyrical, some almost philosophical, some inexplicable. To that I can only reply, Guilty as charged. I contain multitudes.

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