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Harvard

In Harvard Square, The Coop and The Harvard Bookstore loom large. The former is essentially a Barnes & Noble dressed as Harvard’s bookstore, paraphernalia and special interest sections galore. The latter is a little more of a heavyweight. Situated on Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of the square (a mere two blocks from The Coop, which makes no small difference), across the street from the University entrance and next to Bartley’s Burger Cottage, the classic Harvard burger joint, it has the makings of an intellectual and social hub. The main floor sports the major genres, including a section common to local stores devoted to books by famous Harvard professors (these are extremely pricey, but their Murakami selection is strong). For meager funded mortals, go downstairs. There you’ll find used and reduced priced titles in fiction, history, philosophy, poetry and drama. The back wall where you’ll find cheap literature is substantial for a store that ostensibly sports (and prices) reading material for the landed intelligentsia.

On the penultimate day of my conference at the Radcliffe Institute, I had a good two hours to kill (I recommend taking considerably longer, but still) before meeting my sister for dinner on Newbury Street. Just enough time for a city hike, down Massachusetts Avenue, across the Charles, and into the city proper. What I found turned out to be a veritable walking tour of some of the best independent bookstores in Boston. The Coop sits atop Massachusetts, where it forks by the Harvard Square T stop. A perfect starting point. It’s never not worth it to stop in there, at least to see who and what they’re showcasing. Their American history section on the first floor (of two) is particularly robust. But don’t tarry – head to The Harvard Bookstore either before or after fueling up for your walk at Bartley’s. After spending a thorough time at both places, and before setting off, take a detour southwest, down John F. Kennedy Street toward the river. Amid a row of upscale sushi and Indian restaurants you’ll find, in the basement of a commercial row house, Raven Used Books.

It’s tight, stuffy, and stocked with obscure titles. The first books I saw when I walked in were Franco Moretti’s two-volume history of the novel. I’m in paradise. It seemed that they had acquired a good deal of Harvard sell-backs and cast-offs from historiography to pop music. Be sure to scour every inch of this small place. It’s the best book store you’ll visit. For fiction people, they have good depth from the likes of Vollmann, Banville, Barth and other less marketed postmodernists. I was torn between one of Barth’s fatter late novels and a slimmer Banville, until I came across a novel I had been searching for for a while: Jim Crace’s Quarantine. This discovery solidified Raven’s status for me. I had to have it. It was, like most other novels on the shelf, a mere seven dollars.

Head back over and continue down Mass Ave until you see The Old Cambridge Baptist Church on your left, across the street. You should be standing in front of the red sign for Revolution Books. Behind the windowless wooden black door is a narrow staircase that leads up to the shop. It shares a floor with offices, and there are warnings posted–Keep Quiet: Therapy in Progress. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but think those signs actually referred to George, the volunteer holding court in the small room that was probably an office in a previous life. A thin, soft-spoken man of about fifty, he engaged me almost immediately in conversation (he and I were the only people in the store). He gently directed me to books, pamphlets, journals, and web sites dedicated to the socialist/communist cause. If only he could see Book Marx in London. He had never been. I didn’t buy anything, guiltily, but the store, though sparse, sports good and rich material on issues, in addition to Marxism, such as racial oppression and gender inequality (which are ultimately not terribly separable from the broader cause, anyway). After reminiscing a bit more and exchanging hardy thanks, I set back to the street.

The stretch of Massachusetts between Revolution Books and Harvard Bridge is a hipster scene, with quirky pubs and restaurants (as well as The Center for Marxist Education and The Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center). Here you will find Rodney’s Bookstore. It sports a formidable fiction section, as well as Boston history. I made my second purchase here, a pristine used copy of Barth’s Coming Soon!!! for six dollars. But the distinguishing mark of Rodney’s is what I’ve noticed as a burgeoning hipster hobby: a robust VHS collection. They’ve reserved the entire front section of the store to these clunky boxes casing The Cutting Edge and Jurassic Park. A curious commodity. The way down Massachusetts toward MIT is dotted with speeding flip-flopped hipsters aboard bicycles, perhaps racing home to watch a video. The area around MIT is beautiful, reminiscent of certain sections of London. The view across Harvard Bridge, especially near sunset, is spectacular, both for the skyline and for the crowds of cyclists and sailors. Mass Ave bustles as you cross Commonwealth and head down Newbury. At last the final stop on the tour: Trident Booksellers & Cafe. A hipster hub itself – microbrews, vegan foodstuffs, coffee. Wander the stacks to the soundtrack of First Wave FM, straight from the UK. But by this time you’ll probably be tired of wandering. Snag a title from any of the diverse sections, or from their sizable news stand, and saddle up with a beer to reflect on your journey. Or, you can head next door, to Newbury Comics, yes, that Newbury Comics, stalwart of a generation. All in all, a little hipster outpost on the edge of posh heaven. Take it all in, the center of the city, as the sun goes down.

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.