Farmer Oak (Hardy), John Farmer (Thoreau), and Flute Music

While reading the beginning of Chapter 2 in Far From the Madding Crowd [Penguin edition, p. 9-10], I found myself in a surprisingly familiar scene. Gabriel Oak is playing his flute while Hardy philosophizes around the music.  We’ve been here before – in a book published twenty years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic.  When reading Walden, we encountered John Farmer sitting in his doorway listening to a flute while Thoreau philosophized around him.
Below is the last paragraph of “Higher Laws” in Thoreau’s Walden.  As Hardy’s passage is considerably longer, I’ve not posted it here but have put together a PDF file that contains both excerpts.

John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed, he sat down to re-create his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,—Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.—But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Final Paragraph of “Higher Laws” in Thoreau, Walden

John Farmer (Thoreau) and Farmer Oak (Hardy) (PDF file)

P.P. (Pedant’s Point) Speaking as a former flute player, I can’t avoid mentioning that flutist is the original form of the word (first appearance, according to the OED, was in 1603).  By contrast, flautist first occurred in 1860.  As I understand it, this change was instigated by 19th century English musicians and writers of program notes in order to distinguish their flute players from the French (flûtiste).  I’ve always thought (and been taught) that American flutists didn’t need to indulge in such Francophobic affectation.

Leo Marx on ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’

One of the great scholars of American Studies at Amherst College and MIT, Leo Marx, wrote an essay about Bartleby the Scrivener for Sewanee Review in 1953.  (Somewhere in my old files, I still have my notes from Leo’s lectures on Moby Dick and Bartleby in his American Literature course at Amherst in 1967.)  Below is a PDF for anyone interested in some classic insights into Melville’s mysterious story.

Leo Marx, ‘Melville’s Parable of the Walls’ (1953)

Thesis about ‘flying away’ in African-American folklore & a note from The New Yorker

Elissa has discovered an honors thesis (from Ball State University) entitled, Fly Away Home: Tracing the Flying African Folktale from Oral Literature to Verse and Prose, a chapter of which is devoted to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.  I’ve posted below a PDF file of that chapter (it runs 10 pages) and another PDF of the entire thesis.  —  Many thanks to Elissa for some great research.

Elissa also found a short piece about the same subject in The New Yorker from earlier this year.  The writer is a documentary film-maker.

The New Yorker: Revisiting the Myth of the Flying African (March 7, 2019)

‘Way in the Middle of the Air,’ by Ray Bradbury (vs. ‘I’ll Fly Away’?)

A few hours after our first discussion of Song of Solomon, I stumbled across an old short story by Ray Bradbury that echoed in a most bizarre way the imagery about “flying away” that we found so prevalent in Morrison’s novel.  Way in the Middle of the Air is one of the most famous (infamous? well, not really…) chapters in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and has been discussed endlessly in high school English classes ever since the 1960’s.  Given when it was written (late 1940’s) and its subject matter (a liberal northerner writing about the redneck south), there’s a lot of casual racism and stereotyping (Bradbury was no Faulkner). On the other hand, I can hear different layers of “group fantasy” wrapped around each other in fascinating combinations (white on white, white on black, black on white … not to mention north vs south, elites vs ‘good old boys’ etc.)  So as an exercise in “comparative imaginations,” I find this short science fiction fable interesting and not irrelevant to our discussion of the myths in Song of Solomon.  —  Tom

Ray Bradbury, ‘Way in the Middle of the Air,’ from The Martian Chronicles

Two Articles

These two articles from The New York Review of Books, separated by almost 40 years, seem to me to speak to each other. Diane Johnson’s article is a review of Song of Solomon. As a white woman, she has a very hard time with the bad behavior of the characters in Song of Solomon. They are not, she worries, exemplary, though putting it that way does not do complete justice to her take on Morrison. Zadie Smith’s article is a personal and fascinating discussion on the issues of appropriation. She explores what it means for both reader and writer to enter the imaginary world of people unlike themselves, an issue of heated debate these days. I think the Smith essay is brilliant.

MS Word files:

PDF versions: