Tag Archives: autobiography

Up from Slavery

The autobiography of Booker T. Washington Up from Slavery is an interesting book for various reasons. It belongs to the small group of works written by black men in the United States that were born as slaves and who later gave witness regarding their lives as slaves and thereafter (i.e. after the end of the Civil War, when slavery was officially abolished in the South). Other works of this genre include Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

But apart from being a very interesting document in itself, the book is also interesting until today because Washington was the first black leader in the U.S. to address big audiences in the North and the South, black and white alike, a man with a mission – he founded the Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University) in 1881, the first school in which black teachers were trained and students had a chance to learn also professional skills that would prove to be the economic basis for the further social development of the black population in the South.

Washington was probably born in 1856, the exact date and month are not known. He grew up on a farm in Virginia in very basic conditions although the slave holding family seems to have treated their “property” comparatively well. The chapters in which Washington describes his childhood on the farm and the time after the end of the Civil War, when the family moved to West Virginia, are very touching.

Washington, the son of a white farmer whom he didn’t know and who didn’t care the least for his offspring, had from early childhood on the wish to get an education, to learn how to read and write and lift himself up from the conditions in which he and the other black people in the South lived. A big part of the book deals with the struggle of young Washington to achieve this goal. For years, Washington had to go through many hardships and worked in very difficult conditions as a salt miner and in other menial jobs in order to earn the required money to pay the tuition fees at school. When he finally made it to the Hampton Institute, a progressive school that gave an opportunity to many black people to get an education, Washington didn’t miss this chance and put all his energy in graduating there.

What follows is a story of hard work for a good cause: after graduating from Hampton Institute, Washington was assigned to become school principal in the newly founded Tuskegee Teachers’ School at the age of 25. He secured the support of the local people, but also of many donors in the South and the North as well (including former slave owners) by convincing them with results. The students in Tuskegee earned from the very beginning their own money in the workshops of the Institute, where they learned various professions, they erected the buildings of the fast growing school all by themselves and provided the regional market with various products in demand.

A person who makes himself useful and who is able to do something well and better than others will in the end be accepted by any community – this is the way how Washington wanted to achieve a true emancipation. Once most of the black people have a regular work and a profession or trade in which they can make a living, the relations between the races will improve as much as to make the racial prejudices and discrimination disappear – we should keep in mind that Washington published his autobiography when lynching was an everyday occurrence in most states of the South, and when more and more Southern States disfranchised the black population and withdrew the voting right from them, and when the Ku Kux Klan was at the height of its power and influence.

Washington’s approach was of course in a way naive: racism doesn’t simply disappear just because those against whom the racists discriminate (or worse) behave well, use a toothbrush – Washington is quite special about the use of the toothbrush and personal hygiene in general – and have a regular employment or learned a trade or profession that is useful to the community in which they live. On the other hand, Washington’s optimism, his clear vision and his obvious great energy and devotion to a project that really improved the lives of many people, together with his apparent skills as an orator, and his personal charm and modesty – this all opened the hearts and the purses of many people, including people like Rockefeller, Eastman or Carnegie. In the end, Washington advised Presidents, was the first black man to be awarded a honorary degree from Harvard and was received in many places like a rock star would be today.

It is quite interesting that the biggest opposition to Washington’s educational program didn’t come from white Southerners but from a faction of Washington’s “own people” in the North. Especially after his famous Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895 in which he became visible as the unchallenged leader of the black people in America, he was attacked by a faction under the leadership of W.E.B DuBois.

DuBois, who graduated in Berlin and became later the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, was initially supporting Washington, but he soon changed his opinion. According to DuBois and his supporters, Washington was too soft in his stance against violations of Civil Rights, and also his preference of industrial education over the classical liberal arts was very much to the disliking of DuBois who believed that only an elite of men educated in the liberal arts – supposedly under DuBois’ leadership – would be able to achieve social progress. It was a clash of characters from different backgrounds and very different temperaments: here the Southern man whose own education was limited as a result of his difficult life circumstances, a man with a hands-on approach to things who believes that only by self-improvement, hard work and an understanding for what is possible in the moment, the Negro race can be uplifted in the long run; on the other side, the urban, well-educated Northerner, more a politician than an educator who aspired to be the political leader of the Negro race.

As a result, Washington and DuBois had a rather complicated relationship – and while Washington is not in any way saying a bad word about his opponent in his autobiography directly, it is quite obvious to whom he is referring when he mentions a rather ridiculous example of an “educated” Negro early in his book, as someone with 

“high hat, imitation gold eye-glasses, a showy walking-stick, kid gloves, fancy boots, and what not…”

In general, the autobiography gives comparatively little away about Washington’s private life. He was obviously quite a family man and seemed to have suffered at times from phases of longer separation from his wife and three children due to his extensive travelling. He lost two wives very early, but in the book he keeps his private feelings private and is not talking in detail about his grief. Whenever anyone supported him he mentions it in the book – understandable when we are aware that it was also meant as an instrument in his fundraising campaigns for Tuskegee. A previous autobiographical book published for a black audience was more critical regarding certain aspects of the life of the black community in the South and mentioned also some particular cruel examples of treatment of slaves by white slave holders, but Up to Slavery is clearly written for a white audience and possible donors; therefore these examples are omitted in the reviewed book.

All in all, the Booker T. Washington we get to know in this book was a humble and very energetic man, who achieved probably more in terms of improvement of the living conditions of the black people in the South than anyone else before or after him. That he championed industrial (i.e. vocational) training over academic training in the liberal arts, shows a much greater sense of realism than most other self-proclaimed leaders at his or later times showed, and the experiences of Tuskegee Institute can be still considered today as a good practice in the context of developing countries and communities.

Booker T. Washington: Up from Slavery, Signet Classics, New York 2010

PS: The expressions “black people” or “Negro race” are expressions used in Washington’s book.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Hypnos

It is always interesting to read the blog posts of fellow book bloggers. So many interesting books would have been unknown to me, so many aspects of books I read would have been probably hidden to me if I wouldn’t read my blogger colleagues. And sometimes you feel compelled to pick up a book again you have read a long time ago, just because of a quote that reminded you how much had you enjoyed that particular book.

This is exactly what happened when I read a blog post by Anthony from Time’s Flows Stemmed. I will repost the full quote here:

“One day, during the war, I was asked to find an empty strip of land on the plateau de Valensole where Allied planes in difficulty could land. I find a large field that fits the bill but there’s a magnificent three-hundred-year-old walnut tree in the middle of it. The owner of the field was willing to rent it to me, but stubbornly refused to cut down the beautiful tree. I eventually told him why we needed the land, whereupon he agreed. We start clearing the soil around the base of the tree; we follow the taproot . . . . At the end of the root, we find the bones of a knight buried in his armour. The man must have been a medieval knight . . . and he had a walnut in his pocket when he was killed, for the base of the taproot was exactly level with his thigh-bone. The walnut tree had sprouted in the grave.”

I can wholeheartedly recommend you René Char’s Hypnos, either in the original French or in the English edition by Seagull Books (the translation by Mark Hutchinson is excellent), one of the best publishers of translated fiction. And when you are at it, don’t miss Char’s excellent poetry, available in a new edition (The Inventors that contains also some prose texts) by the same translator and publisher as well!

René Char: Hypnos, translated by Mark Hutchinson, Seagull Books 2014

René Char: The Inventors, translated by Mark Hutchinson, Seagull Books 2015

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Glückel of Hameln’s Memoirs

Glückel of Hameln (1645-1724) was a remarkable woman. Not only could she read and write – in a time when most women had no formal education at all -, she also proved to be an energetic business woman after the early death of her first husband. That involved also extensive traveling in a time when this was difficult and dangerous. And on top of it the mother of fourteen children wrote the first autobiography of a woman in Germany.

Glückel’s memoirs were not written with the intention of a publication. They were meant as a distraction after her beloved husband’s passing and also with the idea to let her twelve surviving children (two more children had died early) and countless grandchildren know where they came from. There is also a strong educative element in her writing: look what happened to us and our friends, family and neighbors and learn from it! And learn to understand that you need to trust in God, but you need to be also wise in your own decisions.

As the name indicates, Glückel was born in Hameln, and got engaged at the age of 12, as was the habit at that time, to a boy called Chajm to whom she was married two years later. The young couple set shop in Hamburg, lived first with Chajm’s parents before they could afford their own small home.

Child after child was born while Chajm became a trader in gold, pearls and jewelery with a good hand for business. Although the marriage was arranged at an age that seems unsupportable from the point of view of today and was concluded in a rather business-like manner, Glückel and her husband seem to have been a good match. She speaks with the greatest expressions of respect and love of her husband, who seems to have been always attentive and respectful toward her and her family and the mutual children. His temper was obviously more on the soft side and as much as he enjoyed his trade and the money he made with it, the well-being of his family seems to have been his only real concern.

When he died at the age of 44, it must have been a catastrophe for his widow who was from one moment to the next alone and with very little funds but had to support many children who were still living with her at that time. But somehow she made it: against all odds, she keeps the business running, travels to fairs and business partners in Germany and Holland. But it came at a price: we can feel from her writing that at times she must have been completely worn out. When an offer from a rich banker from Metz to marry him arrives, she gives in, hoping that in her old age she will have a comfortable home after so many hardships. But her second husband goes bankrupt, she loses all her savings and has to live in her last years, again widowed with one of her children.

This is a remarkable book, not only because it is the first autobiography written by a woman from Germany. Also Glückel’s life was everything than dull and average, although she must have been a modest person that frequently blamed herself for her own mistakes; once she writes about a successful business transaction she never forgets to thank God or to mention the part that other people had in this success.

Since the book was meant for her family members, she refrains from mentioning the names of some persons that behaved badly towards her or her first husband when these persons were still alive at the time she wrote the autobiography. On the other hand she describes her emotions very openly when something bad happened to her or someone from the family. As a reader, I could not help but to admire her for her persistence when it came to do the best for her family. She comes across as a strong, very modest woman with an incredible energy and family sense. 

The book is touching in itself as the story of a woman in very hard times. But it offers also a lot of insights in the everyday life of people in Glückel’s days, and especially in the life of the Jews.

Jews were not people with equal rights at that time and that included in most places that they had to pay Leibzoll, a kind of customs duty for themselves when entering a town, a deeply discriminatory act only applied in relation to the Jewish part of the population. Since Germany was divided in more than 2000 independent territories, traveling was for Jews extremely difficult. Additionally there were big differences in the living conditions of the Jews depending on the place where they lived.

In Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg, then an independent town that belonged to Denmark, the situation was very satisfactory for the Jews. The Danish King was known for his liberal opinions and was considered a friend of the Jews.

In neighboring Hamburg the situation was different: the Senate, the representative government body of the rich traders and bankers was rather friendly to the Jews; the Burgerschaft, the lower house of the Hamburg parliament on the contrary made life for the Jews very difficult by introducing rules that made it almost impossible for Jews to live in Hamburg. (Exempted from these harsh rules were the Portuguese Jews, descendants of Jews from Portugal who had settled in Hamburg after the reconquista; the Teixeiras, the de Castros and other Sephardic families were already considered as “real” Hamburgers and held influential positions in Hamburg; a certain rift between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazy Jews is clearly visible from Glückel’s writing. Although they shared the same belief, there seems to have been very little contact between these two groups. The sophisticated Sephards seem to have thought not too highly of their Ashkenazy brethren.)

Even worse was the situation in places like Leipzig, an important trading place that most Jewish traders visited twice a year – but Leipzig had for a reason the reputation of being a particularly anti-Semitic town that exposed Jews regularly to harsh treatment and extortion.

It may be rather strange for us readers today that Glückel is always so concerned about money. There is not a single page and for sure not a single characterization of a person that forgets to mention the exact amount of money someone’s fortune is worth.

To marry off her children to a good, i.e. a wealthy family, is the major concern for her and her husband. The wedding “market” was small and match makers seem to have been an extremely important institution at that time. Marriage was the chance for upward social mobility and that was the main concern for parents at that time. In lucky cases – like obviously in Glückel’s first marriage – love developed once the complete strangers were married and got to know each other. But it seems to be the exception, not the rule at Glückel’s time.

This – for us – obsession with money has of course a reason: money provided a limited protection for the fragile existence of the Jews at that time. It was important not in itself, but as a means to buy favours, ensure loyalties, pay off extortionist governments, assure a comparatively elevated social status in the Jewish community. As a reader we never get the intention that Glückel or her husband were gready people; if necessary, they part easy with their money. But it wouldn’t have been reasonable in their position with so many children not to permanently think about their pecuniary situation.

Glückel’s autobiography also reflects political events, for example several wars which affected the life of the family or of friends and business partners. A particularly happy moment is the participation of the Prussian Crown Prince as a guest at the wedding of one of her children. I found it also extremely interesting to read about how much the Jews in Germany were affected by the appearance of the “false messiah” Sabbatai Zevi who was Glückel’s contemporary, although he lived far away, in the Ottoman Empire.

Another aspect of Glückel’s writing that I find fascinating are her descriptions of her or her husband’s traveling. As already mentioned, traveling was no fun, especially for Jews. And there were pirates, robbers, or marauding soldiers all over the place. (One of the rare funny moments in the autobiography is also related to a travel experience; it involves a good servant of Glückel who got a drinking problem – but I will not give away the story here.) Hamburg saw several pandemics at Glückel’s time, most notoriously the plague which spread a fear of visitors from Hamburg all over Germany for many years, a fear for which Glückel gives us readers also a very disturbing example in her autobiography.

The book is also rich in descriptions of Jewish life, the importance of community life and of celebrating the big feasts together. All in all this book was an interesting and touching reading experience, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

A word about the manuscript: Glückel wrote the manuscript in Hebrew script and in Western Yiddish language. Western Yiddish is even closer to Standard German than its Eastern Yiddish variation. The original text reads like an archaic German with plenty of Hebrew loan words; grammar, syntax and about 90% of the vocabulary are German.

The original manuscript was passing within the family from generation to generation; the first publication was issued in 1896 in Yiddish; Bertha Pappenheim, a descendant of Glückel – readers of the book Studies on Hysteria by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud know her as Anna O., one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychoanalysis – , translated the book 1910 in German for a non-public edition that was circulated in the family; in 1913 a second German edition followed, this time for a general audience. Since that time also translations in other languages (also two times in English) have been published.

A truly fascinating autobiography!

Glueckel

The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, transl. by Marvin Lowenthal, Schocken Books 1987

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Isaac Babel meets King Kong

If you love Russian literature as much as I do, then Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed is a treat for you. The title refers to Dostoevsky’s novel (also published under the title The Demons) but also to the possessive love of many readers and scholars to the Russian literature in general. And of course to the Russian writers and many of their literary heroes as well.

Elif Batuman is of Turkish origin but grew up in an obviously wealthy upper middle class family in the U.S.. She fell in love with literature and more specifically with Russian literature at an early age. And when she took violin lessons later, her teacher was an enigmatic and somehow secretive Russian – this first Russian she met in real life left a mark on her. When she decided to study linguistics (in the vague hope to become a novelist later), she took up Russian lessons as well. And while linguistics proved to be a real disappointment, Russian language was not, although it took her a long time to learn it well.

When I started The Possessed, I had the expectation to read a book about Russian writers and literature. But it is first of all an autobiographical book by Elif Batuman on her intellectual coming-of-age. That was unexpected – I came across this book by chance in an antiquarian bookstore in Sofia, and since the good hard cover cost only about 5 Euro, I thought I give it a try. Despite my slight momentary disappointment (I had simply wrong expectations), I enjoyed this book very much because it is overall so well-written, funny, interesting, fresh. And it is also a travelogue, kind of.

Batuman describes her time in Stanford and her participation in some international conferences with a lot of (self-)irony and humor. How two well-known Babel scholars “give each other the finger” in a parking lot over a dispute regarding the last free parking space is hilarious. The Babel family (widow and two daughters of the great Isaac Babel) prove to be not easy to handle when they participate in an international conference to Babel’s honor. And also the Tolstoy conference in Jasnaya Polyana turns almost into a disaster because Aeroflot loses her luggage and she has to spend a week in her flip-flops, T-shirt and jeans – not because she is a “Tolstoyan” who prefers the most simple outfit, as most participants seem to assume. Also how she successfully collects travel grants on rather dubious scientific projects, or how the famous New Yorker magazine sends her to Sankt Petersburg without willing to pay her travel expenses, but expecting that she spends a night in the Ice Palace – a real palace made of ice, built according to an old design – these and other stories make for a very entertaining read.

On a more serious note, Batuman provides interesting background information on the writers and works she is covering: mainly Isaac Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. I didn’t know Ivan Lazhechnikov before, but her extremely interesting chapter on The Ice House, his book published in 1835 makes me curious to read this work (Batuman makes excessive use of her New Yorker reportage in that chapter).

Another part of the book that I found extremely interesting, was the description of her time in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. While she studied Uzbek language and literature there, she gives very interesting insights into the history and everyday life of people in this now independent country with an ancient literature of high level (especially the works of Mir Ali Nevai, sometimes also referred to as Alisher Navoi).

As I mentioned, this is also an autobiographical work. The author is also the main character, and it describes her changing private life as well. Boyfriends come and go, also interests shift somehow, but the love for literature and the wish to write are the interests which give the authors’ intellectual journey such a strength and continuity.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been almost a masterpiece. I say almost, because there are a few things that irritated me a bit and that could have been easily avoided.

Batuman mentions somewhere the fact that Tolstoy introduces in Anna Karenina many characters without a name, or he is using the same name (such as Andrey) several times. That can be a bit confusing when you don’t read Anna Karenina very focused. As if to make an allusion to Tolstoy, she is introducing a certain Matej, a co-student and friend from Croatia in an early chapter. In a much later chapter, a Matej, co-student from Croatia is introduced to the reader again, this time he is the boyfriend of the author. I suppose this is the same person, but then why to introduce him twice? The second time it was very confusing because unless it is an oversight by the author (and the editor), it doesn’t make sense to introduce him again. (I suppose that the two chapters were published before the book edition separately in some journal, and later it was forgotten to remove the double introduction of this person) Or did I miss something completely? I am still confused, and that distracted me a bit from the beautiful prose Batuman writes.

As for her literary likes: they are excellent, and I share most of them. Isaac Babel is one of my biggest heroes in the literary world. And as everyone, she has her idiosyncrasies, which is fine. Still, I would have liked to understand what exactly is so boring about Orhan Pamuk. She doesn’t explain it.

Abdulla Qodiry, the author of Past Days, the most important Uzbek novel of the 20th century might be a great author, world class – but when she writes that he is writing on a thousand times higher level than Cechov, I simply have to believe it as a reader because she doesn’t explain what’s so terrible about Cechov’s writing, or so great about Qodiry’s abilities as an author. (I love Cechov very much and simply cannot believe her.)

The same goes for her rejection of any literature from the “periphery” – come on, you just told us how great Abdulla Qodiry is – and doesn’t he come exactly from the periphery: Uzbekistan?. Or her strong dislike of Creative Writing courses. What exactly is so terrible about them? I didn’t get it – beside the fact that the weather was better in California than in New England where the course she fled from was to take place.

My point here is the following: these opinions – which I don’t share – are all fine, but when the author is not explaining me (or at least not in a way that a reader would consider somehow enlightening or satisfactory) WHY she has these opinions, I get the impression that these are just resentments. Probably it’s more, but it is a pity she didn’t put more effort in explaining her strong opinions on (some) literature. 

Another aspect of the book that I found a bit difficult was the way, scholars or experts that teach outside Stanford are described: the Babel scholar that teaches in Tashkent and makes his own research in Odessa and Moscow is considered a moron: the whole truth is in the American archives, and who wastes his time to interview people who knew Babel or find documents in former Soviet archives is simply a poor idiot. The same goes for the Babel family, three monsters, driven by paranoia and maliciousness. (By the way, Babel was shot on the 27 January 1940, not on the 26th. Who is so strict in his judgement of others should have his facts correct.)

And I could have also done without the anecdote about the poor old Tolstoy scholar, his “accident”, and the resulting bad smelling underwear – Batuman doesn’t give his name, but I am sure for insiders he is easy to identify. Why to embarrass a person by dwelling on his incontinence, a medical condition, not a character deficit? That put me a bit off.

I see my complaints about the book are rather longish. But don’t be deceived: this is despite my ranting in the last paragraphs a book I enjoyed, partly travelogue, partly autobiography, partly literature study. It’s the first book of this author, and I will gladly read what she publishes in the future. It’s just the fact that with a bit of editing, this would have been really a masterpiece. As it is now, it is still a good book.

And Babel and King Kong? There is an almost uncanny connection between the great writer from Odessa and the famous 1933 movie. I am not going to spoil the fun of future readers, so if you want to know about it: read this book.

 

the-possessed

 

Elif Batuman: The Possessed, Granta Books, London 2011

 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.