The Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper (American classics)
The Last of the Mohicans
After reading two excellent Christian historical novels set in seventeenth and eighteenth century America, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave that world yet and decided to try James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales. The Deerslayer sucked me into the series and held me captive until the final pages of The Prairie, and that astonished me; I really didn’t expect to love these books as much as I did.
“In first century Judaea, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sentenced to life as a Roman slave. When, during a pirate attack in the Aegean, Ben-Hur saves the life of a galley commander, his fortunes improve and he returns to Galilee a free man. There, his quest for vengeance turns into insurrection, but his life is transformed when he witnesses Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.”
When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur  every year around Easter. In those days, the only way to watch a motion picture was to see it in a theater when it came out or watch it on network television. There was no streaming. There were no DVDs. There was no cable TV. There weren’t even video cassettes! When one of the networks broadcast a major motion picture like Ben-Hur, it was a big deal. Families like mine made arrangements to watch it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the chance to see it again for another year.
Because of that, the movie Ben-Hur not only became a part of my Easter tradition, it became ingrained in my consciousness. I loved this film as a child, and I still love it as an adult. It should be no surprise, then, that shortly after I became a part of the Great Books Group, I suggested that we read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Imagine my own surprise at the time when, after reading a good part of the book, I realized that I didn’t care for it enough to even finish it.
“The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty live in a village where women rule and men usually tend to get in the way. Their days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness, friendship and an endless appetite for scandal (from the alarming sight of a cow in flannel pyjamas to the shocking news of the titled lady who marries a surgeon). But, like it or not, change is coming into their world—whether it is the new ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or the unexpected return of someone from the past.”
“Lady Ludlow is absolute mistress of Hanbury Court and a resolute opponent of anything that might disturb the class system into which she was born. . . . The vicar, Mr. Gray, wishes to start a Sunday school for religious reasons; Mr. Horner wants to educate the citizens for economic reasons. But Lady Ludlow is not as rigid as one may think.“
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character.”
I’ll admit that the little novel Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, didn’t impress me much at first or even engage me. The story is told by a young woman who writes about her experiences in Cranford as if she’s writing in her journal, which makes for a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. That, combined with the episodic nature of the plot, results in a lack of strong narrative drive. I kept reading because the style of writing, sense of place, and quaint characters relaxed me. I felt as if I had stepped into a world that didn’t exist anymore, and that, while not always happy or comfortable, was more self-sacrificing and less frenetic than our own.
Cranford gave me such a pleasant feeling that I went on to read two other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are similar to it: My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. It wasn’t until I had finished reading all three stories that I realized they dramatize some of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes—in philosophical and political terms—in Democracy in America, Volume 2. Tocqueville details the differences between aristocratic and democratic ages in great depth, and Gaskell breathes life into those differences as she looks back at the diminishing agricultural, aristocratic age of the generation that came before hers and gently carries her characters—and readers—into a more industrialized democratic world. Tocqueville observes:
“In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.”
I’ll confess that I was surprised when I read this book and found that one-third of it chronicles Thea’s childhood. I expected it to be more about her professional life and, by the time I finished the book, was glad it wasn’t. I thought that the life she led as an opera singer was dreary and that many of the people connected to her at that stage of life were shallow. I found satisfaction, however, in the fact that Thea, herself, recognizes that the professional world she lives in runs on false values. I loved her assessment of it in this conversation she has with a friend of her youth:
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)
“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.
Like many readers these days, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while doing other tasks. A good source for free audiobooks in the public domain is LibriVox. You can download or stream audiobooks from the web site, or you can install an app on your phone or tablet to do the same thing. Here is the basic description of LibriVox from its web site:
In April 2015 my book group read The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister. One of the fun things about this novel is that the school teacher in the story, Molly Wood, gives books to the Virginian to read. When he returns a book to her, he gives his spirited observations about it. His remarks about Fathers and Sons and Kenilworth are so intriguing that my group added those books to our list for 2016. Some of his comments—such as those about Emma, by Jane Austen—are about books we have already read. One of his observations is about The Mill on the Floss, a George Eliot novel the group hasn’t read yet. I wanted so much to add the Virginian’s comment about The Mill on the Floss to this post that I read it on my own.
I’ll warn you right now; the Virginian’s observation about The Mill on the Floss contains a significant spoiler, so you may want to skip down a few lines to Fathers and Sons. If you’re like me, however, you may prefer to avoid tragic surprises in a book and are more likely to read it if you get a warning, so here it is:
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2: The Power of Democracy), please click here.
Part 3: Babylon or Zion?
In the Introduction of Democracy in America, Volume 1, Alexis De Tocqueville declares that the democratic revolution of the world “possesses all the characteristics” of being “the will of God”:
In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. . . .
Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. . . .
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. . . .
If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.
Tocqueville doesn’t speculate on why this democratic revolution of the world is the “will of God.” I, on the other hand, will attempt to give an explanation. In the Bible, we learn that there will come a time when:
When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he found a thriving democracy of a kind he had not seen anywhere else. Many of his insightful observations American society and political system, found in the two volume book he published after his visit, still remain surprisingly relevant today. (Summary by the Bookworm)
Genre(s): *Non-fiction, History , Philosophy
For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.
Part 2: The Power of Democracy
One of the key points that Alexis de Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America, Volume 1 is that democracy is a form of government that is extremely powerful:
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system, Democracy in America—first published in 1835—enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. Philosopher John Stuart Mill called it ‘among the most remarkable productions of our time.’ Woodrow Wilson wrote that de Tocqueville’s ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was ‘possibly without rival.’
“For today’s readers, de Tocqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His shrewd observations about the ‘almost royal prerogatives’ of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.
“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. De Toqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.”
Part 1: Introduction
Democracy in America is a classic that many Americans know about but few have actually read. I’m a member of a book group that exists to read this kind of material, and it took us ten years to finally be willing to take it on. The book’s length is formidable, and it’s written with such depth of observation that it requires time and thought to get through. Four members of the group made the effort to read Democracy in America. One finished the first volume and got part of the way through the second. The rest of us read the majority of the first volume with the intention of finishing it. All four of us were amazed and excited about the truth regarding America that we discerned in this book. All four of us gained a greater understanding of the origins of the United States, the things that make it great, and the underlying reasons for some of its current problems. All four of us want to put the second volume of Democracy in America on our list for next year.
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.